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“You’ve Got to Be Willing to Fail”

Famously candid Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers may never run out of things to say, but with his injury-ravaged team caught between expectations and reality, how long will people listen?

Doc Rivers Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“It’s funny how I’m not down,” says Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, sitting on a table inside the team’s practice facility during a nine-game losing streak in the middle of November. “I’m kind of not upbeat, because we’re losing,” he adds, “but I love this team and I like what we’re doing. We’ve got major obstacles, and if we can somehow get through it, I think we’re gonna be really good.”

Just two weeks later, Rivers’s stoic sentiment seems downright quaint. The Clippers were already battling through a number of issues at the time, with three of their starters sidelined with injuries, the losses piling up, and the calls for the franchise to make some sort of drastic change to regain control of their season growing louder. But that was before news broke that shooting guard Patrick Beverley, one of the nine new players the Clippers hoped could help replace departed floor general Chris Paul and Ringer podcaster J.J. Redick, would miss the rest of the season after knee surgery. And more alarmingly, it was also before this Monday’s contest against the intra–Staples Center rival Los Angeles Lakers, a 120–115 game that was technically the Clippers’ third straight win (their first such streak since Game 3 of the season), but which functionally marked their most crushing loss yet.

In the fourth quarter, when Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball lost the basketball as he dribbled through traffic in the paint, Blake Griffin, the Clippers’ most precious resource, reached to retrieve it and wound up on the ground. This wasn’t unusual; two nights earlier, in a win over Sacramento, Griffin had hit the floor several times as he lunged for loose balls in a dominating, 33-point performance that included a game-winning shot and underlined his wide-ranging importance to a Clippers team with whom he re-signed this summer for a five-year, $171 million maximum contract. But this time he stayed down with a telltale wince. In the jumble of bodies resulting from Ball’s fumble, Griffin’s teammate Austin Rivers — Doc’s son, for whom the Clippers traded in 2015 and signed to a three-year, $35 million deal in 2016 — had landed awkwardly on Griffin’s left leg. After the game, the Clippers coach put the blame for the freak injury squarely, and incorrectly, on Ball.

The next day, the team announced that Griffin had sprained his MCL and would miss as many as two months. TNT’s David Aldridge reported that the Clippers were “relieved it wasn’t worse” — at least Griffin wasn’t out for the season. But in a way, for a team that was already wedged between the expectations of longtime success and the realities of short-term setbacks, this medium-term, six-to-eight-week diagnosis does more to muddy the waters than to make them clearer.

Even before Griffin went down, the Clippers and the observers around them struggled to make sense of how to navigate and evaluate such an injury-ridden start to the season, with Beverley, point guard Milos Teodosic, and small forward Danilo Gallinari all out of the lineup. Should the team think about trading center DeAndre Jordan, who along with Paul and Griffin had been part of the core trio that defined the Lob City–era Clippers that won 50-plus games in each of the past five seasons, and who re-signed with the franchise two years back? Should they go with the classic standby solution for a team in disarray without a clear cause and shake up the coaching staff?

Amid the string of Clippers losses, ranging from a 118–113 overtime matchup in Cleveland (“This is about the fourth game, to me, that we’ve had a chance to win it at the end and we just have not gotten it done,” Rivers told reporters afterward, “and it tells you that you’re closer than you think you are”) to a dismal 102–87 showing in Charlotte (“This was a bad one for us,” Rivers admitted), The New York Times’ Marc Stein tweeted that the slump “will inevitably foist hot-seat scrutiny on Doc Rivers,” despite his being one of just six active NBA coaches to have won a ring. In The Washington Post, Tim Bontemps wrote that “talk has been rampant around the NBA that coach Doc Rivers could be out the door soon.” Podcasters from Sports Illustrated to ESPN have debated a coaching shake-up; the call has even come from inside The Ringer’s house.

Speaking with Rivers in mid-November, back when Beverley was expected to return soon and a healthy Griffin was the team’s undisputed leader in the wake of this offseason’s big Paul trade to Houston, it’s already apparent that the coach is searching for the right way to describe the team’s situation. His explanation takes the form of hyperactive hypotheticals: “I tell this team,” Rivers says, “your present situation sometimes is not real. We live in a time now where everything is present: Your record is this, and what you’re doing is this. You are what your record says you are, but you don’t have to believe it. You know what I mean? Even though your record’s real, your situation is not real.”

But season-ending knee surgery for the man who was supposed to be the team’s primary ball mover and a major knee ligament sprain to the team’s biggest star? It doesn’t get much realer than that.

Rivers had knee surgery himself back in the day, when he was playing for Pat Riley’s Knicks in the early ’90s. His teammate Patrick Ewing tried his best to cheer him up. “He just gave me a car,” Rivers says, “because he felt bad for me. A Mercedes. A two-seater. He just … I was like, ‘Get out of here with that,’ because I wasn’t taking a car. Then I called him and said, ‘I’ll buy it from you,’ and the price he sold it for was a joke. That’s Patrick.” After Rivers’s 13 years as an NBA player, head-coaching stints in Orlando, Boston, and Los Angeles, and three years as the president of basketball operations with the Clippers before owner Steve Ballmer asked him this summer to focus solely on his coaching duties, Rivers has a lot of these sorts of stories, and he tells them well.

He recalls butting heads with Paul Pierce in 2004, Rivers’s first year coaching the Celtics, over differences of opinion regarding the way Pierce ought to play. “He was comfortable,” Rivers recalls. “He was an All-Star. Why would he change? Well, to win, you have to change sometimes. There’s a ton of players who say all they want to do is win a world championship, until you ask them to do something different. Until you ask them, ‘Well, you have to change.’ Then they don’t want to do that.” Rivers wanted Pierce to move the ball more, and to become a more efficient player. “We had a couple of blow-ups early,” he says. “I benched him. I said, ‘I’ll get fired first before I change on this one.’ To Paul’s credit, it took about a month. I remember him walking in the office, saying, ‘We’re good, we’re good,’ and that was it. We were better, so it was worth it.” Rivers, Pierce, and the Celtics won an NBA championship in 2008, and Rivers hasn’t missed the playoffs since.

This summer, Rivers had dinner in L.A. with Larry David and Howie Mandel, a truly unlikely, intriguing trio. In early November, he drew lots of laughs among reporters when he recalled the time Celtics general manager Danny Ainge encouraged him to get ejected from a game so he could sneak out and see Tiger Woods make a run at the Masters. He reminisces about how, in his playing days, he didn’t have the entourage of trainers and managers and handlers that today’s players roll with — that he rebounded his own shots when he worked out in the summers and that it “took forever.” Asked in a pregame press conference for his thoughts on the NBA rule against high school players going straight to the NBA, he said: “If I can go to the war at age 18 I should be able to go to the NBA” and went on to compare athletes who leave college early for the pros to Bill Gates and Michael Dell. In 2014, interim Clippers CEO Dick Parsons testified, in the wake of former owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks and forced sale of the team to Ballmer, that Rivers had made it clear he would leave the team if Sterling remained owner; Paul also talked about having similar discussions with his coach. Now, Rivers speaks with great respect about Colin Kaepernick’s actions. “I love it,” he says. “The only thing I hate is we’re off the message. We’re talking about military and I don’t even know how we got there. It’s not even about the flag.”

And among influences that include his former coaches Riley and Mike Fratello and his friends Tom Thibodeau and Randy Wittman, he lists a more unusual mentor: the freewheeling tycoon Ted Turner, who owned the Atlanta franchise that first drafted Rivers. “Ted Turner was an owner for me with the Hawks, and we sat and talked a ton,” Rivers says. “He still writes me letters. His whole thing was, ‘Go fail.’ He never said, ‘Go win.’ He would say, ‘Go fail, try it.’ That was him and that’s me. I have no problem trying different stuff. The key is when you become an expert, don’t get stubborn.”

Some might argue that Rivers hasn’t always lived by that last mantra, though. Rivers’s affability is disarming, his candor captivating. But both can also start to get old, or feel contrived, particularly when the gravitational pull of losing sets in. After Paul forced a trade out of Los Angeles this offseason, he told Jay-Z, in an ESPN Films docuseries, that he found the Clippers’ culture too unfocused and not cohesive enough to credibly challenge a team like Golden State. But in a conversation with ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz earlier this fall, Rivers had his own theory. “I think he was tired of hearing my voice,” he told Arnovitz.

It was reminiscent of a few things Rivers said when he left the Celtics to join the Clippers in 2013: “I just felt like I needed change for my voice,” he said of leaving Boston. “They’ll hear my voice enough,” he said by way of explaining why he wasn’t trying to overdo preseason one-on-one conversations with players upon arriving in L.A. This wasn’t some new thing, either: In 2007, when Rivers added Thibodeau to the Celtics coaching staff, he remarked that “these young guys had heard my voice over and over and they needed to hear someone else preach.” All the funny old NBA yarns and memories, all the outspoken opinions, all the charismatic and compelling perspectives gleaned from Rivers’s many decades in the league and in life — none of them have quite the same impact if they start sounding like background noise.

Preseason media day is always an optimistic time: Every player is in The Best Shape of His Life; every coach is Excited About What We Can Accomplish; every media question asks someone to Talk About What This Guy Can Bring to the Team. When the Clippers met with reporters this September, it was after six straight playoff appearances, four of them with Rivers. But the franchise, in its history, has never gotten past the second round of the postseason, and in the past two years it hasn’t even played beyond the first. This offseason’s shake-ups extended from the court to the front office. Beverley, Lou Williams, and Sam Dekker were among the players traded from the Rockets in return for Paul; Gallinari was acquired from Denver; and Teodosic arrived from the EuroLeague for his first NBA season. Jerry West joined the team from Golden State as a consultant, while executive vice president for basketball operations Lawrence Frank took on full oversight of the basketball ops department as Rivers focused solely on coaching. Ballmer issued a press release pointing out that Rivers “is key to integrating our new players with our returning players.”

But far from seeming overwhelmed by all this reshuffling during their media day interviews, the Clippers players and coach sounded excited by its potential. Losing a traditional point guard like Paul “mandates a change of style to [one] I’m probably more familiar with to begin with,” Rivers said then. “I’ve always been a ball-movement coach.” Griffin, who according to Sports Illustrated had been excited last season when Rivers told Griffin he wanted him to take more 3-pointers, seemed similarly thrilled by the notion of being surrounded by a cast of improvisational and empowered teammates. “With this team, at any given time, we’ll have four or five guys who can put the ball on the floor that can make a play,” Griffin said. “Having that versatility in all of our players, 1 through 5, is gonna be fun.”

The Clippers won their first four games of the season and then dropped 11 of the next 12. Losing streaks have a way of feeding off their own misery, with the same dreaded, unanswerable questions brought up again and again, at every morning shootaround and pregame press conference and postgame locker-room Q&A, like little grim omnipresent Gregorian chants. What will it take to get back on track. How do you avoid frustration seeping in. At what point do you worry. Pie Jesu domine, dona eis requiem.

Jordan, whom Frank called a “Clipper for life” in late October but who is increasingly considered trade bait as the season threatens to unravel, described the team last week as “all in a rut right now.” Griffin’s preinjury attempts at optimism included, after a loss to the Knicks, an assessment to the media that “our team has done a good job of not splintering during this time. … This isn’t gonna be the end.” Austin Rivers, who on this depleted roster is playing a career-high minutes per game, has also seen his shooting percentage dip to its lowest since his rookie season. “You start second-guessing and shit,” he told reporters following a loss to the Sixers. The Clippers ought to be a playoff team, he said, adding that “I don’t want to hear the excuse about us being new and stuff like that. That has nothing to do with why we lose. We’re losing games because we’re making mistakes.”

In that Sixers game, the Clippers’ lone appearance at home during a three-week stretch, Los Angeles led the buzzy, fun Philadelphia whippersnappers for nearly the entire fourth quarter — until a 3-point shot from Robert Covington put the visitors permanently ahead with 33 seconds to play and drew robust cheers from the many Philadelphia fans in attendance at Staples Center. Two days later, reflecting on that game and on the Clippers’ season, Rivers unintentionally speaks in longtime Sixers parlance. “For me, right now, I want to win,” he says, “but I’m actually enjoying this process.”

That word, process, has different meanings for the two franchises these days, though. In Philadelphia — at long, long last — it implies progress and promise: the exciting debut of Ben Simmons, the delightful play (and Twitter persona) of Joel Embiid, the long-awaited spring-has-sprung emergence from the dark depths of The Tank. But for the Clippers, this talk of “process” is shorthand for problems. And none are more obvious than the ones caused by Gallinari’s glute, or Beverley’s or Griffin’s knees, or Teodosic’s foot. “The number-one ability is availability,” Rivers says before a shootaround this weekend. “If you’re not available, you’re not gonna help the team.” Injuries have become everything to the Clippers: the question and its answer; the issue and its excuse. They are a cover story for Rivers, but also an implication: After all, isn’t he the one who, in his former front-office role, went all in on the oft-injured Griffin and acquired the talented but fragile Gallinari? It all brings to mind the classic Homer Simpson toast to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

On the night before Thanksgiving, with the Clippers in Atlanta and coming off their ninth straight loss, Rivers told the team before the game that they “have so much to be thankful for right now,” he later recounted to reporters. “We’re in this losing streak, but most people in the world would trade with you on your worst day. Be thankful for each other, be thankful you’re sitting in a locker room, healthy.” A few days later, with Griffin on his back, grabbing his knee, this pep talk seems more like a curse.

The Clippers picked up 30 assists in that slump-busting win over the Hawks, a stat that greatly pleased Rivers, who considered it a sign that a more dynamic, more effective offense was slowly taking hold. “When you don’t have a point guard,” he told reporters before the team’s next game, “you have to be a ball-movement team. During [the nine-game losing] stretch, we were an iso team. We’re not good enough to be an iso team.” Since then, the Clippers added wins over the Kings and the Lakers, an uptick that ought to feel like a positive. But like the other scraps of good news surrounding the Clippers this past month, they mostly just damn with faint praise. Sure, it’s great that rookie Sindarius Thornwell is getting exposure to what it’s like to guard the Paul Georges and LeBron Jameses and Russell Westbrooks of the league, but that was never supposed to be the point of this Clippers season. The past three wins, all of them over teams with losing records, should have been gimme games, not causes for celebration. Yes, Williams has been a consistent bright spot for the Clippers, but that just makes him someone else who might become a trade target if, and probably when, the team flounders without their star player, Griffin.

The Clippers have the same number of wins, eight, as both the Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, all teams on the playoff bubble. But unlike the Lakers, who are judged by a similar future-potential rubric as the Sixers are, or the Thunder, whose superteam roster is in disarray but at least has many tools to figure things out as the season progresses, the Clippers are caught between the high standards set by their recent Lob City history and their grim current state of affairs. When Rivers signed a five-year contract with the Clippers in 2014 for upward of $50 million, he was presiding over a talented and coherent Lob City roster, not an assemblage of bench players suddenly thrust into starting minutes.

“You’ve got to be a risk taker,” Rivers says, sounding like Ted Turner, two weeks before Griffin’s knee turns into a losing hand. “You’ve got to be willing to fail a lot. I think, maybe because as a player I had ups and downs, I think that’s helped me the most as a coach. I’ve never had a problem with failing. I don’t like it. I don’t want it. But I have always embraced it, and I always thought we’ll figure out a way of changing it.” If he is to remain Clippers coach through the time left on the deal, it will test these philosophies he ascribes to himself.

On Wednesday, when reporters asked him about the prevalent opinion among Clippers fans that the team should just go for a wholesale rebuild, Rivers’s response was extremely characteristic: It was memorable, it was interesting, it was stubborn. “The day I start answering the internet people is the day I’m an internet person,” he said, half smiling. “That’s not going to happen. I don’t listen to all that stuff. We’re going to do what’s best for the franchise, always.” He didn’t elaborate on exactly what that is.

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