Although that did not happen, there was some turnover on the bench after the season.
Thanks to the team’s success, Rivers had to find adequate replacements on a staff that helped develop the Clippers’ offense into one of the best in the entire league. Considering Rivers’ experience, success and the respect he has earned around the league, it was only a matter of time before he was able to hire talented assistants such as Mike Woodson and Sam Cassell. He has also been linked to other assistants such as Larry Drew and Lawrence Frank, according to ESPN Los Angeles’ Arash Markazi.
Rivers has put together two quality coaching staffs in a year’s time, which is especially impressive considering what has been happening regarding Donald Sterling’s comments, the NBA’s initiative to find a new owner, Shelley Sterling’s attempt to sell the franchise to Steve Ballmer and the previously ongoing legal battle that was finally settled at the end of July with the sale being completed August 13.
However, in order to breakdown Rivers’ new coaching staff, we must review and grade the previous staff’s performance.
Grading Last Season’s Staff
The hire of Doc Rivers was a statement to the rest of the league that the Clippers were serious about improving, winning and establishing championship expectations. Rivers brought the type of legitimacy to the franchise that Chris Paul wanted to see before agreeing to re-sign last summer.
Rivers’ ability to earn the respect of the players, and for them to buy into his systems on both sides of the ball early in the season, was very important. After all, his strong-side defensive system, based on Tom Thibodeau’s philosophies, won a title with the Boston Celtics.
Additionally, Rivers created a strong bond with Chris Paul. This bond allowed Rivers to control Paul’s tendency to dominate the ball while playing at a methodical pace, to an up-tempo attack that finished seventh in the league in pace, up from 19th the previous season under Vinny Del Negro, according to Basketball Reference.
However, Rivers was not solely responsible for the transformation of the Clippers offense last season. The hire of Alvin Gentry was one of the most important moves the team made last summer.
Gentry, once the head coach of the Clippers, brought the offensive knowledge he acquired during his time spent as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns, under Mike D’Antoni. Gentry scrapped Del Negro’s isolation system and preached speed, spacing and ball movement.
The results speak for themselves, as the Clippers finished first in points per game and third in field-goal percentage and assists. The ball consistently swung around the perimeter, finding open shooters in the corners. Although the real star of the offense was Griffin, who developed into one of the most efficient and multidimensional bigs in the entire league.
Teams were unable to sag off Griffin after he displayed a reliable jumper out to 18 feet. There was no answer for the big forward as he could attack off the dribble, cut for a lob, shoot off a pick-and-pop or find open cutters with his great vision.
Griffin’s improvement helped keep the floor spaced, created driving lanes from the perimeter and freed shooters behind the arc. Consequently, teams were unable to slow down Paul as easily, due to the plethora of options he had at his disposal coming off a high ball-screen with Griffin.
Also, credit assistant coach Tyronne Lue, who was as vocal as anyone from the sidelines. He was a key cog in the coaching staff, as the players respected him not only because he was a former player, but the work he put in on and off the court. Lue's presence on the bench will absolutely be missed this season.
Two important coaches will stick around for next season in Armond Hill and Brendan O'Connor. Hill was Rivers' assistant for nine years with the Boston Celtics and has over 20 years of coaching experience to add to the staff. Meanwhile O'Connor, has over 10 years coaching and scouting experience and was on the Detroit Pistons' 2004 NBA Championship team.
Kevin Eastman was also brought over along with Hill and Lue from the Rivers' staffs with Celtics. Eastman was responsible for player development, scouting and helping Rivers draw up plays last season. While he will stick with the organization this season, he will move off the bench and into the front office, accepting the role of vice president of basketball operations.
As a whole, Rivers’ coaching staff did an excellent job in all areas, even developmentally as was the case with DeAndre Jordan’s improvement. The players bought in, the chemistry was apparent from training camp and the results nearly matched the championship expectations.
Changes Heading into Season Two
Gentry’s importance to last season’s success make him the biggest loss from the previous coaching staff, as he accepted the associate head coaching position with Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors. His offensive system created the space necessary for for Paul, Griffin, Crawford and especially J.J. Redick, to operate.
This season there will be questions as to what the offense will look like. But expect to see a lot of the same action, as Rivers urged Paul all last season to push the pace and pass the ball up the floor more, according to ESPN's Kate Fagan:
This is the seventh time in the quarter (but not the last) that Rivers will beckon his point guard during a break in the action, imploring Paul to push the tempo, pass the ball ahead, make quicker decisions. The coach's hands are a flurry of activity, as if working an imaginary pick-and-roll. Rivers, a former point guard, seemingly can't help himself from using every dead ball as an opportunity to reinforce his message. Paul, though, is struggling -- he has missed eight of his first nine shots -- and he looks tense, as though he's unable to absorb any more instruction.
The improved pace and spacing allowed Griffin’s game to expand, as the team’s offensive system catered to the All-Star big man’s skill set. The offense also took pressure off Paul to create for everyone on the floor, as Griffin is one of the best passing forwards around—evidenced by his 3.7 assists per game over his career.
Gentry was the brains behind creating the spacing and tempo, but Rivers will likely keep some continuity this season and run many of the same sets while preaching pace. Fortunately, one new hire should echo River’s voice, Sam Cassell.
Cassell joins the Clippers after serving on the Washington Wizard’s staff last season. He knows all about spacing and space, as his task was to tutor one of the fastest point guards in the league, John Wall.
Previously the starting point guard on one of the most successful Clippers teams ever, Cassell excels at connecting with players, teaching them the tricks of the trade. While he may not have the creative mind that Gentry possesses, Cassell is a popular hire and has the smarts and experience to continue to improve the team’s perimeter offense.
Cassell will essentially take Tyronne Lue's place on the bench, as Lue will join David Blatt as associate head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lue was beloved by the players and served as a buffer between Rivers and the roster. Cassell will have his work cutout to match Lue's importance on the bench.
The next hire is arguably as important as Gentry’s last season. Mike Woodson fills a major role for the team and is a high-profile ex-head coach who was willing to sit on the bench next to Rivers.
Formerly the head coach of the New York Knicks, Woodson’s area of expertise is defense. Woodson will aid Rivers as the head coach continues to implement his own defensive philosophies, as Woodson has run a similar system.
Although the Knicks had their problems last season, they did finished as the ninth-best scoring defense in the league. The Clippers, meanwhile, finished 14th and never seemed to string together quality games on the defensive side of the ball.
While the defensive rotations looked improved as the year progressed, the overall output was not good enough to hold important leads late in playoff games, especially against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Woodson’s years of experience and success building and sculpting defenses should pay dividends later in the upcoming season. Luckily, Woodson has a number athletic players to develop. Hopefully he is able to turn the talent at his disposal into a synchronized unit.
The key to the system’s improvement from last year is preventing penetration. Jordan will be the focal point again on defense, but the guards must do a better job on the perimeter. While his rebounding and reduced foul rate turned him into one of the league’s better centers, Jordan's overall impact defensively was average.
Much like last season, the expectations from Rivers and his staff will be to win a championship. However, the realistic expectations should include winning the division, finishing top three in the conference and making the conference finals.
The team’s success will be based upon the players’ performance and the ability of the coaching staff to improve the team’s deficiencies by putting each player in a position to perform well.
Rivers’ job is obvious, as he makes all the final coaching, game-planning and personnel decisions. Will he change the offense? Will he give full control of the defense to Woodson?
There are plenty of questions to be answered, but the most important one is how much, if at all, the defense improves. The offense was a success all of last season, but the defense was the weak spot.
Moving forward, the expectations should be to perform as a top five unit on both sides of the ball. The offense should be able to perform at that level barring injuries, but the defense will need to improve schematically and maintain consistency.
Overall, expect the Clippers offense to dip a bit without Gentry on the bench. Rivers and Cassell will have their work cut out to finish as the top offense again this season. Meanwhile, Woodson’s arrival will hopefully improve the team’s overall efficiency at the other end of the floor.
The Clippers are primed to be one of the league’s best teams again this season. The talent on the roster is one of the primary reasons why. However, the team’s performance will be based upon the foundation forged by the men sitting at the head of the bench.
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