Four weeks before training camp begins, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers takes a deep breath after what has been a franchise-altering offseason. He ponders the possibilities with his revamped lineup.
On one Friday night in July, the identity of the Clippers changed dramatically when two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard agreed to sign with the team if it could also acquire fellow All-Star Paul George, which the Clippers did in a matter of hours.
The Clippers sacrificed two starters and a litany of draft picks, but Leonard and George were a more than worthy return. They were two Los Angeles-area products who had dreams of playing close to home and chose the Clippers — not the rival and more storied Lakers — to fulfill their vision.
Just like 12 years ago when the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce, Rivers has inherited two potential Hall of Fame players to help chase an elusive championship for an organization that was once an NBA laughingstock.
Rivers is doing the laughing now, and he has been consumed with trying to ensure his team is prepared for the expected title run.
“Before the season starts you want to put in every ounce of energy you can to take away anything that could be an issue or a distraction and make sure you staff is ready and understands their role and that they need to lead these guys,” Rivers told the Globe. “It’s a hell of a journey. It’s a hard journey. [But] it’s a great place to be.”
The past few years Rivers has received Coach of the Year consideration for leading teams that were hardly championship caliber. He pushed an injury-riddled club that had just traded Blake Griffin to the verge of making the playoffs in 2017-18. This past season, the Clippers were able to take two games from the Warriors in their first-round playoff series.
The Clippers moved contracts and saved salary cap space with the express purpose of going after Leonard. They proceeded to acquire George, and suddenly the Clippers were thrust into the role of championship contenders.
Rivers knows from his Celtics days how to lead teams with high expectations.
“It’s not the superstar power. I don’t care about that. It’s about having a team that you really think can compete for a title,” he said. “Having a team with superstars that you don’t believe can compete for a title is nothing. There’s a difference. Because there are teams we all have seen that, and been around and had, you may have that one superstar but you’re not winning it. And you’re a realist in that.
“And then you have teams that have enough, where you have superstars or a lot of great players, where you feel like you do have a shot. That’s a different mind-set. The teams over the last couple of years, the goal is to compete every night, trying to win that single game and see how many of those games you can win and all those games, that’s the mind-set.
“When you have a title team, you still have that mind-set you’re trying to win every night, but there’s a bigger purpose that you know what’s out there but you have to put in the work and the time, the commitment, you have to get them to grow together, to play together. You have to have cooperation. Teams that don’t want to do that don’t win, that’s a fact.”
Leonard is the league’s biggest enigma. He refrains from marketing himself or displaying any of his personality publicly. His free agency was clouded in mystery because it was uncertain what exactly Leonard was looking for. In the end, going home to Los Angeles (he’s from nearby Riverside) and playing with George were foremost priorities.
The affable Rivers, who has coached all types of personalities, now has to bond with a player who is very little like his NBA contemporaries. Leonard’s style is truly unique.
“From afar, he reminds me a lot of Kevin [Garnett],” Rivers said. “He reminds me of a quiet version of Kevin. Imagine a Kevin Garnett that didn’t talk — his actions are why we followed Kevin. As verbal as Kevin was and as expressive as he was, if he didn’t follow through with his actions, none of that verbal stuff would have worked. So to me, from afar, he reminds me a lot of Kevin that way in that he tends to want to show you by example. That’s the best leadership.”
Rivers said he has no master plan for coaching Leonard. He will go by experience and go by feel.
“I don’t go into it knowing one way or another. My job is to get to know him first and how he plays, what makes him play better and how well he makes the team play better,” Rivers said. “We have a group of guys in my opinion from afar that fit [Leonard and George]. Tough, gritty mind-set, with Lou [Williams] and Pat Beverley and Montrezl [Harrell]. We have a lot of guys that kind of fit each other, but you get into the gym and you don’t know if it fits or not. I like the group and I like how they’re constructed.”
So the question for Rivers is whether he allows his team, filled with veterans ready to win a title, to form their own bond or does he treat this group delicately, knowing the high stakes?
“It’s funny, you can’t let them figure it out too much and you have to let them figure it out some. Every team is different in that,” Rivers said. “An old saying Chuck Daly used to tell me, ‘Sometimes you’ve got to wait on them and sometimes you’ve got to go get them.’ And the key to that is knowing when to wait and knowing when to go get them.
“There’s certain characteristics that you just have to have. You have to play together, you have to play hard, and you have to compete. You have to buy in. You really don’t have a choice.”
The Clippers are one of the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. They have the talent. They have the coaching, having just added former NBA championship-winning coach Tyronn Lue to their staff, and they have the experience.
Still, most of the Clippers have never played together before. Leonard is used to a load-management schedule. George is coming off double shoulder surgery. The Clippers have their issues, but they are good issues to have and Rivers is highly comfortable with the role of a favorite. But now with a team that’s never won anything.
“It’s great [to have a target on the back] for this team. It’s exhausting for a championship team because it usually happens to a team that’s won already,” he said. “In 2008, it was really Detroit who we [the Celtics] had targeted and then the Lakers we had targeted. Last year, it was Golden State clearly that everybody was trying to be, and this year it’s kind of open because the team that won it in Toronto, their best player left.
“So it’s open. It’s us. It’s the Lakers. It’s Golden State. It’s Boston. It’s a bunch of teams. We clearly are one that teams will target. It reminds me of that Miami team that hadn’t won it yet [in 2010] with LeBron [James] and [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh but they still were the target.
“In my opinion, in 2009, we had won it already. We knew teams were going to attack us and we were ready for it, but it was exhausting because we had just come off a title.
“We haven’t played since the middle of May, but teams are going to try to come after us. I think that’s a good thing. I think we need that. It will teach us hopefully every night you have to be ready. In the long run, if we can get through it, it will prepare us for the march. If we can’t get through it, we won’t get there anyway.”
Celtics’ Williams takes next step
Robert Williams is pretty much the forgotten man in the Celtics’ frontline rotation. One of the biggest offseason questions is how the Celtics will replace Al Horford. They will have to do it by committee, and Williams wants to be part of that group, along with Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier, and Daniel Theis.
Williams reported to the summer league team looking bigger than last season and with a large tattoo covering his Adam’s apple, reading “LOE”. It was a major step for Williams in his quest for full maturity. He spent his rookie season often injured or playing in short spurts.
For Williams, the 2018-19 season was more of a learning experience off the floor, about life as a professional and grown man. When he returned home to Vivian, La., Williams made the decision along with four of his friends to “LOE” tattoos as a means of bonding and to cement their friendship and commitment to each other.
“It’s LOE — loyalty over everything,” Williams said. “It took an hour, an hour and 20 minutes [to get done]. It hurt bad as hell, though. Loyalty means a lot, you know what I’m saying, more than family at times. Not everybody is going to be loyal to you, so I try to live by loyalty. Me and all my homeboys, we try to live by loyalty, be loyal to this game and it’s going to pay you back. You’ve just got to be loyal throughout everything.”
To say Williams experienced an interesting rookie season would be an understatement. He was tabbed “Timelord” because he was late for a media conference call and for his first summer league practice. He rented a condo near the team’s practice facility to make sure he was never late to practice again and spent much of his rookie season learning.
The tattoo serves as a symbol of his adulthood, his second major step of independence after the birth of his daughter, Ava, during the 2018-19 season.
One of the most difficult parts of seeking independence was walking into his parents’ home after getting such a profound tattoo.
“I’m grown now; my mom was just looking at it. She always told me if I was going to get neck tattoos, just at least wait until I got here [to the NBA],” Williams said. “At least I was old enough to where she can’t say nothing to me. My dad, he hates tattoos. He doesn’t even want to look at it but like I said, I’m grown now.
“I was supposed to get it a year ago, but I never had the time. I went back home at the beginning of the summer and I said I might as well go ahead and get it if this is what I am going to live by, my brand. I had to stamp it.”
“Loyalty over everything” is a constant reminder to Williams to be faithful despite all of the change and upheaval with the Celtics. Williams watched many of his teammates from his rookie season depart, including close friend Terry Rozier.
“Loyalty over everything is something we’ve been trying to live by since we’ve been younger,” Williams said. “But I feel like as far as the maturity level, I’ve been watching the crazy stuff [in the offseason] happen, watching the opportunity that’s in front of me — after being in the NBA knowing what could happen as far as injuries, trades, and all that stuff. It’s a lot of opportunity and I had to grow up.”
Fatherhood has also matured Williams. He is just 21 years old, but Williams said he understands that he is no longer alone on this NBA journey. Ava depends on him and he fully accepts that responsibility.
“It’s the best thing ever. I love my daughter. I love my daughter to death; I’d do anything for her,” he said. “I feel like she’s the main motivation. You want them to have everything. You want to see her smile. That’s crazy because it’s the first time I’m experiencing that and the drive is so urgent when you see her. You want to do everything possible for them. So I’m so thankful.
“It’s an amazing feeling. You’re someone’s Superman. You’re someone’s hero. That was a part of growing up, too. It made me want to put an emphasis on changing my ways and bettering myself for her. I’m going to be her hero. I want her to learn the right way and set a great example.
“This free agency is kind of like, yeah I’ve got to be prepared for anything in this league and everything that comes with it. It’s a grown man’s league, for sure.”
Williams’s role next season is uncertain, but he promises to be prepared for any opportunity. That’s part of his loyalty to the Celtics and becoming a productive NBA player.
Former NBA first-round pick Royce White made headlines this past week when he said former All-Star Carmelo Anthony was being blackballed by the league as he continues to seek work. White then criticized the Lakers’ signing of Jared Dudley, the former Boston College standout who has turned into a locker room presence and solid veteran. Dudley shot back at White by questioning why White would bring down one player to uplift another. Dudley’s value is more in being a spot player, solid leader, and professional. Dudley was interested in playing for the Celtics, but Boston refrained because it had enough wings and wanted to save its remaining roster spot. White, who played in the Big3, also got into a Twitter exchange with Kendrick Perkins, who criticized White for his criticism of Dudley. White left the NBA because of struggles with mental health and doesn’t appear to be any closer to a return because of episodes such as this, during which he said he would slap anyone who thought Anthony isn’t a better player than Dudley . . . For those Celtics fans worried about fatigue for the team’s four players on Team USA participating in the FIBA World Cup, training camp and the regular season begins a week later than last year. If the US was to advance to the gold medal game on Sept. 15 in China, the quartet of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker would have two full weeks off to rest before training camp begins. The Celtics also play just four preseason games, the first on Oct. 6, giving the players even more time to rest before the Oct. 23 season opener against the 76ers. Team officials are hoping that the quartet reports to training camp with more cohesion and confidence after last year’s miserable Celtics season. Smart and Walker were named captains of the Team USA squad, while Tatum and Brown also officially made the final roster on Saturday. Spurs guard Derrick White, who didn’t play until the final minutes in a win over Australia, was thought to have been a candidate to be the final player cut, until the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma went down with an ankle injury. Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox withdrew from consideration this past week, reportedly because he thought Team USA coach Gregg Popovich would favor White for a roster spot.