Coach Doc Rivers: ‘Roles don’t mean (bleep)’ for Clips without buy in

Rivers sat down with FOX Sports to explain some the method behind the Clippers' uneven start.

NEW YORK — Doc Rivers seems like a different man than he once did.

The critiques of Rivers have reached a critical volume, in both senses of the word. His substitution patterns — on a team with plenty of players getting fewer minutes than they have in the past — have come under question. The Clippers defense, now running more conservative schemes than it did during the first two years under Doc, has tailed off. He’s leading a team that’s become as famous for its technical fouls as for its lobs and slams. Meanwhile, he’s one of the main culprits. Then, there’s the locker-room chemistry, an issue that hit its public peak during this summer’s free-agency period when DeAndre Jordan became an unofficial Maverick for three days before flip-flopping and returning to L.A.

This season, with new-to-the-mix personalities like Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson facing the aforementioned minutes crunch, Rivers has to work the balancing act of playing time to satisfaction. For the Clippers’ coach, that means buy-in from the players, too.

“Roles don’t mean s— unless they accept them,” Rivers told FOX Sports, before clarifying that role definition is actually "the most important thing you can have in sports."

“Once everybody gets their role, accepts their role, then I think you’re good,” he continued.

To that end, it hasn’t all come together for the 14-10 Clippers, who sit fourth in the West, but who were supposed to be legitimate contenders to take the Western Conference this season. In every way, the team looks like it’s still learning to play together, and Rivers appears as if he remains in the process of feeling out the pieces. That instability has been exacerbated by a change in Los Angeles’ defensive approach.

The Clippers played an ultra-aggressive defensive style during the first two seasons under Rivers, one that saw big men straying from the paint and following ball-handlers to the perimeter often. 

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“One thing we were starting to give up was too many threes,” said Rivers, who noted that keeping Jordan, the team’s obvious most-important defender, closer to the rim was a priority, as well. “Now, it has really taken shape. But it took longer than I thought.”

This year’s team is playing a conservative style in comparison. Jordan is sagging back against pick-and-rolls more often as L.A. has gone to a scheme that’s relatively basic around the league. Still, the Clips D hasn’t improved all too much, ranking just 15th in points allowed per possession, though the team has given up far fewer threes than it did a season ago.

“We’ve done it for so long a certain way,” Jamal Crawford told FOX Sports. “We’re getting there, but we’ll have slippage sometimes.”

Sometimes, the toughest part of implementing new habits is knowing when to break them, learning how and when to adjust in-game. By the end of last season, Jordan, especially, appeared so natural inside the Clippers D, which was also just league average on the whole. This season, you can tell he’s learning new X’s and O’s if only because of the more mechanical and less improvisational approach. Heck, it took until the second time playing the Warriors for him to realize he had to play up on Stephen Curry, the greatest shooter since Billy the Kid, during pick-and-rolls.

It’s a learning process, and the Clippers are in the middle of it.

“We’re creatures of habit,” Crawford said. “It’s not like football, where you set your defense every play or baseball where there’s timing between plays.”

“What we discounted was, it’s hard enough with nine new guys, but when you put in a whole new defense, it’s 15 new guys,” Rivers said. “In my mind, I couldn’t understand why our guys who were here couldn’t pick it up. It was frustrating the hell out of me, and then I finally realized it’s new to them, too. So, once I think I relaxed on it a little bit, I think our team did.”

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Over the past two weeks, the Clippers have actually ranked inside the NBA’s top 10 in points allowed per possession. Take those numbers with a grain of salt, though. Actually, you might want the full shaker. L.A.’s opponents over that time have included the offensively challenged Magic, Timberwolves, Bucks, Bulls and Nets.

Even over this period, though, the rotational inconsistency has persisted. Stephenson has been the perfect seasonal microcosm.

Multiple sources within the Clippers organization say that Stephenson has gracefully accepted his role in Los Angeles, which may be surprising to some given the reputation he built up during his four years in Indiana and one season in Charlotte. Yet that understanding from Stephenson hasn’t resulted in stability. His playing time doesn’t just vary from week-to-week, game-to-game. Sometimes, it’ll even look like two different coaches are setting the Clippers’ rotation between halves.

He started the season with the first unit. Then, Rivers pulled him from the rotation altogether. He snuck his way back in with a bench role, only to fall out and then re-enter again. Heck, during Thursday night’s 83-80 loss to the Bulls, Lance sat the entire first half. He proceeded to play 18 minutes during the second. 

“It’s tough, because we have a lot of guys, and Lance has to be more consistent in what he does in our coverages,” Rivers explained.

Rotational inconsistency: It’s been a theme this season, certainly more than ever within the three-years-and-running Doc Rivers era. But it shouldn’t be like that, especially not this season or last after Rivers took over as President of Basketball Operations in the Clippers front office. He’s the one with final say in personnel decisions. He’s the one who designed this roster. And because of that, it’s easy to argue he could’ve had a better idea of how to use these pieces more organically than he has this season.

Lineup experimentation is more than encouraging during the early part of the season, but Rivers will be the first to tell you that role consistency is key for any player. That may be especially true for a team trying to learn new defensive habits and for a complete newcomer such as Smith, who has had a little more trouble adjusting.

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Though Smith’s getting less playing time than he has during any other season of his career, at least his minutes and position — Rivers has him playing mostly center — have been consistent.

“That was in the conversation, playing the 5, not the 4,” Smith told FOX Sports. “So, it was something physically and mentally, I could prepare for.”

It’s the lack of playing time that’s been harder for Smith to accept. But lineup success isn’t just about larger minutes totals. Rivers has gone back and forth between staggering lineups so that either Blake Griffin or Chris Paul is always in the game. Sometimes he’s done it. Others, he’s avoided it. The all-bench units have made an unfortunate habit of getting plastered on both ends. Now, Rivers does admit lineup staggering might be a necessary strategy moving forward. 

“It’s better when one or the other is on the floor — or DJ. One of those three,” he said.

The smaller rotational decisions have come under question, too, the miniature, not-quite-microscopic ones that could sway any game just a point or two. For example, during long stretches of America’s favorite game of tag, deck-a-DJ, Rivers will often leave the same lineup that was already on the floor out there. Even though the Clippers aren’t playing offense and are exclusively performing on D in the half court, offensive-minded players like Crawford remain on the floor.

Rivers justified the strategy to FOX Sports.

“[Offense] does matter, because what happens a lot, it happened today. They fouled late, and we got a shot,” Rivers said after Saturday’s win in Brooklyn. “Also, on missed free throws, DJ missed in the Milwaukee game, we had a shooter on the floor, kicked it out and got a three. We know that [rebound opportunities] are coming. So, you’ve got to keep your offensive group out there.”

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To Rivers’ credit, the Clippers have had an unusually high rebound rate on Jordan’s missed free throws over the years. That said, there is some amount of inconsistency in a thought process that prioritizes getting back on defense over offensive rebounding on normal, non-hack-a possessions (the Clippers have been one of the NBA’s least aggressive teams chasing offensive rebounds under Rivers, a very conscious decision) but that tweaks the trend for intentional-fouling scenarios. 

That’s where Rivers’ dual role comes into the picture. In most organizations, Rivers would have someone of equal or higher standing with whom to collaborate. A general manager could come down and discuss the long-term benefits of making sure Stephenson is at his best because for the Clippers to hit their ceiling, Lance needs to hit his. He could show some numbers to speed up the process of lineup staggering. It’s not about changing Rivers’ mind. It’s just about challenging his intellect. Our brains can’t evolve without respectful, cerebral discord. 

Rivers does have a GM, Dave Wohl, but he’s not as high in the pecking order as Doc. His VP of Basketball Ops is Kevin Eastman, one of his long-time assistants who, like Rivers, had also never worked in a front office until coming to the Clippers. Just like how a first-time head coach can benefit from hiring experienced assistants (think Golden State’s Steve Kerr last year with Ron Adams and Alvin Gentry), a front-office head can do the same. It doesn’t appear Rivers has that luxury, though. 

Instead, the Clippers get this split personality — Doc Rivers, the Coach and Doc Rivers, the Exec — heading up two departments of their team with the exec trying to learn on the fly as he runs a basketball team that has underperformed ever since going up 3-1 on the Rockets during last year’s Western Conference finals. 

The team’s assets have progressively thinned ever since Rivers took over; that’s nothing new. But the talent was supposed to be, and actually is, better this season, even without any sort of wing defender that won’t hurt the offense in sight. The team has simply run differently on both sides, whatever the reason. In year three of Rivers, in year five of Paul, Griffin and Jordan, production wasn’t supposed to erode, too.

Fred Katz covers the NBA for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.