LOS ANGELES -- Normally, when a group of co-workers get together for dinner and the topic of their boss comes up, there’s usually more than a few complaints at the table.
That’s especially true in professional sports when players repeatedly second guess the decisions made by their coach when they're behind closed doors.
Maybe the Los Angeles Clippers and Doc Rivers are still going through a honeymoon period, but when Clippers players get together off the court, they often find themselves reciting their favorite speeches from Rivers as if they’re reciting their favorite passages from a novel at a book club.
“He’s been what I expected and then some,” Clippers guard J.J. Redick said. “A bunch of us went to dinner last night and we were talking about some of the things he has said already in the locker room and the team meetings and you get goose bumps sometimes. It’s that good. It’s refreshing to play for a guy like that. We’re all excited.”
There can be a heavy dose of expletives in some of Rivers’ speeches but Redick believes some of his maxims may become viral and even fashionable in the future.
“Someday,” Redick said. “Maybe 50 years from now, there will be T-shirts and Instagrams with Doc Rivers’ quotes.”
Sometimes a message is only as valuable as the person delivering it. As good as Rivers’ message is it likely would have been lost on the players if it were delivered verbatim by Vinny Del Negro. As personable as Del Negro was, he had lost his players and the locker room by the end of his time in L.A. DeAndre Jordan’s faith was lost as he sat at the end of the bench late in games, Blake Griffin’s trust was eroded as the team constantly changed their defensive philosophies depending on that night’s opponent and Del Negro never seemed to have the full respect of Chris Paul.
Rivers will be the first one to admit he’s not trying to completely reinvent the wheel for a team that won 56 games and the division title last year. Much of what he’s teaching the team isn’t a far cry from what Del Negro was doing, but the difference will be Rivers’ ability to shape the approach of the team on the floor, for example, when the offense turns into “give the ball to Chris Paul and stand around.”
“I can tell you I’ve been around Vinny and I know that’s not the way it was taught,” Rivers said. “That just happened. It’s up to them to trust it. I can put in anything I want but if they don’t trust it and do it, it’s not going to work.”
Rivers has gained the trust of the Clippers during training camp. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he has what they all want -- a championship ring. There’s a certain cache that comes with winning a title while most of the players on the team have been in the league. Unlike Del Negro, who had about as much postseason success as his players, Rivers has the Clippers paying attention to every detail of his instructions with the hope that they can attain the same success he has had.
“It’s one of those things where you’re hanging on every word,” Griffin said. “Everything he says, it seems like it’s important and has a lot of meaning. Sometimes you’re listening to coaches talk in general and it gets repetitive and you start to check out a little bit. But every film session, every team meeting everything he says and everything we do is very productive.”
When Paul first sat down with Rivers, his new head coach showered him with praise before telling him he had effectively accomplished nothing since he had yet to make it out of the second round of the playoffs. Rivers was going to show him not only how to get past the second round but win a title.
“After I signed and he was the coach, we had a conversation and I’ll never forget it,” Paul said. “I got goose bumps talking to him.”
Over the past two seasons while he was playing for Del Negro, Paul would often quote Skip Prosser, his coach at Wake Forrest, and would also occasionally quote Byron Scott and Monty Williams, who coached him with the New Orleans Hornets. He never quoted Del Negro. Paul likely won’t have to quote his old coaches this season when he’s talking to teammates and the media.
“The coach that I played for that I can quote like a book is Coach Skip Prosser,” Paul said. “I can see the same relationship with Doc. He has a lot of sayings that I’ll probably never forget.”
Rivers smiles when he hears the compliments from his players and how receptive they have been to his coaching but knows it’s too early to tell what that will translate into when the season begins next week.
“I think every coach is receptive in training camp,” Rivers said. “Everyone is receptive to them. Then when you get down to the minutes and the touches that when things go haywire. So I’ll get back to you in December and January when I really know if they’re receptive or not.”