Will Doc Rivers Be LA Clippers' Playoff X-Factor?

Oren FriedmanCorrespondent IIFebruary 27, 2014

How will the Clippers fare under Doc Rivers come playoff time?
How will the Clippers fare under Doc Rivers come playoff time?Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

With the replacement of Vinny Del Negro by the esteemed and well-respected Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers will have another X-factor in their playoff arsenal.

While the team is anything but perfect, Rivers is a marked upgrade over the former coach of Lob City. Rivers’ championship pedigree and Coach of the Year awards as the show runner of both the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics, is a testament to his capacity to manage players and maximize their potential.

For all of their flaws, Lob City has to be comfortable knowing that it might have the best coach in the Western Conference. Without a lame duck on the sidelines, the Clippers should be aggressive rather than cautious in their playoff approach.

The team has shown championship promise of late. They boast a 7-4 record against the West’s other four top teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers.

So even though the Clippers are grappling for the No. 3 seed against Portland and Houston, they should be confident come playoff time.

What makes Rivers an X-factor? How can his presence manifest itself in tangible form when the games count?

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Let’s take a look at why Rivers can be one of the Clippers’ major playoff X-factor.

The DeAndre Question

One of the major differences of Rivers’ short tenure on the sideline, compared to his predecessor Del Negro, is his capacity to tinker with the norm and adjust his rotations. Specifically, Rivers’ decision to play DeAndre Jordan heavy minutes has been a revelation in Lob City.

Given his 43 percent career free-throw clip, Jordan was such a liability at the line that Del Negro chose to play DJ an average of just five fourth-quarter minutes last season.

Despite appearing in all 82 games, Jordan was featured in just 30 fourth quarters. For some perspective, that is only six more than the little-used Grant Hill.

This season, Rivers has made the effort to buoy Jordan’s confidence at press conferences, while backing it up on the court. In a league dominated by Big Threes, Rivers strongly believes that the Clippers have the personnel to match the quality of other triumvirates.

In October, Rivers told reporters (via ESPN.com):

I’m always focused on our big three guys, Blake [Griffin], DJ [DeAndre Jordan] and Chris [Paul,” Rivers said. “Their leadership is important to our team. I’m always watching them. I think those are the guys that I have more focus on than anybody else.

While Paul is still the consummate MVP candidate, and Griffin is going through his own renaissance, DJ’s improved play has been pleasing for a team that looked like it had little else after its potent one-two punch.

Playing heavier minutes this season, Jordan has already appeared in 55 fourth quarters, averaging 7.5 minutes in the final frame. Despite Deck-a-DJ tactics, Jordan is actually shooting 55.3 percent from the foul line in the fourth quarter, nearly 10 percent higher than his 44.7 season average.

Beyond his extra fourth-quarter reps, Jordan is dominating the boards, leading the league in rebounding at 14.0 per game. His impressive numbers put him nearly a full rebound ahead of his closest competitor, Kevin Love.

Although he is still subject to defensive lapses, Jordan is also turning into a formidable rim protector. His 2.43 blocks per game are the fourth highest in the league, just behind valuable enforcers Serge Ibaka and Roy Hibbert.

Much of Jordan’s development should be attributed to the schemes Rivers’ uses and the confidence that he imbues his players with.

Just before the start of the regular season, ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande discussed Lob City’s Big Three aspirations (via ESPN.com):

He’s [Rivers is] essentially asking Jordan to be like Paul and Griffin, who are considered among the best at their positions. He wants there to be three main players in the discussion when the talk turns to the Clippers.

Although Jordan was a fringe All-Star, the fact that he was in the discussion for one of the final reserve spots is evidence of how far he has come over night.

Playing amongst the likes of Ibaka, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge in the postseason could be a whole different challenge, however. Nevertheless, Clipper Nation should be confident that Rivers’ prowess on the sideline should reflect a totally different DJ come playoff time.

Rivers has done wonders for Jordan this season.
Rivers has done wonders for Jordan this season.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Ubuntu Reinvented

Outside of Rivers’ development of his young center, the coach’s experience on the Celtics suggests that he is capable of veiling his team’s shortcomings when the games matter most.

While much has been made about the 2008 champion and 2010 Eastern Conference champion Celtics, one of Rivers most important seasons was the 2011-12 campaign.

Looking aged and washed-up for most of the season, the C’s limped to a 37-29 record. That was good enough for the lowly Atlantic Division title, but so poor that Boston had to start the postseason on the road against the Atlanta Hawks.

The underachieving Celtics knocked out the Hawks in six games. No doubt helped by an injury to Derrick Rose, Boston earned home-court advantage in their second-round matchup against the No. 8 seeded Philadelphia 76ers.

Despite just a 35-31 record, Philadelphia took Boston seven games before falling on the road in Beantown.

The first two rounds were mostly just filling until Boston’s seven-game Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. Knowing the importance of defeating King James and Co., Boston surprisingly took three of four regular-season contests against their conference rivals.

The C’s looked youthful and engaged throughout their seven-game slugfest. Led by vintage performances from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and complemented by brilliant games from budding superstar Rajon Rondo, Boston went up 3-2 on the Heat before folding.

Had it not been for a transcendent performance by LeBron James in a game six victory at the Boston Garden, the Celtics could have been well on their way to a second championship in the Big Three era.

Rivers’ ability to rally his players during a rather under-assuming regular season speaks volume to his capacity as a playoff X-factor. The C’s could have been toast in the first round, especially after Rondo was suspended for Game 2 after he bumped a referee during Game 1.

Falling down 0-2 to the Heat in the conference finals, it was Rivers poise, supplemented by the veteran savvy of his locker room, that helped the Celtics flip an early series deficit into an eventual 3-2 advantage.

Resilience and quality are values associated with all of Rivers’ Big Three Boston squads. Flopping and “softer than tissue paper” have been the traits more associated with the Lob City Clips.

Rivers’ presence will be especially key for the Clippers this spring.

Lob City needs a confident commander, fluid with his X's and O's and upfront in his decision-making process. Paul needs a coach he can lean on and Jordan needs the trust of the man holding the clipboard.

With Rivers at the helm, the Clips should not expect to go easily in the postseason. Clipper Nation should be confident that Rivers’ ability to mange his players and develop key schemes in game-to-game adjustments should be pivotal, once the postseason begins.

For once, Hollywood’s most exciting team has an enviable coach running the show.

Statistics accurate as of February 27, 2014. Statistics used from ESPN.com and NBA.com/Stats.

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