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Los Angeles Clippers president and coach Doc Rivers has dreamed of a day when his franchise wins its first NBA championship. While the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs appear to be major obstacles in that quest, Rivers said his team is “closer than people think.”
Rivers took some time recently to talk with Yahoo Sports about the Clippers’ potential, the uncertainty surrounding Blake Griffin’s return and why the power forward wasn’t traded, his roster moves as an executive and more.
How difficult will be it to overcome the Warriors or Spurs in the Western Conference playoffs and what do you think of what they have done so far?
Rivers: “What they are doing is amazing, the Warriors first and then the Spurs as well. I think it’s beautiful to watch. Both teams play completely different, but they play exactly the same. It’s all about the team. There is no difference in their spirit. There is a difference in how they play basketball. From a coaching standpoint, even though you want to beat both of them, it’s enjoyable to watch and it’s beautiful. I respect that.
“We are not trying to catch them now. We know we can’t. Our goal is to try to beat them in the playoffs. It’s going to be a challenge. But the playoffs start and everyone is 0-0. Everything you’ve done is over with. It’s what you do ahead. We’ve been through a lot of injuries this year. Our best players have been through a lot of injuries this year. Our goal is to get healthy, get right, lace them up and see what we’ve got.”
Q: What is the key change needed for the Clippers to be a championship team?
Rivers: “We’re right there. It’s funny. People think it’s easy to go win a title. Winning is hard. Winning a game is hard. I love the fact that we are on the door. We’ve knocked on the door twice as far as getting to the Western Conference Finals. We haven’t made it, so you just keep doing it. I don’t feel the push or the pressure of, ‘Man, if they don’t do it …’ Why not? We keep doing it.
“We clearly have proven that we can get to a Game 7 and a Game 6 back-to-back years. Last year we were up 3-1 [in the second round to Houston and lost]. Then [in 2014], we had the meltdown in the Oklahoma City game [in the conference semifinals] that kind of changed the series. What it tells me is we’re closer than people think. We just got to keep going.
“Obviously, if we are not there in two years from now you re-think things. But you don’t blow your team up every year. I keep laughing at everyone who says [to do] that. That’s the guys who have never really been in it. You keep just going forward. Keep your core and see if you can get it right. That’s it. We have to rebound better. Our defense is light years better this year to me. We have to make the right shots. Make the right plays. Our whole thing is to keep playing.”
Q: What type of challenge will you have re-incorporating Griffin upon his return from his hand injury?
Rivers: “I think it’s easy. Our goal coming into the season was to have a great big lineup and great small lineup as well. We set out the season and established the season with the best big lineup. Our big lineup with Blake and D.J. [DeAndre Jordan] was phenomenal. … And when Blake went down, it forced us to play that [small] style all night.
“We can’t go big now if we want to. We’ve played like two bigs for six minutes while Blake has been out, which is crazy when you think about it. But now what it allows us to do when Blake gets back, we can play small. We can play Blake at [center] and Jeff [Green] at [power forward]. … I like where we stand.”
Q: Does Griffin, with the success the Clippers have had without him, have to adjust to the team once he returns?
Rivers: “No. The only change that Blake will make is that when we go small without D.J. on the floor, we will leave Blake at [center]. But other than that, Blake’s adjustment will be very little and it will be quick.”
Do you have a return date in mind for Griffin?
Rivers: “No. We have no idea. I don’t ever look because it doesn’t do anything for me.”
Q: What can Griffin do in practice now?
Rivers: “He’s shooting now. He’s running a little bit.”
Q: How are Griffin’s spirits?
Rivers: “His spirits are good. Listen, you make a mistake in life, you take a hit. We all have made mistakes. Unfortunately for Blake, he makes them publicly when he makes a mistake. A lot of people get to make a mistake in private. As an NBA athlete, you make it in public.
“It’s a moment mistake. He’s a good kid. He’s always going to be a good kid. We’re fine. We’re over it.”
Q: What kept the Clippers from trading Griffin?
Rivers: “I love him. He’s a good player. He was only having an MVP year before he got injured. I laugh at some of the stuff about moving him. I’ve said from Day One he is not going anywhere. Of course, every team should call. That’s their job. That doesn’t mean we have to listen and we didn’t.”
Q: Were there a lot of inquiries from NBA teams about Griffin before the recent trade deadline?
Rivers: “There was some, but not a lot because we shot them down so quickly. Reading about some of these crazy rumors in the paper was comical to us. …
“You can take the call, but you don’t have to listen. We like our team. We’re in the job of trying to make our team better, but we like our team.”
Q: Clippers All-Star guard Chris Paul has been dealing with an arm and ankle injury of late. How is he physically now?
Rivers: “He’s good. Before Austin [Rivers] had gone down, we had the luxury of Austin at times guarding the second-best [guard] and getting [Paul] rest. Austin goes down and now C.P. is guarding the best [guard] the whole game and his minutes went up, too. We’ve adjusted to that the past couple [of games]. We got to get him back down to those 33 minutes.”
Q: How would you evaluate what roster moves have worked and not worked for you as president?
Rivers: “I don’t know. I don’t evaluate. I have too many people evaluating for me. I let them do it and I keep doing my job. I don’t care about the evaluations. I care about the team. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of leverage. We don’t have a lot of assets. But to me, we keep ending up with the Jeff Greens of the world, Cole Aldrich is terrific, Wes Johnson. … We’re getting these guys at minimum contracts.
“Even Josh [Smith] was a good gamble. It didn’t work out for us. But when you are in that minimum contract deal, you’re going to have some hits and misses and we’re fine with it and you keep doing it.”
Q: As one of the few African-American executives in the NBA, what are your thoughts on the recent discussion that the NBA should consider a “Rooney Rule” [like the NFL] to get more blacks interviews for GM jobs?
Rivers: “I like our league overall when you look at coaches and stuff. Clearly, our next step is to get to the presidents and get the ownership. We have ownership now with [Atlanta Hawks co-owner] Grant Hill and [Charlotte Hornets owner] Michael [Jordan]. It’s step by step. I love us better than other leagues, but we still have to keep going.
“Our league is ahead of all the other leagues. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I think [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] understands that and our league understands that. I think they want to get it right. I think there are qualified people out there.”
Q: How would you describe your relationship with Clippers second-year owner Steve Ballmer?
Rivers: “He’s been phenomenal. He’s so supportive. Wants to win, like we all do. Involved, but lets us do our job. He is a great spirit to have in our organization and he’s the smartest man in the room every time he walks in the room. I just listen to him. I love his business.”
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