The Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, seen in most basketball circles as the primary challengers to the Golden State Warriors throne, have taken a very Goofus and Gallant approach to the off-season.
The Clippers made headlines over the summer just for re-signing one of their best players in DeAndre Jordan, who reneged on an agreed to deal with the Dallas Mavericks signed during the free agent moratorium before changing his mind. There were a flurry of emoji tweets, a furious Mark Cuban and in the end Jordan staying put and looking quite dopey in the process. Everyone had a good laugh over the whole thing, mostly at Jordan’s expense.
Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the Spurs re-signed Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green with decidedly less drama, and added LaMarcus Aldridge, by far the best player of the free agent class. Ho hum.
Both teams retooled their benches. The Clippers traded away Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes for the enigmatic Lance Stephenson, waived goodbye to Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and added Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Wesley Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich, Chuck Hayes and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Not a bad haul for a team with no cap room.
The Spurs had to dump Tiago Splitter to clear cap space for Aldridge and also lost Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli and Aron Baynes, but signed David West, Ray McCallum, Rasual Butler and a D-League find in Jonathon Simmons, who was the talk of the Las Vegas Summer League, winning the Most Valuable Player award of the championship game.
Without question, both the Clippers and the Spurs got better, but the difference between the two organizations is that one is fixated on the past and led by a whiny revisionist who keeps writing checks that his team can’t cash, while the other always looks forward and is rather unrelenting in their commitment to never giving opponents past or present anything but gushing praise.
Teams are reflections of their coaches, and while Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich are good friends, their approach to dealing with media couldn’t be more different. Rivers is extremely cooperative and answers every question loquaciously. Popovich often gives monosyllabic answers or sarcastic quips to any query he doesn’t feel like expounding on, which is almost all of them. Rivers is notorious for beginning pressers with “You guys know I never complain but…” before grouching about some perceived injustice concerning the referees, while Pop makes it a point never to bring up officiating or even answering questions about them.
So it was hardly a shock that Rivers consented to an interview with Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe, smiling broadly front and center with his new starting lineup, and bemoaned all the bad breaks and lousy calls that befell his team in the Clippers second-round defeat to the Houston Rockets last playoffs. The Clips had a 3-1 series lead and led by 19 with 15 minutes to go in Game 6, only to throw it all away. Rivers disrespected the Rockets even in defeat, telling Lowe how his players didn’t take Houston seriously enough, how a physical and mental toll from the previous round against San Antonio caught up with them and how Dwight Howard should’ve been ejected earlier in the pivotal game.
What really took some chutzpah though was Rivers bringing up the Warriors when asked about his team’s title aspirations for 2016. “You need luck in the West,” Rivers told Lowe. “Look at Golden State. They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs.”
To quote Draymond Green: “Cool story, Glenn.”
Steve Kerr can comment about how fortunate his team was or wasn’t in avoiding certain match-ups. When you do it, as the loser whose team didn’t keep up its end of the bargain in facing Golden State, it sounds petty and unbecoming of a veteran coach.
Contrast Doc’s behavior to that of Popovich, who unlike Rivers in L.A. can actually point to a few banners his guys have won if he ever wanted to entertain hypothetical scenarios about who would’ve done what to whom. All season long, Pop praised the Warriors as the team to beat, pointing to their sterling record and gob-smacking scoring differential and league-leading rankings in offensive and defensive efficiency, and he did this when his guys were the defending champs.
Can you imagine Pop ever saying, “Hey, what about us? We’re not getting enough credit! We’re the favorites until somebody dethrones us.”
No, of course not. And he wouldn’t shoot the breeze with Lowe for a story about how great his team is gonna be this season either.
In 2013, the Spurs came as close as a team ever could to winning a championship without winning it. They were up 3-2 in the Finals to Miami and led Game 6 by five with fewer than 25 seconds to go and then by three with less than six seconds to go. One of the main reasons they lost was because LeBron James missed a three-pointer so badly that it took a crazy carom off the backboard, leading to an offensive rebound and another chance.
Popovich never bemoaned his team’s luck, never failed to give all due praise to the Heat and never let his guys off the hook for not boxing out on that fateful play. He made them watch video of Games 6 and 7 of those Finals in training camp, going through each and every mental mistake. There would be no excuses tolerated and no bulletin board material. The following spring, the Spurs ran roughshod over the Western Conference in the playoffs and got their redemption against the Heat, blowing them off the court in Games 3-5.
Rivers has already gotten the Warriors’ attention with his comments. Klay Thompson’s ears perked up, and he offered a few rebuttals—and a pointed history lesson—of his own. The Warriors did indeed win three of four meetings against the Clips last season, including one on the road without Green. As if their embers of their rivalry needed any more stoking, it’s clear Rivers’ club will have the Dubs’ full attention for their “shoulda-coulda-woulda” musings.
On the other hand, San Antonio, the only team in the league who had a winning record against the Warriors, will quietly go about its business, offering no proclamations or predictions or statements of any kind but except on the court.
And Kerr will know better than anyone which of these teams represents the biggest obstacle to a repeat championship.