The Philadelphia 76ers' coach faced his former team on Saturday for the first time since being let go after the Clippers' 3-1 series meltdown against the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs. And although he says the Clippers aren't running much that is different from when he was calling the plays, Rivers said the Clippers and Lakers are the favorites in the West.
"Listen, Utah has been great. But I still think the Clippers and Lakers are still the teams to beat in the West," Rivers said before the Clippers won their fifth straight with a 122-112 win over the Sixers.
Rivers admitted the observation was being made "from afar," saying he doesn't watch as many Western Conference games now that he's on the East Coast. But, he said, "I don't see anyone better than those two teams."
The Utah Jazz (34-11) have the best record in the NBA. Rivers' Sixers (32-14) own the second-best record in the league. While the Clippers (31-16) are third in the West behind Phoenix (30-14) and the Lakers (29-17) are holding on at fourth despite being without the injured LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Rivers said it is all about the Los Angeles teams, like it was supposed to be last season when they were considered heavy favorites to win it all.
The Nuggets (27-18), who are fifth in the West, made a splash at the trade deadline to get Aaron Gordon from Orlando and JaVale McGee from Cleveland. And Rivers mentioned that Utah has Bojan Bogdanovic back this season after not having him in the bubble.
"I thought Denver had a great trade deadline -- they did great moves," Rivers said. "Utah is playing unbelievable basketball, so they are going to be right there. Portland, I thought improved their team as well.
"But I still think it's the Lakers and the Clippers."
The Clippers played a welcome-back video to their former coach, who was with the organization from 2013 to 2020. Rivers left his imprint all over the franchise, turning what was once a laughingstock into a playoff contender and helping it rise out of the Donald Sterling scandal to its status as a title contender with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Current coach Ty Lue is a Rivers protege.
"They're a different team," Rivers said. "They don't have a lot of the same guys, [but] they run a lot of the same stuff that I run. Going through [their plays at] shootaround today, I thought we were going through our shootaround at times. But I wouldn't have changed much offensively, either. I mean, they were pretty darn good last year."
Rivers said he did not get much time to practice last season because of injuries, and then the pandemic pause and disruption in the bubble restart.
He said the Clippers now have more continuity.
"The difference is they've had a chance to practice together, you know?" Rivers said. "And you can see that. I think they've given the ball to P.G. more, which I think has helped him. So they've made some good changes. The biggest change I see also is defensively. I think they are a better defensive team. It's funny, the numbers don't exactly say that, but when I watch them, I think they're going to be a better defensive team, one of the better defensive teams when the playoffs start."
The Clippers added Rivers' former point guard Rajon Rondo in a trade with Atlanta for Lou Williams. Rivers won a championship with Rondo in Boston and said his old quarterback will help orchestrate the offense, take some playmaking load off of Leonard and George and provide leadership.
"It was difficult at times last year," Rivers said of not having a point guard like Rondo. "Especially without the practice time that we didn't have, to run a play down the stretch where you didn't already have the ball in P.G.'s or Kawhi's hands. Now you don't have to do that. You can actually run a set where Rondo can deliver the ball.
"But I think as important as that's gonna be, his voice is going to be even more important," Rivers said. "I think he's one of those guys that will speak up, will speak the truth and tell everybody and hold everybody accountable. I think that's important."