This might be one of the most tumultuous first 25-game stretches in recent memory for Clippers fans. A rough start had the club below .500 at 7-8, the latest the team had been under-even in the Chris Paul era. The mood in the fanbase was predictably bitter and reactionary, and despite struggles with injuries and the unavoidable process of incorporating 8 new guys (5 of whom have played significant minutes) and changing the defensive scheme, the focus seemed solely on poor rotational decision by Doc Rivers. This is not in defense of Doc's rotations--I've had very specific disagreements with aspects of how he's managed minutes in the young season. But perhaps it's time to take a little more of a balanced approach to discussing strategy decisions.
This is the talk that we, as a fanbase, probably needed to have a few of weeks ago, but unfortunate circumstances (like surgery and, even worse, finals week) have postponed this column until today, where the course seems righted. From 7-8 three weeks ago, the Clippers now sit at 15-10--that's an 8-2 spurt in their last 10 games, including a 4-1 record on their recent 5-game, 8-day road trip to the Eastern Conference (and one of the most Eastern-located Western Conference teams in Minnesota). You'd expect some happiness in the fanbase after that run, as the Clippers have risen to 4th in the conference, closely behind the Thunder for third. That, however, hasn't been the case. If anything, fans are growing more and more upset with Doc and his decision making, even though the team is winning more games.
Doc hasn't been perfect, and he hasn't claimed to be. He's made mistakes, and he's still making some. When Fred Katz spoke with Doc this weekend (in a really, really impressive interview where he balanced criticism with respect and got real answers) we got some insight into why Doc's doing some of the things we've been questioning. As is to be expected, the quotes cast a positive light on some of his decisions, and a negative light on others.
For example, when Katz asked Doc about one of my personal pet peeves, the answer was fully unsatisfying. When other teams choose to hack DeAndre Jordan (or, as Katz calls it, the deck-a-DJ), Doc has chosen to keep DJ in the game, which I fully support. However, when DJ is being hacked, that's all that the Clippers' offense is--no need for shooting, spacing, ball handling, etc. The focus is turned entirely to the other end of the floor for the opponent and other four Clippers in the game--nothing that either coach or any of the nine other players can do will affect whether DJ makes or misses his FTs. The game turns into "can the other team's offense vs the Clippers defense outscore DJ's FTs?" That's why, in my mind, it makes sense to go to defensive lineups when opponents employ the intentional foul. Why not sub out some of the team's weaker defensive players, like Jamal Crawford and Paul Pierce, in a situation where the offensive advantages those players supply is reduced to 0?
Doc's answer was that having Jamal Crawford in the game allows for tip-out threes when the Clippers can get an offensive rebound on a Jordan miss. While Katz correctly points out that the Clippers rebound Jordan's FT misses at a relatively high rate, I'm still not sold on this strategy, and Doc's answer only further convinces me that he's overthinking this aspect. Similarly, when the Clippers hacked Dwight Howard last playoffs, Doc Rivers went to Glen Davis over Hedo Turkoglu. Why? While Big Baby was clearly the better all-around player, Turkoglu did one thing well--he spaced the floor and made 43% of his threes. Hacking is game of numbers--an opponent will commit to the strategy because they believe their offense can average more PPP (points per possession) than DJ can at the free throw line. Why not stack the deck in your favor by improving your defense, decreasing the opponents' PPP? When hacking yourself, why not stack the deck offensively, further increasing your own PPP? In my opinion, the logic isn't there.
On other fronts, Doc's reasoning may be something that we are forced to accept. While I will continue to maintain that Lance Stephenson has played good basketball this year and has helped both the starters (as a secondary ball-handler and weak-side option) and the second unit (as a primary ball-handler and distributor for the other reserves), I don't have much to refute Doc's assertion to Katz that Lance has been inconsistent within the Clippers' defensive coverages. In the NFL, each game is crucial and sometimes the long-term "process" has to be forsaken for a short-term win on the field. In the NBA, it's not the same way. While Lance has played well, Doc has expressed that he needs more defensive awareness in order to find more minutes for the young wing, and that makes more sense than we care to admit as we cry out for Stephenson to get more minutes in-game. Doc has to show Lance (and the team) that he's serious about buying in to a defensive system, and he isn't going to limit the other players' trust in the system by playing someone who isn't there to help.
While these comments on Lance's defense are met with counters on Jamal Crawford and Paul Pierce's lack of defensive contributions, it's worth having some perspective on comparing those players. Lance is a good ten years younger than either of those vets, and expectations are much higher for him in a role much more tailored towards a defensive contribution. Furthermore, while Crawford and Pierce might be slower-footed defensively, that's a much different issue than blown coverages.
This all leads to a bigger question, which is when did we, as fans, become so arrogant to assume that we can better manage an NBA team than Doc Rivers? This is not a call for blind faith and trust in Doc's decision-making. I think it's fully healthy to have an intelligent, engaged fanbase who can be critical of coaching decisions. But I also think it's important to be respectful and fair--like Katz was in his interview. Imagine you were talking to Doc instead of posting about him on the internet, and consider how that change in perspective and tone would influence your comments and perhaps be more conducive to constructive debate.
Doc Rivers is not beyond criticism, but I don't think that it's a cop out to admit that he's on a whole higher plane of basketball thinking than the rest of us. I've played basketball, I've coached basketball, and I actually get paid (barely any) money to have opinions about basketball--and I'm incredibly proud of those things, but I'm still nowhere near Doc's level as a student of the game or a strategist. It's okay for us to admit that, and then look at specific strategies, like his insistence of playing Jamal Crawford during deck-a-DJ, and think he's making errors.
It's also okay to think during the game that the team would be better if Lance Stephenson played more, and then read Doc's comments that Lance needs to operate better within coverages, and realize that Doc agrees with us. What Doc's saying is that Lance would help the team, but he needs him to get to a better place now, so that he can help the team even more later. The truth, honestly, is that we don't see the big picture as well as a former NBA All-Star, NBA Champion as a Head Coach, and NBA Coach of the Year. His process for building a team (whether it results in a championship or not) is beyond our understanding--that's the expertise that nets him a multi-million dollar salary.
It's time to turn around this flow of public opinion that fixates on marginally improving the chances of the Clippers winning games in November and December, and focus on a long-term process (even if we don't understand it) of trying to win games in April and May (and hopefully June). It's time to start trusting the best coach in the history of the franchise, and restore our faith in the man who led this team out of the darkness of the Donald Sterling era.