LOS ANGELES – Doc Rivers is sitting on the veranda overlooking the first tee of the Bel-Air Country Club course, awaiting a Sunday morning round of 18 holes, grateful for the mulligan of his basketball life. When the Los Angeles Clippers lost DeAndre Jordan – and found him again – they found the truth about the fragility of the championship chase. Here today, gone tomorrow.
"Losing him would've always gnawed at me," Rivers told Yahoo Sports. "But it wouldn't have stopped me. I would've said, 'F--- that, we're going to figure out a way to get this right.' But it also triggered something else for me. It might have been my front-office wake-up call. I was not a pleasant guy to me, or my staff, after I thought we lost him – and even after we got him back. We had a lot of 'come-to-Jesus' meetings.
"I told them, and told myself: 'We've got to get f------ better. I don't care if we don't like how this was done, or we thought there was some injustice. We didn't get him. We've got to be f------ better.'
"And we rolled up our sleeves, and we got better. Listen, maybe it's because when we got here, the team was pretty good and we didn't think we had to get that much better. I don't know why. At end of the day, even the way D.J. did it, it turned out to be a blessing for our franchise. For me, it made me understand fully, 'We've got to do this f------ right, and build this team. It's our responsibility.'
"For our team, it probably fast-forwarded something that would've had to start to happen next week in training camp. … The communication."
The communication. This is where Rivers believes he holds so much of the culpability, and where he's most grateful that Jordan returns to these Clippers and everyone gets a second chance together. Here comes Paul Pierce and Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson onto the Clippers, a deeper, better bench and a fuller understanding of how precious of an opportunity this franchise has for itself.
In other words, the Clippers have learned: Don't screw this thing up.
When they beat the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, there was a sense of breakthrough for the Clippers' starry core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan. When they imploded with a 3-1 series lead on the Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals, everything seemed to wash away and all the issues that haunted those three resurfaced again. They left for the summer with Jordan a free agent and the issues unresolved – which included, league sources said, Jordan's belief that Paul would look him off on offense.
At different times together, it's been Paul and Griffin at odds. And then, Paul and Jordan. In this league, this market, there's ego and pride and profile. Every day is a struggle to hold a team together. These Clippers have a chance to chase everything, and Rivers, the president and coach, understands the burden has never fallen so fully onto him.
"I value myself as a communicator and a team builder, and I'm sitting there thinking that I didn't see this [problem] – not to the degree that it was, anyway – and it pissed me off," Rivers says.
He kept thinking about visiting Chuck Daly near the end of his life, remembering someone asking the greatest coaching communicator of all about what he would've done more as a coach if he had the chance again. "I didn't communicate enough," Rivers remembers Daly telling a small group of coaches, and it was a moving reminder that things left unsaid too often become things left undone.
Rivers conceded there was an element of friction within his core of stars, but never a gulf. Looking back, Rivers and Paul had a responsibility to never let Jordan get to July 1 without several serious sit-downs between the All-Star point guard and the developing, young center. Before Jordan ever had the chance to flee for the Dallas Mavericks in free agency, he should've been exhausted of talking things out with Paul. That never happened, until Paul, Rivers and the Clippers organization holed up in his house that July night in Houston.
When the Clippers meet for the start of training camp, Rivers will be sharing with them writer Greg Bishop's cover story in Sports Illustrated on the Seattle Seahawks, about how a crushing end in the Super Bowl nearly tore apart a franchise. Around the Clippers facility, everyone, including teammates, will tell you that they've never seen so much good vibe among Paul, Griffin and Jordan. Nearly losing Jordan – losing a championship contending core – has brought everyone closer.
For now, anyway. For now, in September, when it's easy to get along.
"The byproduct of the DeAndre saga was how we had lost to end the season," Rivers says. "The relationships, yes, that was there too, but the way we lost – that could do in a team. You see many teams in sports that never recover from a loss like that.
"They don't confront it. If you have any of those personality issues, that could be an 'I'm done' episode, for us. 'We didn't win, so I'm not going to deal with this anymore. I can leave.'
"That was a byproduct with [Jordan], but I also think that it's a great example of the peripheral opponent in sports, and how strong that is. You have to talk to each other, because what happens with a lot of guys – and not just on our team – they see what someone writes, or hear someone talking, about this guy and that guy not getting along and here's the reason why. And the reason can be bull---- or it can be real, and that's how it starts. It's so powerful.
"It's incredible to think that Russell Wilson flies his entire team to Hawaii because the defense and the offense refuse to talk to each other. And the reason was because the defense felt that the Seahawks management was trying to get Russell Wilson the MVP. That's the most absurd f------ thing I've ever heard, but if you hear it enough and you don't talk about it, then it becomes reality.
"Everybody's on their phone," Rivers says. "They're on Twitter. This is getting repeated. If the player doesn't have the balls to go confront that guy individually or in the team setting, it's there and it festers."
Rivers still thinks about that championship season with the Boston Celtics (in 2008), and how he and his old assistant coach Tom Thibodeau believe that one of the most important reasons those Celtics formed a brilliant bond was born out of a preseason trip to Italy when players struggled to figure out how to get wireless coverage overseas. Paul Pierce now comes to these Clippers to tell that Celtics story too, and Rivers is resolved that heads down and mouths shut will be the enemy of this team.
"All year, our bus was loud in Boston," Rivers says. "It was old-school loud. Sometimes, you want them to shut the f--- up. But you'd get on the bus, and the chatter, the constant getting on guys, it didn't stop. And then the silence, when you lost, there was the silence.
"These days, you get on the bus and a lot of times they're looking down and talking. Social media and texting has absolutely hurt chemistry. There's no doubt about that. You don't just give into that, though. You get used to it. We all have to."
Eventually, Rivers was on his way to the driving range to try and hit some balls straight, to try and stay in the fairway on a sun-splashed Southern California morning. He's thinking about training camp, and second chances, and the mulligan of his basketball life. Everyone gets a second chance on these Clippers, and there's a part of Doc Rivers that is so grateful that together they had moved so close to the brink of losing out on one of those championship opportunities that come so rarely in the NBA.
"I didn't do my job enough," Rivers says. "You can't take it for granted. You can't leave it for anybody else. Sometimes you've got to get your hands dirty. You've got to get in there and make sure, and you've got to make sure it's not the bull---- talk. Because you get a lot of bull---- talk as a coach. They say, 'No, we're good. No, I'm happy.'
"They've got to communicate with each other, and they've got to learn how to communicate with each other. 'No' is a positive word. No one wants to say no anymore, and no one wants to be unpopular anymore. I'd rather for my guy that he be unpopular and a leader, than popular and full of s---."
"But that's on me too," Doc Rivers finally says on his way down to the driving range to grab his driver, to try to hit it long and straight.
"That's on me."
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