Doc Rivers and the Quest for More

How exactly does Doc Rivers lead from the front with everything that has happened to him the past year?

The roll call only rehashes the less than glorious facts: a Western Conference semi-finals  loss when leading the series 3-1. His team disintegrating in front of him, Rivers was helpless and impotent. A few months later, Rivers couldn’t close the deal on DeAndre Jordan and then, luckily, got him back at the eleventh hour. It was one of those grand ironies of a great communicator, motivator and leader of men nearly losing one of his own.

Doc Rivers summer haul, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith, were excitedly paraded in front of the L.A. media. They are gone, flung across the NBA landscape, helping other teams and getting the playing time Rivers denied them.  Another one of Rivers summer gets, Paul Pierce, is having the worst year of his career and looks retirement ready. That leaves Wesley Johnson as the only Rivers summer free agent who has been important enough to the team to not be traded away. And Wes Johnson’s numbers are worse with the Clippers than they were with the Lakers last year.

But of course, it’s hardly ever midnight in the NBA

Rivers still hunts for that elusive Clippers respectability as he is faced with more of the same, more believers, more doubters, more skeptics, more memes, more the Clippers will always be the Clippers narrative that hangs like a fugue over the organization, despite their $2 billion price tag. That Doc Rivers hasn’t been able to elevate the franchise in these past three years of Lakers irrelevancy is an indictment on Rivers inability to be the coach, and at the same time, handle General Manager duties.

Last fall, before training camp, Rivers gave a confessional to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports as a way to purge his soul of its darkest elements. It was a stark, honest from the gut, slice of himself and how the Clippers ship went off the rails, beginning with the absurdly awful three game choke job to close the Western Conference semi-finals. How do you get over yourself, your disappointment, your anger, your frustration, your humiliation, your sadness, your shock? It seems like a perennial Clippers problem, but it really isn’t.

The Clippers and David Stern collided for the better in 2011, erasing all of those years of abject Clippers franchise poverty. The bottom line: Chris Paul was handed over to a racist owner as if it was Christmas. It’s hard to say why Stern did what he did, unless it was to alter the trajectory of the Lakers which he was complicit in pushing over a cliff with his Sterling benevolence. With Paul in tow, the Clippers have navigated from great at times, to good at times, to what the hell?

In his day, Doc Rivers was never an elite player so his professional life was spent fighting against failure the only way he could, by digging out every ounce of toughness he possessed. Reflexively, and this isn’t singular to Rivers but to all humans who fall short of their potential, you create defense mechanisms to make the pain go away.

So Rivers covers up a championship banner because the pain of that loss is rooted in his soul. Rivers will never forget losing game 7 in Los Angeles to the Lakers in the NBA Finals in 2010. He’ll never forget he had a 13 point lead in that game that he let slip away. He’ll never forget that the Lakers star guard, not known as a rebounder, outrebounded every single Celtic, and that the same shoot-happy guard, when it mattered most, didn’t shoot the ball at all but he passed the ball. That pass sealed the title, leading to a grotesquely painful Rivers defeat when he led the series 3-2.

And then history repeated itself. Five years later, he was leading a series 3-1 as coach of the Clippers. He had a huge lead in game 6. He lost.

At times, Rivers is still stuck in that beautiful time in his life when he was with Boston. But no two children are born into the same family. His lofty expectations for it to be nearly identical in Los Angeles as his triumph in Boston have fallen flat for obvious reasons: Kevin Garnett isn’t here. The Clippers occupy a city that refuses to offer a blood thirsty allegiance. The team has personnel with flaws that crop up at the worst possible moment. They play in the Western Conference. Chris Paul is not Steph Curry. They can’t beat the Warriors.

Often, Rivers is that old guy who can’t help but talk about the past, the good days when he painted beautiful pictures.

“All year, our bus was loud in Boston. It was old-school loud. Sometimes you want them to shut the f–k up. But you’d get on the bus, and the chatter, and the constant getting on guys, it didn’t stop. And then the silence when you lost, there was the silence. These days you get on the bus and a lot of times they’re looking down and talking. Social media and texting has absolutely hurt chemistry. There’s no doubt about that. You don’t just give into that, though. You get used to it. We all have to.”

It’s hard to ascertain what Rivers is alluding to. If it is an admission that technology has manipulated culture instead of the opposite, his facts are correct. But chemistry, with social media or without social media, is organized by relationships and that is emulated from the top, not the bottom. Rivers admits that his priority for this team is better communication which seems a stark admission for a coach known for being able to communicate.

There is no denying Rivers anger at the Blake Griffin situation. Rivers was planning on Griffin returning to the lineup in a few days. He traded Josh Smith. And then was blindsided. And because of a fight in a restaurant with a friend? As emotional a man as he is on the sidelines as he sweats and yells and stomps, Rivers is driven by discipline. He usually waits for pure emotion to recede before being judge and jury. But in this case, he just couldn’t keep the anger inside. He had to speak his mind and publicly shame Griffin, not as a coach, but as a surrogate father.

“I’m not satisfied with anything. I’m talking about a non-basketball issue right now. You talk to everyone involved and you care about everyone involved. I feel bad for everyone involved, not just the player.”

The player. Not Griffin. Not Blake. But the player.  Rivers was still seething over Blake, so much so, he couldn’t even say his name. Just as he was still seething over losing to the Lakers, so much so, he couldn’t look at their championship banners, particularly the 2010 masterpiece.

Here, the Clippers are again. It’s almost routine enough to be boring. So many expectations to fulfill. Ask anyone: truth can be more searing than fiction. The greatest point guard of his era and the last of the traditional floor leaders, the one David Stern ripped out of the Lakers grasp, has never been out of the second round of the playoffs and he’ll be 31 in May. Chris Paul is on the clock as the Clippers play out these last games of the season, in preparation of what is to come. Because the Thunder are choking away close games, the Clippers may get the benefit of escaping the Warriors in the second round and, instead, face the Spurs, their first round opponent last year, in that epic game 7.

Game 7 Clippers-Spurs was something to behold. And yet, we gloss over it and jump forward. It’s too hard to forget self-mutilation. It’s human nature to stare over and over at the car wreck. Game 6 against the Houston Rockets will continue to remind Doc Rivers that this keeps happening to him. Up in a series. Losing. Up in the Finals. Losing.

Before Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Paul Pierce said, “we have two chances to win one game.”  Was that a message from the top? Five years later, did the Clippers feel that way too? They had two chances to win one game? As if the world was peculiarly small, the Clippers lost when they should have won.

Even with the basketball trauma of everything Rivers has been through since winning in Boston, he has what he wants. Donald Sterling is gone. Steve Ballmer is here. Rivers has his team at a point of excellence, ready to make a deep playoff run. If that happens, it will legitimize Doc Rivers, and at the same time, set him apart from the crowd. He’ll be an extraordinary NBA coach, other coaches will be chasing him. As it currently stands, he is no better than Rick Carlisle. Both have won a single championship.

The distractions continue to seep through the cracks. Blake Griffin has yet to be cleared for contact. In his absence, Chris Paul has been brilliant but how long can he push his body through this war before something breaks? When Blake returns, the team will change. He’s been gone so long, the adjustment of Griffin into the lineup will affect the team on a chemistry level, at least in the beginning, before they remember that Griffin is one of the game’s great talents.

A Griffin return doesn’t erase the obvious. The pressure on the Clippers is enormous. If they flame out again, there will be real conversations of this group not being able to get it done. It will have been 5 playoff failures. Rivers will have been the leader of three of them.

Two years ago, the Clippers beat the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. The Clippers won a raucous game 7 at Staples. The imagery made you believe the Clippers were finally on their way to something special. But it was the Warriors who were the special ones. They prospered from that loss more than the Clippers took advantage of that win. The Warriors are poised to dominate the next five years. The Clippers have beaten them once since they walked off with a first round win in the 2014 playoffs. They are 1-6 vs. the Warriors.

The playoffs are coming, sooner rather than later. Doc Rivers legacy hangs in the balance.

photo via llananba