LAS VEGAS – Doc Rivers leans toward the side of the bleachers. He isn’t coming down. He’ll be mobbed if he does, and he’s just here at summer league for two games. Below him, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin mingle, Paul leaning up to joke with his new coach.
Eventually, Monty Williams appears from behind one of the curtains that at summer league games function as locker room doors. His Pelicans have just finished their first game as Pelicans, and Paul stops by to chat with his former coach.
Rivers yells over to say hello. Williams yells back. He and Paul are discussing the point guard’s next contract, Williams jokes, and he suggests that Paul’s current deal might have an opt-out clause after six months. All Rivers has to do is laugh.
Life is good for Doc Rivers. The scheduling gods of summer league have smiled upon him; he just watched his son, Austin, play a game, and his Clippers are next. Then Rivers is flying out; one day of games in Vegas enough.
That’s where the Clippers stand these days. Their coach is one of the most respected in the game, their stars the kind that draw crowds even in the shadows of Vegas’ bleachers. The team they field for summer league is in large part inconsequential; two players, first-round pick Reggie Bullock and point guard Maalik Wayns, will likely make the team, but neither will have to contribute much. Rivers can go home when he pleases, back to planning for October and November, for this new project, this new era he hopes to usher in.
The Clippers may be the only 56-win team returning all of its stars and most of its supporting cast to be considered a project, but when you hire a guy of Rivers’ caliber, some level of overhaul is implied. There’s a sense of novelty around the team that’s incongruous with its sameness – at least on paper – and right now, this is all about Rivers and what is different.
Nearly every time he’s spoken with the media since he was hired in June, Rivers has had a consistent message, and that’s important. He’s establishing what he stands for as Doc Rivers, Clippers coach, the message that he’ll parrot for these months of talking before his team can actually take the court.
His message is centered on three players: Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They’re the pieces Rivers will build around, and everything they’ve done this offseason has been tailored to complementing the skills those three players bring.
“That our core,” Rivers said. “You have to know that we’re either going to win with them or we’re going to lose with them. That’s who we are, and we’re going to keep building around them.”
The approach is logical, and it’s hardly surprising. It is, however, noteworthy in its honesty. Jordan, unlike Griffin and Paul, has never made an All-Star game. He’s been criticized and nit-picked throughout his five-year career, the subject of trade rumors and the object of berating about his inability to hit a free throw. Rivers knows Jordan isn’t the offensive weapon that Paul and Griffin are, and he’s open about it. They’re building around Jordan for his defense, and he can still develop. Maybe he’s something of a project, but he’s the Clippers’ project.
Rivers was quick to dismiss the idea that he should have to build up Jordan’s confidence after the trade rumors and drama of last season under Del Negro. It wasn’t he and his staff shopping the big man, Rivers is quick to point out, and there’s little need to elaborate further.
“That’s a compliment to him,” Rivers said of Jordan. “People want him. I didn’t come here because D.J. wasn’t here. I came because he was here and Blake and Chris were here.”
In fact, bring up any of the rumored drama of last season, and that’s when Rivers gets the most animated. That wasn’t his team or his people, and that’s the gist of his message; Rivers says so in such a way as to suggest that it wouldn’t be tolerated and won’t be replicated. “I don’t worry about that,” is all he’ll say. “That was last year.” Even though he’s bringing back most of the same players, he doesn’t seem to think there’s a need to worry.
At the same time, though, Rivers isn’t just going to bow out of last season’s problems by pretending he plans some great egalitarian society in the Clippers locker room. That’s just not reality in the NBA, especially not when in the next breath he’s talking about building around three guys and thereby implying they’re a tier above the rest.
“I don’t treat everybody the same,” Rivers said. “Everybody’s different. I tell my guys that all the time. I treat guys appropriately, the way they should be treated. It’s on an individual basis on a team concept.”
Rivers’ methods have worked before, and he’s known for the level at which his players have bought in to his system in the past. His success in Los Angeles hinges on the Clippers doing the same, and it’ll be a matter not of finding talent, but of molding it into a team.
“The bottom line is the whole thing has to be tied to wanting to build a winner,” Rivers said. “They proved last year, you can do a lot of winning, but at the end of the day, where did that get you? It got you out of the playoffs early.”
That early exit made the Clippers become Rivers’ project. It went a long way toward bringing him to those bleachers in Las Vegas, to mingling with Griffin and Paul and looking like the luckiest coach in the game. Now, he has to make everyone forget about it.