Doc Rivers admits that not everybody loves Doc. He’s affable. He’s popular in Boston. He wears that bright smile. He still texts with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo on a regular basis.
His six-year tenure with the Los Angeles Clippers has drawn a fair share of criticism and adversaries, including Blake Griffin, who returned to Staples Center last Saturday as a member of the Pistons with not a kind word for anyone involved in his unceremonious trade out of LA.
It wasn’t that Griffin was angered by the trade. He was angry that he heard about it third-person. He was angry that as friendly as Rivers can be, he didn’t bother to pick up the phone and inform his franchise player, tabbed a “Clipper for life” when he signed a five-year, $173 million contract extension in June 2017.
Griffin dropped 44 points on the Clippers in the Pistons’ win, blowing off owner Steve Ballmer, who repeatedly called out Blake’s name during pregame warm-ups, only to have Griffin ignore him.
The Clippers have been one of the league’s surprise teams because of how hard they play and their success despite a lack of premium talent. The Clippers traded Chris Paul, then Griffin, and then allowed DeAndre Jordan to sign with Dallas.
“I haven’t spoken to him,” Rivers said of Griffin. “That’s happened many times in my career, so I don’t make a big deal of that. You guys do, but I don’t at all. I’ve had some guys, even some guys I’m very close to — most trades and departures don’t go very well, for the record. They just don’t. I can cite you 100 of them, Kendrick Perkins [in Boston], who was like my son. Nah, they don’t go well. We all come back eventually.”
Reluctantly, Rivers had to discuss Griffin’s 7½ seasons in Los Angeles, 4½ under his watch.
“I hate legacy questions because I think we should let people finish their careers and then talk about legacy. But we’re too impatient these days because of Twitter accounts,” Rivers said. “But he’s no longer here, so it’s a fair question. Blake got this started. Him and [Jordan], but Blake really did. Six playoffs in a row. Blake and Clippers doesn’t equate to being the winner because we were not that. But it equates to winning. We had a nice run here.
“It was funny, everybody wants to down our run here. You hear anything written about the Clippers, it’s how bad we were or what we didn’t do. We did win a lot. There’s only one winner and that’s hard to accept but that’s a fact. And Blake was part of that.”
The Clippers reached the Western Conference semifinals twice with Griffin, Jordan, and Paul as their nucleus, and lost both times in heartbreaking fashion, including blowing a 3-1 series advantage to Houston in 2015. “Lob City” was never the same after that. The trio began bickering and the Clippers didn’t reach the second round again.
“What I thought I could get us all to do is be a winner,” Rivers said. “And I thought in the first year [2013-14] we bought into that. We had a chance to do that and we failed. After that I thought it got progressively worse, to be honest.
“But Blake individually is the one who started it. We drafted DJ as well, but Blake was the star, he was the dunk contest winner. He wore a Clipper jersey. And now when you hear our name, you don’t think of those bad Clippers teams before Blake. Any success we have in my opinion from this point forward is due to Blake, DJ, and Chris, and in that order.”
Griffin was one of the primary reasons Rivers left the Celtics and accepted the Clippers job. He made it clear he didn’t want to endure another rebuilding project after Garnett and Pierce were traded. But a chance to win in Los Angeles, rivaling the Lakers, and lifting the reputation of one of professional sports’ most ridiculed franchises was too good to pass up.
“Would I have come [had Blake not been here]? Probably not,” said Rivers. “Blake, Chris, and DJ made this job attractive. It was either here or the broadcast booth. That’s where I was leaning toward. I love coaching. Other than [Gregg Popovich] and I, no one has done 20 straight years.”
Griffin offered little emotion in his return. One day he’ll have his No. 32 retired in LA (perhaps the first Clipper to have his number retired), but for now his anger and disappointment remains deeply embedded.
“He’s not my coach anymore,” Griffin said of Rivers. “It was cool to be welcomed back like that [with a tribute video]. I appreciate all the fans. It was nice to get that game out of the way. It’s kind of compared to the first game of the year, in a way. It’s such a big hype, and now you’ve got to play 81 and now we’ve got to play 41 more or whatever it is. It’s over and we’ve got a lot of basketball left.”
CHANGE DID SOME GOOD
Raptors getting best of Leonard
He is probably the most mysterious superstar in professional sports, and he prefers it that way. Kawhi Leonard likes to do his talking on the court. He is an old soul, an old-school athlete that doesn’t live for endorsements or off-court allure. He just wants to ball, and that’s exactly what he’s got this season in Toronto.
Leonard is an MVP candidate, one of the league’s best defenders, and an unstoppable offensive player because of his combination of size, strength, and athleticism. He is not LeBron James, but definitely LeBron-like.
“He’s just a really good player with a lot of experience and I always say this, the thing he cares about most, I get in a lot of conversations with him about his own game and he always cuts me off and says, ‘Coach, I just want to win,’ ” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The guy really cares about winning and he has to check me sometimes when I say we could do this and he says, ‘Coach, whatever we need to do to win.’ ”
Nurse, a first-year head coach and longtime assistant to ex-coach Dwane Casey, had little familiarity with Leonard before the forward arrived in Toronto with Danny Green in the shocking trade that sent DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to the Spurs.
“His talent level is way up there at both ends of the floor, so he’s going to fit in on a lot of teams,” Nurse said of Leonard. “The trade was also kind of a positional trade. DeMar was in that slot, and Kawhi went right into that slot so we didn’t have to move a lot of pieces around.”
Leonard is averaging career highs in points (27.6) and rebounds (7.9), shooting 36.8 percent from the 3-point line, and collecting 2 steals per game. After missing nearly all of last season with the controversial quadriceps injury that hastened his San Antonio departure, Leonard has proven to be durable, while getting the occasional game off for rest.
“I didn’t know a lot about him and I can heap all kinds of praise on him, but he just seems to get better and better each week that goes by,” Nurse said. “He just fits in with the guys, he’s making the right plays. He’s getting triple-teamed and he’s finding guys. He’s taking it to the rim a little more. He’s taking it to the free throw line a little more. He just seems to be improving each week that goes by, which is really exciting for us.”
When he does talk, Leonard prefers to talk about the team.
“You can’t complain. We’re in the No. 1, No. 2 spot. We’re not satisfied with that,” Leonard said of the Raptors’ surprising season. “We’re building for the playoffs. We want to be a good team and just want to be a consistent.”
Defensively, Leonard is among the league’s best, and he relished the opportunity to defend Kyrie Irving on Wednesday in Boston, although Irving burned him in the waning moments, including hitting a 30-foot 3-pointer.
“You have to be very aware [of Irving],” Leonard said. “He gets by his man. You have to find a position or an angle to either try to make a difficult shot for him or make the pass you want out of your defensive rotations. When you play guys like that you have to be mentally ready and have the type of mind-set you’ve been having in every game so you can do it at a higher pace.”
Nurse said the Raptors have remained one of the league’s most consistent teams, yet to lose more than three in a row (and that happened just once), because of their depth and chemistry.
“We’ve got a really good roster,” Nurse said. “I also think that we’ve been able to weather some injury storms because a number of guys have stepped up. We don’t always need Kawhi to get 40. There are nights when he’s in the low 20s and we get chipped in from a lot of guys. Pascal Siakam has been a big part of that. Who would have thought that to start this season when our games are in trouble that we’re running plays for that guy and he’s getting us the over-the-hump bucket, that bucket that kind of keeps things ticking along and maybe gives us new spirit or new life? It’s players, man, they’re good.”
One wrinkle Nurse has thrown in is consistent zone defenses, a move that has helped make Toronto a top 10 defense in scoring and field goal percentage. Nurse said the reason teams don’t play more zone is archaic.
“It’s all machoism, ‘Come on, man, you’ve got to guard your guy. If you can’t guard your guy, then you can’t play defense,’ ” he said. “A lot of it is accountability. ‘Hey, you’re matched up with him, go do your job.’ The zone sometimes moves a lot of pieces around. I think that’s kind of an old coaching thing that continues.”
Team in Europe will have to wait
Every January the NBA plays its London Games, and every year commissioner Adam Silver is asked about possible expansion to Europe. There are several factors that would come into this decision. 1. The time change. How would playing games in London or Paris or Rome on a consistent basis affect the health of NBA players? 2. Could the NBA expand by just one European team and put that team in the Atlantic Division, for instance, with the Celtics, 76ers, Raptors, Knicks, and Nets?
Would teams need extra time off to travel overseas to play games? And how would the league form a schedule for a European team? Would it play extended homestands and road trips to save on travel time? European expansion doesn’t seem feasible, and it’s not high on Silver’s priority list. Heck, the league isn’t even considering expansion to Seattle, Kansas City or Las Vegas at this point.
So, expansion to Europe seems at this point nothing more than a fantasy for Silver because of the logistics. But as long as the NBA keeps flirting across the Atlantic Ocean, he will be peppered with questions about possible European expansion.
“We’ve talked about that over the years. It’s something David Stern often talked about when he was commissioner,” Silver said this past week in London. “One of the obstacles right now is just the travel in terms of the time zones and the impact on the players’ bodies. For example, it’s of course not all that long a flight from the East Coast of the United States to London. It took me six hours to fly here, which is not all that different than flying from the East Coast of the United States to the West Coast. I know now more about the impact of travel on players than we did certainly 10 years ago, and that is that the changing sleep patterns can result in injuries for our players.
“So there’s a limitation in essence in technology right now, and in many ways air travel has gone backward. There used to be a Concorde that was faster. I think this is an area where potentially with faster air transport, or maybe there is a way where we have a European division that sort of plays itself, it’s concentrated, and then they travel at various times.”
And if the NBA does decide to expand, the aforementioned three cities, as well as others such as Louisville, would likely take priority over London. The NBA is doing its best to become a global league, with preseason games planned for India and China next season, but that may be as far as it reaches, at least for now.
“It’s something we will look at over time. I’d say right now, we’ve made a lot of progress in the NBA in terms of creating greater competition throughout the league,” Silver said. “I think this season is a prime example where you have several really good teams, incredible young players coming into the league. So one of the issues with expansion, it’s one thing to talk about adding one, to talk about adding two teams, but to add a whole other division in Europe means then rosters have 15 players. Say you needed a real division, call it six teams, that means that you’re talking about 90 players coming into the league.
“We’re not quite there yet, I think, for that level of expansion to the league in terms of quality play. At the same time, we don’t want to dilute the quality of NBA talent. That’s why my focus right now is building a very strong 30-team league. But it’s something that’s not completely out of the question, and I’m sure we’ll turn back to that at some point.”
The Mavericks are going to have to figure out what to do with point guard Dennis Smith, the No. 3 overall pick in 2017 who turned in a solid rookie season but has lost playing time to star rookie Luka Doncic. Smith showed signs of stardom in his first year, but also had a tendency to freelance, going against coach Rick Carlisle’s system. Smith actually has been slightly better offensively in Year 2 despite playing two fewer minutes per game. But he’s been overshadowed by Doncic, the overwhelming favorite for Rookie of the Year. There would be a handful of interested parties in Smith, including Orlando and Phoenix, two teams seeking a young point guard . . . There will be increasing talk with the trade deadline upcoming on Feb. 7, and remember, players such as Carmelo Anthony and Chandler Parsons are available after being told to stay away from their teams until a deal is consummated. Two other players to watch for on the block are Mavericks swingman Wesley Matthews, who is in the final year of a four-year, $68 million contract, and Bulls center Robin Lopez, who is in the final year of a four-year pact he originally signed with the Knicks. Lopez could have great value because he’s a quality defender and rebounder who doesn’t need the ball. The Bulls would have to take back salary and would likely request draft picks in return. If Lopez isn’t moved, look for the Bulls to buy out his contract. If the Magic were to sink, an interesting player to watch is former first-round pick Terrence Ross, who will be a free agent this summer and makes a cap-friendly $10.5 million. Ross is shooting 39.3 percent from the 3-point line and has always impressed with his athleticism. And he has flourished in a bench role, averaging a career-high 13.9 points, including dropping 25 on the Celtics in a win on Jan. 12.
The Big3 league will expand to 12 teams and play two days a week, an increase from its Friday night slate last season. The plan is for six teams to play in one city and six in another during an 18-city tour. The minimum age for a player has been lowered to 27, and the league is expected to target former Celtic Jared Sullinger.