The September failure of the “best” team in the NBA was difficult to absorb in real-time. Three months later negative feelings still linger. It’s a cautionary tale about what you think you see. During the regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers were 6th in 3-point offense, 1st in free throws attempted and made, 3rd in rebounding, 4th in scoring, 3rd in field goal defense and 5th in 3-Point defense. Their offensive rating was ranked 2nd and their defensive rating was 5th. They had a 27.1 ppg scorer and a 21.5 ppg scorer. Four players had a PER over 20.0. Montrezl Harrell was Sixth Man of the Year and Lou Williams finished third.
But the red flag in all their beatific stats was assists. They didn’t share the ball.
Last year’s Clippers averaged 23.7 assists per game, near the bottom of the league. They iso’d a lot. They did not allow for the extra pass or the hockey assist. They wanted theirs and held on to grievances. Perhaps the bubble pulled the scab off the wound in a way the traditional playoff tournament would not have. But lingering in Orlando was a host of selfish complaints that centered on Kawhi’s privilege. All season, the Clippers nitpicked each other in unhealthy passive-aggressive ways. Add in the Orlando environment, a place of incremental mental stress and isolation, and what was revealed was a thousand Clippers paper cuts. When tested, when adversity lingered, they could not rise to the occasion.
Bar the historian, it does not matter anymore what happened in 2019-20 except the Clippers keep talking about it. First, it was Paul George who blamed everyone but Paul George for why the Clippers crumbled, which in itself is all the evidence you need as to why they fell apart. In a leadership vacuum, no one was accountable.
Now it is Doc Rivers turn. Doc has a unique perspective as the man hired to make it all work. He was supposed to keep the moving pieces together, soothe wounded egos, rid random selfishness, and embrace teamwork and generosity.
In an interview with Jackie McMullen (ESPN), Doc Rivers did his own autopsy. He admitted Kawhi’s load management was, perhaps, awkward for the rest of the team. He admired the Lakers role players for accepting their middle-class station, and not sulking about the reality that the Lakers universe orbited around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Doc clarified “the Lakers are a great example. Clearly, LeBron and AD got different treatment, but the guys around them said, ‘Who cares? As long as we win.” In other words, fit in or suffer.
As stunning as it is to hear anything complimentary about the Lakers coming from Doc, he is not exactly demonstrating insight. He has the end part right. The Lakers chemistry last season was spectacular. They had a mix of extroversion and introversion, Hollywood and leave-me-alone, comedy and Rondo seriousness, and found a way to make it all work. James was as important to the chemistry by what he was willing to sacrifice as was Frank Vogel who kept every player engaged in the process, even if they were not in the rotation.
But what Doc is leaving out is what happened the year before Kawhi and Paul George arrived. A team that was supposed to be in the middle of the lottery made the playoffs; the Clippers gave Golden State a run for their money, winning two games in a first-round series. That team had beautiful chemistry. They played hard. They were selfless and played for one another. There wasn’t a superstar to be had so equality was the thing. All for one and one for all.
Bringing Kawhi and Paul George in meant the chemistry was going to change, as the privilege was going to change, and by default, roles would change too. The Clippers were already a playoff team and were thinking of being better. The Lakers were not a playoff team and were willing to sacrifice to win, whatever that took, whatever that looked like because they had lost. The Lakers were desperate.
Before the disaster, before Kawhi, PG, and Doc failed in September in the bubble, they failed at reading the room. The stirred-up emotions from teammates went unchecked, unheard, ignored which built up layer after layer. When that happens to rock, the weight of it rolls down the hill and crushes something.
It is low-hanging fruit to get under the Clippers skin by comparing them to the Lakers. Reminding the organization they came in second, and reflecting that the Lakers know how to be a unified team while the Clippers know how to be selfish isn’t a reflection. It was part of Doc’s job to make the impossible possible, to embrace the egos and nerves and sensitivities, to listen and then speak so everyone could bury all the selfishness and connect to team values. Doc abdicated his responsibility the same way Paul George abdicated his. Doc was accountable for the culture and yet he blames the players. The players were accountable for the culture and they blame Doc.
Failure is not an accident. It is built.