On the surface, there’s a laundry list of viable reasons why Doc Rivers wasn’t on most Coach of the Year ballots.
Winner Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA even though no one on the roster eclipsed 30 minutes per game. That is, to put it lightly, breathtaking. At Popovich's hands, the Spurs have been complete for years, but it’s their plight that is lacking. Consistent perfection belies a necessary component to any good story: the appearance of human struggle. Kudos to Pop for demanding his own narrative.
That’s not to say the field was lacking in compelling stories. The Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Bobcats and Toronto Raptors were all more unlikely to rise than the Los Angeles Clippers, with each of those teams' coaches finishing with more votes than Doc. The Clippers’ 57-win season set a franchise record, sure, but it was a meager one-game improvement upon their 2012-2013 affair.
Yet despite the familiar win total, the Clippers’ structural ethos is unrecognizable compared to previous seasons, the difference being Rivers’ presence at the mantle.
The Clippers have always been susceptible to letting surface level problems get in the way of formative change. Last season, they shifted game plans on an opponent-to-opponent basis. They made dramatic rotational changes on a regular basis. Without much long-term thought, players were trapped into preordained roles, especially DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. In the NBA, there’s always a risk to advancing upon norms, but head coach Vinny Del Negro was never willing to play cards.
Then came Rivers, who concerned himself with the Clippers' internal development instead of their nightly opponent, starting with Griffin and Jordan.
There is no shortage of flowery prose to describe Griffin's ascent. Suffice it to say this: Chris Paul got hurt and Rivers opened a Pandora's Box. Griffin responded with 25.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists in the new year and reached fringe MVP territory.
While Doc gave Griffin the reins to summon a latent, but pre-existing, dominance, the story with DeAndre is a little different.
In a profile released on March 17, Jordan told Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated, "For him to talk to me man-to-man, that was really important. When someone believes in you that much, it's hard not to just go out there and play for them."
Under the previous regime, Jordan’s game suffered from a crisis of confidence. Doc Rivers thwarted that by emphasizing his potential. Talk of Jordan's All-NBA Defense candidacy and his shot at the Defensive Player of the Year award all started with Doc.
Jordan went from playing 24.5 minutes last season to almost 35 this year. Per Synergy, DeAndre is one of the most versatile defenders in the league, ranking among the 100 best qualifying players in isolation, pick-and-roll and spot-up situations. His post-up defense falls just outside, at 107th, allowing 0.82 points per play.
Most importantly, he can finally boast his defensive skills during crunch-time. Last season, Del Negro would opt to keep Jordan sidelined in fear of the other squad implementing Deck-a-DJ. (He is a 42 percent foul shooter, after all.)
The results have been scintillating. Last season, the Clippers gave up a staggeringly high 123 points per 100 possessions in situations with the game within five points and five minutes—the largest clutch sample size available. Now, they’re down to 105.8.
This kind of thing has a half-life, though. One more year on the fringes and Jordan might not have recovered. Instead, he is the Clippers’ defensive lynchpin and X-factor, not the DPOY—though he finished third on the ballot—but surely a strong All-NBA Defense and Most Improved Player candidate. His development alone is a monumental boon for Rivers’ candidacy.
With Del Negro, the Clippers anatomy was that of a fizzling relationship: all parties passive-aggressively avoided their problems until it blew up in everyone’s face. Doc knows better than to prioritize short-term results over a long-term process, though. The Clippers of yore made plenty of mistakes but were never intent on fixing them, or even understanding them.
In contrast, Rivers sticks with a plan long enough to let its foibles come to life and solidify, giving him ample information to make the right decision going forward. Put simply, he knows you can’t construct a contender with Band-Aid solutions.
For him, mistakes are a sign of progress, undoubtedly a theme of this season. After Griffin’s rise, the Clippers offense ascended from 103.4 points per 100 possessions in December to a rim-shattering 112.3 offensive rating in January. In February, they peaked at 114.
The Clippers defense was largely forgettable earlier this season too. Although they haven’t stabilized defensively like they have on offense, many a problem can be chalked up to a tumultuous and shoddy second unit. With sieves Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford, Hedo Turkoglu and Darren Collison in an oft-changing rotation, DeAndre has performed as well as anyone could expect, given the circumstances. And amidst the uncertainty, the Clippers still finished with the seventh best defense in the league.
Another silver lining: Jordan’s defense has also improved throughout the season. In a piece for Clipperblog, Seth Partnow charted Jordan’s defensive progress. Aside from a lapse in February, Jordan’s rim protection got better by the month.
Jordan’s blocking angles and rotations are gradually becoming more polished. Even in the Clippers’ abysmal Game 1 performance vs. the Golden State Warriors, Jordan finished with five blocks.
He equaled that total in Game 2, paired with a much stronger showing from the rest of the team. Monday’s 40-point blowout victory showed the Clippers at the zenith of their defense potential, with DeAndre and Rivers at the helm. They are still learning to consistently execute the nuances of Doc’s strong side defense; namely, helping the helper.
Learning to operate with the ethos of a team that is stronger than the sum of its parts remains an ongoing but encouraging process. That new-found trust, paired with the stable foundation of a legitimate game plan, underscores every move the Clippers make, from Jordan’s fourth quarter minutes to Griffin’s offensive freedom.
The slope from pseudo-contender to true contender is wildly tumultuous, both steep and slippery. Watching Rivers navigate its twists and toils has been a pleasure to watch, even if it came at the cost of a few games. Fifty-six to 57 feels underwhelming, yes, but one game can’t even begin to touch on the thematic transformation Doc Rivers has caused for a franchise that, until this season, has always been willing to settle for less.
Seerat Sohi is a freelance writer who has been published at ESPN, Sports on Earth and the Triangle Offense -- a Complex product. Follow her on Twitter @DamianTrillard.