LOS ANGELES – Doc Rivers has heard the rumors and he likes them a lot. He’s heard how his Los Angeles Clippers increasingly are being described as a heavenly free agent landing spot next summer, ahead of destinations including the team’s much-discussed neighbor with its all-world superstar.
It’s hard to match the Lakers for fashionableness at the best of times, especially now that LeBron James dons purple and gold, but as of Monday the 10-5 Clippers have won six of seven under Rivers (and seven straight at home), without a single big-name superstar and by digging in on the increasingly forgotten art of defense.
Below The Rim caught up with Rivers for a splash of insight into how he is proudly bucking convention, turning Staples Center into a Clippers fortress, and cutting down some of the biggest names in the NBA.
“I love it,” Rivers said early last week, leaning back in a functional office chair at the team’s training facility near LAX. “I love when I read all the rumors that all these guys, one of the teams they want to play for is the Clippers. They’re right. We should be. We’ve got a lot of good things going on.”
“Those guys” are the elite members of next summer’s potential free agent crop, a dazzling bunch that may feature Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard as its headline acts. Aside from the appeal of Southern California, the Clippers also shape up well as a favored destination because they have the capacity for two max salary spots, although one of those may be earned by current forward Tobias Harris.
Yet the biggest selling point of all may not be sunshine or celebrity, but the chance to fit into the tight-knit and confident squad Rivers has put together. The season still is early but in the space of a week, L.A. sunk the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the surging Milwaukee Bucks and the San Antonio Spurs. Any big name coming to the Clippers wouldn’t be the mastermind of a rebuild, but possibly the final piece in a championship-contending puzzle.
“That's what I would think if I was a free agent,” Rivers said. “Coming to the Clippers and turning them into a team that wins a title? It hasn't been done. For a lot of these players, it is the chance to go to a franchise and ‘be the man,’ be the one that gets them to something (we’ve) never done in the history of the franchise.”
For now, Rivers is just trying to win games but it isn’t lost on him that his squad’s performances, filled with chemistry and intensity, may be having the side effect of appealing to a superstar with itchy feet.
His presence, with the cache of a title with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and a long current contract, is all part of the package and the Clippers are a team that’s enjoying life.
Rivers is as serious as heck about the sport and the league that has consumed virtually his entire adult life, but he knows how and when to crank up the levity for positive effect. While Durant and Draymond Green seethed at each other heading into overtime against Golden State last week, the Clippers' huddle, fresh from coughing up a 14-point lead, was in fits of laughter. Rather than remonstrating, Rivers got the group giggling with a comically melodramatic speech about how he couldn’t believe how bad they were playing. The response was instant, and game-clinching.
He loves his players dearly, for their pluck and poise and mix of youth and experience. He sees potential in them, and while next summer and the prospect of free agent sparkle looms, there is no sense of biding time until a star lands on the doorstep.
“I think the superstars have earned it,” he added. “I think they're that good. But just because you don't have one, doesn't mean you should go put your head in the sand. If you have one then great, that makes you a better team, too. But if you don't and you have a bunch of really good players like us, you should be pretty good too.”
Rivers has been through a lot and thinks a lot. Toward the end of his playing career his house in San Antonio was burned down by racist extremists in a sickening sign of opposition to his interracial marriage. He’ll talk basketball and politics and pretty much anything else, and he is mightily impressed by the social awareness and consciousness of the current group of NBA players.
At 57, he likes seeing youngsters come through and he has one of genuine promise at his disposal, rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Alongside the hard-working Canadian there is plenty to like on the Clippers team, with Lou Williams’ shining creativity and Danilo Gallinari marshaling a core of worthy competitors. With the Blake Griffin-Chris Paul-Deandre Jordan era still a recent memory, the Clippers have found a new identity that sits neatly with their fan base.
“I love the identity,” Rivers said. “We keep talking about this blacktop philosophy because that's who we are. We're a chain gang group of guys. We're physical, we play hard, we're competitive, but we're real to each other.
“Our fans are a blue collar crowd. A lot of them came because they love basketball and the Clippers ticket was easier to get, and they became Clippers fans. And that's a great fan, because they have a loyalty to the game and to the team.”
With that in mind, the Clippers have resisted the temptation to focus solely on the shooting arms race engulfing the NBA and also are tackling the complicated and unfashionable task of how to shut down the opposition.
“No one wants to play defense these days,” Rivers said. “We don’t have that luxury.”
And so the Clippers don’t take possessions off and Rivers doesn’t take days off. He still loves this as much as ever and just as one phase of team history evaporated another has arrived that has a chance to be even better. The future in this part of the Los Angeles basketball sphere appears to get brighter and brighter, but for now, the present is pretty darn good too.
Follow Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Doc Rivers has Clippers on free agents' radar, but Los Angeles isn't waiting for a star
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