Doc Rivers, Clippers aiming for next level
PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- So many names and faces have changed, but on the day the Clippers assembled their players for their annual media day gathering, the same two stars commanded most of the attention.
Rightfully so. If the Clippers are going to be upwardly mobile this season, as many NBA observers believe, it will be Chris Paul and Blake Griffin who take them there.
Paul and Griffin are the foundation of a Clippers team that is one of the favorites to win the league championship. Given their long and sad history, that's saying a lot.
But new coach Doc Rivers, who inherits a team that won a franchise-record 56 games last season, doesn't mind the expectations.
"When you look at the players that are on paper, if we can get them on the floor performing together, I think we can be a special team," he said Monday. "That excites me. We've proven we can win games. What we haven't proven is that we can sustain winning in the playoffs, and that's what we're here for."
The Clippers will open their training camp Tuesday at UC San Diego, where they'll hold two-a-day sessions through Friday before returning to their home training facility. Rivers has used off-site camps in the past as a bonding experience for players before preseason games begin.
Paul and Griffin are hardly strangers, however. They completed their second season together in 2012-13, and Paul opted to return to the team after becoming a free agent, signing a five-year, $107-million max deal in July.
If there was one factor that convinced him to return, it was Rivers, who left the Boston Celtics to join the Clippers following some complicated negotiations between the two teams.
Rivers is respected as a player's coach – a term he said he doesn't quite understand – but in their first meeting, Paul said Rivers was fairly blunt with him.
"He pretty much told me that I wasn't anything," Paul said. "He told me I hadn't done anything in this league, and he was right. So you don't always want somebody who's going to tell you everything you want to hear. As professional athletes, you want someone who will push you and motivate you."
Rivers will do that. His primary aim is to take the Clippers to a higher level, a place they thought they could reach last season until they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Now, the expectations are back, but rather than win a division title, the Clippers will need to advance to the Western Conference finals to justify the money they've spent signing Rivers and Paul and adding players such as J.J. Redick, Darren Collision and Jared Dudley to a cast that included Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes.
"We have higher expectations for ourselves than anybody else," Griffin said. "But at the same time, we don't have any championships. We haven't really accomplished anything yet. We don't feel like we've arrived."
Rivers understands the importance of Paul and Griffin to his team's success. He talks about a need to improve the team's transition defense and three-point defense, but he also knows those improvements will come as Griffin grows.
"One guy that has stood out to me is Blake, sitting in my office and looking down on him and watching him work," Rivers said. "I knew he was a worker, I just didn't know it was to the extent he's shown this summer. He's put in a lot of time. He gets involved with a lot of stuff, but nothing gets in the way of his basketball. That shows me a great sign of maturity."
Griffin, who often yielded to Paul or sixth man Jamal Crawford when it was time to take over a game, said he intends to take on a bigger role when his team needs a basket in the fourth quarter.
"I need to step up and be one of those guys we can count on at the end of games," he said. "I think we put a lot on CP to make plays for us. This is a year where I feel, for us to take that next step and get where we want, I need to make sure I'm a guy we can always count on, and not just scoring-wise, but also defensively and making things happen."
Paul had another brilliant season, averaging 16.9 points and 9.7 assists, but Rivers said he would focus on helping his point guard improve defensively.
"He's an all-star and a genius," Rivers said of Paul. "I'm dumb enough, or smart enough, to know not to get in the way of that. But we can help him too. We want to make things easier for him, especially in transition offensively. Defensively, I know I can help him do some things differently. But you never want to get in the way of guys and what they do.
"I want to try to figure out a way for him to be great, Blake to be great, (Jordan) to be great, and we all flourish as a team because of that. That's my goal."
But no matter what happens in the next few weeks leading up to their season opener Oct. 29 against the Lakers at Staples Center, the Clippers won't be able to avoid the notion that they must do great things this season.
If they don't, it will be viewed as unfulfilled expectations.
"I've always thought I would rather be with a group that has high expectations than a group that doesn't," Rivers said. "Are we ready to embrace that? I don't know yet, but that's what we're going to go on this journey and find out.
"But I think we are."