LOS ANGELES –The expiration date for the lowest-seeded team in the Western Conference playoffs keeps getting delayed, and this is buying more time for the Clippers to pull a major surprise or at least gain more respect for what they’re doing in the first round best of seven.
It’s now late April and they’ve won twice against the two-time defending champion Warriors without the benefit of single All-Star, and this is due to a group of hustling players and also a coach enhancing a reputation for pushing the proper buttons.
Yes, Doc Rivers is pulling his weight once again, but the hidden reason for this surprising run by the Clippers goes back two years ago, when his load was in the process of being reduced.
A major organizational shift happened in the fall of 2017 when Rivers surrendered the top job in the basketball operations department, which he’d held in addition to coaching. It was done at the insistence of owner Steve Ballmer, who thought Rivers should concentrate on what he does best, and it was endorsed by Rivers, who Thursday described how he felt about being stripped with one word:
But two months prior, with the personnel job still under his command, there was one final major decision to make, and the ripple effect is still evident, and positively so, two years later.
Chris Paul, the Clippers’ All-Star guard and unquestioned leader, was shipped to the Rockets. Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Pat Beverley arrived in return. The Clippers lost the best player in that deal and somehow became better for it, in almost every way.
Where would the Clippers be in this series without those three? Well, finished, for sure. Williams, Harrell and Beverley have had impactful moments against the Warriors and at times even outplayed the All-Stars on the other bench. The evidence is too compelling.
He stirred the historic Game 2 comeback from 31 points down by chopping up the Warriors with 36 points, then returned in Game 4 with 33 and 10 assists. If the Clippers force a Game Seven and he does it again on the road, he’ll literally close down Oracle Arena.
He’s been downright beastly around the rim, pounding the Warriors with vicious dunks produced from put-backs and lobs, and also providing defensive intimidation with timely blocks and causing shots to be altered.
The barking and pestering from Beverley are generating all the noise about him, and rightly so, yet this tends to overlook the other areas where Beverley is causing problems. His 3-point shooting is surprising the Warriors when they disrespectfully leave him open, and he’s active on the glass, getting nearly seven a game despite being 6-foot-1.
Keep in mind that Paul wanted out of LA and expressed a desire for Houston and the Clippers therefore had only one team to negotiate with. Those situations rarely work to the trading team’s advantage because there’s no way to leverage one offer against one from another team. And yet?
“What we got out of it,” said Rivers, “has turned out to be terrific.”
While Rivers was officially in charge at the time in terms of having final say, the deal was mainly assembled by Lawrence Frank, now the basketball operations chief; he was hired by Rivers and given sway in personnel.
Paul was one-third of “Lob City” and arguably the most important piece of that entertaining and productive system. Yet the Clippers never went beyond the second round and there was a sense they’d gone as far as possible with Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Plus, Paul wanted a max contract extension, and when the Clippers hedged against a point guard in his 30s who couldn’t stay healthy, the separation became mutual.
“We clearly needed the trade,” said Rivers. “We were kind of stuck in our identity and we weren’t going anywhere.”
The Rockets were anxious to add an important piece next to James Harden. When Paul exercised the remaining year on option on his contract, with the understanding the Rockets would give him the max, the deal was set.
The Clippers knew what they gave up — a lot. But what did they get in return?
“Pat was definitely one we asked for,” said Rivers, “and to be honest, we asked for even more. You wouldn’t believe what else we asked for. But the package we were getting at the time was a good package. We didn’t know it was going to be that good.”
Beverley was the Rockets’ starting point guard next to Harden, which means he wasn’t really a point guard at all, since Harden controlled the ball. Williams was a proven scorer off the bench, yet the Clippers would become his sixth team. And Harrell was a worker bee; nothing more than that, or so it seemed.
“We knew Lou would give us scoring. That’s the one thing for sure we knew we had in terms of production. We knew what we were getting with Pat as far as his toughness. Trez was the unknown. We liked that he played hard and it literally stopped there.”
All three have raised their games. Williams is a heavy favorite to repeat for the Kia Sixth Man of the Year award, which would be his third. After the Clippers traded Tobias Harris, their leading scorer, at the deadline, Williams became the savior by attrition, and he has taken to the role with much pride. Williams, say his teammates, get rankled when the Clippers are accused of lacking a go-to player. This hasn’t been the case in fourth quarters of the two playoff games the Clippers took from the Warriors.
“Lou is one of the best players in this game,” Beverley said. “He belongs right up there with the best.”
Beverley will never become a volume scorer, yet he put in work in the off-season on his three-point shot and it shows; he averaged 40 percent from deep on the season and is at 44 percent in this series. And, of course, he’s the team’s emotional leader.
The shocker was Harrell. Plays weren’t run for him in Houston; his job was to be a clean-up man. And in his first year with the Clippers, that didn’t change much; Harrell’s scoring rose only two points. So what happened and when did this — getting his number called, becoming a primary option, showing enough confidence to average 16.6 points — happen exactly?
“In training camp,” said Rivers. “In our coaches meeting on the third day, I asked, `Is it me, or can Trez score?’ And our guys rolled their eyes, because at that point Trez never scored. And I said, `I swear I think he can score.’ And one of our coaches hilariously said, `Yeah, on us. But we don’t know if he can score on an NBA team.’ I said, `Well that’s a hell of a statement.’
“Then through preseason he kept scoring. The post-up game, we saw at the end of last year, and coming into this year it was catches. We could throw it to him. His first step is lethal and he does it with great power.”
As a side bonus, the Clippers also received a 2018 first-rounder from the Rockets, which they used in a three-team deal to get Danilo Gallinari. So that’s four rotational players for Chris Paul.
“Lawrence had already been hired by me the year before so it was probably the last trade Lawrence and I made together before we brought in others to the group,” Rivers said. “We do everything together as a group. But Lawrence basically did this whole trade. He called me and gave me all the names and my thought was we had to get something. I told Lawrence this is a really good package because it can help us now and potentially help us later.”
The end result was the Clippers didn’t pay a point guard in his twilight (Paul will still be owed two years and $80 million after he turns 35) and had an excuse to eventually dump Jordan and Griffin as well, also escaping those long-term deals. The “rebuilding” of the Clippers wasn’t painful or lengthy, and today they’re making life complicated and miserable for the Warriors.
Even better, the Clippers are positioned to add one or two A-list free agents this summer because they refused to stick with “Lob City”, a core that had run its course, and also wisely gave team-friendly extensions to Williams and Harrell prior to this season.
Everyone is relieved, and no one more than Rivers, who has less on his plate and doesn’t feel hunger pains.
“I wanted to do both jobs,” he said. “But this is right. I needed this. It has worked out.”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here .
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