When Doc Rivers took over as Los Angeles Clippers coach in the summer of 2013, it was presumed by many that the Clippers were due to take a leap into the realm of championship contenders, not unlike the leap the Chicago Bulls made when they replaced former coach Vinny Del Negro with Tom Thibodeau, a former Rivers assistant, in 2010. Del Negro had led the Clippers to the two best winning percentages in the franchise’s history in 2012 and 2013, but he seemed to lack the organizational and motivational skills that could put a team over the top. Rivers, who won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and led the team to a Finals appearance in 2010, is seen to be the sort of guy to put teams over the top.
The “over the top” status won’t be fully revealed until the playoffs, when the Clippers are hoping to build on their 2012 second round showing and pass on repeating their 2013 first round ouster. Rivers has the Clips on pace for 58 wins in the loaded West, but that isn’t exactly a massive, Thibodeau-styled improvement over last season’s 56-win campaign. Still, the Clippers still feel like a championship contender this time around, with Blake Griffin developing into a top five player, and DeAndre Jordan contributing better play on both sides of the court.
One thing it was presumed that Rivers didn’t have to worry about was the play of Chris Paul, generally regarded as the NBA’s best floor leader. Paul has put up gaudy stats for years, but he’s only been to the second round of the playoffs twice, losing both times. According to Kate Fagen, who penned a fantastic profile about the Clippers and their coach for ESPN the Magazine, Rivers charged himself with asking the league’s best point guard to be less point guard-y:
"I think Chris realized last year in the playoffs, holding the ball, getting double-teamed, getting down to late shot clocks every time, you're not going to win that way," Rivers says. "Movement, quick decisions, pulling it and swinging it and trusting the pass -- that makes Chris impossible to guard. And I think he realizes it now."
At the start of the season, Paul pushed back. He was used to having the ball in his hands for the majority of every possession, controlling the rhythm of the offense with his dribble. Rivers was asking him to give up the ball early and only sometimes get it back later, requiring a new level of trust in his teammates.
And then Rivers asked for even more. When Paul was sidelined with a shoulder injury for 18 games in January and February, Rivers urged him to consider giving up the ball even earlier, while still in the backcourt. Paul smiles thinking about the term Rivers used: the hockey assist. "Sometimes it's about the pass that leads to the pass," says Paul, a seven-time All-Star who was averaging 18.8 points and 10.9 assists through March 25. "It's been fun, passing the ball ahead to Blake, letting him push it and make plays. It's not always about the assist."
The Clippers have the league’s best statistical offense as a result, but let’s not pass CP3 off as some sort of demure, John Paxson-type just yet.
Paul is actually averaging more assists per minute this year than he did under Del Negro. His usage rate his gone up slightly, and his assist percentage (the amount of possessions he uses up that end with an assist) is still tops in the NBA at just under 50 percent. The guy is still getting his dimes.
It is true, though, that he isn’t dominating the ball as much, weaving in and out of the lane, dribbling out the shot clock before ascending to “Point God” status. The Clippers’ possessions per game count has shot way up from 19th last year under Del Negro to seventh with Rivers at the helm.
This isn’t to discredit Blake Griffin’s brilliant season, and his growth into an even more frightening version of his previous self, but this goes far beyond Griffin’s all-around impact and ability to lead an offense.
This is about building something bigger than the sum of its parts, something Rivers preached in figurative terms in Boston with his “Ubuntu” chants, and something he’s laying into literal practice with the league’s best offense. Yes, more often than not, a Chris Paul-dominant offense will be able to secure a great look at a basket, but in encouraging a five-man attack the Clippers turn into an unpredictable, gestalt-flowin’ offensive juggernaut. The NBA is just too detail-orientated in the modern age to get away with letting one man have all that power.
Even if, statistically, Chris Paul is dominating more than ever. Even if his stats are as good as they’ve ever been.
The great thing here is that the Clippers’ stats are as good as they’ve ever been. Nobody should be shocked if they fail to make it out of the second round in the loaded Western Conference, but Rivers truly has made a difference. Even if Paul’s stats are the same. Even if the win total is only upped by two.
The postseason’s the thing. And if Chris Paul can continue giving the ball up earlier in possessions, letting his teammates have a whirl with things, all while confounding opposing coaches that have to try to win four games in seven tries against the Clippers, then things could truly go over the top in Los Angeles.
It’s about damn time.
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