Doc Rivers the GM’s lack of bench doomed Clippers. Can he fix it for next season?

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This season’s Los Angeles Clippers were slightly better than last season’s Los Angeles Clippers. It was baby steps. They were incrementally improved — but that was not near enough to live up to the lofty expectations.

The reason they fell short of those expectations was Doc Rivers.

Not the coach — he’s still elite on the bench — but rather Doc Rivers the GM let this team down.

The Clippers much-discussed — and dismissed by Rivers — lack of depth came back to bite them. After a grueling seven-game series against the Spurs, the Clippers wilted as the second round series went on against the Rockets. Los Angeles led Houston 3-1 but were flat and tired for Game 5. In Game 6 they wilted in the fourth quarter and blew a 19-point lead (there were a number of factors in that epic collapse, but fatigue was one of them). They fell behind early in Game 7 and didn’t have the role players stepping up nor energy to complete the comeback. The Clippers would make a push but could not sustain it. The fast pace of Game 7 — 106 possessions according to NBA.com — wore them down.

Throughout the series the Clippers players looked tired and after losing Game 7 they admitted they were exhausted.

That’s all on Rivers. This team’s lack of depth was key to their undoing.

Last summer Paul Pierce had interest in coming to the Clippers, but Doc Rivers spent the full mid-level exception on Spencer Hawes. Rivers’ other signings last summer were Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jared Cunningham and Ekpe Udoh. Farmar and Cunningham were waived. Douglas-Roberts was packaged with Reggie Bullock and a 2017 second-round pick to get Austin Rivers (who was terrible most of the regular season but improved to up-and-down in the playoffs).  Rivers signed guys like Dahntay Jones, Jordan Hamilton, and Lester Hudson, but none of them were going to help the bench in any meaningful way.

The Clippers had their starting five and had to hope the younger Rivers, Jamal Crawford (-22 in Game 7) or “Big Baby” Glen Davis would step up. That didn’t happen nearly enough, and an enormous burden fell on the starters.

If the Clippers are going to do anything more than take another baby step forward — one that is likely not enough again — next season they have to get a deeper bench. Well, first they have to make sure free agent DeAndre Jordan doesn’t bolt for Texas, but after that Rivers needs to add some actual bench help to this team.

But Rivers doesn’t have a lot of room to add quality players.

“Contractually, and I don’t think everybody gets that, it’s very difficult (to add players) when you have the contracts we have,” Rivers said after Game 7, referring to the huge contracts of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, plus one coming for Jordan. “Bringing J.J. (Redick) in here was great, but we’ve got to get this team more support. The problem is, with the contracts we’re hinged from, they’re probably doing to be minimum deals for the most part. There’s no big deals we’re going to make, most likely.”

Those large contracts certainly make it harder to put quality players around their stars, but other teams do it. The Rockets have max deals in James Harden and Dwight Howard, but added Trevor Ariza last summer, Josh Smith mid-season (he chose the Rockets over the Clippers and others), and have drafted and developed guys like Terrence Jones.

Rivers is not a cap guy, and maybe bringing in a cap guy he would listen to would help — giving Spencer Hawes the full mid-level put the Clippers under a hard cap that limited their flexibility through the season. The NBA salary cap and tax system is tax-code level complex and unless you want to delve in and understand every nuance, you need to have someone who does and who you listen to.

Steve Ballmer is not about to strip Rivers of his GM powers, but could he persuade Rivers to bring in a co-GM? Someone else that would have final say if there is a divide in the front office? While it’s hard to imagine Ballmer investing so much power in one person in his other businesses, I expect he’ll let Rivers continue to run the entire show for the Clippers. At least for another summer.

And when the Clippers return next summer, the core will look the same.

“I like our group…” Rivers said. “Teams that have stuck it out, on the long run, have done better than teams that blow it up. We’re really close, clearly. Maybe it’s a defensive guy, one more guy; I don’t now yet. Again, it sounds so easy, ‘why don’t you go get him?’ It’s not that easy, in terms of structure. Maybe we can do something, we will do something, but we’re not going to bring in another max guy.”

They don’t need to. But can they find and get the right role players who can turn that next baby step into the leap forward they need to challenge for an NBA title?

It’s all on Doc Rivers the GM to give Doc Rivers the coach the pieces he needs to win.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.