1) Expectations were sky high for the Clippers heading into the season. We're a quarter of the way through. What is your general assessment so far?
My assessment is that I am confused. Through the first 14 games, the Clippers were unstoppable on offense, and terrible on defense. For the last eight games, the team has been one of the best defensive teams in the league, and dreadful on offense. Many external factors are contributing to that of course -- they faced a lot of great offensive teams in the beginning part of their schedule, J.J. Redick's injury has dealt a major blow to their offensive rhythm -- but even taking those things into consideration, it's tough to reconcile.
It's reasonable to think that this team could be a true title contender when healthy -- injuries to Redick and Matt Barnes and now rookie Reggie Bullock have made a shambles of the wing rotation and Redick in particular has proven vital so far. Talent is king in the NBA, and Chris Paul remains a top three talent, while Blake Griffin continues to improve and the supporting cast seems better than last year (injuries making it difficult to say that for certain). The team needs to add a big -- and we're still waiting to see how it all fits together. They've shown that they are capable of playing great offense and great defense -- but eventually they're going to have to do it at the same time.
2) Doc made his money in Boston with defense and a slow pace. With different personnel he's got a different style going in L.A. What are your thoughts on how Doc has been able to adapt to this style?
Grantland's one-on-one interview with Brad Stevens
Grantland's Zach Lowe interviewed Brad Stevens yesterday as the Boston Celtics prepared for their reunion with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in Brooklyn.
In the ongoing debate over how much coaches actually matter, I have generally been on the "not much" side of the fence. My list of "difference-maker" coaches is not long: Gregg Popovich; Phil Jackson; I like Rick Adelman a lot. It's difficult not to notice that Doc had a winning percentage of .293 the season before he won his title in Boston. Turns out, adding Garnett and Allen, getting Pierce back from injury and watching Rondo turn into a star all seemed to play a role in Doc Rivers becoming a great coach. Who knew?
As I said above, talent is king in the NBA, and talent always trumps coaching. Having said that, coaches do need to use their talent well, and I give Doc credit for convincing Chris Paul to play faster. There's a misnomer about the Clippers, with all the highlight dunks, that they played at a fast pace under Vinny Del Negro. In fact, they played at the fourth slowest pace in the league in CP3's first season in the league, and were 19th in pace last season. That's all about Paul, whose strong preference is to play "walk-it-up" basketball. Rivers seems to have convinced Paul of some rather obvious things, like the fact that Griffin and Jordan are faster than the guys they generally play against, and therefore it makes sense to run more. He also has Paul looking to score more, which again goes against his nature as a pure, pass-first point. I think it's a testament to the respect that Doc has earned with Paul that he has convinced him to play this way.
3) Conversely, I'm sure you'd prefer a little more consistent defense. Is there anything from those Celtics teams that you wish was a bigger part of your team right now? (I'm sure you could get Kevin Garnett from the Nets for a song)
The defense has actually been great for the last couple of weeks (it got a lot better just about the time the team started playing some really bad offenses, imagine that). Doc has insisted loudly and repeatedly since arriving in Los Angeles that Jordan and Griffin can be great NBA defenders. Jordan in particular has been his cause celebre -- in his introductory press conference as Clippers coach, Doc said that DeAndre had DPOY potential -- I remember because of how embarrassed I was when I began to chuckle at his wry joke, only to realize Doc was serious. He's right of course -- Griffin and Jordan have unmatched athleticism and CAN be great defenders. But there's something ineffable about great defense, and the physical tools to play it are just one small part.
Thinking back to those Celtics teams, the roster wasn't exactly packed with plus-defenders when they were leading the league in defensive efficiency by a wide margin. Pierce was good not great defensively, Allen was considered a weak defender before arriving in Boston; it was the team-wide concepts, and of course the genius of Garnett, that made it all go. Those team concepts should work for the Clippers also, who may not have great athleticism on the perimeter, but have some of the highest basketball IQ players around in guys like Paul and Redick and Dudley. As for Jordan, I remind myself frequently that Tyson Chandler, at the age of 25, was pretty much the same guy. He had a big salary that no one really thought he was earning, he was dunking a lot of lob passes (from Chris Paul, actually) -- but he was not yet the defensive force he eventually became. Jordan and Griffin are both getting better defensively: how much better they get and how quickly remains to be seen.
And if the Nets decide to waive Garnett, he can join a familiar coach on a team close to his Malibu home.