By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
POSTED: Oct 22, 2013 12:45 AM ET
Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin huddle during training camp in LaJolla, Calif.
So, Doc Rivers.
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Perfect. Just perfect.
The man who lived the Clippers at their worst -- or some of their worst, without actually ranking the 2,093,761 bottom-scraping possibilities -- has become the embodiment of their best. Rivers, the point guard traded kicking and screaming to the Clippers in 1991, the veteran who staged a sick-out in training camp to either force a new contract or a quick outbound ticket to an organization that didn't have arguably the worst reputation in any sport, is now the coach who was willingly traded to the Clippers as the final piece of a team that hopes to be the best in the league.
Rivers from the Celtics sideline to the Los Angeles sideline (for a 2015 first-round pick) happened only because he wanted it. This was his doing, not the penance it felt like for the previous lifetime.
That '91 camp, when Rivers wouldn't budge from the sideline for days, was in La Jolla, just north of San Diego. That was before the team went up the coast to Santa Barbara and, finally, to their own practice facility in L.A.
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This is about the change in approach to spending that now seems permanent. In truth, owner Donald T. Sterling has been spending big for years, well beyond what a lot of people would realize. But after matching a bloated Golden State offer on DeAndre Jordan, after locking up Blake Griffin and after locking up Chris Paul, going this deep into his pockets for a coach is a new layer of financial commitment. The old Clippers cherished rookie contracts as the chance to have players on small deals. A few months ago, they traded a first-round pick to the Celtics for the chance to pay Rivers a reported $7 million a year.
This is about the chance to actually make it to June. The Clippers should be in the conversation with San Antonio and Oklahoma City for the best in the West heading into 2013-14. Picking them is not a reach. If it happens, or even if they get to the conference final in the first year with this group, Rivers will probably be the one who pushed the Clips over the top.
The core is mostly the same, the depth is still enviable, there are several quality leaders, the defense was already good and has a chance to get better, and the complementary players gladly accept that role. But the new coach has a hammer inside the locker room that predecessor Vinny Del Negro never did. The new coach has a ring and the credibility of having guided a team across the line.
"I'm excited just getting this year on," Rivers said. "It's a new place for me, obviously, and a lot of the players as well. But I look at our group and I look at our team and I think we have a chance to do something. That excites you. When you look at the players that are on the paper and if we can get them on the floor and performing together, then I think we can be a special team. That excites me."
Said Matt Barnes, a Clipper in good times and bad and now one of the important complementary players: "Doc is a proven winner, as a player, as a coach. His philosophies, his thinking. He loves for us to get extra sleep, which someone with kids I can appreciate. I just think the whole culture change of what he's going to bring to this organization is kind of like a new start. Last year we had all the pieces we need, we felt, so this year we've improved that. To improve our coach could be the missing piece."
If the Clippers take off, that will turn out to be nothing more than an early glancing blow at Del Negro. If the Clippers take off, Rivers will be celebrated as all that is right with the organization after being around for some of the wrong. Perfect symbolism. Just perfect.
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1. Improving the 3-point defense is an understandable priority for the team that finished 26th in the league last season. For all the early attention on whether center Jordan will play a larger role in the fourth quarter and become a consistent defensive force, the real issue on that side of the ball is how the Clippers do on the perimeter.
2. In a sign of versatility as well as depth, Rivers loves the roster that will give him the chance to play different lineups. "I would say with this team, this is the first time that I've literally had my option," he said. "We can stay big or we can go small, and we can be really good small."
3. Griffin will be a particularly interesting watch after his first simple offseason. Every summer before has included either a rookie transition, recovery from a serious injury or a lockout. This one was calm and, he said, allowed him to work on his game with the understanding that 2013-14 is a time for major steps for himself and the team. If the improvements come, the Clippers are closer to June.
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