It was just one bottle, but the pop of its cork sounded as sweet to the Los Angeles Clippers as several crates worth of champagne. A season that began with modest expectations – worse than modest, according to some alleged experts – and then appeared to shift into reverse two-thirds of the way through the schedule merited a little celebration.
So that’s what they did last week in Minneapolis, with coach Doc Rivers handing the bubbly duties to forward Danilo Gallinari after their blue-collar team clinched a berth in the 2019 Western Conference playoffs.
They took some teasing for what was, that particular evening, an unremarkable March victory over a lottery-bound Timberwolves team in Minnesota. But when you’re picked not just to miss the playoffs but to finish significantly below .500, and when you instead snag not merely a postseason berth but stay positioned to push into the top four in the ultra-competitive West, heck, tease away.
Twice so far, these Clippers have proved folks wrong. They already surpassed the preseason expectations of many. And they have gone 17-5 since the February trade deadline, when they cashiered three-fifths of their early-season starting lineup. In the process, Rivers has thrust himself into Coach of the Year debates (20 years after he won it as a rookie coach in Orlando in 1999-2000) while getting his team back to the postseason after a two-year absence.
Before and after LA’s game at Milwaukee Thursday, Rivers spoke with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner. This Q&A is edited from those conversations.
Steve Aschburner: So I’ve never seen a team so happy to convey a first-round draft pick to a rival. [The Clippers owed Boston a first-round pick stemming from their 2016 deal with Memphis for Jeff Green. That pick was lottery-protected in 2019 and 2020, converting to a 2022 second-round pick if not conveyed by then.]
Doc Rivers: The way we looked at it, and what people didn’t understand, was that we were going to lose it next year anyway. The pick was either going to go this year or next year. So take your medicine now. At the point of the [February] trades, even if we quote-unquote tanked, we still wouldn’t have gotten a great pick. It was too late.
SA: You should think about turning the number 33, your expected victory total according to some experts, into a jersey emblem for the playoffs. Or a rallying cry.
DR: Yeah, yeah, “15 > 33.”
SA: And your plan is to improve your position further, if possible?
DR: We’re not done. We took a second to celebrate. Took another second [Wednesday night] to celebrate Ralph [Lawler, the team’s iconic broadcaster wrapping up his 40-year gig]. We’ve enjoyed the journey throughout. We’ve had a lot of dinners together as a group. So it’s been that type of team. But in our minds, we’re not done. We want to keep pushing. See where we can get, and then once we get in, see what we can do.
SA: How did you get here, after those roster moves? [The Clippers traded their All-Star candidate Tobias Harris, with Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to Philadelphia for Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and four future draft picks. They sent Avery Bradley to Memphis for JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple, flipped Muscala to the Lakers for Ivica Zubac and waived Marcin Gortat and Milos Teodosic. Harris, Bradley and Gortat had started 55, 49 and 43 games respectively for the Clippers.]
DR: It was the toughest challenge from a coaching standpoint I’ve ever faced. We had a group of guys who were playing absolutely fantastic. And we were on our way to making the playoffs, though we were still seeded eighth. And not only did we trade, but we ended up getting way younger. We went to playing [Zubac] at 22, [rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander] at 20, and [Shamet] at 22 in our starting lineup. So when you think about that part of it, and yet we got better.
SA: Why have they, despite their inexperience, been able to handle what you’ve thrown at them?
DR: We don’t give them a lot of excuses. I told ’em that the first day: “Youth is not an excuse.” We say it every day. “Let’s not use youth as a reason we’re losing.” We tell them, “We forgive you for all mistakes because someone tricked you or vetted you. But there’s no forgiveness for not playing hard. They’re no forgiveness for not having focus. There’s no forgiveness for not knowing the game play.” You can know that at 18.
So I think they’ve bought into that. And I think we have the right players around them. Lou [Williams] and Pat [Beverley] and Gal [Gallinari] do not give them a break. If they mess up something from walk-through, I don’t have to say a lot. They’ve already heard. And I think that has helped them all.
SA: What do you like about this lineup now compared to the one that began the season?
DR: It’s fast. It’s more athletic. Since the trade, our team is deeper, which obviously we didn’t know that was gonna happen. We didn’t know Sham was going to be as good as he is. And JaMychal and Zub. We ended up getting the right pieces. Put ‘em together, obviously they’re very fast. They fit. They play together. it’s been great.
SA: Did it bother you that the initial public reaction to the moves was “The Clippers must be tanking?”
DR: I wasn’t bothered because I knew we were not. Now I didn’t know if we could do this, I didn’t know if we could win. [But] everybody we brought in here fits our DNA.
SA: You decided to hold out Williams and Beverley against the Bucks, which surely didn’t improve your chances of closing out the road trip at 4-0. As an old-school guy – this is your 20th season as an NBA head coach – was it difficult to accept the idea of healthy scratches?
DR: I’ve never come around to it. I just do it. Really, I don’t even try to figure it out. I never fought it, I can say that. I figure, it’s here. It is what it is. All [fighting it] is going to do is bring anxiety to me.
We were not taught that as players or built that way. We wanted to play. When guys were hurt, we looked forward to it, because that meant we played all game. That’s how it was and it’s just different now. And that’s fine. Every once in a while, I’ve had some disagreements over practice. You’ve had a day off and then the next day, they’ll tell you that no one can practice. I’ve had a little problem with that. But other than that, I’m fine with it.
SA: Have you resisted any of the trends in recent years, such as sleep studies, nutrition, travel demands and so on?
DR: Nah, I’ve been pretty good. I think me and Nate [McMillan, Pacers coach] – we hired a sleep doctor in Boston – were the guys to do that. I just know what I don’t know. I’ve always been willing. Even as a player, I was doing acupuncture. I’ve always been a guy who says, “Let’s try it.” But do it with open eyes. If it’s not working, then we’ll adjust. All of it is not good. But some of it is good.
If you played on all analytics and no feel, that’s not good. Like I’ve always believed, you use them all as tools. Sometimes I do the right things, sometimes I do the wrong things. You just keep going.
We’ve enjoyed the journey throughout. We’ve had a lot of dinners together as a group. So it’s been that type of team. But in our minds, we’re not done. We want to keep pushing. See where we can get, and then once we get in, see what we can do.
SA: You know baseball. Analytics serve that sport well because it is a series of 1-on-1 confrontations. In other sports, players’ performances are more interdependent.
DR: Baseball is perfect for analytics. But it’s still feel. There have been many managers that analytically should have brought in this guy. Tommy Lasorda never should have brought in Kirk Gibson [to famously pinch hit in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series] but he had a feel that Gibson could hit [Dennis] Eckersley, and he ended up winning the World Series. I think it still goes back to both. Analytics, you look at the numbers. And every once in a while, you say, “I’m playing this guy tonight anyway.”
SA: I might as well ask now, why Dick Allen? Why was he your favorite player? [Allen, a Hall of Fame-worthy slugger, won the 1972 American League MVP while playing for Rivers’ favorite team, the Chicago White Sox. The future NBA coach was 11 years old, growing up in suburban Maywood, Ill.]
DR: I just loved him, I don’t know why. He was the one I had on my wall from the time I was a kid. I would say, he had that gigantic bat, a 40-ounce bat, and I just loved him.
SA: You’ve already made it clear you think your guy Lou Williams should win the league’s Sixth Man award again. Where do you stand on Coach of the Year?
DR: I stay out of that. I think the great thing is, if there’s a debate, that means there’s a lot of good coaches in the league right now. Nate McMillan has done an amazing job. Bud [Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer] has done a great job here. The guy in Sacramento [Dave Joerger] has done a great job. Kenny Atkinson’s done a great job [in Brooklyn]. Steve Clifford in Orlando, no one gives any credit too – he’s done an amazing job.
SA: Have we seen the end of coaches serving as their teams’ chief basketball officers as well? You, Budenholzer, Stan Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau no longer wear two hats or, in some cases, even one.
DR: It’ll come back. It always does. It was too much for me, I can tell you that. I thought it took away from what I do well. And that’s coach. It just felt like you were never doing all one thing. I think some people can handle it well, but I think you need a lot of help. My biggest issue was, we only had four or five guys in the front office at the time. Now we have, like, 30. But I got it the first year that [Clippers owner] Steve [Ballmer] was there and he didn’t know yet, we hadn’t hired anybody. Still, I think for me, I like the position I’m in. I’m coaching the team and yet I have my say in the front office. You just want to be in step with whoever you’re working with.
SA: Most NBA coaches have a say in personnel, don’t they?
DR: Not as many as you think. The successful teams are in step between front office and coaching staff. The unsuccessful teams? Probably not. It’s tough, because if you’re not on the same page with your front office…
Danny Ainge and I, every decision we made, we did it together. Danny wouldn’t give me a player I didn’t want. We had many disagreements. Sometimes I’d say, ‘All right, I’ll go with you.’ Sometimes Danny would say, ‘I think we’re making a mistake but I’ll roll with you.’ And then we’d go to dinner or go golfing. And that’s what made us so good in Boston.
The good thing with Lawrence [Frank, Clippers president of basketball operations] is that I’m the one who brought Lawrence in as a coach.
SA: You coined a word this season – “unstatable” – to describe Avery Bradley, for all the things he does that aren’t captured by statistics. With him gone, who’s your most unstatable player?
DR: Pat Beverley is unstatable, for sure. And I won’t take credit – it was [assistant coach Rex Kalamian’s] word. He thought it actually was a word. The difference is, I went to Marquette and I understood that it was not an actual word. We had some hats made up for Rex and now he thinks it’s a word again. But no, we had a game maybe a month ago where [Beverley] didn’t score but was a plus-22. He was an 0-fer for the game. He is as unstatable as anyone in the league. You really can’t quantify what he does at times. Analytically sometimes it looks like he had a bad defensive game, but he had a great one. He gives us our heart and our soul, for sure.
SA: Your time coaching your son Austin with the Clippers generated headlines, but you have been involved with sports parenting in general, particularly as a national advisory board member for the Positive Coaches Alliance. You’ve boiled some of your advice down to the most basic, encouraging people to tell their kids: “Great job, keep working.” Where are we at these days in terms of parents whose kids participate?
DR: I’ve been a parent. I’ve been around that whole AAU thing for way too long. My daughter plays volleyball. My three boys all played AAU basketball. It needs to get better in a quick way. The parents in the crowd think they’re all coaches. They just need to be parents and support their kids. It’s just at an all-time low right now. We’ve got to get that back.
SA: Somewhat related, some folks got upset when they saw Michigan State coach Tom Izzo earlier in the 2019 NCAA tournament go “too hard” at one of his players. What did you make of the reactions?
DR: Yeah, that’s ridiculous. But that’s where we’re at right now. Everything is scrutinized. But we’re teaching these kids and these adults accountability. It’s really important. You don’t get a trophy for finishing fifth in the NBA or sixth or seventh or eighth. There’s only one. It starts early. We have to teach our kids how to win and how to lose, and how to prepare to win and do it right. I think that’s what we’re doing.
SA: Tell me about your first car.
DR: It was a Volkswagen Rabbit [laughing] my rookie year in the NBA [in 1983-84]. I bought a Rabbit and everybody laughed. I remember pulling in for camp and Dominque [Wilkins] and those guys were like, ‘You’re in the NBA and you’re driving a Volkswagen?’ I kept it for two years.
SA: What’s your go-to song or go-to musical artist?
DR: For a long time it was “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. Loved that song. But it’s probably some love song by Luther Vandross, any of his songs.
SA: How much longer do you think you want to do this, and when will you know that’s enough?
DR: I don’t know. It goes in ebbs and flows. My last year in Boston, I thought I was just going to walk away. Then I came here and a year ago, I was about to walk away. Then last year, I kind of got a rebirth. New life. I’m going to do it as long as I love it. Then hopefully I can walk away and be healthy.
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