PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Doc Rivers is Boston. Doc Rivers was Boston?
Doc Rivers is Los Angeles.
It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, not yet, although we’ve had nearly two weeks to prepare ourselves.
Doc Rivers is the Clippers.
It’s true, but it’s still a bit awkward, a bit halting, and rightfully so. Rivers spent nine seasons in Boston and won a title there. He coached some of the NBA’s best there. He rose in prominence there, along with his team, until he was considered among the league’s top tier of coaches. The Celtics were as tied up in his identity as they were in the Big Three, in the green and white, in the fans who packed the Garden for those Finals games in 2008 and 2010.
And so it seemed strange to see him in Los Angeles on Wednesday, outfitted in his polo and tennis shoes — Rivers’ suits are all in Boston, and he flew west straight from Orlando — and being paraded around the Clippers’ facility from podium to photo op to media scrum. It seemed like years ago that his season ended at the hands of the New York Knicks, and then it seemed like it had been just seconds.
As the coach spoke, it was “Danny and me” this, and “Danny and me” that, and even though Rivers professed that he wanted to keep the Clippers his focus, Danny Ainge and the Celtics lingered, however figuratively, in the room. In the next breath, though, Rivers called the Clippers “us,” even those Clippers lost in a first-round implosion. He took ownership, however tricky, of his past along with his future, because there’s no escaping that, on Sunday, Rivers was planning to return to Boston in the fall.
That, in a nutshell, is why Doc Rivers was the right hire. He was the right hire because he was so ingrained in his former team that to see him separated from it seems malapropos. It seems almost wrong. If the Celtics were a living organism, Rivers was its heart, and now he’s the Clippers’. Now, in a year, or two, or three, he’ll be all red and blue and Los Angeles. That kind of identification between team and coach was never the case with Vinny Del Negro. It’s not the case with plenty of coaches in the NBA, perhaps even most. Some are never allowed to make their mark. Some simply cannot.
Rivers was, and he did, and whatever it is that makes his players swear by him and his teams function so cohesively is now the Clippers’. They don’t have to hide from the memories of Boston. They should embrace them. If things go to plan, the Clippers will have some memories of their own.
In Wednesday’s press conference, Rivers drew a distinction between winning and being the winners. The Clippers won last season, sure, but they weren’t the winners. That distinction is reserved for just one team per season, and only four active coaches can say they’ve led the winners. Rivers is one of them, and bringing him in signifies that the Clippers are ready to take a top-down approach to winning a championship.
“We’re going for it,” Clippers president Andy Roeser said. “Let there be no mistake. We’re going for it. We want to win, and we brought Doc here to help us do it.”
The first step, it seems, is for the coach and the culture he brings to permeate the organization. Rivers is known as one of the best-liked coaches among players in the league, for open communication and an understanding of what it’s like to compete in the NBA. He’s a proponent of clearly defined rules and roles, such that every player knows what is asked of him and how best to bring it to the court. It’s a system built on trust and communication, and the whole picture sounds rather disparate from what went on under Del Negro in Los Angeles last season.
Rivers isn’t shy about the culture he hopes to build. But really, it’s not about him, he says. It’s about the players adopting that culture, and adopting it quickly and wholeheartedly. The outsize expectations that have surrounded Rivers’ arrival in L.A. even play into it. Instead of tempering them, it seems that Rivers hopes to feed them right into his goals.
“I like the expectations,” Rivers said. “I don’t run from those at all. I want our players to have those expectations.”
Ryan Hollins, who played for the Clippers last season and will become a free agent on July 1, was working out at the team’s facility during Rivers’ news conference. Hollins, who played for Rivers in Boston in 2012, wasn’t shy about expressing his pleasure that the Clippers had hired his former coach, and he admitted that Rivers in Los Angeles changes the way he’s approaching free agency.
Hollins won’t be the only player who sees the Clippers as a better destination now that the leadership structure has changed as it has.
“He can give each individual player their own confidence,” Hollins said. “You understand your role and what Doc wants from you. Things are simplified to become a championship team. We need to do this in order to win. You’re fully capable of doing this. That’s spelled out and given to each individual player.”
“He gives you that support, so when you go to the court, go to the games, there’s no question marks. There’s nothing for you to ask. It’s all said and done.”
In recent weeks, it’s seemed at times like there’s been nothing but instability surrounding the Clippers. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, simply the norm in the weeks leading up to free agency, but with Chris Paul’s impending decision, the team’s lack of a coach, trade rumors surrounding Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan and even the far-fetched idea of flipping Blake Griffin for Dwight Howard, it appeared at any minute that the scale could tip in either direction.
With Rivers, that changes. Paul should return, and with a coach who has the authority of having won a championship and coached the league’s best, stability seems if not arrived, then imminent.
And this all starts with stability. It starts with the kind of cohesiveness that marked Rivers’ teams in Boston, and it goes far beyond the tactical aspect of the coach’s job. It’s about creating the mentality that this is a team with some permanence, both in its roster and in the impact it might make on NBA history, and Rivers is the man to foster that.
“Tactical is always important but overblown in a lot of ways, in my opinion,” he said. “I think the team-building part is the most important part.”
Now, finally, after weeks of machinations, the Clippers are Rivers’ team to construct, in the sense of both their roster and their identity. The buildup was immense and the expectations are still growing, but with Rivers in Los Angeles, it finally feels real. Blink, and he’s still there, and you get the sense he’s in as much shock as the Clippers. Blink, and you can imagine Chris Paul back, and the morale up, and a playoff run that lasts longer than six games.
If Paul returns, between him, Griffin and Rivers, this team will be the biggest investment the Clippers have ever made, both from the standpoint of their finances and their ambition.
Rivers’ presence signals that the team has finally taken the import of coaching to heart and that they want to build something permanent, an identity as much as a team.