Opposite roles for Clippers, Lakers
In their divergent seasons, the reversal of fortunes for L.A. teams remains stark
LOS ANGELES -- The show begins promptly at 5:45 p.m. before every home game, and Doc Rivers never disappoints. Ask him about the Los Angeles Clippers' game in a couple of hours, the last round of golf he played, David Stern's retirement, Blake Griffin's evolution, a free agent the Clippers might be recruiting, or Clayton Kershaw's $215 million deal and Rivers is money. He's quick with a joke and pitch perfect with soundbytes, he remembers inside jokes from three games ago, he can be interesting and insightful, and he's always, always on message.
Of all the things Rivers has accomplished in his first season coaching the Clippers -- and if you asked that during one of those pregame sessions he'd tell you he hasn't accomplished anything until the playoffs -- this is one of the most significant.
In only eight months, Rivers has become the voice of this franchise. He is unquestionably in charge. It is unquestionably his team.
His vision is what ends up happening. His message is the message. Oh sure, the players speak before and after games, too. Griffin and Chris Paul are on "SportsCenter" every night and flying around on jetpacks or selling insurance during the commercial breaks. Jamal Crawford is probably going to win Sixth Man of the Year. DeAndre Jordan will be among the leading contenders for Most Improved Player. It's not as if Rivers is blocking out the sun for everyone else.
It's more like he has so successfully blocked out all the noise, you can finally hear what's actually being said. Whether the message is the correct one, only time will tell. But there is only one messenger delivering it, and he isn't stuttering.
Down the hall for Thursday night's third meeting of the year between the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, poor Mike D'Antoni still can't get through a day without arguing how effective post play is in today's NBA -- as if that were still the Lakers' most pressing issue.
The other night, after the Lakers beat the Portland Trail Blazers 107-106 for their most impressive win in months, D'Antoni could barely enjoy the moment before he felt compelled to defend his principles and reassert his case for small ball, or as he calls it "skilled ball."
"I know there's some controversy out there and you guys [the media] have y'all's opinion, but I don't think they're right and I think [power forward] Wesley [Johnson] is doing an unbelievable job of guarding and he can run the floor," D'Antoni said. "Just watch how many times he runs the floor. It opens it up for everybody. And when you do that, it's easier to play the game."
Not much was settled though. The next night, after the Lakers allowed the New Orleans Pelicans to score 132 points and break an eight-game losing streak, the Lakers most prominent (still-standing) player, forward Pau Gasol was asked if there was an ideal way to use small lineups against a front line led by New Orleans All-Star Anthony Davis.
"There's no ideal," Gasol sniped. "The word ideal is out of the question at this moment."
All these are message issues. Small, petty stuff most successful teams have long since settled in-house. You work out how you're going to play on the practice court in training camp and tweak it over the course of the season.
You don't argue about and then belabor the same points 60 games in. But sometimes it's easier to focus on trivial issues like this, rather than the gigantic, franchise-defining questions that loom this summer.
More troubling for the Lakers, or perhaps just more telling, is that D'Antoni and Gasol are essentially the only voices of consequence speaking for the franchise these days and neither of them seem to have much of a future in L.A. Kobe Bryant is the team's best spokesman, but he's busy selling Nikes and rehabilitating his knee these days.
Team president Jeanie Buss has a Q-rating to inspire and connect, but has been spotted at Staples Center only a handful of times, and on most of those nights Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig was sitting next to her, stealing some of the spotlight.
Buss' fiancé and former coach Phil Jackson tries so hard to stay in the shadows, but he actually has become a gigantic shadow hanging over the franchise.
General manager Mitch Kupchak bravely faces the cameras every few months but has never had the charisma to inspire much swagger among the masses.
Executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss prefers to watch games from high above in a suite and is determined to stay in the background until his accomplishments speak for him.
But even if any of them were speaking on a regular basis, what exactly would they say? This is a miserable lost season? Hopefully a great free agent is landed this summer? Hopefully the lottery pick will make an impact before Kobe hangs 'em up? Yeah, we're basically just using the rest of the season to evaluate which of these players on one-year deals will be kept next season?
Other teams say things like that. But they disguise it with talk of developing a culture of winning and finding young players to build around for the future.
The Lakers already have a culture. Their brand is one of the most iconic and solid in all of sports.
It's the Clippers who are catching up on that score. And really, there's not much they can do to catch up to a franchise with 16 championship banners and its own Mt. Rushmore of legendary players.
Hiring Rivers was a great start, though. For better or worse, they are his franchise now. He is setting their course, and they'll either end up where they all want to be, or trying to do better next year.
Down the hall it's not even clear who is on the same ship.