I believe in coaches. I believe in coaching matchups. I believe that coaches in the NBA are just as important as (almost) any player on the court and that coaching to a large degree is the main reason certain teams go deep into the playoffs every year. I believe a great coach can put any team into the championship conversation.
That said ...
Now I would be "white jacket" certifiable if I took this space to say that I believe because Doc Rivers is now the coach of the L.A. Clippers that they are about to win the NBA championship. But in the NBA, if history has shown us anything, we should have learned by now that the perfect coaching change may not cure everything, but it damn sure has the chance to become the greatest remedy.
Disagree? Think I'm crazy? Socially medicated? Think that a coaching change can't directly make that much of a difference? Remember when: Phil Jackson took over for Kurt Rambis in L.A. in 1999; Larry Brown took over for Rick Carlisle in Detroit in 2003; Tom Thibodeau took over for Vinny Del Negro in Chicago in 2010?
(Note: It cannot go without mention that the Lakers upon Jackson's hire did replace Derek Harper with Ron Harper, and the Pistons made a midseason trade during Brown's first year in which they acquired Rasheed Wallace.)
But let's dive into that most recent example in Chicago. In this instance, the Bulls' replacing Del Negro with Thibodeau is a precise and direct analogy, since the Clippers also replaced Del Negro. If history repeats itself, then the Clippers are about to become one of the greatest teams in the history of the NBA.
Need evidence? When Del Negro was dismissed by the Bulls after consecutive 41-win seasons, Thibodeau took the same core team (with the exception of Carlos Boozer, who was acquired that offseason) and turned it into a team that won 62 games and reached the conference finals. No disrespect to Boozer, but his acquisition was not worth a 21-win improvement plus two extra playoff rounds. That was coaching. Something Thibs proved again the next year by finishing with the second-best record in the NBA during the strike-shortened season and with the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, missing 27 of 66 games. Something Thibodeau proved once more in last season's playoffs, beating the Brooklyn Nets without three-fifths of his starting lineup and his center playing on one foot.
Prior to that, Thibs (after a career of legendary assistant coaching) had never been a head coach in the NBA. So if Thibs can do what he did in Chicago, what do you think can happen when a coach like Rivers replaces Del Negro? A coach who has a better résumé? Who has already won an NBA championship? Who is inheriting a much better team in the Clippers than the one Thibs took over in Chicago?
The Clippers won 56 games last season. Do the math.
In the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder have peaked, and there seems to be no timetable as to when Russell Westbrook will return. Memphis is going to feel the loss of Lionel Hollins. The inevitable Spurs descent is going to begin. They left it all on the court in the Finals against the Heat, and the carryover from losing Game 7 may prove to be too much to overcome. The Rockets haven't been together long enough, and no one is sure which Dwight Howard is going to show up this season. The Warriors are still a year away. The Blazers will be, well, the Blazers. And the L.A. Lakers? By the time Kobe returns, it might be too late. If it's not too late already.
Leaving what team in the West with the least amount of problems and hurdles to overcome? Leaving which team west of Lake Erie with the least amount of questions unanswered?
The Clippers, with the exception of losing Eric Bledsoe and Lamar Odom, have everything in place to represent the West in the NBA Finals this season -- especially since they've put someone in a suit on the sideline who has a proven capacity to make talented teams overachieve.
Then there's this: For the past two years in the NBA playoffs, the Clippers have been punked. Outclassed. Both times failing to reach or maximize the potential they showed during the regular season. Basically, San Antonio and Memphis proved that the Clippers could be psychologically taken advantage of during a seven-game series. Yes, unfortunate and ill-timed injuries to key players played a role both times, but, truth be told, the Clippers showed a pattern of allowing themselves to get beaten above the shoulders because all they knew was how to ball above the rim.
Doc Rivers changes all of that. Immediately. Emphasis on defense will be the initial point of change. But teams in the West also will no longer have a mental advantage in the playoffs. Just like he did in Boston, Rivers will make sure that all other teams know the Clippers will be impossible to mentally break and impossible to outsmart. Punked no more.
"I would rather be with a group that has high expectations than a group that doesn't," Rivers said during the Clippers' media day. "Are we ready to embrace that? I don't know yet. That's what we're going to go on this journey and find out."
That's his reality.
But when approached about the verisimilitude of the Clippers' winning the NBA championship this year solely based on having him as the team's new coach, Rivers responded with this: "I would never argue with Scoop or his opinions."
Smart man. Even though he did tease the subject by also saying on media day: "I believe we can [win a championship] ... I think it's open, right? I don't think anyone has claimed it." Rivers spoke in terms of the team and players as a whole, not specifically of himself as the tipping point.
I get it. Why jinx yourself when someone else can do it for you? (Thank or blame me later, Doc.) But here's the reality: Of all things that happened during the NBA offseason, the hiring of Rivers to the Clippers will likely prove to pay the greatest dividends with the most immediate, convincing and consequential results.
No other team made a better upgrade at any position.
All that needs to happen now is for the season to start and for us to watch as the aforementioned history of a perfect coaching change repeats itself.