“Change is good sometimes,” Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said in response to a question on Nate McMillan’s coaching job in Indiana despite a roster overhaul. “We learned that here in LA, too.”
McMillan and Rivers’ jobs this year have a lot of parallels. McMillan, in his second year as Pacers head coach, went from Paul George to Victor Oladipo – along with plenty of other changes to fill out the rest of the roster.
Rivers, five years into his LA stint, saw franchise faces Chris Paul and Blake Griffin moved in an eight-month time frame in exchange for 10 players and one first-round pick.
McMillan went through change – sure. Rivers, however, saw his four-player core of Paul, Griffin, JJ Redick and DeAndre Jordan break apart like that — with Jordan being the only player of the core still rostered.
For the first time in his LA tenure, Rivers will not lead the Clippers to 50-plus wins. Without Griffin or Paul, though, no one was expecting that streak to continue.
In the annual Western Conference bloodbath, just making the playoffs is a feat worthy of a trophy reward. If Rivers and the Clippers accomplish that this season — under these circumstances — it may call for a much higher honor, whatever that may be.
Paul decided he wanted to move on from the Clippers and play alongside James Harden in Houston, and LA was lucky enough for Paul to accept a trade rather than leave in free agency so they wouldn’t be left empty-handed. LA now had youth and more cap flexibility, allowing them the opportunity to build around Griffin how they pleased.
The investment in Griffin was massive, and a risk they were willing to take despite his laundry list of injuries.
All it seemingly took for the Clippers to have buyer’s remorse was another 14-game absence due to injury, showing that maybe this was just never going to work — in LA, or possibly anywhere else. So, they sent Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and two draft picks.
Once Griffin was traded, it seemed like the Clippers were open for business. The NBA trade deadline was just around the corner and LA’s roster was full of interesting players — most notably Jordan and Lou Williams – whom playoff contending buyers had interest in.
The day prior to the deadline, however, LA inked Williams to a three-year contract extension, taking him off the market. That deal showed the NBA that LA was not going to sell off all its attractive pieces and sink to the basement of the league once again.
And so they stood pat, fielding a roster with just three remaining players from last year’s team.
At the time of the Griffin trade, LA stood one game above .500 at 25-24. They then had a 12-5 stretch, with the losses coming at the hands of Portland, Philadelphia, Golden State, Houston and New Orleans — all playoff teams. After the final three straight wins of that stretch, the Clippers lost four in a row.
A win in Milwaukee. A loss in Indiana. A win in Toronto. Five games over .500, the Clippers stand two-and-a-half games back from the eighth-seeded Jazz.
Most teams, at this point in the season, have a lineup that has logged at least 600 possessions — with many teams having a 1,000-plus-possession lineup.
LA’s most used lineup this season has logged just 279 possessions. It features Lou Williams, Austin Rivers, Sindarius Thornwell, Tobias Harris and DeAndre Jordan.
That lineup being LA’s most used this season is a testament to how incredible it is that their postseason hopes and dreams still have a pulse. Williams and Jordan were both heavily mentioned in trade rumors; some would say they were locks to be dealt pre-deadline. Thornwell is a rookie, and one drafted 48th overall at that. Harris was acquired just before the calendar flipped to February.
Remaking the roster has only been part of the reasoning for so many different lineups; LA has been thrashed by injuries.
“It’s not only that we’ve had injuries; we’ve had ’em to our starters,” Rivers said, specifically mentioning Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari and Avery Bradley, the latter of whom played just six games with the Clippers before opting for season-ending surgery.
Austin Rivers missed the entire month of January, too, forcing LA to rely on rookie Juwan Evans and two-way players C.J. Williams and Tyrone Wallace for productive minutes.
And yet, the Clippers still find themselves here: Right in the thick of an even-tighter-than-usual Western Conference playoff race.
On the court, Rivers credits the ball movement for LA’s success. The team simply enjoying being around each other may be the biggest factor.
“They like each other, they play for each other,” Rivers said. “It’s been a ball for me. I’ve had more fun this year than I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
It says a lot that Rivers enjoys this team more than any of his other Clipper teams, and not because of what it may say about past teams or players. From an outside perspective, this team, a team full of hungry scrapers, veterans, rookies and G-Leaguers alike, has the look of a coach’s dream. These players are fighting for a job, fighting for minutes and trying to prove that this team doesn’t need a future-Hall-of-Fame talent to be taken seriously in the NBA’s best conference.
It won’t be easy for the Clippers to extend their season. They have ground to make up and Portland, San Antonio, Utah, Denver and New Orleans remaining on the schedule. With Gallinari slated to return from injury and Wallace and Williams being called up from the G League, though, the Clippers won’t go down easy.
Maybe they don’t make it. But the Clippers even being in the conversation, after this roller coaster of a season, is impressive. It shows the resiliency of the players and that Doc Rivers is a damn good coach after all.
And perhaps most importantly, it shows that the Clippers are not willing to fade into the dark shadow of irrelevance once again.