Last October, Doc Rivers told Grantland, “I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge.” He suggested that it might be time for the Clippers to blow it up if they didn’t win it all, a sentiment Jamal Crawford also shared in a February interview with ESPN.
Of course, when it comes to spring and summer, the Clippers continue to find new ways to zig while everyone else zags. One of the consequences of the stunning Game 4 in Portland was the securement of one more shot for the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan core. They didn’t make drastic changes around them either, bringing back as many rotation pieces as they could while adding a few more savvy veterans at the minimum.
The lack of any visible additions to the roster have led some to write them off as a player in the Western Conference, the subtext being that if they didn’t make any noticeable changes to keep up with the Warriors and Spurs, they’re the same 53-win team or worse. While that assessment falls off the mark and lacks for nuance and context, it’s not totally invalid. The Clippers added depth to their reserves, but have they done anything else differently than in past years?
As it turns out, they have made some changes in the margins. New approaches in a few key areas may or may not provide the extra lift necessary to finally make the Western Conference Finals this season.
While the product on the floor still looks the same, the Clippers made some major changes off the floor. The biggest was announced in June, when Lawrence Frank was promoted from assistant coach to Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations. While Dave Wohl remains general manager and Doc still gets final say as team president, Frank is now the strongest voice in the front office, and has the most control over day-to-day operations for the team. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, his priority this summer was to significantly grow the Clippers’ basketball ops:
Frank will be charged with reshaping the franchise’s front office, including building out the infrastructure of its scouting, sports science and long-term strategic planning, sources said.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has committed to significant resources in staff and budget for those pursuits, sources said.
Doc Rivers expanded upon that when he appeared on Woj’s podcast later in the summer, talking about how the team was making major investments in scouting and injury prevention and trying to become a world-class organization, compared to the shoestring operation during the Sterling years. We finally got a look at some of those changes last week when the Clippers announced their new hires and promotions. Many were brand new positions — e.g. Director of Sports Performance Psychology, Director of Performance, Performance Scientist/Biomedical Analyst, etc. Per Dan Woike:
“In every department, we were understaffed,” Rivers told the Southern California News Group. “… I thought we made do with what we had and did a pretty damn good job of it, knowing that if we get help, we can do a better job.”
From there, it was about talking to existing staff, some of whom found themselves working for people in departments they used to run.
“It takes a lot of guys being secure with change,” Rivers said. “Some guys had to relinquish their power. (General Manager) Dave Wohl was a great example. (Head athletic trainer) Jasen Powell, he had to allow Mark (Simpson) to come in and run the whole department and take instruction from someone else. Everyone’s willing to do it. I think we’re on a great path.”
That last nugget should be of particular interest to Clips Nation commenters, many of whom bemoaned the training staff’s handling of Blake Griffin’s injury last year. For his part, Blake seems excited about the investment in player health care.
“My workouts, I’d say, there’s all this new equipment and all these new staff members and we do all this tracking and stuff. My workouts have always been a heavier load than games. Going on back-to-back days, playing pick-up, doing workouts, doing weights it’s more than any game or practice,” Griffin said. “I think the mental hurdle is passed.”
Griffin has embraced the Clippers’ attempts to use biomedical information, already citing the data generated by the player tracking devices.
“You can see your jump load, your stopping and braking,” he said. “The depth of the amount of knowledge you can attain now is crazy. It’s all useful.”
Blake is also part of several changes the Clippers are making on the floor. Per the LA Times’ Jesse Dougherty, Griffin may have finally embraced adding the elusive three-pointer to his game.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul said he isn’t surprised at the shape Griffin is in. By Paul’s estimation, the star power forward is returning as a more versatile offensive player.
“He’s shooting the ball a lot better, he actually stretches it to the three [point line] a lot more now and stuff like that,” Paul said after practice. “We’ve been together for a while now, you’re not surprised when you see different things from him.”
Griffin attempted just 18 three-pointers in 35 games last year, but continued to refine his mid-range game while averaging 21.4 points in the limited action. Paul said Griffin’s outside shot will open up the floor for the Clippers and complement the perimeter threats the team already has in J.J. Redick and sixth man specialist Jamal Crawford.
“We gonna tell him to shoot damn near every time he catches it,” Paul said of Griffin. “I don’t know, it’s one of those things that I’m sure we’ll see when the games come [depending on] how comfortable he is with it. We’ve had the confidence in him for a while.”
We’ll have to see if this carries into the regular season, but turning more of those 20-footers into three-pointers would be a major development for the Clippers’ offense, and add even more spacing and versatility to what’s already a finely-oiled machine on that end.
But even there the Clippers aren’t totally satisfied. After increased stagnation and a dropoff in efficiency on that end last season, Doc is pushing for some changes:
Rivers said the Clippers are trying to get the ball into the offensive end faster (they were second-slowest a year ago), and they’re trying to add even more motion to their offense.
“To think that we were seventh in the league in scoring and one of the last to get it across halfcourt,” Rivers said. “We were playing with a low clock every single time down the floor. That doesn’t mean you have to play at a better pace – just start the offense sooner. The year before, we did that and we were No. 1 on offense. We have to get back to do that.
“... We just have to trust the pass more, overall, as a whole group. And, we can’t stand as much. We do move the ball, but we don’t move bodies. We have to move both.”
Rivers is also emphasizing more attention to defensive rebounding, where the Clippers struggled last season. Their defensive success came in spite of finishing among the worst teams in the league in keeping opponents off the offensive glass.
“They said we’ve got to rebound the ball better and I was like, ‘What? I am rebounding.’ But collectively as a team we’ve got to do a better job,” [DeAndre] Jordan said Wednesday after the Clippers’ second day of training camp. “We give up a lot of second-chance points. It’s not just the guards. It’s the bigs too.”
“There are a lot of long rebounds,” Jordan said. “We play good defense initially and then we give up offensive rebounds and they get second-chance points. We get a lot of stops. So if we can get that stop and get that rebound, we can be that much better.”
Keep in mind that not every area of focus in training camp actually sticks in the regular season, and that personnel dictates more than effort or focus do most of the time.
That being said, by all accounts the Clippers don’t sound like a stale team right now, but one still pushing to better itself and break through to the next level. They’re still the same, but willing to change and adapt. As Woike wrote:
While the core of the roster is the same, the organization’s way of thinking had to change. People had to be willing to adapt, to accept the new blood the franchise needed.
And if not?
“The status quo was not good enough for me,” Rivers said. “… Anybody who wasn’t on board with a change of thought had to go. I basically said that to our organization.”