The new era of the Los Angeles Clippers that began with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin has taken another step forward through the addition of elite coach Doc Rivers, per Jackie MacMullan of ESPN Boston.
The arrival of Rivers will spark sweeping changes for a Clippers team that won its first Pacific Division title in franchise history this past season before falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
The focus now shifts to the likely re-signing of superstar point guard Paul and what moves the team will make to fit its new coach. Rivers’ style should sweep through the roster and the Clippers’ design of play.
Los Angeles is fully equipped to win the Western Conference and challenge for an NBA championship, and here’s what it will take:
Re-Sign Chris Paul
It all starts with Paul, the league’s best point guard and the one who turned the franchise around when he joined the Clippers in 2011.
The team’s on-court coach and an all-encompassing leader, Paul is the necessary piece to the Clippers’ ability to contend for a title.
He’s not going anywhere.
There’s no way Rivers would have left for Los Angeles without direct knowledge and understanding that Paul will re-sign as a free agent in July.
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
Clippers free-agent guard Chris Paul kept lobbying franchise management to pursue Rivers throughout the past week. Paul hasn't formally committed to signing a five-year maximum contract in July, but Rivers is taking the job with full knowledge that he'll be coaching Paul, sources said.
The relationship between a coach and his point guard is a prerequisite to remodeling an offensive system. Rivers, formerly a shepherding point guard himself, should click well with the commanding nature of Paul.
Paul fits with Rivers not just because of how he handles the point guard position, but because of his player management on the floor and how he directs a defense.
Paul is intense and competitive, and he’s the perfect fit to pair with a new coach who will certainly look to his top superstar to help him transform the culture of the Clippers.
After the probable signing of Paul, part of Rivers’ transition will be to help attract the right roster pieces. The coach reportedly will be given more say in player personnel decisions with the Clippers than he had in Boston.
The Clippers’ offseason begins with returning Paul, but the team can also find players that fit the style of Rivers. The NBA will, however, block a deal that would send Kevin Garnett to Los Angeles, as the league would see it as an incorporation of the Rivers trade, and players cannot be included in deals for coaches.
In addition to paying Rivers $7 million per season for three years, the Clippers will likely pay additionally as a penalty for being above the estimated 2013-14 luxury tax line of $72 million.
Paul will earn a maximum contract of approximately $108 million for five seasons. Before the signing of Paul, the Clippers already will pay $46.5 million next season to just five players: Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford and Eric Blesdoe.
With the addition of Paul’s contract, the Clippers will pay roughly $65 million per year to just six players depending on Paul’s salary structure.
That means the Clippers don’t have an ability to make a splash in free agency.
Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times wrote:
The Clippers could have a full mid-level exception of about $5 million to spend if they are chintzy enough with the margins of their roster. Otherwise, they would have the mini mid-level exception of about $3.2 million plus a slew of veteran's minimum deals that usually go for about $1.4 million each.
Rivers will look for a guy on which to use the mid-level exception, and he will want a player to fit his identity. That may include returning a scrappy player like Matt Barnes.
Currently, there are too many variables to speculate what direction the Clippers may move.
Change the Culture
The competitive nature and doggedness of the Clippers will enhance under Rivers. His teams are persistent and tough in a way that helps produce wins.
The Clippers were exploited for their lack of resolve in losing to the brawny Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
Per Jovan Buha of ESPN Los Angeles, Barnes, a soon-to-be free agent, said after that series: "Yeah, definitely. I think that was exploited this series. We have a lot of talent, but we do need to [get tougher]. With our two bigs (Griffin and Jordan), I think people point a lot of fingers at them because they're young. But it's a learning experience.”
Rivers always talked about the importance of culture during his time with the Celtics and, despite his jettison from Boston, he’s proven himself as one of the league’s best coaches at creating an environment of family undeterred by NBA culture.
He a fantastic manager of personalities, a chief component to coaching in Los Angeles. His teams were never selfish and put winning first, even if that meant competitive juices would flare at times.
Garnett spoke at Celtics training camp in 2010 to Rivers’ allowance of a competitive environment, per Chris Forsberg of ESPN:
What I love about Doc is that he doesn't mind us being competitive, as long as we don't go off on our own and become a tropical storm. He lets us be who we are, and it does get testy and very competitive in here. He lets us go as long as we're getting something done and working toward our goals.
The Clippers began their culture shift the day they received Paul via trade, and now bringing in one of the league's most revered and tenured coaches moves them into an even deeper identity as a title contender.
Lob City isn’t going anywhere, but Rivers will make sure this is about winning first.
Rivers can change the culture quickly. Though he was the coach during a dreadful 24-58 season with the Celtics in 2006-07, Rivers was able to lead the franchise to a championship the following year in its first season with the Big Three of Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
Install a Defense-First Mentality
If this past postseason taught us anything, it’s that great defense provides a tremendous edge in a seven-game series.
Rivers’ defense-first mentality can push an already quality Clippers defensive unit to an elite level.
It may be more about Rivers’ focus on toughness and little things than it is about scheming, but Rivers is known for his team’s defensive mentality.
The Clippers had a fine defensive season by the numbers, allowing a fourth-best 94.6 points per game. Their defensive efficiency rating, the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, ranked ninth in the league at 101.0.
In comparison, the Celtics were ranked No. 6 in defensive efficiency at 100.4 but did allow more points at 96.7 per game.
However, it’s Rivers’ defensive record through the past six seasons, since their title season, that reveals his ability to lead a top-tier team defense.
Boston's Defensive Efficiency league ranking by year:
The Clippers have the ability to defend, anchored by Paul and Bledsoe. Paring these two together as starters, in a way that Rivers did with Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, would assure a disruptive Clippers’ backcourt.
Jordan has all the abilities to be a great defender, but his focus in this area has been inconsistent, an urgency that would certainly change under Rivers.
Griffin has been an awful defender, without the length to protect the interior, but Rivers can squeeze more engagement out of him in this area. Rivers can teach Griffin to be a better team defender and utilize his strength and quickness in the post against less traditional back-to-the-basket offensive players.
Both at 33 years old, Caron Butler and Jamal Crawford will be asked to do more defensively. Butler is average in this department but offers good size, and Crawford's only reason for not making better use of his length and quickness is a lack of defensive effort. Rivers won't allow a lack of effort.
The Championship Blueprint
But with Rivers instead of the recently let go Vinny Del Negro, they could be a title contender.
While the core remains, Los Angeles will lose its depth to expiring contracts, and its money is tied too deeply into what's left to afford game-changing free agents. Trades still remain a possibility to allow more flexibility.
Ultimately though, a core that returns Paul can win if Rivers is successful in making the culture more competitive and able to make defense the priority.
If those things happen, the Clippers could represent the West in the Finals.