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Doc's DeAndre Gambit

Doc Rivers wants and needs DeAndre Jordan to anchor his defense if the Clippers expect to be good enough defensively to contend for a title this season, and he's telling everyone that Jordan is capable of being a great defender.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

I've already alluded to Doc Rivers' tour de force performance at Los Angeles Clippers Media Day Monday. The guy could be a terrible coach for all I now, but he's an uncanny communicator. He oozes charm and is completely in control on the dais. But what sets him apart from other coaches I've been around is the fact that he actually says stuff. Interesting stuff, surprising stuff, significant stuff. At Vinny Del Negro's introductory press conference three years ago, I knew almost immediately that his go to cliche answer to any question would be "We're going to play the right way." Doc doesn't have a pat answer -- he listens to questions, considers them and then answers thoughtfully and insightfully. What a concept.

Rivers made several comments on Monday that grabbed my attention.

  • When the Clippers announced that they'd be heading to San Diego for training camp this year, I noted that since the opening of the training facility in Playa Vista the team had always held training camp in L.A. and wondered if the decision to go away was driven by Doc in an effort to create a bonding experience. Well, that is indeed the case. When I asked him about it, he mentioned that it has always been his preference to go away for camp -- he's done it about 80% of the time since becoming a head coach -- and that the experience of being together for camp, training, eating meals together, etc. is a great bonding experience.
  • Along those same lines, I found it interesting that Rivers spoke more than once about improving the atmosphere of the locker room. We need to come together all the time, not just when things are good.... I understand how important locker rooms are and we need to improve our locker room.... Instead of splintering we need to pull together. I found this strange given that we were constantly told that the Clippers were a tight-knit group last season. I can think of three possible explanations for this seeming contradiction: (1) He's right, and there was too much friction last year especially when the team began to struggle more, we just didn't hear much about it; (2) Doc is getting his info from his close friend Bill Simmons; or (3) there's no downside to creating a problem that didn't particularly exist, especially when you can make a big deal about how you're going to solve the problem. In the end, last year's locker room doesn't matter a lot -- what matters is this year.
  • Rivers singled out Blake Griffin for praise concerning the work he put in over the summer. Lots of Clippers were in and out of the training center throughout the off-season, but it's very encouraging to me that it was Griffin that caught Doc's eye. As I've pointed out, this is the first off-season of Griffin's NBA career that he's been able to train uninterrupted by injury or lockout, and I feel that could be very significant. It's not easy adding a new post-move mid-season (though Blake has had some success doing so); you need lots of reps in practice time, and months between games gives you that time. If Blake has been putting in the work, I feel like there's no telling what improvements we're going to see, but perhaps I'm being overly optimistic.
  • Doc went out of his way to say that he plans to have Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the floor in the fourth quarter. This is an example of him giving an honest, unguarded answer to a question. Talk is cheap of course and we'll see what he actually does, but I love the fact that he's willing to put it out there, to set an expectation. It would be so easy for him to into coach-speak: "Each situation is different, we'll have to wait and see what happens, we're going to play the right way." He didn't do that. He said "I want Griffin and Jordan on the floor." I love it.

Which leads me to the most interesting portion of Rivers Monday remarks. DeAndre Jordan has made over $20M the past two seasons while playing about half the game on average. He played fewer minutes per game last season (24.5) than he did the season before (27.2), despite the fact that he's productive when he's in the game -- the Clippers best rebounder and shot blocker who shot a league-leading .643 from the field last season.

Vinny Del Negro seemed to do everything in his power to destroy Jordan's confidence, and Rivers is taking the opposite approach, taking every opportunity to tell anyone who will listen how much he expects of the young big man.

Rivers repeated his seemingly outlandish claim that he believes that DeAndre has Defensive Player of the Year potential. Now don't get me wrong, Jordan is an unbelievable physical specimen, but there's so much that goes into being a great defender, and there can be only one DPOY each season. Sure he's got the basketball body to be a great defender, but does he have the basketball mind for it? Because that's the more important aspect. If Rivers doesn't really believe he can get Jordan at least close to that level, he'd be foolish to keep saying it.

(There's a more cynical interpretation to all of this by the way. Perhaps Rivers is counting on the fact that the media has little clue what constitutes good defense. Kobe Bryant began making the All Defensive team when Phil Jackson began telling reporters what a great defender he was -- despite the fact that he was never, ever a great defender. A coach with clout can absolutely move the needle on something as poorly understood as defense simply by telling the story a certain way. Rivers might actually be savvy enough to understand all of that and be blatantly manipulating the press corps.)

Of course Jordan's league-worst free throw shooting is ostensibly a major reason that he was not on the floor late in games but Rivers has a ready answer for that as well: meh. "I'm not concerned with his free throw shooting." Doc likes to point out that the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were all very poor free throw shooters, but it didn't keep them from being dominate centers who won titles.

This "So what?" attitude toward Jordan's free throw shooting is yet another master stroke by Rivers in my opinion -- and it may help explain Jordan's comments from last week, which seemed a little strange at the time. Jordan said, more or less, that he wasn't going to worry about his free throw shooting -- he'd try to be consistent with his shot, and either they'd go in or the wouldn't. Late in the season last year, when DJ was slumping horribly, the Clippers were at times an embarrassment in their desperation to keep him off the line -- Jordan scurrying away from would be assailants, Chris Paul flinging the ball at the rim as the whistle was blown. Either take Jordan out of the game or leave him in, but don't act like a frightened rabbit. I've explained over and over that mathematically speaking, Hack-a-whoever is a losing strategy. Even a 50% free throw shooter has an expected value on two free throws right around the per possession offensive efficiency league-wide -- so don't worry about it. Let them foul, step to the line and make one out of two. The Clippers completely psyched themselves out over the issue last year -- which is why Jordan's foul shooting got worse and worse. If part of the advantage of the hackstrat is psychological, Rivers knows he can nullify that -- bring it on, we know it's a bad strategy overall, we don't care if you want to ruin the game, it's your call.

Can Doc Rivers turn DeAndre Jordan into a great defender simply by saying it enough times? Well, confidence is important, as are goals. Jordan is now saying that he has a career goal of winning one or more DPOY awards, so he has embraced the challenge that Rivers has laid out for him. The risk of course is that Jordan remains the same lovable goofball he's always been, interspersing flashes of dominant play with trips to neverland, and both Rivers and Jordan look foolish for talking so big. But Rivers knows that the Clippers need a confident and productive Jordan to get to the next level, that they won't be good enough defensively if Jordan can't provide the backstop that all elite defenses have, so he isn't worried about possibly looking foolish -- he's all in on DeAndre Jordan.