In many ways, this summer is reminiscent of six years ago for Doc Rivers. He is rejuvenated, having taken a new position with the Clippers, and like he did in Boston in 2007, compiling players for a potential championship run.
Chris Paul re-signed. J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley were acquired. Matt Barnes came back. Darren Collison and Byron Mullens were added to an already talented core that includes Blake Griffin and even DeAndre Jordan. Jordan was close to becoming a Celtic in a deal for Kevin Garnett, but the league stepped in and he’s back as a cornerstone in Los Angeles.
There are expectations. The Clippers are supposed to win this season. Rivers is supposed to make the difference, the first time since Larry Brown manned the bench 20 years ago that the Clippers have a frontline coach, not a retread, not someone willing to take owner Donald Sterling’s lowball offer. Rivers is earning $7 million per season, the same salary he had with the Celtics, and has been working feverishly to learn a new organization and devise ways to maximize its talent.
“I learned a lot from that situation [in 2007], and what we learned was the most important part of that was the chemistry part,” Rivers said. “As important as Kevin [Garnett], Ray [Allen], and Paul [Pierce] were, I thought Leon Powe and Glen Davis were huge for us. Obviously, [Rajon] Rondo was big, but so was Sam Cassell, James Posey, P.J. Brown, and Eddie House. We don’t win it without them, not only because they were good players but they were the right type of people in the locker room. So, learning that and figuring that out, clearly we’re trying to do that in Los Angeles right now. We’ve still got some holes to fill, and it may take another year to do that, I don’t know.”
Paul let it be known that Rivers joining the Clippers was critical to the point guard returning on a maximum contract. But Paul is also known as a headstrong leader who can clash with coaches. The relationship between Rivers and Paul is paramount to the Clippers’ success.
“It is very similar to Rondo. I mean, Rondo was such a smart player,” Rivers said. “And so far from being around Chris, they do really remind me a lot of each other in their basketball IQ, and it’s really refreshing. Chris can already recite plays that we’ve run. He was talking about the out-of-timeout plays that we’ve always run in Boston. So, he’s got a keen eye for the game. I tell people all the time that Rondo did the same stuff. He knows as many of the opponent’s plays as the opponent does. Chris Paul has turned out to be the exact same way.”
Rivers said he has spent a good portion of the summer breaking down game video and trying to learn about his new players. He said he already had analyzed 42 of the Clippers’ 82 regular-season games, and was going to do the same with the final 40 regular-season and six playoff games.
“We have to play catch-up in that respect,” Rivers said. “I have to figure out why they were so good at times and why they struggled at times. They were a streaky team last year and we’ve got to figure out how to be more consistent.”
And with Jordan, Rivers has his first legitimate and healthy center since Kendrick Perkins manned the middle for the Celtics three years ago. Jordan has been criticized for his lack of offensive prowess other than dunking off pick-and-rolls, but Rivers sees an upside.
“DeAndre, in my opinion, should be, and I think he will be, on the all-defensive team,” Rivers said. “And I think he has a chance to be defensive player of the year. But he has to commit to that, and I think he wants to. And I think Blake should be one of those guys, as well. He should be a two-way player even more. I think we have the chance that we can help him into that, as well.”
Rivers’s move to Los Angeles may appear to be drastic, but his daughter Callie already lives there, and son Jeremiah may head there following his basketball career to pursue music. With Austin Rivers playing for the New Orleans Pelicans, the lone Rivers child remaining in Orlando is son Spencer, who is blossoming as a player and will be a senior at Winter Park High School.
“The toughest part is with Spencer being so far away,” Rivers said. “Spencer, of all our kids, will always be a Celtics fan. I don’t know if we’re going to change him on that. It was like when I left Orlando, even though I got fired, Austin, it was really hard for him not to cheer for the Magic for a long time. Spencer’s favorite player is Kevin Garnett. He’s as upset at the Celtics because they traded his guy. It’s just been a lot of change in his life that way.”
Rivers enjoyed a successful run with the Celtics after a rough start, but even the good times included some disappointments. The Celtics were one win from another championship in 2010, but dropped Games 6 and 7 of the Finals in Los Angeles. Two years later, they were one win away from facing the Thunder in the Finals, before LeBron James’s amazing 45-point performance for the Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, and then a fourth-quarter collapse in Game 7.
“I’ll use everything that I learned in Boston for the rest of my life,” Rivers said. “That will always be part of my fabric. Everything you learn about winning, and losing, because we did some of that when we first got there. You’re always growing as a coach and I am not done growing, and hopefully I’m not done winning.”
LOOKING TO REBOUND
Improvement on Lee’s mind
There are only two non-rookies on the Celtics with contracts past the 2014-15 season, Jeff Green and Courtney Lee. Lee is coming off an admittedly disappointing season, when he was supposed to replace Ray Allen as the starting shooting guard and instead was relegated to the bench by Doc Rivers, and played a bit part in the playoff series against the Knicks.
The Celtics sacrificed a lot to get Lee, agreeing to a four-year contract, as well as moving former first-round pick JaJuan Johnson, improving guard E’Twaun Moore, and ex-Boston College center Sean Williams. After averaging a career-low 7.8 points per game and shooting 37.2 percent from the 3-point arc after being at least 40 percent the previous two seasons, Lee said he is ready to atone. He also said he is not bothered by the changes the Celtics have made.
“Change is good. It was a busy summer so far, and we’re still going to have a group of guys who are going to go out there and compete,” Lee said. “That’s all you can ask for. A lot of people are writing us off, but that’s only going to motivate us. Even with the injuries this past season, a lot of people were like, ‘There’s no way they can make the playoffs,’ and we just went out there and just played for each other and played hard and made a run at it.”
Lee was personally recruited by Rivers to come to the Celtics. That led to a sign-and-trade deal with the Rockets, who were clearing salary-cap space to make their first run at Dwight Howard.
“Danny [Ainge] did a good job getting a coach with a winning track record,” Lee said of Brad Stevens. “He knows what it takes to win, been in a situation where he’s changed a program, and hopefully he can come in and do that with us.”
Lee said he took no time off following the playoffs, and has been working to regain his offensive touch. Lee never got comfortable last season with his changing roles. Rivers lost confidence in Lee as a starter, moved Jason Terry into the starting lineup, and Lee’s playing time fluctuated. He averaged less than 10 minutes per game and did not play in two of the six playoff games.
“The only way to correct having an up-and-down season is hard work,” Lee said. “I have been getting my shot back, a lot of shooting. There was a lot of inconsistency last year as far as roles, not knowing when I was going in or coming out, or with myself, I wasn’t playing at the level I was capable of and I was used to playing at.”
There could be more roster changes before the season begins, but as of now, the Celtics believe they have a playoff-caliber team with Rondo, Green, Lee, Kris Humphries, Jared Sullinger, Keith Bogans, and Gerald Wallace.
“We have a team of scrappers that compete every night. Nobody is into themselves, everybody is going to be for the team and we’re going to go out there and just play,” Lee said. “When you do that, everything will fall into place. People are writing us off. They consider us being an underdog in every situation we go into, so that’s going to work for us when we come out there and when we start winning games. I think that’s going to change.”
Lee said he can see the improvement in his game and increase in his confidence. Without championship aspirations for the team, Lee will enter this season without the pressure of having to replace a future Hall of Famer.
“Everybody on the team is going to have a chance to step up,” Lee said. “With everybody’s offseason work, it’s definitely going to help us this year. I think we’re going to approach this season with a fresh attitude.”
Wrapped up in the future
There is hope in Toronto, and pressure on coach Dwane Casey, as the Raptors enter a playoffs-or-bust year in the first full season together for Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry. In addition, the Raptors will welcome back improved center Jonas Valanciunas, who averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds in four summer league games.
“Summer league was for him,” Casey said of Valanciunas. “Also for him learning to play against athleticism, speed, and quickness. Teams that are double-teaming him in a quick way where we had to make quick decisions. This was more of an NBA style of talent, an NBA style of athleticism he had to go against, which I felt like was his biggest challenge. He has a good rhythm against the European basketball players; no disrespect but it’s different when you’re going against the 6-7, 6-8 athletic-type player. He did a good job making quicker decisions.
“We threw him out to the wolves early [last season] and he wasn’t ready. It’s a learning curve. He had to go through that. It was our goal coming into [last season] that we had to get this young man ready. It did cost us some games early, and we knew that going in. But after he got a good rhythm and continued to develop confidence, he improved.”
What impressed scouts was Valanciunas’s improved footwork and confidence. He has played well for the Lithuanian national team, but struggled in his first NBA season.
“He has developed into the type of player we can go to on a consistent basis, far more than we did last year,” Casey said. “He’s done a good job this summer not only scoring out of the low post, but did a good job of reading defenses, understanding when to pass, when to attack. His defense has gotten better against the quicker athletes and gauging the speed of the NBA. He’s going to get a big portion of the offense run through him, around him, and not only just to score out of the low post but to quarterback.”
With new general manager Masai Ujiri retaining Casey, the onus is on the coach to push the Raptors to their first playoff appearance since 2008. The Raptors improved dramatically toward the end of last season, and with the Eastern Conference wide open, there could be several new playoff teams.
Casey said this is a critical summer for his young players.
“We’re not going to change too dramatically offensively and defensively,” he said. “But it gives these guys an opportunity to get to Ground One together. Rudy came in midstream during the season last year and was doing everything on the fly and didn’t have an opportunity to come through training camp with the guys, so it’s going to be huge from Day One. We were with Rudy for a week in Las Vegas, he was out there having workouts with us. That was a huge first step that we didn’t have last summer. That’s going to be a great start for us, putting those guys together.
“DeMar is having a great opportunity this summer as far as his growth with the national team is concerned.”
Casey said DeRozan has worked on his 3-point shooting, which has been abysmal (career 23.9 percent).
“That’s one of the major emphases that he had this summer, and spending time with him the last couple of weeks he’s really improved,” Casey said. “The challenge for DeMar is doing it when the popcorn is popping at 7 o’clock at night, to make sure he makes those shots then. It’s a big change to have those 3-point threats, and with a low-post guy like Jonas and adding a guy like Steve Novak, one of the best 3-point shooters in the world, is going to help.”
After speculation that he may only be offered a one-year deal, former Celtics guard Nate Robinson agreed to a two-year contract with the Nuggets. Although Robinson flourished with the Bulls last season as a reserve who played major minutes in the playoffs, his role would have been minor this season with the return of Derrick Rose and a healthy Kirk Hinrich. In Denver, Robinson will back up Ty Lawson . . . The Celtics were once potential suitors for oft-injured center Greg Oden, who has been working out for teams in the hopes of a return, but they have backed out because of their signing of Vitor Faverani. To sign Faverani, the Celtics split their non-taxpayer midlevel exception of $5.15 million to facilitate the $2 million-per-year contract. The Celtics used their full non-taxpayer midlevel last season on Jason Terry, but were able to dump that contract on the Nets . . . Terry, meanwhile, said his left knee, which required surgery four days after the season, caused so much discomfort in February that he considered surgery during the All-Star break that would have cost him at least two months. Terry said the knee was one reason for his struggles last season . . . One of the biggest surprises of the Las Vegas Summer League was lanky Hawks big man Lucas Nogueira. Considered a few years away from being ready for the NBA, the 7-footer was a shot-blocking presence. Nogueira, who played in Spain the last three years, was supposed to return for another season but is expected to be at Hawks training camp . . . The Timberwolves’ Shabazz Muhammad showed during summer league he may have a difficult transition to the NBA, especially with officials. Muhammad averaged just 8.5 points per game on 36.5 percent shooting, and spent considerable time complaining to officials about the physicality of games. Muhammad will have to find a position, small forward or shooting guard . . . After a stellar performance in the Las Vegas Summer League title game for Golden State, guard Ian Clark has drawn interest from several teams.