TrueHoop: Doc Rivers
Special to ESPN.com
After Staples Center had mostly cleared out, Chris Paul worked quietly around the hardwood, raising shot after shot in front of surprised and excited fans who reveled in the impromptu shooting session. The order seemed random, but Paul moved with purpose: left elbow, right elbow, 3s from the wing, now from 18 feet, a couple of free throws. About 45 minutes later, Paul concluded by hoisting a few jumpers from the corner … about 3 feet behind the 3-point arc, out of bounds.
“During the game, you wouldn’t think, but I say it all the time: I struggle with confidence and things like that,” Paul, who shot 5-for-15 in the win, said later during his postgame press conference. “I just didn’t feel like I could throw it in the ocean, so I wanted to go shoot now.”
The consensus best point guard in the league, a perennial MVP candidate, sometimes struggles with confidence.
The Clippers are 13-2 since Paul’s return to the active roster from a shoulder injury, and the notions of how the team would adjust to their star guard have been easily quelled. His ability to facilitate largely remains unchanged, as his assist rate has improved slightly, and for all of his offensive genius, Paul’s return has coincided with an 8.2 points per 100 possessions improvement to the team’s defense. So, why reveal weakness?
The answer may be that Griffin has emerged from a cocoon these recent months without the star point guard. All the freedom and inspiration Griffin displayed his rookie year seems to have metamorphosed before Paul’s very eyes. And the clearest approval the point god could stamp on Blake is allowing him to fly. Griffin’s career-high usage rate of 29.6 in Paul’s absence has declined only 0.5 in the 15 games since CP’s return, a result of the now-commonplace sight of the power forward coordinating the fast break. Blake pushes the pace, and if nothing materializes, the ball goes back to Paul to execute effective and efficient half-court sets. Despite the Lob City moniker and flashy pyrotechnics, these Clippers had never been an up-tempo team. Chris Paul is a basketball pace car. He doesn’t have an internal clock so much as a metronome. But Griffin’s recent elevation has married the natural high-end speed of the team with Paul’s low-end torque.
And the results have been dramatic. Los Angeles has been blowing by the competition since the tandem reunited, with 112.4 points per 100 possessions, while yielding only 97.8 points. Extrapolated over the season, that would give the Clippers the best offense in the league and third-best defense.
Yet there is a distinct lack of satisfaction among the Clippers these days. Players take pride in hard work bearing fruit, wins continuing in succession. But there is an appreciation that best is the enemy of better. Under Vinny Del Negro last season, there was an anxious pursuit to recapture the magic of the Clippers’ perfect December. As the season wore on, the team would change defensive schemes on a game-to-game basis, searching for the optimum foil to an opponent on any given night. It’s the kind of mentality that doesn’t allow for improvement, doesn’t allow for mistakes. Either a plan is executed perfectly and success is achieved, or it isn’t and a new strategy is formulated.
The chase for perfection both crowded and suffocated the Clippers.
Nowadays, Doc Rivers finds faith in his strongside pressure defense. And unlike earlier in the season, when only the Clippers’ starters seemed comfortable on that end, the aftermarket arrivals of Glen Davis and Danny Granger have plugged season-long defensive holes. Neither Davis nor Granger will likely impact the team in a substantial way -- although Granger’s shooting outburst against the Warriors on Wednesday night offers some intrigue -- but their ability to rotate and help on defense provides trust on a variety of levels. The starting unit can sit on the sideline and recuperate without constant trepidation that the game will move out of reach. The injured players -- and there have been many this season -- can focus on recovering rather than rushing their rehab to help the team. And, of course, there is the trust on the court: Teammates know that the player behind them understands his function in the machine.
In nine seasons, Paul has always been the best player on his team. Griffin remained the final credit in player introductions when Paul arrived in Los Angeles three seasons ago, but these courtesies rang hollow. The team belonged to CP3. Paul would lead, Griffin would follow. And Griffin was forced to make adjustments much faster than expectations should have dictated. How often is the burden of title contention put upon a player still on his rookie contract?
But in the 18 games Paul has missed, Griffin has assumed the mantle of a contender, filling Paul’s annual seat in the “third-best player in the league” conversation. And Griffin has afforded the point guard the opportunity to analyze himself for possibly the first time since his knee injury in 2010. What can Paul do to validate the strides the team has made in his absence? The topic doesn’t revolve around what’s been accomplished or what the expectations are; it’s about getting better, a Griffin ethos.
In that sense, vestiges of Rivers’ “ubuntu” mantra have found their place in Los Angeles. The value of a team identity is unity of its parts to be more, no matter how individually brilliant those components may be.
To always be improving requires a candid appraisal of oneself. It’s tough to resolve weaknesses if you’re not honest about what they are. That’s a frightening proposition. Who isn’t squeamish when reflected their flaws? But the Clippers realize that being a contender is more than just looking the part. It’s also about facing all the deficiencies the process reveals and having the luxury to be self-critical.
"I'm just here to try to win. I want our guys to believe that. I want our organization to believe that. I want to act like that: a winner,” Rivers said. “And I always tell our players there's no guarantee to it. You just have to be willing to get your heart broke, and then you have a chance to win. And if you don't do that, then you can't win. I believe that. So that's basically it."
Andrew Han writes for ClipperBlog. Follow him, @andrewthehan.
About a half hour after the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was more animated than usual. It was a big win, he explained, because it was important for James to see the team succeed in his absence. It’s not that James isn't trusting of his teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story -- but it’s common for a superstar to feel as if his team’s fortunes rest on his shoulders, and James certainly falls into the category.
So does Chris Paul. Like James, much of Paul’s game is predicated on trusting teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story too. And like James, Paul is obsessive about playing. CP is the ultimate control freak, but how in the name of the holy point god is he supposed to exert that control when he’s not dressed for the game? It’s not that he doesn't think the world of his teammates, but when Paul’s body doesn't allow him to take the court, he develops a nervous energy.
“He talks more, if that’s possible,” Doc Rivers said Saturday before the Clippers beat the Jazz. “He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road swing]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.’”
Everything's fine, Chris. The team is 11-5 since you went down with a separated AC joint in your right shoulder Jan. 3. Since that night, the Clippers own the most efficient offense in the NBA, scoring a fat 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Blake Griffin is playing out of his mind. Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has an effective true shooting percentage of 63 percent as the starter and an offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions. The Clips are getting serious offensive production from Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. A disappointment the first third of the season, Jared Dudley is playing his best basketball as a Clipper and leading the team in net rating during the stint without Paul.
The only regular who has been struggling profoundly over the past month is Matt Barnes, who has been trudging his way back from an eye injury. And if not for a wild, off-balance Randy Foye 3-pointer at the buzzer Monday night in Denver, the Clippers would have logged another feel-good moment with a clutch win on the road in their final possession courtesy of a 3-pointer from Barnes. DeAndre Jordan even hit a couple of big free throws to tie the game inside of two minutes. The Clips nailed the process, but results conspired against them, at least for a night.
One of the things the Clippers brass likes about Rivers’ reign is the relative calm that has permeated Playa Vista. Rivers’ predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, never truly had job security in his three seasons, and gut-wrenching losses were often followed by bouts of hand-wringing. But Rivers, who is also the team’s senior vice president, can’t be bothered to sweat regular-season losses of the quantum variety. He is monitoring the Clippers’ process for defects. Do that well and results will follow.
In this regard, Griffin has been a revelation over the past month, and with Paul out, he now occupies the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. The ball lands in Griffin’s hands earlier and more often, and the choreography rotates around him. His usage rate has skyrocketed over the past month -- 29.8 since Paul left the lineup, up from 26.9 prior to Paul’s injury. Applied to the full season, that number would trail only Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Griffin and Rivers had conversations prior to the season about using Griffin out of the pinch post as a playmaker to maximize his triple-threat capabilities. Griffin loved the idea to showcase his passing but also wanted to reserve the right to back down a guy who couldn't match him physically.
He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road stretch]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.'”
-- Doc Rivers on an injured Chris Paul
With Paul on the shelf, Griffin’s game looks like a combination of what he and Rivers each imagined. Griffin is now the Clippers’ most potent playmaker and most reliable facilitator. Per ESPN Stats & Info, his assist rate prior to Paul’s injury was 14.5, which is impressive for a big man. Since Jan. 4, it's 22.0 -- a number usually owned by distribution-minded wing players.
But it’s not just Griffin’s assist stats; it’s his command. When Redick buzzes around those multiple screens and curls up from the baseline, it’s Griffin’s play to make -- whether it’s a pass, a handoff or a quick jumper for himself in open space. When the Clippers need to establish an offensive rhythm, it’s Griffin’s responsibility to control the game and time the possession.
It’s not as if Griffin is a reluctant playmaker with Paul on the floor, and he never shies away from working down low. The Paul-Griffin two-man game has been the foundation of an offense that has finished in the top four each of the three seasons the pair has played together. Paul’s re-entry into the force field should require no adjustment other than the realization that there’s more that Griffin can do offensively than previously thought.
The carping from the gallery that Griffin couldn't suffice as a No. 1 option has quieted in recent days, but as much as Griffin has impressed the critics on the set, the most important observer is on the Clippers’ bench. Paul has spent the past month watching Griffin house-sit the offense. The Clippers have learned some illuminating things about themselves and Griffin in Paul’s absence, which should end in the next couple of weeks. His return to the lineup will serve as the ultimate midseason acquisition.
Meanwhile, the Clippers feel like a real contender for the first time since the preseason. If the guys on the court believe it, and the suits upstairs see it, and the fans sense it, then Paul must too. This was the meaning behind Spoelstra’s message in Portland: Superstars need reassurance that the world will remain on its axis without them. The Clippers’ supporting cast has provided that.
If current trends continue, the place will be in as good condition when Paul returns as it was when he left -- and that’s as vital for Paul as it is for anyone.
Of course, some of the talk is pure gamesmanship. While dribbling upcourt past the visitors’ bench, Paul has been known to tell an opposing coach that he’s already sniffed out the staff’s game strategy. And nobody works game officials like Paul, who can litigate a call like Clarence Darrow.
He directs almost all the talk at people, which makes sense because it is really just interpersonal communication. That's also what made it a little jarring when Paul yelled not at a person, but at the cosmos when he separated his shoulder in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers’ win at Dallas last Friday. He was mad at the world. Confining him to the sideline when there’s work to be done? Absurd.
With Paul in street clothes, the Clippers have to hold their ground in a conference of juggernauts without their conductor, which means someone has to take over the controls. The team is only three games into Paul’s three-to-five-week stint on the shelf, but the Clippers’ two leading big men, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, appear ready. Combined, they don’t project the vocal intensity of Paul, but what they lack in volume they can make up in expression, verbal or otherwise.
Paul’s greatest asset is his ability to assert control, and over the past couple of games, Griffin has assumed the role. He’s now the guy pressuring the defense, with and without the ball. Even when the Boston Celtics were denying entries to Griffin in the second quarter of a tight game Wednesday night, they were expending a lot of energy and resources doing it. Griffin ultimately found more than 20 quality shots and was the primary playmaker in another 15 or so. The Clippers scored a ton of points on these possessions, and Griffin preoccupied the C’s off the ball.
With Paul out, Griffin becomes the Clippers’ best playmaker, and the offense can’t move the ball without his help. Griffin has always been a capable and willing passer, but over the past week he’s taken on this responsibility as a personal imperative. When perched at the high post, Griffin surveys. He watches the pieces move, identifies where his shooters are and where he can lead them. In the Clippers’ two recent victories, he logged 14 assists in 65 minutes.
During the course of Wednesday’s win over Boston, various Celtics yapped at Griffin. In the second half, he took a charge from Jordan Crawford, which led to the pair getting tangled up. Crawford snarled at him. Griffin smiled wryly, then cooly dismissed him. Crawford played well Wednesday, but Griffin’s message was almost Paulian: Welcome to my game. Enjoy your time here.
While Griffin has taken charge on the offensive end, Jordan been assigned the critical role of back-line director and he’s embraced it. He talks on pick-and-rolls and ranks 12th in points yielded per possession among big men who’ve defended at least 100 such plays. When manning the interior or the weak side, he monitors ball, assignment and space simultaneously. In past seasons he was good for maybe two of the three.
The Clippers’ rim defense still needs work (27th in opponents’ field goal percentage and 26th in field goals surrendered in the restricted area), but the overall scheme is beginning to work; the Clippers have the NBA’s fifth-most efficient defense since Dec. 1.
More than anything, there’s an entirely different aura around him this season. Jordan has always been among the league’s more affable, good-natured guys, yet a little goofy -- totally harmless and often charming, but gravitas it wasn’t. He was sensitive to bad press, even if it was petty. He’d sometimes get down on himself, and former coach Vinny Del Negro did no favors for his confidence.
But people in their mid-20s grow up, and as we enter 2014, Jordan has blossomed. He’s the same likable guy, but you can see hints of that gravitas. He’s a more buttoned-up presence on the court, where his movements are more precise and his voice is louder. Among players averaging greater than 20 minutes per game, Jordan ranks second in total rebounding rate and fifth in block rate. “He’s playing his ass off,” said one general manager recently.
Last season, the Clippers would often open a game by feeding Jordan on the low block. The intent was to coax Jordan into playing defense. But that’s a decidedly non-Riversish tactic.
Coach Doc Rivers told Jordan up front that he’d have no entry in the playbook. The 7-footer would get his share of lobs in transition if he ran the floor and a handful of duck-ins and putbacks, but his number would be called in only rare instances. Jordan’s duty is singular: Anchor the Clippers by becoming one of the five best interior defenders in the NBA. Scoring isn't part of the job description because team basketball is about working each player’s strengths, and Jordan has some impressive ones.
“This strategy is more realistic,” Jordan said after Thursday’s practice. “There’s no sugarcoating or -- I’m not going to say ‘mind games,’ but [Rivers] just tells me what my role is. ... With Doc, my role is defense and that’s how I’m going to be supereffective on the floor.”
Jordan no longer looks over his shoulder to the bench worrying about seeing a hook. In 35 games this season, he’s logged 236 fourth-quarter minutes. He played every game in 2012-13, yet saw only 149 minutes in the fourth quarter -- and didn't see any action in the final frame of 52 games.
“Doc knows how to reach people,” Jordan says. “He’s good. [chuckles]. He’s goooood. And not like a sneaky good. He knows how to relate. He knows how to connect with all of us on a different level. He understands that there are so many personalities. There are egos on every team, and he knows how to control all of that. It’s honesty.”
Jordan describes Rivers as a guy who will call him out -- loudly -- but that will be the extent of the repercussion. Rivers will reiterate the task, tell Jordan he’s capable of crushing it, then give him a pat on the butt.
Rivers hasn’t solved every riddle, not as Clippers coach or as vice president of basketball operations. He’ll admit as much. Asked on Monday if he had a grasp yet on how Paul’s absence would affect the Clippers’ style of play, Rivers confessed, “I don’t know yet, honestly.” He explained that the Clippers’ offense was predicated on finding things only Paul could see.
One can imagine the reaction to Del Negro if he suggested he didn’t have a full sense of how the Clippers would operate offensively without his point guard. Somehow Rivers’ uncertainty inspires confidence, as if his sincerity alone could pull the Clippers through until Paul returns.
The Clippers are likely to lose a couple of games they would’ve won were Paul on the court, but the team seems to have enough confidence and accountability -- and a manageable schedule -- to withstand a slide. J.J. Redick will be back on the court soon, possibly Friday, an addition that will allow the Clippers to reignite the movement in the offense. Paul will still be missed, but it’s no longer quiet in his absence.
Doc Rivers has a way, one crafted and refined during the Boston Celtics’ recent championship era. The Celtics routinely led the league in defense, and in the process they provided further evidence that, in the NBA, systems matter. Deploy a tight one and good defenders can become great ones; the identity of your wing defenders won’t necessarily matter.
The Clippers figured to benefit from Rivers’ implementation of this system. They finished a respectable ninth in defensive efficiency last season, and it was reasonable to believe Doc's system would make them better -- and certainly no worse.
Installing a complicated system takes time, though, especially for a unit with two new starting wings and a retooled second unit. But for even the most patient, the early returns haven’t been promising for the Clippers, who rank 27th overall in defensive efficiency. That’s their high-water mark for the season thanks to a solid effort in a 102-98 win at Minnesota on Wednesday night, only one of two times in 12 games this season that the Clippers have held their opponent to less than a point per possession. For a frame of reference, the Pacers’ No. 1-ranked defense has allowed more than a point per possession in only one game so far -- and barely.
Those ugly numbers suggest that if you tuned in to watch the Clippers, you’d get a whiff of that rotten defense the second the ball was tipped. J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley must be the Belmonte and Joselito of NBA wing defenders, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan playing the role of Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. After all, a team can’t give up 105.3 points per 100 possessions unless their starters are utterly clueless, right?
That’s the crazy thing about the Clippers -- not only are the starters not terrible, they’re actually very good. The starting lineup of Chris Paul, Redick, Dudley, Griffin and Jordan has played together for almost 40 percent of the team’s total minutes this season. As a unit, the starters surrender only 99.3 points per 100 possessions, which would rank sixth in the NBA.
Take one Clippers starter off the floor and the Clippers still give up considerably less than the league average. For instance, the Clippers’ top four performers -- Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jordan -- maintain that 99.3 defensive rating, and they’ve been on the floor for almost exactly one-half the action this season. When those four guys aren’t on the floor, that rating drops to 111.3 -- beyond awful, like 2005-06 Sonics, worst-of-all-time awful.
Put two Clippers starters on the bench, and the team defense is still strong -- if Redick is one of the three remaining starters on the court. So long as a lineup has a strong, starter-heavy DNA, the Clippers are essentially OK.
In other words, if you want to experience a full frontal view of the Clippers’ unsightly defense, you’ll generally have to wait until the beginning of the second quarter or the end of the third quarter. That’s when the team defense hemorrhages:
- When Byron Mullens is on the floor, the Clippers are 18.2 points worse defensively. His defensive rating of 120.7 is far and away the worse this season for any player who sees the court regularly, with Jordan Hamilton a very distant second at 116.4. In fact, even though Mullens plays only 20 percent of the Clippers’ minutes, if he’s on the bench at a given moment, the team goes from a 27th-ranked defense to one that would be ranked 17th, just behind the Rockets. It’s virtually unheard of for a fringe rotation player to have such an adverse effect on a team’s overall defensive numbers.
- The Clippers desperately miss Eric Bledsoe, whose bench units last season paced the team defensively. The Clippers forced a turnover on more than one-sixth of the possessions when Bledsoe was on the floor while giving up only 97.5 points per 100 possessions. The “Tribe Called Bench” unit spearheaded by Bledsoe was one of the league’s stingiest, but this season, the gnats off the bench have been replaced by the nots.
- It’s early in the season, but among the 10 most commonly used lineups by the Clippers, five would qualify as the league’s worst defense. Four of those five units are led by a backcourt of Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford.
Coming into the season, Rivers knew he’d be without the kind of legitimate ball-pressuring point guard who presides as the head of the snake of his defensive system -- a Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley or Bledsoe. Rivers also knew that he wouldn’t have the services of a circa 2008 Kevin Garnett or Kendrick Perkins, nor would the Clippers have a sinewy wing defender like James Posey or Tony Allen at their disposal.
At some point, Rivers will have to decide whether a team with championship aspirations can afford to give Mullens meaningful minutes. Rivers will also have to monitor Collison and Crawford -- or figure out who else on the roster can best mitigate their weaknesses. The Clippers should probably dig through the bargain bin to see if there’s a big man on the market who can give them 8 to 10 minutes a night of defensive relief, because the points are there. One such big man happens to reside about a 20-minute drive from their practice facility and has played in Rivers’ system before.
But for all the defensive shortcomings of the Clippers’ roster, the performance of those who play the big minutes has been at least average, and often very good. We saw it during the first quarter in Minneapolis on Wednesday night against a Wolves team that features two potent big men who force defenses into tricky big-to-big rotations. Griffin and Jordan were well-synced, while Paul capably kept Ricky Rubio pinned against the sideline for much of the night coming off pick-and-rolls. The wings performed admirably, if a little foul-happy. Redick chased Kevin Martin while Dudley was an ace in transition while he was on the floor.
An NBA team is a complex organism, and the sum of its overall record is the aggregate performances of different units and combinations. The Clippers’ No. 27 defensive ranking doesn’t lie, but it also requires some digging because context matters in basketball.
On his iPad, Griffin reviewed a catalog of defensive possessions from the game in Houston just hours before, a 107-94 Clippers win. Every two minutes or so, Griffin came across a snippet that either signaled progress or areas for improvement. He would pause the clip, rewind, then play it back for DeAndre Jordan, sometimes more than once. After the viewing, they’d exchange thoughts about the play. Were the two big men in the right spot as the play materialized? Was the timing of their rotation precise? And if not, was it because someone was late to anticipate the action, or was the mistake a result of bad communication, or was it just a busted play?
It’s not as if Griffin has never watched film on a team flight or bus ride, but studying occupies a more prominent place in the daily culture of the team this season. A botched defensive possession is now something that warrants the interruption of a card game for a quick chat.
“This is something that’s evolved,” Griffin said. “And we take a lot of pride in that.”
Virtually everyone around the Clippers readily admits that on the process-result continuum, the Clippers -- and Griffin, individually -- still sit squarely in the beginning of the process phase. When Doc Rivers’ Celtics assembled the Big Three in 2007, the defense jelled on opening night and never faltered. By New Year's, the Celtics had developed a distinct defensive choreography that would soon be appropriated by a third of the league.
The Clippers have experienced moments of perfection at their training facility, a glimpse of how the project is going to look when it comes to fruition.
“We do it sometimes in practice, and we get it exactly where we want it,” Griffin said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
But right now, the 2013-14 Clippers aren't the 2007-08 Celtics. This season's Clippers rank 28th in defensive efficiency, though the starting lineup is giving up only 99.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank them 10th overall in the league.
Whether because he’s less rangy, less obsessive or a lot younger than Kevin Garnett (who was in his 13th season when he arrived in Boston), Griffin is simply going to need more time to master the system, and by many accounts the process is moving along. He's the power forward in that defensively sturdy starting lineup. Overall, the team is 14 points better defensively with him on the floor. While some of that might be an indictment on Byron Mullens or the team’s small-ball D when Griffin is on the bench, it isn't just that.
On the flip side, opponents are shooting 53.7 percent at the rim when Griffin is within five feet of the goal and within five feet of the player shooting the ball. The figure for the median starting big man is right about 50 percent. When he’s on the floor, players shoot 71 percent in the restricted area, a high total for a starting big man.
The full laugh track was in effect as Griffin made light of his reputation as a non-defender at the press conference after Monday night’s win over Minnesota. At the same time, the perception bothers Griffin, most notably because it’s often accompanied with the suggestion that he’s not fully vested in the craft of defense, or isn't willing to do the grunt work to become an elite defender. Preparation is a point of pride for Griffin. His workout schedule, nutrition, the amount of time he spends with shooting coach Bob Thate -- all of it is in service of doing this pro basketball thing the right way. So Griffin offers another theory.
"Honestly, I didn't know a lot of things I should’ve known during my first three years,” Griffin said. “I really do feel like I've gotten a little bit better each year. This year, it’s one of those things where I feel like when we’re on defense, I can affect the game.”
I really do feel like I've gotten a little bit better each year. This year, it’s one of those things where I feel like when we’re on defense, I can affect the game.
-- Blake Griffin
The aforementioned “beautiful thing” Griffin experienced in practice is the fluid, almost balletic way Rivers’ Tom Thibodeau-influenced, strong-side pressure defense appears when it’s firing on all cylinders. Most NBA defenses look to avoid rotations -- think San Antonio, Memphis, Indiana to a great extent -- because many open looks in the half court are the result of botched rotations.
In contrast, Rivers’ defense aims to exert more pressure on the strong side of the court, and is willing to absorb rotations to do it. This can be risky because it introduces another layer of decision-making into the defensive process. Applying pressure requires a guy to leave his primary assignment to overload, which means someone has to account for his man.
“If we overload one side and the ball gets swung, someone has to take off running,” Griffin said. “Then somebody else has to be there to contest the shot. A team might get a shot, but it’s hurried and they don’t get the shot they want. That’s what we’re going for.”
Being a help defender represents a far greater slice of a player’s overall responsibilities under Rivers. It’s a different kind of scheme for Griffin, but the vibe around the team is entirely different this season. There’s a sense that problems can be solved, which has produced an interesting combination of concern and optimism, with a strong leaning toward the latter.
“Almost everything feels completely different,” Griffin said. “Obviously it’s the same facility, the same Staples Center, the same jerseys. But the atmosphere in practice, walking into the arena, it’s way different.”
Griffin constantly returns to the idea of learning and learnedness. Idle conversations are much more likely to be shop talk, and even though the topics Rivers hits aren't necessarily new, the themes have more staying power and feel like part of a larger creed.
“It’s kind of a weird thing because [Rivers] is saying things I, most of the time, already know,” Griffin said. “But he puts it in a way where I completely, 100 percent understand -- and it sticks with you.”
One of the earliest conversations Griffin had with Rivers was about his offensive portfolio. Griffin’s size and speed are a matchup nightmare. He’s faster than most opposing power forwards, but can back down stretchy, new-era 4s. Give him space at mid-range and he’s increasingly comfortable taking that jumper. Soon after taking the job in Los Angeles, Rivers spoke to Griffin about being more selective with his game, specifically about identifying the nature of the mismatch.
“That was one of the first things [Rivers] talked to me about when he first got the job,” Griffin said. “I was in the facility one day working out and he said, 'I want you to keep shooting, and when you’re in the post, keep working on your post moves. But I want you to face guys up. I don’t think there are many guys who can guard you when you face up.'"
Last season, 35 percent of Griffin’s offensive possessions were classified as post-ups by Synergy. This season, that’s dropped to 23 percent. In place of those times when Griffin called out for the ball on the block are spot-up opportunities, middle pick-and-rolls and isolation sets in which Griffin hops on an island against a bulkier big man and does his thing.
"That’s something I’m trying to mix in a lot," Griffin said. "At the same time, it depends game to game. Like against the Rockets, when Dwight [Howard] or Omer Asik is on me, I’m going to face up. But when they put Omri Casspi on me, I’m going to try to back him down. It’s about learning to truly use the mismatches.”
The increased selectivity is bearing out in Griffin’s shooting numbers from the floor. His effective field goal percentage of 57.9 percent far exceeds his career best of 55 percent two seasons ago. His assist numbers are down a bit, but he’s also encountering fewer double-teams because J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley merit the defense’s attention behind the arc. The shooting wings have contributed to a slight drop in Griffin’s usage rate this season, but rebounding numbers are up while turnovers are down.
Tensions have existed in Griffin’s game and persona since he arrived in the league: force and finesse, irony and earnestness, monastic discipline off the floor versus showmanship on it. Imagining what Blake Griffin: The Final Product will look like is a fascinating exercise, one reason his evolution as a player never seems to be progressing quickly enough for many. It’s a subtle, slow reveal for an athlete who so often seems larger than life.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
Why is this man smiling? The message from his Clippers coach sounds different than in past seasons.
Until quite recently, the Los Angeles Clippers lived on the far outskirts of this world. Their long slog through the wilderness has been well-documented, and now, too, has their emergence as a legitimate NBA organization.
Nobody who thinks seriously about basketball in Los Angeles dwells any longer on whether the Clippers have reversed their history, or whether it’s even possible the Clippers could ever be spoken of with the same affection as the Lakers. It’s not that these questions have been answered, it’s that posing them has gotten boring. As Clippers team president Andy Roeser is fond of saying in response to existential questions about the team, “We’ll see.”
In the meantime, the Clippers have developed into one of the league’s more interesting teams. They feature two charismatic superstars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, each with a personalized storyline or two. They established a signature style of play -- the capacity to do that usually means a team is really good. And Los Angeles is the only big market that can decisively say the resident NBA team is the city’s most popular. If the NFL’s exodus did one thing, it was to solidify Los Angeles as the country’s biggest basketball town.
No matter how big the swell of media interest, media day isn’t the place where an NBA team can advance compelling storylines. The court at the Clippers’ practice facility was literally covered by a layer of black porch turf. Not much actually happens at media day, but it’s still the day when organizations, players and coaches lay out the campaign’s talking points. The sound bites we hear just before training camp constitute the team’s stump speech heading into fall, the familiar litany of themes to be visited and revisited over the course of the season.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers manages this messaging as well as any coach in the league, which is why it’s so easy to imagine his succeeding in Los Angeles. The Clippers have made, if not a 180, then certainly a 150. Yet Rivers is the organization’s first coach who could both communicate and project credibility to his players and the fan base. Some past coaches excelled at one task but struggled with the other, but Rivers brings the whole package.
At Clippers media day, Rivers was the first guest greeted on stage by the Clippers’ bright radio broadcaster, Brian Sieman. Soon after the hire, Rivers quickly established a tendency to use “we” when speaking about past events from the Clippers’ point of view, a pattern that was noticeable again on Monday.
“The areas where we struggled were huge. One is transition. With the athleticism we have, we should be a better transition defensive team,” Rivers said on the podium. “And then guarding the 3-point line. We were 26th or 27th in the league in 3-point defense. And in a league that shoots 3s, we have to get better at that.”
Mood and tone might be Rivers’ strongest assets as team spokesman, but he’s not careless with his words in the slightest. Rivers wants to convey that he’s taking ownership not just of the future, but also of the past. When you coach the Celtics or Lakers, associating yourself with the mystique of an organization is easy, but with the Clippers, history isn’t something people who work for the team want to be constantly reminded of.
The Clippers have had a peculiar relationship with the media over the past few seasons. They’re a team that’s thrilled fans with aerial exploits, but also repelled some of the NBA League Pass cognoscente with their moodiness.
The flash point of this tension has been Griffin, who was worshiped when he first dropped from the sky, made dunking fun again and quickly cultivated a sensibility that made him the league’s best pitchman. On the court, Griffin produced as a high-usage scorer, efficient rebounder and elite passer. There’s room for improvement mechanically and defensively, but Griffin contributed an enormous amount of offense to a team that’s won nearly two-thirds of its regular-season games over the past two years.
It’s almost impossible to believe a person who looks like Griffin and has enjoyed his on and off-court success could ever want for confidence. But Griffin is far from impenetrable -- maybe farther than many. He endured a backlash, along with the empty innuendo (the requisite rap of being soft or a fake tough guy). And by accounts from Griffin’s teammates, he often served as a whipping boy last season when one was needed.
Ask Rivers about the twists and turns in Griffin’s evolving persona in the public imagination and he probably couldn’t tell you -- and if he could, he wouldn’t. What Rivers clearly understands is that his power forward has the potential to be coached up enormously. Part of that project includes steeping Griffin in the dark arts of the Thibodeau-constructed defense. Encouraging Griffin’s continued progress with shooting sensei Bob Thate is another piece. But above all of the component parts is something more vital, if less tangible: letting Blake Griffin know he’s going to be a better basketball player two years from now than he is today.
“One guy that has stood out to me is Blake,” Rivers told the audience at media day. “Just sitting in my office up there and looking down on him and watching him work. I knew he was a worker. I didn’t know he was the worker to the extent that he’s worked this summer. He’s put in a lot of time. I’ve been impressed with his scheduling. He does a lot of stuff and nothing gets in the way of his basketball, and that shows me a great sign of maturity.”
Lots of coaches say lots of nice things about lots of players on media day, but Rivers is doing something larger here -- he’s bringing back the old Blake Griffin narrative, the one about the kid who conditions by running up sand dunes, treats his body like a temple and rides himself harder than anyone else could. Rivers, fascinated by Griffin’s ability to move the ball, opened a dialogue with Griffin about how to utilize his skill set in the pinch post, where refined big men such as Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett prospered as both scorers and facilitators.
When Rivers talks generally about the anatomy of the Clippers, the team he describes has two superstars. Paul doesn’t require much reassurance about his role, but Griffin never really discovered his precise function in the offense under Vinny Del Negro. He got plenty of touches down on the box, but they weren’t connected to any greater system of principles, or those principles were never communicated clearly.
Rivers might have been talking to the media on Monday, but the message was targeted at his 24-year-old power forward. That message? This is your team as much as it is anyone’s, and we’re going to help you claim it.
By most objective measures, Doc Rivers is among the best basketball coaches in the world. He's one of only four active NBA coaches who has won a championship. Just over a year ago, a survey of NBA players named Rivers the coach they'd most like to suit up for, and there’s reportedly at least one Hall of Famer in Boston who would rather retire than play for another NBA coach.
Rivers has devoted himself to basketball his entire life. He played for four NBA teams and coached two others. He’s a 51-year-old man who has raised four children, and much of that parenting has been performed from 1,000 miles away. Rivers has spoken about this challenge, not as an expression of self-pity, but as a window into his feelings about some of the tougher compromises we make in life.
After nine seasons with the Boston Celtics and two years into a five-year contract, Rivers decided that his work life needed a change. Fortunately for him, his desire to leave his current job in Boston for a new one in Los Angeles coincided with the interests of several other parties. This doesn’t happen very often, but a combination of circumstance and goodwill created a confluence of mutual benefits for just about everyone involved in the transaction.
The Celtics will save in the neighborhood of $15 million over the next three seasons by releasing Rivers from his contract and signing a younger, more affordable head coach while they rebuild their roster. The Los Angeles Clippers will not only obtain the services of an elite coach, but also likely will guarantee that Chris Paul remains with the team for a long time. Surrendering assets for a coach is dicey, but at a critical juncture of the franchise’s evolution, the Clippers acquired the gravitas and leadership they badly need. For Rivers’ part, he gets to take a crack at answering one of pro basketball’s most difficult riddles -- taking a franchise that’s been a historical laughingstock and delivering it a title.
One of the privileges that comes with being an industry leader is the freedom to define career goals along the way -- as well as the terms of employment in pursuit of those goals. That’s how it works in virtually every sector on the professional landscape, where talented people navigate their careers and make choices that feed their sense of professional fulfillment. But not in sports, where a sincere change of feeling about the job is often interpreted as treason.
For a certain kind of achiever, permanence offers the most comfort. They like to plant a stake, build something and then preside over it until it’s time to walk away. But not everyone has the same temperament or starts in the same place. We live in a dynamic economy where circumstances change, markets change and the things about the gig that get people up in the morning change.
A year or two ago, Rivers thought he’d be a Celtic for life, and he was pretty expressive about that belief. Was he full of it? It’s possible, but it’s just as likely that his view changed, that a rebuilding effort that looked like a fun puzzle to be assembled when viewed from the benefit of distance appeared entirely different when he stared it in the face.
Sensibilities evolve over time, and while it’s tempting to regard that as a character flaw, double-talk or a betrayal of principle, it’s a condition that’s both very human and very practical. These are the inconvenient byproducts of growth, and few NBA coaches have grown more in the past 15 years than Rivers.
Forget for a moment that Rivers-to-Los Angeles is a victimless crime through which every side profited. Say you had a friend who fit Rivers’ general description -- smart, successful, trusted, imperfect but someone whom just about every firm in the business would want to hire and would be willing to pay.
A very cool opportunity that excites the hell out of him has surfaced. He gets to take the reins of a company in a geographically desirable location that almost certainly has a brighter future than the place he works now. Your friend hasn't been in a funk exactly, but over the past nine months or so, there’s a sense that his best days with his current employer are probably behind him. The most productive members of his staff will soon be retiring or moving on. The most talented staffer who remains is temperamental and the moodiness has been wearing thin for a while. The move would be a bit awkward, but there’s some reassuring news: For a variety of reasons, the partners at his current company would be OK with the move, and might even profit from it themselves.
When your friend asks your advice on the right course of action, do you tell him that loyalty trumps his self-interest, or do you tell him that he owes it to himself to chase the prize, to challenge himself and to write a new chapter?
We romanticize loyalty in sports and love the cleanliness of the team column on Kobe Bryant or Larry Bird or Tim Duncan’s stats page. But the world’s most talented people have a personal imperative to create situations that make the most sense for them, that allow them to work where, for whom and with whom they want. In this respect, the idea of commitment can be messy, but it’s up to an individual -- not us -- to define what commitment means to him.
Getty ImagesDoc Rivers (left) will be coaching Blake Griffin with the Clippers this season.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, winner of two straight NBA titles, reportedly made about $3 million. Rivers made at least twice as much as 20 of the 29 other NBA head coaches last season.
Rivers compiled 416 wins in nine seasons with the Celtics, third-most in franchise history behind the legendary Red Auerbach and Tom Heinsohn. He guided Boston to the NBA Finals twice during his tenure, winning the 2008 title over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics’ first championship since 1986.
If Chris Paul re-signs with the Clippers, what will that pairing create in Los Angeles?
Paul led the NBA this season with 1.06 points per play in the pick-and-roll offense, which included passes (among 50 players with 500 plays). Under Rivers, the pick-and-roll offense was Boston’s most-used play type with Rajon Rondo.
Paul’s points-per-play average on pick-and-rolls (including passes) hasn’t been outside the top five in the NBA since 2005-06.
In his career, Paul’s teams have had a defensive efficiency of 104.1 points per 100 possessions allowed when he’s on the court, one point worse than the NBA average.
The Celtics have had the best defensive efficiency in the NBA since Kevin Garnett joined the team in the 2007-08 season.
Rivers' success with the Celtics can be defined by the team's "Big Three", which came together in the 2007 offseason. The acquisition of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett led to a personal Big Three for Doc Rivers -- as in, the middle three seasons of his nine-year Celtics tenure.
If you remove the middle three seasons of his Celtics career, he was one game over .500.
Uncertainty in Boston
After experiencing a 21-season championship drought, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen guided the Celtics to a title during their first season together in 2008. Boston would make it back to the Finals in 2010, falling to the Lakers in seven games. Kendrick Perkins would be traded the following season. Ray Allen left for Miami last offseason - and now questions surround Pierce and Garnett.
How could the Los Angeles Clippers possibly walk away from a negotiation that would’ve yielded them Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers for a relatively unproven young center, a couple of first-round draft picks and the relatively small burden of taking on one or two mid-level contracts?
That’s the question gnawing at some Clipper fans and many Clipper skeptics on Tuesday, but however ineffectual the organization appears on the surface for folding up their tent, the Clippers made a sound decision.
Two key points:
What’s the hurry?
The Celtics’ situation is in flux and they’ve signaled to the world that they’re ready to pursue the wise course of rebuilding. If they buy out Paul Pierce’s contract on or before June 30, where does that leave Garnett and Rivers? Neither is wild about the idea of being part of the reconstruction process without their comrade, and both would prefer they join forces with a team driving for a title, a team like the Los Angeles Clippers.
In other words, if the Clippers want to acquire Kevin Garnett for DeAndre Jordan, they can do so after July 1. The only complication there is the report that Garnett isn’t interested in playing for any coach other than Rivers, a primary reason this whole drama started.
That’s why if I’m the Clippers, I hold off on hiring a coach until after the Pierce situation is resolved. Apart from the Clippers, the only remaining coaching vacancies are Memphis, Philadelphia and Denver. There’s virtually no overlap between the Clippers’ short list and that of 76ers president of basketball operations and general manager Sam Hinkie. Memphis will likely hire current assistant Dave Joerger. At worst, the Clippers lose one of their top three choices (most likely Lionel Hollins or Brian Shaw) to Denver while they wait. In exchange, they maintain the possibility that Rivers could join them after July 1. Boston will have no more impetus to pay Rivers $7 million to coach a bubble team than they do now. Ditto for Garnett’s $18 million guaranteed, assuming KG would return to a Pierce-less Celtics team.
There’s some worry that the Clippers’ inability to strike a deal with Boston might prompt Chris Paul to look elsewhere, but the concern has been overblown. If the Celtics are truly moving into rebuilding mode, time is on the Clippers’ side. If the Celtics decide to fire up the wagon for another run, then so be it.
Was the deal worth it?
Few veterans in the league bring Garnett’s gravitas, pedigree and presence and it’s easy to be charmed by the prospect of Garnett’s taking Blake Griffin under his wing and teaching him the dark arts of defending the pick-and-roll and becoming a championship power forward.
But Garnett is 37 and isn’t good for more than 26-28 minutes per game going forward. As transformative as he is as a minister of culture, Garnett’s past performance isn’t a reliable indicator of what kind of production he’d give the Clippers next season -- and the season after if the team decided to pick up his $12 million option for 2014-15.
So far as the leadership, Garnett is regarded as one of the league’s best teammates and mentors, but the Clippers went down that path last offseason when they brought back Chauncey Billups, signed Grant Hill and loaded up on good-guy vets to add to the collection they already had. Veteran leadership wasn’t the problem when the Clippers lost four straight to Memphis in the first round.
If anything, the Clippers need to get younger and establish a sustainable core around Paul and Griffin. Truth be told, Jordan probably isn’t the best frontcourt counterpart to Griffin since both are most dangerous in the basket area. And although Garnett would offer the midrange stretch that would best complement Griffin and is still a very steady defender, is 2,000 minutes of Garnett the best the Clippers can do for Jordan, whose athleticism and talent have many admirers around the league?
We don’t know the answer to this question, but a team like the Clippers that desperately needs a couple of wings who can defend and shoot from distance has an obligation to listen to offers -- and they’re out there for Jordan, both in the form of talent and picks.
Rivers is one of the five best coaches in the game and clearly has the respect of NBA players. But there’s a reason teams don’t trade assets for coaches. Doc Rivers can’t guard Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, James Harden and Stephen Curry. A few front office execs who were asked about the idea of handing over a pair of first-round picks for the privilege of paying a coach $7 million per season found the proposition absurd. While there was almost unanimous respect for Rivers’ acumen, the transaction was seen more as a salary dump than anything else.
The notion that a pair of first-round draft picks is a paltry sum to pay for Garnett and Rivers is short-sighted. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, first-round picks have never been more valuable. They are the mother’s milk of the NBA trade market. With the exception of a few superstar max contacts, rookie-scale contracts represent the best values in the game. All across the league, there are young executives who know how to turn post-lottery picks into Chandler Parsons, Serge Ibaka and Eric Bledsoe, among others.
Teams value these picks and will offer the Clippers quality, on-court talent for them. A first-round pick is the kind of asset that could get a team to swallow the final year of Caron Butler’s contract, and could accompany Eric Bledsoe to get a top-line starter in exchange.
The Celtics also wanted the Clippers to take on additional payroll in the form of Jason Terry and/or Courtney Lee (this in addition to the $1.5 million that would’ve been added to the Clippers' salary number in a Jordan-for-Garnett swap). With only Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Jamal Crawford and Bledsoe locked in for next season, and Paul due a maximum salary, the Clippers need to preserve all their available exceptions. But adding Terry and/or Lee would’ve brought the Clippers precariously close to a place where they’d lose one or more of those slots, which are going to be vital in filling out their depleted roster.
It’s entirely possible the Clippers blew it big time by turning down an opportunity to sign a Hall of Famer in the twilight of his career and one of the most respected coaches in the game. Acquiring Garnett and Rivers would’ve made Paul ecstatic and endeared the team to the local media that have been pounding them in recent weeks.
But in forfeiting one option, the Clippers open themselves up to many others, including several that might actually address the team’s needs beyond 2014. In the meantime, Garnett and Rivers are still in Boston awaiting word on the direction of their team. If and when the Celtics decide to break up their current core, Garnett and/or Rivers will be looking for life rafts -- and the Clippers still have one.
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThis is what they're playing for.
The NBA playoffs begin this weekend with four games Saturday and four more on Sunday.
Let’s get you ready for the next two months with a list of our top stats to know heading into the postseason.
Heat trends point to a title
The Miami Heat enter the playoffs as the unquestioned favorites and will look to become back-to-back champions.
Only five NBA franchises have ever pulled off a repeat championship: the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Rockets and Pistons. LeBron James, the runaway MVP favorite, can also be the first player with MVP and NBA titles in back-to-back seasons since Michael Jordan’s first two titles in 1991 and 1992.
Of the 12 previous squads to win 66 or more games in the NBA regular season, nine went on to win the championship that season.
The Heat finished with the third-best winning percentage by a defending NBA champion in league history, trailing only two of Michael Jordan's Bulls' teams from the 1990s and ahead of two of Bill Russell's Celtics' teams from the 1960s.
Each of those four other teams went on to defend the title successfully, a goal the Heat hope to accomplish over the next several weeks.
In the Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant eras for each franchise, the Lakers and Spurs have met in the playoff six times.
Each time, the winner has gone on to reach the NBA Finals. Four of the six times, the winner has gone on to an NBA championship. The Lakers are 4-2 against the Spurs in those playoff series, winning four of the past five.
This is the first time during those eras that the teams are meeting in the first round. And we could see something else new this year -- none of those series lasted seven games.
The Spurs will be making their 16th consecutive postseason appearance, the longest active streak in the NBA.
Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be making their 11th straight postseason appearance as teammates.
Celtics, Knicks recent histories are opposites
This marks the sixth straight playoff appearance for the Celtics. In each of their previous five appearances, they advanced past the first round. The Knicks, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff series since 2000. New York is 3-15 in its past four playoff appearances.
Carmelo Anthony’s teams are just 2-9 in playoff series, both of those wins coming in 2009 when the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference finals before losing to the Lakers in six games. Anthony is 1-8 in playoff games in his Knicks career.
Coaching legends abound
The coaching in this postseason features three coaches with at least 60 career playoff wins: Gregg Popovich, George Karl and Doc Rivers.
Popovich trails only Phil Jackson and Pat Riley for most career playoff coaching wins.
The field also features three coaches that have won titles: Popovich (4), Rivers (1) and Erik Spoelstra (1).
The only other active coach who has won a title is Rick Carlisle, whose Mavericks missed the playoffs this season.
The value of Round 1, Game 1
How important is Game 1 in the first round of the NBA playoffs? The Elias Sports Bureau tells us that since the first round was expanded to a best-of-seven format in 2003, the team that won Game 1 went on to win 61 of 80 series (76 percent).
Teams that won Game 1 at home won 51 of 58 first-round series (88 percent) and teams that won Game 1 on the road won 10 of 22 series (45 percent).
One example of this: The Chicago Bulls are 19-5 all-time in best-of-seven series when winning Game 1. When losing a Game 1 of a best-of-seven, they’re just 6-15. On the other hand, the Brooklyn Nets are 7-2 all-time in best-of-seven series when winning Game 1. They are just 1-5 in best-of-7s when losing Game 1.
On a Monday morning last January, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks fielded an easy volley of questions at Santa Monica High School ahead of a game that night against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Thunder were mowing through their schedule, having won 11 of their previous 12 games, and Brooks’ breezy tone was fitting for a midseason shootaround. He paid homage to James Harden’s throwback qualities and told the small gathering of media that, even though the Thunder had climbed the ranks of the Western Conference, they had to go out and play each night with something to prove.
After the scrum broke, Brooks was asked whether he could imagine Kevin Durant as his power forward of the future. A pile of data and the general direction of the league both suggested that sliding Durant over to the 4 would make a lot of sense.
Brooks had seen the evidence and, in fact, was the man responsible for those minutes Durant logged as a power forward in the Thunder’s smaller lineups. Schematically, Brooks loved the idea of giving his already potent offense even more opportunities to stretch defenses.
The data were certainly compelling, and what coach wouldn’t be tempted to get another athlete on the floor if all it took was placing the dynamo with the 7-foot-5 wingspan at the 4? Brooks suspected Durant eventually would log more time in small-ball lineups, but Brooks also wouldn’t rush into the future.
In Brooks’ mind, an NBA coach’s job isn’t merely to implement strategic goals on the court but also to have a strong feel for the appropriate timetables of those objectives. He explained that a player like Durant derives confidence from familiarity, and in many respects, it’s one of the factors that makes him such a devastating offensive force. So challenging him to expand the boundaries of the familiar demanded a degree of finesse. Understanding how to lure a player into uncharted territory, asking him to expend more defensively, changing up the composition of the offense he marshals -- that was the trick.
Brooks was confident he could do it, but Durant’s long-term success with that transition would be somewhat dependent on Brooks’ management of that process.
We accept that Oklahoma City’s ascension to the NBA Finals can largely be attributed to the maturation of its young core. By competing at the high-stakes table against the NBA’s notable elite over the past seven weeks, Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha have all developed a more astute intuition about the game.
We chart and revel in the progress achieved by talented young players, but whether it’s because coaches are less interesting than players or because the strides in a coach’s games are more opaque (what’s the coaching equivalent of “he developed a post game”?), we tend to see coaches as static. We might pause for a second and consider that men like Doc Rivers or Alvin Gentry aren’t the same coaches that they were a dozen years ago, but we rarely frame that growth the same way we do for players.
Each of the Thunder’s catalysts has refined his game, and we’ll read plenty about Westbrook’s improved vision and discipline, Durant’s full arrival, Harden’s embrace of the big stage, Sefolosha’s building confidence that he could contain a small army and the rounding of Ibaka’s game.
But it isn’t just the Thunder’s roster that has elevated its game. Brooks has followed the impressive trajectory of his players. A coach who, over the course of his young career, was rarely lauded for his gravitas, charisma or mastery of X’s and O’s has put together a helluva postseason, capped off by a brilliant performance in the conference finals against San Antonio.
The pivotal event in the six games against the Spurs might have been Hack-a-Splitter, which disrupted then irreversibly altered the rhythm of the series. Brooks risked a potential toll offensively by investing his wholesale trust in Sefolosha to stymie Tony Parker. Fully embracing his team’s athleticism, Brooks leveraged that asset in a scheme that both simplified and intensified the Thunder’s defense. He urged Westbrook to cleverly exploit the Spurs’ defensive discipline -- never sending strongside help -- by traversing the court’s midline, which never allowed San Antonio to establish where its help should come from. When the Spurs defenders attacked Durant coming off the Thunder’s bread-and-butter play -- the weakside pin-down -- Brooks introduced wrinkles that helped to free up Durant.
And yes, he also moved Durant to the power forward spot for significant stretches of the series, something we didn’t see him do as readily in past seasons.
Perhaps that’s selling Brooks short -- the idea that these discoveries of the craft have been recent. It’s more likely that Brooks’ abilities have been developing over time, just like his players.
Public opinion tends to shine brightly on systematic high-achiever coaches -- Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, Tom Thibodeau, until recently Mike D’Antoni, to a large extent Rick Adelman and now Doc Rivers.
Coaches like Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra, whose most talented personnel thrives on one-on-one play, must rely on offenses far more dependent on shot creation. As a result, their stuff often appears more rudimentary, and we shape our opinions of their creativity accordingly. There are plenty of coaches around the league for whom that might be true, but Brooks doesn’t appear to be one of them.
For some, the verdict on Brooks’ tactical ingenuity may be pending -- let’s see how his team responds in the Finals. For others, the mere fact that, under his direction, Brooks helped deliver a team that was 23-59 three seasons ago to the NBA Finals is testimony enough to his strengths, whether those strengths reside on a whiteboard or in his intuitive understanding of his players.
And on that late morning in January, talking about the delicate process of easing along a superstar, Brooks conveyed the most valuable gift a head coach can have:
Knowing, understanding and caring for his talent.
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesBoston's veteran core struggled to find the basket in Game 6.
Before Game 6, Boston seemed to have Miami's defense figured out. Then Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to shoot 13-for-39.
It wasn't a fluke. If it appeared that Boston's offense was out of rhythm, it might have been because Miami and coach Erik Spoelstra changed the tempo.
What Miami did in Game 6 was switch as much and as often as possible. The strategy has two benefits: (1) defenders are no longer laboring through the Celtics' screen-heavy offense, conserving energy by trading assignments; and (2) those same screens might yield mismatches but not wide-open players.
When the Celtics offense is humming, an unusual number of their makes are assisted. According to HoopData, 66.5 percent of Boston's regular-season makes were assisted, by far the highest percentage in the league.
Just how much do they rely on the pass to score? The difference between Boston's percentage of makes assisted and the No. 2 team, Milwaukee, was greater than the difference between Milwaukee and the No. 17 team (Dallas).
In Game 6, just 43.8 percent of the Celtics' makes were assisted.
Death by isolation
Boston's regular-season assist numbers don't just reflect an offense built on sharing the ball but a collection of players who struggle to score without help. Paul Pierce has a deserved reputation for one-on-one talents, but Garnett and Allen need others to do the creating for them. KG can post up and score in isolations, but where he has killed the Heat this series is on rolls to the rim and pops to the midrange, particularly working with passing wizard Rajon Rondo.
As a result of all the switching, the Celtics' best scoring option in Game 6 became attacking a mismatch one-on-one rather than using one another to create wide-open shots. Pierce took 18 shots over at least five different defenders, as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh all spent time on the Celtics' iso ace. Pierce was able to create space to shoot, but fadeaway 18-footers, while a makeable shot for him, aren't a reliable shot for anyone.
Meanwhile, Garnett was able to use his size and soft touch to score over smaller players, but the Heat, especially after the first 18 minutes or so, worked hard to limit him to these more difficult opportunities.
Switching allowed Miami to defend Rondo and Garnett pick-and-rolls without helping too much with a third player. Again, the idea was to force Rondo to score over a bigger player or make Garnett to get his buckets one-on-one -- a fairly reliable but exceedingly taxing method of scoring.
Rondo burned the Heat for 19 points in the first half, many of them in transition, but he also forced passes in the pick-and-roll and seemed ill at ease when the Heat backed off him in favor of taking away Garnett.
Bosh is back
It wasn't strategy alone that made the difference. There were some wide-open missed shots (as there are every game), and the Heat were not without defensive breakdowns. But Miami had a new weapon to clean up those mistakes: Chris Bosh, who swatted three shots in his 28 minutes of court time.
The Heat's interior defense looked stunningly different with Bosh, the team's tallest player, on the court. Spoelstra kept Bosh off Garnett so that he could roam and support mismatched defenders, not unlike how Boston prefers to keep Garnett free to help its overmatched wing defenders.
Can the Celtics adjust?
In Game 6, after consistently scoring for four straight games, Boston's offense looked more like it had in the first two rounds of the playoffs. That's not surprising, considering that Atlanta and Philadelphia are two teams with switch-heavy defenses. In both series, Garnett had to come up big on the offensive end for the Celtics to advance.
That's probably a good predictor of what will have to happen for the Celtics to win Game 7. Bosh's return and the Heat's aggressive switching will force Boston to rely on the Big Ticket, who always has a size advantage over his primary defender. One thing Doc Rivers is likely to do to accentuate this advantage is have his smaller players set screens for Garnett. If the Heat are going to switch and concede a mismatch, Rivers will look for the best mismatch he can get.
But how much does Garnett have left? Fatigue will play a significant role in Game 7, especially considering the phenomenal load of minutes and responsibility that James, Garnett and Rondo have carried not just in this series but throughout the playoffs.
The Heat seem willing to concede decent shots to avoid giving away great shots. The Celtics have a few players who can get it done that way, but the percentages aren't in their favor. Spoelstra and the Heat are trusting the numbers and hoping that the Celtics' old legs will succumb to the challenge of scoring on their own.
After Game 6, Rivers said he thought his players were trying to win the game with individual plays. If the Heat's defense can have a similar impact in Game 7, Boston might have to.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
Doc Rivers: The leader of men.
Name: Glenn "Doc" Rivers
Birthdate: Oct. 13, 1961
Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
Several years ago, the answer would have been, unequivocally, “emotional leader.” But Rivers has now been a coach in the NBA longer than he was a player and has developed into one of the more celebrated X's and O's coaches in the league.
In 2000, his first year as a head coach, Rivers won Coach of the Year by inspiring an Orlando team that featured Darrell Armstrong as its leading scorer to scrap its way to an improbable 41-41 record. Rivers keeps that gritty group in a special place in his heart, but his coaching repertoire has expanded dramatically in the past 13 seasons. Now Rivers has a clever set for every situation, and his players are always well-prepared not just to give their all, but to execute.
Is he intense or a go-along-get-along type?
Rivers is intense, and though he forms strong personal relationships with his favorite players, he rarely defers to anyone else’s judgment. The dynamic between Rivers and Rajon Rondo complicates this description -- Rivers has increasingly and, perhaps reluctantly, given his point guard the reins of the offense. Still, one gets the impression that if Rivers could call timeout and draw up every play in the huddle, he would.
Though more NBA players would like to play for Rivers than any other coach (according to a Sports Illustrated poll), Doc is far from a typical players' coach. He treats his players like grown-ups and, in return, expects them to be professional and disciplined. Players who won't get in line don't last long in Boston.
Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
It’s a mix. Defensively, the Celtics religiously adhere to the Tom Thibodeau strong-side pressure defense system. It’s exceedingly rare for Rivers, as he did in Round 2 against the 76ers, to alter the game plan on that side of the ball.
Because the Celtics have essentially run the same five plays for the last five years, it’s tempting to say that Rivers also prefers a system on offense. But that wouldn’t be quite correct; the Celtics' offense could more accurately be described as a series of quick-hitters out of which there are various reads, rather than a continuous system. Indeed, Rivers’ real talent is for designing plays that cater to the unique talents of specific players -- witness Rondo on the low block.
Does he share decision making with star players, or is he The Decider?
Kevin Garnett called the Celtics team "Cuba" for a reason: Rivers’ regime is a dictatorship, not a democracy. He’s willing to discuss things with his stars and veterans, but he does not share decision-making power with anyone. The one possible exception is Rondo's veto power on plays Rivers calls from the bench.
Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
It’s defense first with Rivers, though it's worth remembering that Eddie House soaked up meaningful minutes at the expense of Tony Allen's floor time. Overall, execution is what matters most. For Celtics role players, that typically means a bit role on offense and a significant opportunity to make an impact defensively. James Posey is a classic example.
Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
Rivers is notorious for his rigid rotations -- he trusts whom he trusts. This sometimes leads him to ride his best players for too many minutes, resulting in fourth-quarter exhaustion. However, he’s also open to insight from lineup plus-minus data and will promote players like Avery Bradley and Ryan Hollins who prove themselves in limited opportunities.
Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use his grizzled veterans?
Rivers tends to give young players a look early in the season. If they perform, like Greg Stiemsma did early in 2012, they keep getting minutes. But he’s not coaching to babysit, and he's quick to bury a young player on the bench if he can’t execute Rivers' defensive scheme or remember the plays on offense.
Trust is the key for Rivers, and generally speaking, it's veterans who exhibit the attention to detail Rivers demands from his players.
Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
Though Thibodeau was the original mastermind behind the Celtics' stellar defense, Rivers is now more than capable of upholding the system and teaching it to incoming players. Here's roughly how it works: The Celtics send everything away from the middle of the court -- especially when facing wing isolations and side pick-and-rolls -- then arrange help defenders to overplay any drives to the baseline or passes back to the middle. The result is that opponents have trouble moving the ball from one side of the court to the other, rendering the offense predictable and thus ineffective.
On offense, Rivers is a master of misdirection and has become one of the premier tacticians on sideline out-of-bounds plays. Even when the odds are stacked against him, he’ll find a way to use screen-the-screener actions to get Ray Allen wide open for a big 3-pointer. He likes to use the same play multiple times in a season, each time adding a new wrinkle that takes advantage of his opponent’s scouting report.
What were his characteristics as a player?
Rivers was a pure point guard in both physical build and mental makeup. His hoops career began in the Chicago high school ranks, where he was a McDonald's All-American before a three-year career at Marquette. An explosive ball handler with great size, Rivers' athletic profile compares well to Jrue Holiday of the Philadelphia 76ers. At his peak in the NBA, Rivers averaged a double-double in points and assists while running a Hawks offense that featured Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis and Randy Wittman.
Rivers wasn't much of a jump shooter but expertly directed the offense with the ball in his hands and could instantly ignite a fast break. Like many modern point guards, Rivers was as comfortable skying in to finish the break himself as he was dishing off to his athletic teammates.
On defense, Rivers provided stellar on-ball pressure and averaged at least 2.1 steals per game in five seasons.
Which coaches did he play for?
Kevin Loughery, Mike Fratello, Larry Brown, Mike Schuler, Pat Riley, Bob Hill.
What is his coaching pedigree?
Rivers' first coaching job was as a head coach, but look at the list of greats he played for: Fratello, Brown, Riley and Gregg Popovich (as an assistant in San Antonio). These are old-school, demanding leaders, and you can see their imprint in Rivers' no-nonsense, defense-first approach.
If basketball didn’t exist, what might he be doing?
Rivers would capitalize on his charisma and motivational abilities as a top-notch consultant, teaching corporate executives his patented management techniques.
The spirit of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts, 1984 and 1985, was summoned for this project.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesGarnett is playing a vital role for the Celtics and logging extra minutes.
Here's a big question: How many minutes can Kevin Garnett play?
Here's another big question: Can the Celtics get anything done without him?
Through 60 regular-season games, Kevin Garnett played more than 38 minutes one measly time. In eight playoff games, he has already passed that number every time except for in a blowout first win against the Hawks and Game 2's loss to the Sixers.
On Monday night, the Celtics were outscored by 17 points in the 14 minutes that Garnett sat. Coach Doc Rivers rested his key big man in the second and third quarters, which is precisely when Philadelphia grabbed control of the game and established, then fattened, a lead that the Celtics could not overcome despite Garnett playing the entire fourth quarter.
Back in February, Rivers moved Garnett to the center position. At this point in the playoffs, no descriptor could be more accurate. With Pierce and Allen struggling to produce on injured legs and Avery Bradley’s left arm reduced to dangling uselessness, Garnett is the hub of everything the Celtics do offensively and defensively -- he is literally the center of the Celtics' hopes.
Paul Pierce is shooting just 25 percent from the field and is moving terribly when Andre Iguodala, one of the premier wing defenders in the NBA, challenges him. In Game 2, Pierce was neither able to punish Evan Turner on the occasional switch nor use his usual craftiness to work his way to the free throw line (just two attempts) -- a major part of Boston’s closing strategy.
Meanwhile, the Celtics can still rely on Ray Allen to drill spot-up attempts, but bone spurs prevent him from sustaining the offensive action for long, because of the challenges of sprinting through his customary circuit of baseline screens.
Both star wings have injuries that are expected to linger.
And with Rajon Rondo largely contained by the long and hardworking Turner (who is also big enough to deter Pierce when the Celtics force a switch with a 1-3 pick-and-roll), that leaves Garnett.
Like the rest of the NBA, the 76ers haven’t come up with an adequate answer to Garnett’s long-range shooting, and he’s been able to take advantage of the Sixers in the post, where he can create shots for himself and, when doubled, for his teammates. Philadelphia's wing defenders present a tenacious and largely interchangeable thicket. The Celtics' only reliable ways through involve Garnett. Even when he's not the focal point of a pick-and-roll, or a post-up, he's also Boston’s best screener. On his least taxing offensive plays he's still throwing his body around, colliding with 76ers, in an effort to spring his teammates free.
Whatever energy Garnett doesn’t use being Mr. Everything on offense goes into the defensive end, where he’s still a superb paint defender and pick-and-roll buster. When he sits, the Celtics are vulnerable to smart pick-and-roll ball handlers who can finish at the rim. Iguodala, for instance. With Garnett on the bench, the Sixer repeatedly found his frontcourt mates for open jumpers as the Celtics big men struggled to rotate quickly.
The Celtics actually outplayed the 76ers for pretty much the whole of Game 2, except for the stretches when Iguodala was on the court without Garnett. One could argue that Iguodala’s ability to lock up Paul Pierce, push the tempo and exploit imperfect rotations when Garnett was out was the difference in the game.
If the first two games are any blueprint, the Celtics will need Paul Pierce to sort out a plan of attack against Iguodala -- possibly by getting Iguodala in foul trouble -- or Garnett has to be able to match Iguodala’s minutes.
This indirect matchup of two defensive-minded players capable of impacting every facet of the game puts a tremendous burden on the aging Celtic.
Iguodala is an ironman and Garnett’s junior by eight years and nine NBA seasons. But Garnett has shown an iron determination, and will certainly offer every last drop of energy for a trip back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The question is whether that will be enough.
Boston had been after Garnett for that long.
“The whole reason to buy the team was Celtic pride,” said Grousbeck at a panel on sports ownership at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday. “What if a bunch of Boston guys got together and won a championship?”
After hiring Danny Ainge to run the basketball side of the operations in 2003, the Celtics’ braintrust went about determining what they would have to do to extricate the team from the mediocrity in which it had been mired since the dissolution of the original big three of Bird, McHale and Parish in the early 90s.
That began with a standard business move: analyzing high-performing organizations to determine how the Celtics might build its own.
“We looked at the last 25 NBA champions,” said Grousbeck. “Twenty-four out of twenty-five were won with a big three concept - three all-stars. [That big three included] a top-50 all-time player and two supporting all-stars.”
Ostensibly, the Celtics were in good shape on that front. The team had made a run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002 and had two star players in Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. However, the Celtics decided they didn’t have a true number one player, the kind necessary to push a team over the top to a championship.
Grousbeck: “Paul and Antoine were all-stars but they’re not top-50 guys.”
It’s more than a little remarkable that a new owner would commit $360 million to a team two wins away from the NBA Finals, and determine that the best course of action was to tear it apart. How many teams have done the opposite, changing and rearranging pieces around a player ultimately incapable of spearheading a title run?
Boston’s move looks like a stroke of genius in hindsight but there was an enormous amount of risk – financial and otherwise – to commit to suffering through the process necessary to find a top-50 talent. Especially because smarts alone weren’t going to get the Celtics the player they needed. Luck would play a large part.
Once the decision was made to remake the roster, Walker was jettisoned, and Pierce and new Coach Doc Rivers were left to crawl around in the wreckage. Pierce seemed increasingly miserable with the losing and on the verge of being an ex-Celtic more than once during the 2003-07 period, but according to Grousbeck, Rivers was always there for the long term.
“Doc said ‘I will coach kids and play them as long as I get to coach the championship team when it happens.’”
Ainge and Rivers’ reputations have been rehabilitated by the 2008 title and post-championship play of the Celtics, but it would be revisionist history to suggest they were universally well-regarded during the run-up to 07-08. Ainge was regularly killed in the media for fielding a team of underperforming young players with insufficient upside to make the playoffs, much less win a title. And Rivers’ now sterling coaching reputation was tarnished by an 18-game losing streak in 2007.
Although an outlier - few rebuilding processes are so successful - the Celtics’ foresight to map out a path to a title and stick with it in the face of withering criticism may be used as a model for future teams.
Jeff Green noted in his first appearance in Boston this week that while he was in Oklahoma City, the Celtics were the franchise the Thunder attempted to model.
It’s particularly interesting to observe the Thunder in the context of the Celtics three all-star model. Kevin Durant could conceivably be a top-50 player all-time. Russell Westbrook is an all-star. Given the findings of the Celtics' study, are the Thunder now only a single player away?