It was the Clippers’ second day of training camp in La Jolla and assistant coach Tyronn Lue was demonstrating one of the team’s new defensive techniques, telling the guards to “bump” opposing big men when they set a screen, then to hurry back on defense.
Once Lue finished, Clippers Coach Doc Rivers moved his 6-foot-4 frame across the court and with his booming voice, in the now silent UC San Diego gym, Rivers immediately had the attention of his players. The new coach wanted to emphasize the importance of what Lue had said.
Every player looked directly at Rivers as he spoke, listening intently. His guards must land the “first blow” against the opposing center or forward setting a screen, Rivers said, then hustle back out to defend their own man. After two days of practice, Rivers had begun to impose his will on a new team.
Many Clippers talked about the imposing presence of their new coach.
“It’s a respect factor,” Chris Paul said.
“He commands a lot of respect and he deserves the amount of respects he gets,” Blake Griffin said. “That’s our job, really, is to just listen and trust and buy into it.”
New Clippers guard J.J. Redick recalled at a recent dinner with his teammates how they all spoke glowingly about what Rivers had said in the locker room and team meetings.
Redick said he’d played for “two great coaches” who were exceptional motivators: former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Redick said Van Gundy and Krzyzewski excel at what they do because they “are original” with their messages.
He has added Rivers to the list.
“You get like goose bumps sometimes,” Redick said about Rivers’ speeches. “It’s refreshing to play for a guy like that.”
During training camp, Paul and Griffin have been careful in public not to compare Rivers with his predecessor, Vinny Del Negro. But the All-Stars made some subtle comparisons between the two coaches.
Both players said there is a purpose to everything they do in this camp. In one practice, after Griffin went up for a layup, Rivers told his star forward to dunk the ball next time. It was Rivers’ way of telling Griffin to practice the way you play in a game.
“Doc is really good at pointing out those really small things,” Griffin said. “There’s really no wasted time in practice.”
“If we’re doing a drill, we won’t go to the next one until we do it right,” Paul said. “That’s one of the things about our team this year, there are no shortcuts.”
Since arriving, Rivers has talked about creating a defense-oriented team. Much of his attention has been on DeAndre Jordan. The coach wants his 6-foot-11 center to be a defensive force, not only blocking shots, but altering others.
“No practice goes by without us working on improving our defense,” Jordan said.
Rivers not only tries to control what goes on with his players, but also with his staff. Rivers won’t allow his assistant coaches to be interviewed by the media, saying he wants “one voice” speaking for the organization. He often listens to his players’ interviews with the media before practices, telling them to hurry up so they can get to work.
Rivers has set a serious tone.
“His presence is what makes him such a great coach,” said Steve Kerr, TNT analyst. “He’s got an amazing way with people. He’s an incredible communicator. He’s fun to be around. But he’s also forceful in a good way. There’s no doubt who’s in charge.”
Rivers, 52, won an NBA championship in 2008 coaching the Boston Celtics, who also reached the NBA Finals in 2010. But he didn’t want to be a part of rebuilding project in Boston, so he bolted to the Clippers.
The Clippers gave Boston an unprotected first-round draft pick in 2015 as compensation for Rivers, who also was named L.A.'s senior vice president of basketball operations, as part of a three-year deal for $7 million a season.
Rivers has a 587-473 coaching record over 14 seasons, five in Orlando before he was fired during the 2003-04 season, then nine in Boston. His Boston teams missed the playoffs just twice, but Celtics fans were chanting for him to be fired during the 2006-07 season when his team was 24-58.
Last season under Del Negro, the Clippers had a franchise-best 56-26 record and a team-record 17-game winning streak, and won their first Pacific Division title. But they lost in the first round of the playoffs, so Del Negro was out and Rivers was hired.
“Doc is a very good coach,” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. “But if Blake Griffin and DeAndre haven’t gotten better, it doesn’t matter.”
Still, expectations are high for the Clippers.
“I think with Doc and his experience and their respect for him, they’ve got a chance to get to the Western Conference finals,” said former NBA coach Byron Scott, who interviewed for the Clippers’ coaching job. “It just Doc’s know-how, his experience being there, winning a championship. I think that’s going to help them tremendously.”
Rivers said he was drawn to the Clippers because of a “really talented” roster, with Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Jamal Crawford.
He noted the Clippers are different from his Boston teams because L.A. doesn’t have experienced, tough-minded players like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. But, Rivers pointed out, “you coach people, you don’t coach teams.”
So far, this Clippers team hangs on his every word.
“I’d rather for them to listen to me than not,” Rivers said. “But at the end of the day, it always comes from them. We’ve got to get them to do what we need them to do and they’ve got to believe in it. And if they believe in it, then you’ve got a chance. If they don’t, then you don’t have a chance. “