The "coach-Doc-Rivers’-worst-enemy-is-Doc-Rivers-the-general-manager" trope is for real.
There is no real way to get around it without attempting to act like a blatant contrarian, and while it makes for easy sportswriter copy, Los Angeles’ problems are real. Doc learned as much from one of his mentors, Pat Riley, who fought for ability to oversee personnel in New York (before losing that battle) and too often got in his own way as GM after an initial sterling start in Miami. Riley eventual built a champion and then two more with the Heat, but it took years of turnover and quite a bit of situational luck.
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The Clippers, whose season ended on Sunday in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, don’t have time to wait. The team’s point guard, the beloved by all Chris Paul, seemingly entered the NBA at age 30, and he finally switched over to that actual age earlier in May. The team’s other centerpiece, Blake Griffin, is 26 and apparently in his fearsome prime. The 2014-15 squad was built to win a championship, and it failed. Anything less than a victory parade was rightfully deemed unsuitable, and the Clippers fell nine wins short.
Griffin rightfully shot down asinine questions about a supposed “Clipper curse" during a news conference on Sunday, but he was also too quick to point to the team’s ascension – how few had eventual second-round expectations when Griffin was drafted in 2009, and yet here they were.
If that makes you feel better after a draining loss, that’s fine, but it’s also pointless. Claiming a Pyrrhic victory amongst these ruins is duplicitous. Just because Michael Olowokandi was a lout and just because Baron Davis was overweight, it hardly means 2014-15 was something to hang your hat on. Even if the reverse impact of the Houston Rockets series was the case, had the Clippers doggedly came back to force a seventh game from down 3-1 before falling on the road.
Instead, it was the Rockets that pulled off the upset. It wasn’t an upset because the Clippers were better, far from it. It was an upset because even some of the greatest teams of all time have trouble beating a pretty darn good playoff opponent three times in a row: Houston could have entered this postseason with 70 wins and it still would have been an upset to return from a 3-1 deficit. It’s just that tough, and Houston pulled it off.
And the Clippers watched it all happen. And they couldn’t do a whole heck of a lot about it.
Coach Doc Rivers pointed to mental and physical fatigue following the series loss, rightfully noting that the team’s seven-game series win over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs took quite a bit out of his team. Rivers really played only seven guys rotation minutes in the loss, and really only three of his performers (Paul, Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan) had good games in Los Angeles’ final game of the season.
(By the way, can we talk about what a prat Magic Johnson is?)
I thought the Spurs taught the Clippers how to win after a tough 7 game series. I was wrong. The Clippers are still the Clippers.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) May 17, 2015
(Dude, you’re 55. Save it for the Lakers message board, “Magicboi69.”)
General manager Doc Rivers brought in players five through seven, however, and also the five other guys who barely played or didn’t even get off the bench. His top pine performer was the oft-mocked Austin Rivers, whose one giant game as a member of these Clippers was the only reason his overall stats bumped up slightly from a well-below-average regular season. His big free-agent acquisition, Spencer Hawes, barely played.
We don’t doubt that Hawes, who shot nearly 45 percent from behind the arc down the stretch with a bad pre-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers last season, had suitors who were willing to pay him the same money (four-years, $23 million) that the Clippers eventually offered him last summer. However, using the non-taxpayer exception on Hawes and the biannual exception on Jordan Farmar, two familiar faces, pushed the Clippers to within a few hundred dollars of the NBA’s hard salary apron. That is to say, despite new owner Steve Ballmer’s billions, the Clippers couldn’t spend any more. When the team dealt for Rivers at the trade deadline, it had to carefully mind its money in the three-team transaction while sending two players out in exchange.
Hawes registered a single-digit Player Efficiency Rating during the regular season, and badly regressed as a shooter. Considered a stretch four or five, it should be noted that Hawes has shot below average on 3-pointers his entire career, and he’s not exactly lights-out on long twos. Farmar, meanwhile, was released just before the midseason mark. First-round pick C.J. Wilcox barely played, played poorly when he did see time and he’ll turn 25 this December.
Rivers the general manager completely hamstrung his weary team in both failing to identify young talent (Wilcox and, cruelly, his son), in-prime talent (Hawes) and veteran talent (Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu).
Most contending teams, over the past two decades since Riley left the Knicks, have been forced to work around the fringe with low draft picks, mid-level helpers and minimum salaried vets to play alongside their maxed-out superstars. With the possible exception of LeBron James’ rough first go-round with the Cleveland Cavaliers between 2006-10, it’s hard to think of a sadder collection than this season’s Clippers team.
It cost them literally, and figuratively. And though it feels like just yesterday that DeAndre Jordan flirted with the Golden State Warriors before signing a massive deal with the Clippers, the big center will be a free agent again. The Clippers are going to have to pay some more, and Rivers is going to have to figure out this whole "bench" thing once again.
There have been rumblings about Jordan’s relationship with Paul, and thoughts that he might skip out to Dallas, but Jordan would also have to leave about $28 million on the table if he wants to head elsewhere. If he is so fixated on becoming more of a focal point, the guy pictured on the program, then he could possibly sign a two-year deal with his next team and take advantage of the salary cap windfall that is about to hit in 2016, but what team would be confident enough to risk a dissatisfied DeAndre making the same free-agent move to another team in 2017?
Mark Cuban and Dallas, perhaps. For now, though, the Clippers are the leaders in the clubhouse.
Even Jordan’s fleeing and the eventual passing on each and every one of Los Angeles’ free-agent contracts would leave the Clippers about only $7 million under the expected cap. Farmar, who took a buyout, is on the books next season for $2.1 million. Jamal Crawford, who remarkably managed to look tentative and aggressive on his shots during the postseason, could be waived and sent away with $1.5 million guaranteed. He shot 36 percent in the playoffs and turned 35 in March, but roster spots (apparently) are tough to fill, and at $5.6 million he should return.
Doc Rivers the general manager will have a tough and closely monitored time negotiating the restricted free agency of son Austin, who he talked up extensively following the loss on Sunday. The sound basketball decision would be to let Austin Rivers field offers and match any reasonable ones while declining outrageous ones, but Rivers the GM probably prefers just cutting to the chase and handing Austin Rivers a brand new contract just to get it out of the way. You can be assured that Doc Rivers the father definitely prefers this brand of negotiation.
This is how it goes when four players (likely Jordan, Griffin, Paul and J.J. Redick) take up just about the entirety of the salary cap with their contracts. Doc Rivers the coach/GM brought this up several times while talking to reporters on Sunday, and he wouldn’t be wrong about that.
The issue here is that many, many other top-heavy teams have been faced with the same luxurious frustration, and they’ve worked their way around it and into at least the conference finals.
Rivers the GM has had two summers to create a deeper roster, one that could allow Rivers the coach to put the Clippers’ top players where they should be – the third round. He’s killing his coach, here.
He’ll have another swipe this summer. If it fails again, at what point does someone step in to stop Rivers from crippling the stars that he inherited? Furthermore, with Chris Paul already at age 30, is it too damn late?
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