What a strange tenure for Doc Rivers in Los Angeles. He ejected out of a rebuilding situation in Boston, clearly made the Clippers into a more polished and well-rounded team, but hasn't taken them any further than Vinny Del Negro did. Every borderline inexplicable playoff defeat leads to the same question: Is it time to break up the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan trio, even though the Clippers with those three are a perennial 55-win team -- on the edge of the championship contender inner circle?
At the draft combine in Chicago, Rivers sat down with ESPN.com to talk about that question, the brief moment in which he thought the playoff basketball gods were finally shining on the Clips, Jeff Green's free agency, coaching his son, and more.
How dramatic was the Blake Griffin-Matias Testi incident within the team? Were you worried it would tear the team apart?
I wasn't. I mean, it was dramatic in that it was a surprise. It was a shock, because Blake's not that guy. Matias is not that guy. It just made no sense. As far as team-building and stuff, it was only that -- shock. Once guys got by the shock and realized Blake wasn't coming back anytime soon, that had the bigger impact.
How did you learn about it? Did your phone ring at 4 a.m.?
Oh, yeah. When the phone rings at 4 a.m., it's never good.
Who calls? Blake? Matias?
The trainer. When you get those calls, and you look at the phone and see [Clippers trainer] Jasen Powell, you know whatever is about to be said -- it's not going to be a good thing.
What do you do next? Go back to sleep? Schedule an immediate team meeting? Punch the wall?
No, no. I didn't go back to sleep, but I waited until the morning. You do what you do. You talk to Blake and Matias, and then you have a team meeting, and you go get your ass kicked that night.
But you weren't worried anyone, especially the veterans, might be resentful of Blake -- like, "You screwed up a real chance for us?"
No. You always worry about that at first, but in that one, I wasn't. No.
You've already said after losing to Portland you won't trade any of the three stars. Are you worried that boxes you into a corner a little bit? Is that really the case?
I don't worry about the corner thing, ever. I'm always gonna do what's good for the team. You don't ever do anything but that. But I feel like the best thing for the team right now is to keep them together. Can that change? Of course it can change. But I don't think it will.
Chris and Blake are both great passers who can control an offense. They overlap in that sense. But as Chris ages, does Blake's passing become more valuable -- like, he can take an even larger creative load, right?
Yeah, first of all, Blake is still young. Blake is gonna keep getting better. Blake missed a year because of the punch, and his leg. He just had a lost year. It's funny how easily we forget how good Blake is. You can't forget that. Before Blake went down, he was having an unbelievable season.
Breaking up a 55-win team is such a risk, because if things break right in the playoffs, you can become the 2011 Mavericks. Did you feel like, especially when Steph Curry got hurt, "This might be our year"?
Oh, yeah. Even without Steph being hurt, we liked our team. We felt really good going into the playoffs. My only concern was how quickly we could get Blake back right. It's funny -- the day after Game 3 [against Portland] he actually said to me, "Man, I actually feel like I'm starting to turn the corner." So for me, it was actually a 10-hour period that hurt more. I hear that, and 10 hours later, Blake goes down.
Chris -- right when he got hurt, I knew he was out. I know Chris.
Is Jeff Green the starting small forward if you bring him back?
We gotta sign him first.
It seemed like he was getting more and more time with the starters in that Portland series.
Yeah. We don't need a superstar [small forward]. We have superstars at other positions. We need guys who are complementary players. Jeff is terrific in that role.
Did you see the comments Austin Rivers made about your relationship -- how it was kind of distant when he was growing up? What did you think of that?
Yeah, but it was taken so far out of context. I don't read them. I just hear about them. Me and Austin have a terrific relationship. But it is true -- I was gone. That's what he was trying to say. One of the things I thought we did well -- when I'm around him here, I'm "Coach." In the summertime, I'm back to being a dad.
It's tough, but it works. The comment was taken way further than what he meant. I knew what he meant.
If his name were Austin Smith instead of Austin Rivers, is he just a sort of anonymous totally fine NBA rotation player?
Yeah, but it is what it is. There is no doubt about that. It's an easy way get hits. You know how that works.
He's become underrated, I think, because of his relationship with you -- and the fact that he plays for your team. He's a solid rotation guy.
He's become a really good player, and we may have to pay for that this year. The one thing I will say: He's been through that his whole life. Every game from his freshman year, he's had to hear it. So in some ways, it has made him tougher. Like, what he did in the last Portland game was a shock to nobody who knew him, because when you go through all that crap, that's what you can do.
Have you listened to J.J. Redick's podcast?
I have! He's good.
He's annoyingly good at it.
I hate to tell him that. We kid with him. J.J. Redick is like -- he's golden. He's a guy that every team should have. He's a professional. He's serious about his job. He told me something I never thought I'd hear an NBA player say. He went out to golf at the beginning of the year, and when he swung one time, he felt a twinge in his back.
I asked him how he played. He said, "Awful." I asked when he was gonna play again. He said, "When I retire. I will never golf again before that." I asked why. He said, "Because I felt something in my back, and it's not worth the risk. I'm a basketball player, and I have to stay committed to that." And when he says that, he actually means it. That's J.J. Redick in a nutshell.
(Note: I verified this with Redick. His response: "There wasn't a singular swing or moment where I felt a twinge. But sometime in mid-July of last summer, I was tired of my left hip/back being tight and sore after a round of golf. So I decided in the interest of my career and protecting my back, I retired from golf until I'm retired from the NBA. Have not swung a golf club since, nor will I.")
Are you gonna go on his podcast as a guest?
Yeah. I told him after the season. Because if he asked me a bad question during the season, it might affect my play calling.
Why didn't Lance Stephenson work out?
I don't know. I like Lance, actually.
He was solid for Memphis.
He played great for Memphis. He wasn't a great fit for us. Defensively -- that's where I was more disappointed, and shocked. I look at that body, and that athleticism, and I think: That's a prototypical great defender. And he's not that.
I remember hearing he was getting out of the system a little bit.
A little bit? [laughs] Yeah. But I'll tell you one thing -- he's not a bad kid. He gets cast as this malcontent bad kid, and Lance was never that. I thought he was funny. The guys liked him. But Lance wants to score every time he touches the ball, and he's not that type of guy.
Did your success without Blake make you think about how good you guys could be with more shooting around Chris and DJ pick-and-rolls -- that at least that sort of thing should become a more regular part of your lineup juggling?
That was the goal going into the season. But we were so good at the beginning of the season with the big lineup, we ended up not going to the small lineup. What Blake's injury did was what I had said we had to do -- which was use multiple types of lineups. In one game at Indiana, we had Austin playing [power forward].
Jamal Crawford was there now and then.
And we won a few of those games. I actually started enjoying tinkering again. I actually felt like I was in Orlando again, with the first team, when you just throw anything out there to see what works. It was a lot of fun, and it made us better. That's why I was very confident going into the playoffs. I felt like we had these two units ready to go. Our small lineup was dangerous.
You told me in the fall, before the season, that Paul Pierce arrived in great shape -- that it wasn't going to be one of those years where he plays himself into shape. What happened?
I don't know. It was a mystery. He had some games where he looked like the old Paul. I don't know the answer yet, and I haven't sat down with Paul, so I don't want to say much. When you get to the point -- where Tim [Duncan] is at today -- I've never met a player who retires because of the games. Players retire because of practice. Players love games. They don't love practicing and preparing anymore. And I think that's what runs all of them off.
I've always wanted to ask you this: When you won the title in Boston in 2008, I think you went 66-16, and then the Hawks, who were under .500, took you to seven games in the first round. I remember thinking, "Well, this team clearly isn't as good as we thought." Did that series have you worried? It was so weird -- the put outplayed you badly in crunch time in Game 6 in Atlanta, when you could have closed it.
I thought it was the best thing that ever happened to us. I remember going into the playoffs someone asked me if I had one fear. I said, "Yeah, and it's a major one. We haven't had any obstacles all year. We haven't been tested." We cruised. We had it on autopilot. We sat the Big Three three or four games and won anyway.
And I said, "I don't know how we're gonna react if we got tested." We came apart in Game 6.
I remember: I was flying to Guatemala day after that game, so I was gonna be out of pocket for several days. That game was so bad, I kind of assumed I'd check the scores every day and either see Atlanta had beaten you in Game 7, or that Cleveland was up 2-0.
Guys were arguing. I remember James Posey wouldn't even take the ball out once because Ray [Allen] forgot to block out. And that was good for us. If you ask my coaches, we were walking in the hallway after that Game 6, the first words out of my mouth to them were, "This is F'ing great."
Even though you were facing elimination?
I was not threatened. I really believed we were gonna win. I said it right there in the hallway: "This is exactly what this team needed. They thought they were gonna walk themselves to a title, and now they're gonna appreciate the chase." I thought that changed us.
Back to the present: Are you worried you've given up too many draft picks at this point to infuse the team with young talent?
Yeah. I am. I think we had to because of the cap situation we inherited, but we're starting to get some back. The best thing to happen to us is we get the Brooklyn pick at the start of the second round. That's a big deal for us. So now, I think we have a chance to get healthy, get picks and keep building our team.
Do you know that Marc Zumoff, the TV play-by-play guy in Philly, refuses to call you Doc? He calls you Glenn Rivers every time.
I didn't know that! It's funny, though -- there's a fan there who brings a sign, every game since I've been a player, that says, "You're Not The Real Doctor." And I turn around like, "I know." I mean, how many more times do you have to tell me?
I asked Zumoff why, even though the answer was pretty obvious. He looked at me and said, "There's only one doctor in this town."
Funny story: The first game I started was against the Sixers. I walked out on the floor, and I didn't know what to say. I went over and said, "Umm, Dr. J, how are you?" And he said, "Doc, how are you?" And I said, "No, I'm Glenn." And he said, "No, you're Doc." And that made me feel like a million bucks.