January 16, 2019
If we must blame someone, then, rather than faulting the players, let's look elsewhere.

The end of a hotly contested playoff series is sure to be fraught with many folks’ natural desire to find a scapegoat. It’s a silly and emotional human desire, but unfortunately one propagated by some of the largest names in the game, media and otherwise.

The first targets are the players involved, and if one temporarily ignores the silliness of the entire practice of shoveling dirt on graves, this makes obvious sense. They’re the ones on the floor making the plays, and in a game with as much variability as basketball, it’s easy enough for even the league’s best to go cold or underperform for a period of time approximating series length. There are even times where a healthy bit of responsibility being placed on an individual or two is reasonable, though these cases are far less frequent than much of the viewing public might believe.

The Western Conference semi-final that wrapped up Sunday afternoon is not one of these times. The full details here are for another time and place, but even the general insinuation that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the main culprits in the L.A. Clippers’ collapse is badly misplaced. Those two dragged the Clippers to a win in a legendary first-round series against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, running high pick-and-roll after high pick-and-roll. And while they ultimately fell short against the Houston Rockets in a manner guaranteed to ignite the hot takes, this team would never have sniffed a game seven in the Western semis without them – Griffin with a playoff career high in literally everything, most notably usage and efficiency, and Paul gutting out a notoriously fickle injury without a word. DeAndre Jordan belongs in the same category as well. No, those with an insatiable desire to indict someone after the loss are better served looking elsewhere.

They could start with the remaining Clippers playing personnel, with guys ranging from “competent but limited” to “my junior high coach would have cut his own son if he was that bad” on a playoff usefulness scale. Names like Glen Davis and Spencer Hawes on the bench made removing Griffin or Jordan all but a death sentence, and the likes of Austin Rivers did much of the same for Paul. Even more proven pieces like Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick were off and on for much of the postseason, especially in L.A.’s three straight losses to Houston.

Of course, the logical endpoint here is the man who assembled this group: Doc Rivers. But while his work as GM has been shaky at best, and very likely directly contributed to the lack of depth that in part doomed his Clippers, this is a deep well that most have drawn plentifully from already.

A less frequent topic in conversations about Glenn Rivers, maybe a tangential result of the broad scope of his failures as a GM, is a different notion: Is Doc a good basketball coach?

Some might balk at the very question. He won a title with a particularly romanticized Boston Celtics team, gobbling up positive press surrounding his relationship with Boston’s stars and the familial “Ubuntu” that formed their identity. More recently, his excellent handling of a painful Donald Sterling saga reinforced his reputation as one of the league’s top figures.

But in a way, this is perhaps the issue. Has all the goodwill Doc’s built through his accomplishments, ones that in reality don’t speak much (or at all, in the Sterling case) to the current NBA game, served to inflate his reputation on the sidelines?

Like all coaching evaluations from outside a given locker room, the answer will be incomplete. There’s a lot we just can’t know, and the details can make a huge difference. But by a similar token, in such a competitive industry where Doc and his peers are the 30 most well-positioned in the entire world for their field, the elements we can parse are worthy of relatively intense scrutiny.

In recent years, as the game has advanced more rapidly than many are even aware of, it’s unclear whether Doc has kept pace. His team’s recently-terminated postseason may have exposed a few fatal warts – ones small enough to slip through the cracks in a regular season given his assembled talent, but trapped and exploited by the tightening vice that is the playoffs.

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Rotations have become a point of concern in a hyper-focused playoff environment. In what’s often a game of inches, a few curious moves here or there may have cost his team in a major fashion. Variation is good, but Doc seemed to still be experimenting with how to rotate his three stars during their rest periods even through the Houston series, at times staggering them and at others pulling them closer to simultaneously.

He was all over the map with Hawes within each of L.A.’s two series, playing him virtually zero relevant minutes against the Spurs before bouncing him seemingly randomly in and out of the lineup against Houston. Ditto for Davis, who played as few as five minutes and as many as 19, both in close games. He relied far too heavily on Crawford, particularly in the Houston series where Barnes was clearly the better option – units with Crawford were a combined minus-4.9 per-100-possessions compared with a plus-11.7 for Barnes on the series, but the latter played just 12 more minutes than the former over seven games.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping an opponent on their toes. But a close look appears to reveal a coach who, rather than practicing deception, is still taste-testing the same ingredients he’s been cooking with all season. At least on the surface, many of his adjustments seem to have been wild shots in the dark that didn’t line up much or at all with the on-court context. His options courtesy of his GM alter-ego didn’t do him any favors, to be sure, but it’s tough to argue he truly maximized the admittedly limited pieces on his chess board.

Some of his tactical moves raised an eyebrow or two as well, his handling of various “Hack-A” situations chief among them on both sides of the coin. Rivers was curiously inconsistent with his choices for combatting the strategy when Houston and San Antonio started it up with Jordan, almost as if he wasn’t entirely prepared for something that likely should have been obvious.

Doc would mostly stand firm, leaving DeAndre in the game and trusting the added rest and tangential advantages of such an approach to win out, but seemed to wave a white flag on more than one instance by taking Jordan out and allowing minutes against his incapable backups. His own employment of the tactic, particularly with several poor free-throw shooters frequently on the floor for Houston, was spotty and, again, seemingly random. He abandoned it multiple times after just a couple consecutive makes and applied it in a couple other strange instances, revealing what might be a lack of understanding of the math behind such a move.

And of course, Doc’s overuse of his stars may have played a larger role in the outcome of the series than anything else under his control. Rotations are one thing, but at several points in the 2015 postseason, Rivers’s decisions left this realm and bordered on downright irresponsible. Leaving Griffin, Paul and Jordan in for the entirety of the closing segment of a game one blowout win over San Antonio, for instance – they played 42, 37 and 38 minutes respectively in a game the Clippers led by double figures for the final 15 minutes and change – was negligent at best, and he made multiple other similar, if less pronounced, errors of a similar ilk.

Not surprisingly, it showed. Griffin was a shell of himself in game seven and nearly every fourth quarter in the playoffs, visibly gassed by a workload he couldn’t handle. Paul’s injury may have deflected things some, but he too looked exhausted at times as the group collapsed, missing some of his usual slingshot-like qualities around the Clippers’ pet high pick-and-roll. Even Jordan saw the effects despite being a DH on one end of the floor, making less and less of an impact defensively as the Houston series wore on.

Some of this is unavoidable given the rest of the roster, but much of it simply isn’t. Keeping your studs fresh is important for every coach, but it’s absolutely vital for Rivers with such a top-heavy group. An insistence upon taxing them even when it isn’t remotely necessary is a move with zero upside whatsoever. Doc’s 12-23 record in closeout opportunities in the playoffs over the life of his coaching career (courtesy of BBALLBREAKDOWN.com colleague Kevin O’Connor) speaks to many factors, but it’s hard to imagine this type of overuse of his stars isn’t at least among those within his control.

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This isn’t to say Doc is without merits of any kind as a coach, or even that he doesn’t belong in the league. He’s famously close with his players and is an ace motivator, and while such themes can at times carry more weight in perception than reality, there’s no questioning their importance. He does certain tactical things well also, including generally strong play calls and a basic scheme that’s wildly effective with his starters on the floor.

But in today’s game, that alone just may not be good enough to get a contender over the top anymore. It’s easy and common to massively understate the way the game has changed even since Doc’s days in Boston; specificity and attention to detail have become exponentially more important as the ways an opponent can lean on and eventually crush even the slightest weak points have become better understood. An ability to instruct and manage egos in a positive way is important, but this is just a more common skill than a true mastery of the technical aspects. The league’s best are those who do both at a high level.

Rivers is a good basketball mind and an even better teacher – one need look no further than Jordan’s wonderful developments over the last couple years to gather as much. But it seems the true elite at his post have passed him by as the game’s complexities have been magnified. Doc appears in many ways to no longer be one of the elite coaches in the NBA, and he may find himself even further behind in future years if he doesn’t adapt.

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Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is an in-depth analyst and lover of all sports based in Salt Lake City. He can also be found at Salt City Hoops (Utah Jazz TrueHoop affiliate) as well as Hardwood Paroxysm and Nylon Calculus. Follow him on Twitter: @Ben_Dowsett

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