LOS ANGELES — Last summer Grant Hill had just retired from professional basketball.
His last team, the Clippers, had been eliminated from the playoffs in Memphis. His last coach, Vinny Del Negro, who recruited Hill to Los Angeles, was no longer under contract.
Because of his unique perspective, Hill was asked whom he thought should lead the Clippers going forward.
“I told them the perfect person would be Doc Rivers, and this was before I knew there was any chance that he could actually become the coach because he was still under contract,” Hill said. “I felt like he was the perfect guy for this team.”
The Clippers won’t know if Hill was right until the playoffs end, but Rivers has them in a position they have never been in before.
The Clippers won 57 games, a franchise record. They are the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. And, they are legitimate title contenders in the playoffs, as their opening series with the Golden State Warriors is tied at 1 after the Clippers’ 40-point victory on Monday night.
All of these things have happened because the Clippers have bought what Rivers is selling.
“I think a part of coaching is selling. It’s selling yourself, selling your system and selling what you want to accomplish,” Hill said. “I just felt they needed someone who obviously had the credentials, the track record and the credibility. But, they needed somebody who really was a great communicator.
“I think that’s one of Doc’s strong points, getting his message to guys, motivating and inspiring them. Even before he had all his records and his championship, when he was a young coach, he knew how to get people to rally. He knew how to get people to buy in and believe.”
After one year with the team, Hill knew that’s what the Clippers needed. After one year under Rivers, it’s clear that’s what the team got.
“He’s so in tune,” said guard Jamal Crawford, who has played for 17 NBA coaches and famously listing them off during a halftime interview earlier this season, a list that included Hall of Famers Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkens and likely Hall of Famer Don Nelson,.
“He knows when to say something, when not to say something. He’s so on the pulse of this team. As far as knowing how to get the message across, when to say it, how to say it, he’s the best.”
The selling started shortly after Rivers was hired, with the Clippers sending a future first-round pick to Boston as compensation.
He told DeAndre Jordan he wanted the outrageously athletic big man to dominate on the defensive end. He told Blake Griffin he wanted him to face the basket and attack. He told Chris Paul he wanted him to play with a more urgent pace.
While the changes with Jordan were drastic, Crawford marveled at how subtle alterations resulted in major steps forward for Paul and Griffin.
“Little things can mean the most,” Crawford said. “In their situation, it has.”
With Paul, the connection was evident early on. After the point guard re-signed with the Clippers last summer, Rivers pitched his vision for a championship in a manner that Paul said gave him goosebumps.
“We know how passionate he is and how much this means to him,” Paul said. “As a player, Doc was a player too; you’d think when you go on to coaching, you wouldn’t have the same fire. But you see it in him.”
As Crawford said, it wasn’t just what Rivers had to say. It was how and when he said it.
“It’s a sell. It’s not a demand,” Rivers said. “We want to win, and it’s like, ‘For us to win, this is what I need you to do.’ It still doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win, but it gives us a shot.
“Just trust it.”
Getting players to trust – now, that’s not so easy.
Rivers learned that lesson as a player during the 1992-93 season after being traded to Pat Riley’s New York Knicks. Riley had to sell a big change to Rivers, getting him to alter the way he had defended in the previous nine seasons.
“All of a sudden, I had to play defense differently from the way I’d always played it in my career,” Rivers said. “And that was extremely hard for me.
“And then it took me to mid-year, and I was fine. I was trying early and was bad at it, and then all of a sudden, I mastered what he wanted me to do. Once it clicked, I’d never been freer as a player. It clicked and I had bought in. Going to games was easy. I knew what I had to do. I knew my role. And, there was no stress. I played free as a bird.”
Rivers is still learning. His son, Austin, is a second-year guard with the New Orleans Pelicans, and their conversations give him insight into the makeup of the modern NBA locker room from the player’s perspective.
Every piece of information gathered from his time as a player to his four-plus seasons coaching Orlando to the deep playoff runs with Boston to his father-son talks with Austin all point in one direction.
That feeling of freedom, it turns out, is what Rivers now tries to sell to his players.
Freedom for Jordan would come from focusing on owning the defensive end of the court. For Griffin, it would come from offensive dominance, and for Paul, it would come from orchestrating everything. For the rest of the roster, it would come from complementing the principles.
And when a team gets there, it’s beautiful basketball.
“You can just tell,” Rivers said. “The teams are free in how they play and they’ve accepted. There are no issues.
“There aren’t ball movement problems. Defensively, they’re all on the same page. They’re doing it with joy. There’s no stress. I always say, ‘There’s no clutter.’”
Getting rid of the clutter requires communication and trust, and Rivers is a master of using the first to establish the second.
“Doc just has a way with people,” Hill said. “Combine that with his knowledge and understanding of the game and his credibility – he’s the right person. If it’s getting DJ to buy in to what we all knew and thought he could be, or if it’s getting Chris to alter his style of play, it’s not just saying, ‘This is what I want you to do.’ It’s understanding that you have to sell it and convince guys.”
Part of the reason Rivers was the perfect choice in Hill’s estimation was his track record.
While with the Boston Celtics, Rivers forged rock-solid relationships with his players, including current Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins, who compared it to a father-son relationship.
“The first thing he does he shows he actually, genuinely cares about you,” Perkins said. “When a guy does that, you have no choice but to run through a wall for him. ... It takes things to another level. Now, he can get on a guy, cuss him out and tell him to pick his play up, and the guy knows he doesn’t mean any harm. He just wants to win.”
The salesmanship, the relationships, the connections have worked so far. But really, this team won’t get to the next level until the playoffs.
“That’s when you get your bond,” Rivers said. “The regular seasons are nice, and they’re very valuable. But the real growth comes in the playoffs.”
©2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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