NEW YORK -- When Vinny Del Negro was asked last season what system he used, the former Los Angeles Clippers coach simply smiled and uttered two words.
"Chris Paul," he said.
Del Negro laughed, but he wasn't joking. His "system" was essentially to put the ball in Paul's hands and hope for the best. The team wasn't built on a system that didn't deviate regardless of the personnel on the floor. It was built on a single player leading the team.
"All those names and all that stuff," Del Negro said. "You just put the ball in the best player's hands."
That philosophy, or lack thereof, is a big reason why Del Negro is no longer the coach and Doc Rivers is. Thanks in large part to Rivers and his system, the Clippers have won a season-high five straight games and six of the last seven without Paul.
Rivers' system is based on principles that his team buys into, and they don't change -- regardless of the personnel. The strong-side pressure defense system that his Boston Celtics teams mastered when Tom Thibodeau was on his staff remains the same. And his motion offense that is able to thrive when the pace is pushed or in the half court is easily recognizable.
One of the advantages of having a system that everyone buys into and isn't built on the shoulders of a single player is the ability to get through this six-week stretch during which Paul is sidelined because of a separated right shoulder.
"We've buckled down, played within ourselves and really relied on our system to get us through," said Blake Griffin after putting up 32 points and seven rebounds in the Clippers' 109-95 victory against the New York Knicks on Friday.
"Nobody's really trying to do too much. That's what you need when someone like C.P. goes down, because you always worry about someone trying to replace him. You can't replace him."
It's a system that was nonexistent last season, when whatever philosophy did exist wasn't one everyone relished. Griffin was routinely critical of the Clippers changing their defensive principles from night to night, based on their opponent, and having the offense cater to and run through one player.
"The way we're playing offensively and defensively, everybody is just trusting each other and really buying in and hopefully that makes us a better team when we do get C.P. back," Griffin said. "We've had to lean back on our system. If everybody hasn't bought in now, they're not going to buy in. It's been great for us."
Rivers will never pat his back or his playbook after a game, but he has liked the way his players have gathered together in Paul's absence and found ways to win by trusting in one other and the system.
"When Chris went down, the first thing I said is, 'We got to find a way,' " Rivers said. "It may be a different way every night, but we got to find a way to win that game. And that's what we're doing."
"They've learned other ways. They can't just rely on him on the pick-and-roll. We have to be more creative offensively. We have to move the ball. We're playing in-and-out. We're using Blake as the facilitator a lot. They're just learning how to play, and that will be even better when Chris comes back."
Paul wasn't in New York on Friday night and won't join the team on its 12-day trip until next week. But Rivers challenged the rest of the team when their leader went down.
If the Clippers are going to be a championship team, they cannot simply rely on the heroics of one player. Success will come from a collective effort of a group playing as one on the court, and there's no better time to learn how to do that than now.
"We can battle adversity," said Jamal Crawford, who scored 29 points off the bench for the Clippers on Friday. "Chris is one of the better players in the league. He's an MVP candidate and he's so important to what we do, because he has the ball in his hands so much. For us, we have to continue to lean on each other and trust the system."
It's a system the Clippers can rely on now -- and, even more important, three months from now if the Clippers hope to have success in the playoffs.
"You can't go into the playoffs and not know your identity and not know what you're trying accomplish in every game," Griffin said. "So for us, every game, to have a game plan and execute that game plan in order to win is big and will hopefully give us some experience going through adversity."