LOS ANGELES – Seven months after star forward Blake Griffin declared his team’s big-top “Lob City” circus dead and gone, the Los Angeles Clippers arrive back in the playoffs, winners of 57 regular-season games.
That’s one more than a season ago, when they also set a club record for victories but got thumped out of the playoffs by Memphis in the first round.
This time, they have traded for a new coach and month by month seemingly added a veteran free agent to a team that now must prove it has the substance as well as the style to finally go a long way in springtime.
The Clippers had stars Griffin and Chris Paul connecting on alley-oop passes a year ago, too, as well as those 56 regular-season victories before that hasty playoff exit got coach Vinny Del Negro ousted.
But now they have replaced Del Negro with Doc Rivers, deemed so valuable for his playoff experience and “Ubuntu” that the Clippers surrendered an unprotected 2015 first-round pick to secure his contractual release from the Boston Celtics, the team Rivers led to the 2008 NBA title.
Ubuntu is the South African word and concept — essentially a belief in a universal bond that connects all humanity — that Rivers borrowed from the late Nelson Mandela and made the rallying cry of his championship team in Boston.
Those Celtics players broke huddles yelling the word and had it inscribed on their championship rings. Rivers hasn’t brought it center stage to Los Angeles like that, but he has brought it nonetheless with a coaching manner intended to transform the Clippers from a collection of stars into a title team through improved defense and togetherness.
Rivers calls it a “oneness” he is seeking from a roster that still has Paul lobbing passes to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
“We’re at our best when we’re running,” Paul said.
But the Clippers believe they are different from the team that lost in six playoff games a year ago. They believe that both because of the growth demanded by Rivers — with his call for resiliency and that all players share their teammate’s joy when he is doing well and feel his pain when he is not — and his nurturing of the games of Griffin and Jordan and because of Rivers’ dual role in player-personnel decisions that has remade the team’s roster this last year.
As senior vice president for basketball operations, Rivers engineered summertime deals that brought veterans J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to Los Angeles, and his presence helped convince free agents Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and Danny Granger to sign for a veteran’s minimum salary with a team overextended on the league’s salary cap.
Now, with a first-round matchup against Golden State ahead, comes a postseason in which the Clippers have never advanced beyond the second round.
“I think we’re in good position,” Griffin said. “We’ve been preparing for this for the whole year almost.”
Griffin has transformed himself from a fairly one-dimensional high flyer into a league MVP candidate by using Paul’s 18-game absence earlier this season because of a separated shoulder to prove he can do more than run and dunk. He kept the Clippers in the Western Conference race during that time by displaying a well-rounded game that guided his team to a 12-6 record in those 18 games.
They finished third in the West, behind San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
“I don’t know if it was a blessing,” Rivers said when asked about proverbial silver linings. “In some ways, it helped Blake. I think Blake would have gotten here anyway, in my opinion. It might have taken a little longer this year, but he would have arrived exactly where he is at this point. You knew we went 12-6, but you can also look at that stretch and say if we went 14, 15 [victories], we’d be a different seed and in a different place. So you can look at it in a lot of different ways.”
Either way, Griffin is a different player now than in October, when he declared the Clippers’ own particular brand of showtime basketball over in a city where the 16-time NBA champion Lakers always have ruled.
“They say players are made in the offseason,” Sacramento coach Mike Malone said. “For Blake to be getting better as the season goes on, that’s a testament to his work ethic.”
And then there’s Paul, who keeps doing what he has always done in being the NBA’s best point guard.
So how hard can it be to coach a team that has two All-Stars and considerably more depth than it did a year ago?
“It’s not as easy as people think,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. “Doc, Gregg Popovich … people with talent, they don’t get the credit they deserve. Even if you have talent in this league, you’ve got to get those guys to come together. You’ve got to get them to buy in. You’ve got to find a way to get them to play as a team.”
And that is why the Clippers, reportedly at Paul’s direction, convinced Rivers to leave the aging Celtics for a Clippers team coming into its prime.
Seven seasons ago, Rivers won only 24 games with a Celtics team that transformed itself by adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen alongside Paul Pierce the next summer. He has coached teams at both extremes and considers talented and experienced teams easier to coach, of course.
But for this reason:
“At the end of the day, it’s still the same sell,” Rivers said. “You have to get them to buy into a team. I’ve had some teams that aren’t very talented that have done pretty well and then some that haven’t. I always thought the more talented teams were easier to sell a role because it’s about winning. Less-talented teams are harder in a strange way because each guy is like, ‘Well, we’re losing, why do you play him over me?’ Everybody’s trying to find their own thing and very few of those types of teams are worried about the team, and that’s difficult.”
Soon, the Clippers might know just how good a salesman Rivers is.