Outside of the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, there is arguably no current NBA head coach as highly regarded as Doc Rivers.
Over the past six seasons, Rivers, 51, has lead the Boston Celtics to the third-most regular season wins in the league (314) and, more impressively, the most postseason wins (56). He is one of four active coaches -- Popovich, Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra are the other three -- to have won a championship (2008).
Rivers' three greatest strengths -- a coherent defensive system, playoff pedigree and the ability to manage varying egos -- mirror the essential needs of the Clippers roster. Above all else, his arrival would seem to satisfy Chris Paul’s desire for a big-name coach, ostensibly making his signing of a new deal with the team a formality.
Rivers has the requisite gravitas and track record to command a locker room’s respect, and, by reputation, holds players accountable without being too stern or overbearing. More importantly, his tactical acumen has grown each season -- he and Popovich run perhaps the league's best out-of-timeout plays -- to the point that his whiteboard skills are now on par with his leadership ability.
Offensively, Rivers ran simple sets predicated on high and side pick-and-rolls, off-ball cuts, handoffs and double screens in Boston, often disguising the goal of a play with some form of misdirection to shift the defense. At its core, Boston’s offense was primarily designed around Rajon Rondo’s innate ability to penetrate and create for his teammates, not unlike the Clippers’ structure with Paul. The Celtics’ below-average pace also fits nicely with Paul’s preferred style of play.
While Boston’s big men have normally been perimeter-oriented, Rivers will likely look to exploit Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan’s athleticism through various cuts and slips off pick-and-rolls, as neither is the pick-and-pop threat Kevin Garnett or Brandon Bass were.
Given the Clippers’ top 5 ranking the past two seasons, it’s unlikely that Rivers will change much of the team's offense, but expect that he would add new quick-hitting reads that prevent L.A.’s ball movement from stagnating and breaking down into isolations (the Celtics finished top 3 in percent of field goals assisted four of the past six seasons).
The Clippers stand to gain the most from Rivers’ expertise on defense. The Clippers’ defense suffered down the stretch last season -- ranking 21st after Feb. 1 -- and it’s apparent they’re in serious need of a coherent scheme.
Ever since Rivers and former assistant coach Tom Thibodeau implemented Boston’s trademark strong-side defensive system in 2007-08 -- revolutionizing the principles of modern NBA defense -- the Celtics have never finished worse than sixth in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions).
This style of defense -- forcing ball movement away from the middle of the floor and then loading up help defenders to overplay and wall off the paint -- translates well to defending three-pointers, one of the Clippers’ weaknesses. This season, the Celtics ranked sixth in defending corner three-pointers and fourth in defending above the break three-pointers, compared to the Clippers’ 23rd and 27th rankings in those areas, respectively.
Though the Clippers will likely show improvement defensively, it should be said that they don’t possess the defensive anchor to make Rivers’ system its most effective (unless they trade for Garnett down the line). Whether Jordan can develop into that type of player under Rivers’ guidance is debatable, but he’ll certainly have his chance.
Of similar interest is how Rivers will use Eric Bledsoe, if he is indeed still a Clipper by the start of the 2013-14 season. Rivers utilized Avery Bradley, a similar player to Bledsoe in size and skill, as a shooting guard opposite Rondo, and Bledsoe’s versatile skill set suggests he’s capable of succeeding in a starting role beside Paul.
The calling card of Rivers’ Big-3 era Celtics teams has been their resiliency -- no matter how much adversity they struggled with in the regular season, the Celtics were always prepared for the playoffs. His ability to keep his players motivated bodes well for the Clippers’ playoff aspirations, as buying into a coach’s philosophy is half the battle.
Of course, the addition of Rivers is not without minor concerns.
The Celtics’ offense was often too predictable and ultimately struggled in the postseason, failing to produce more than a 102.3 offensive rating (a below-average figure) in their last four playoff runs.
That probably had more to do with Boston’s personnel than Rivers’ creativity -- defenses consistently ignored Rondo’s shooting, and the offensive production of Garnett and Paul Pierce diminished -- but he’ll have to make sure the Clippers avoid the Celtics’ bad habits (lots of turnovers and midrange jumpers).
The acquisition of Rivers doesn’t address the Clippers’ roster deficiencies either, namely length and athleticism on the perimeter and a big man who can stretch the floor.
On balance though, the ripple effects of this deal -- presumably locking up Paul for the next five years, potentially adding Garnett and/or Pierce later on, improving Griffin’s defense, maximizing the Clippers’ potential, attracting key free agents -- make it worthwhile.
By adding a coach of Rivers’ caliber to the already impressive core of Paul, Griffin, Bledsoe, Jordan and Jamal Crawford, any serious discussion of the contenders out West has to now include the Clippers.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats, Basketball-Reference.com and MySynergySports.com.