With the arrival of new head coach Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers have just stolen a page from the L.A. Lakers playbook and, in the process, may have changed the basketball landscape here for the foreseeable future.
The Lakers used to hang championship banners. Now, they're hanging big signs outside Staples Center, begging Dwight Howard to please take their $118 million and resign with the team. Talk about a fall from grace.
Here is one of the most pessimistic forms of optimism about that situation from Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak (via ESPN.com):
The word I've used is 'optimistic, I think I'm optimistic. I understand that there's a possibility [Howard] won't [re-sign], and I probably don't have any more information than anybody in this room does. I'm aware of a lot of the stuff that's flying back and forth, a lot of the rumors, so there's a realistic possibility that he won't be back. But I'm optimistic that he will."
And, while the Lakers anxiously await the big decision from Dwight Howard, the Clippers are all but assured that Chris Paul will sign a five-year, max deal extension now that Rivers has joined the team.
Doc Rivers was introduced by the Clippers Wednesday as their new head coach and senior vice-president of basketball operations. You could sense a change in the air, as the Clippers went from being an excellent team of young, athletic talent to a championship contender with one of the game's top coaches.
Rivers spoke to the media via Eric Patten and NBA.com:
"The reason I wanted [the job] when it was made available is because of what they have, not what they don’t have. I clearly think this is an extremely talented basketball team. They’re young. For me, it just gave me a lot of life, working with some of the young talented guys and trying to figure out if we can figure out a way of becoming a winning team.
“I am a big believer in culture and when I went to Boston, even though we had an amazing amount of history, I thought we had to do different things there,” he added. “I do believe in a winning culture. You have to have that first before you can win. And that’s the tone I’m going to try and set starting today.”
Gentry used to work alongside Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix and had a standing invitation to join the Lakers as an assistant. So much for that loyalty—Gentry is going with the Los Angeles team that seems to have the most upside, even if they fired him as their head coach back in 2003.
Speaking on ESPNLA last month, Gentry talked about the Lakers and Clippers and would have been reunited with Steve Nash, whom he coached to the 2010 Western Conference Finals at Phoenix. But the allure of working with Rivers trumped the standing invite from D'Antoni.
"It (Clippers) just needs a little tweaking," Gentry said last month (via ESPNLA.com). "I don't think you need to have someone come in and do completely the opposite. Vinny [Del Negro] did a good job, and I think everyone knows that. They need someone who can manage egos. That's huge with that team."
Rivers takes over a team that finished fourth (56-26) in the Western Conference last season but was bounced from the playoffs by Memphis in the first round. He leaves Boston as the third winningest coach (behind Red Auerbach and Tom Heinsohn) in franchise history. There are just four active NBA coaches who have won a world championship, and Rivers is one of them (2008).
With All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers were one of the league's top teams last season until faltering in the playoffs. Rivers will make defense a priority for this team, but mostly, he will serve as a great motivator of a young, but extremely talented supporting cast that presently includes guards Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe, and center DeAndre Jordan.
And, so, what about all the big Lakers news of the past couple weeks? Kobe Bryant says his Achilles is feeling very strong; management picked up the option on Jodie Meeks and made a qualifying offer to backup center Robert Sacre.
And Ryan Kelly, a 6-11 stretch forward from Duke, is the newest member of the team. Goodness, alert the media. The Lakers are on a roll.
All is not doom and gloom, it only appears that way. The Lakers have the summer of 2014 to look forward to. That is when they should be significantly under the salary cap and able to pursue some of the game's biggest free agents. This talent-rich class may include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Danny Granger, Luol Deng, Rudy Gay, Andrew Bogut, and Zach Randolph.
If Dwight Howard leaves, the Lakers would have only the money owed to Steve Nash ($9.7 million) on the books, meaning they would have about $50 million in open cap space to spend freely. Even if Howard resigns, the Lakers would still have about $25 million to bring in another elite, game-changing player.
But, as of today, the L.A. Lakers have a collection of older, overpaid, injury-prone players. Their coach tried to implement a fast-paced system last year until realizing in the second half of the season that it wasn't working and his players had not bought into it. Most notably, his big men—Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
Doc Rivers has, overnight, turned the Clippers into the best game in town. When was the last time that the excitement resided in that section of Staples Center? The answer would be never.
Veterans looking to win a first title will come to the Clippers because of Rivers, Paul and Griffin. Even with Howard returning to the Lakers, don't expect a mass influx of star vets dialing up Mitch Kupchak. Maybe next year, but not now.
It's sadly ironic that the Lakers family has, in Phil Jackson, one of the greatest coaches of all time available to them, even though they spurned him last year. Lakers vice president of basketball operations, Jim Buss, decided that Mike D'Antoni was a better fit for the team when the Lakers changed coaches early in the 2012-13 season.
Now, the Clippers have gone and hired the person they (and many others) consider to be the best working coach in the game. The landscape is changing in Los Angeles and Doc Rivers just may prove to be the driving force that ultimately moves the needle in the direction of Lob City.