Doc Rivers knows what it’s like to be an NBA point guard. Perhaps that is why he is so patient with them, which is a good thing. Patience is a virtue Rivers will need with the Clippers.
In one of the overlooked aspects of the coach’s move west, Rivers traded one mercurial point guard, Rajon Rondo, for another, Chris Paul. Rivers went to great lengths to convince people that his relationship with Rondo had nothing to do with his departure from Boston, and he had better be telling the truth. He won’t find Paul any easier to deal with.
These are the compromises you make when you are chasing a championship. Rivers knows his relationships with his players won’t all be as seamless as those he enjoyed with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. He realizes he will clash with some, especially the really good ones, among the younger generation of NBA stars. Something changed in the high school and AAU basketball culture in the late 1990s, and it wasn’t good.
Rivers is therefore ready to patient. He had better be, because despite all the raving about the Clippers’ recent moves, from securing Rivers’ services to receiving a promise from Paul to re-sign to a maximum contract, the most star-crossed franchise in major professional sports will not open the 2013-14 season as the favorite to win the NBA championship.
Really, everybody with the ability for objective thought understands this. Maybe we are just drunk in the hoopla surrounding the very public courting of Rivers and Paul, but let’s pull back a minute. The Clippers won a single playoff series in the last two seasons — the same number as the Philadelphia 76ers — added Rivers, subtracted a couple of solid veterans and at some point figure to deal away Eric Bledsoe, one of the best backup point guards in the league. Even if the Clippers add a defensive-minded wing like Arron Afflalo, they will have made no more than a series of lateral moves roster-wise.
This does not mean the Clippers have not taken a step forward, or that they will not develop into a title contender over the course of the season. Rivers’ presence alone means they will be greatly improved on defense, with DeAndre Jordan finally getting a coach who can mold him into a potential defensive monster. Jamal Crawford is the instant-offense reserve guard Rivers has yearned for the last three seasons, making the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year one of the new toys Rivers has to be most excited about. Blake Griffin, who has regressed at worst, stagnated at best since his monster rookie year, could get back to the 20-10 level now that he has a coach who actually knows how to operate a pro offense.
Despite all that, it would be a mistake to think Rivers, Paul and the Clips will have it easy. Remember all the trouble LeBron James and Chris Bosh had coexisting with Dwyane Wade that first year in Miami? The Clippers aren’t adding the same caliber of on-court talent, but they will surely be revamping the system, to the extent that what Vinny Del Negro had in place can be called a “system.” The Clippers did boast the second-longest winning streak in the NBA last season at 17 straight games, but that was fool’s gold. Even Rivers tacitly mocked that streak during his introductory news conference, noting that the next step was to be more than a regular season behemoth.
People with long memories will be wary of buying into the Clippers too soon. There was a lot of preseason excitement in Clipperland in the 2002 preseason, after all, when the stacked young core of Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Andre Miller and Corey Maggette looked ready to break through, only to fall flat on their faces en route to 27 wins. Although it’s a different sport, it is hard not to see some uneasy similarities between the Clippers and last year’s Miami Marlins disaster: new big-name coach/manager, lots of offseason splash, dirt-cheap owner promising to have changed his ways. Look at how that worked out.
In all likelihood, the Clippers are going to be pretty good. They will probably not challenge the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs for the Western Conference’s top seed. If Dwight Howard signs with the Rockets, the Clippers will also have a tough time catching them. The Memphis Grizzlies still figure to be pretty good — possibly better, considering they will have a full season without Rudy Gay — and the Nuggets and Warriors will be a tough first-round playoff out for one of the high seeds.
No matter what the Clippers may envision, they will not enjoy a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They have taken positive steps for the third consecutive season, and that could pay off next June. But if the Clippers fancy themselves a title favorite, there are five or six established contenders who think the upstart Clips should wait their turn.