ON A JUNE night this past summer, LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers was dining with a group of golf buddies at Madeo, an Italian restaurant for a well-fixed clientele in Beverly Hills.
The NBA's free-agency period was approaching, and Rivers was future-tripping. The Clippers were leading contenders to acquire forward Kawhi Leonard in a few weeks' time, and that would equip Rivers with a high-grade superstar. As Rivers' imagination drifted away from the conversation, he rose from the table, walked to the bar area and asked the bartender for a pad of paper. Rivers took a question that had been rattling around in his brain over veal chops and Brunello, and committed it to paper in the form of a play:
What is an NBA defense supposed to do if Clippers guard Lou Williams breezes around a double screen into a pick-and-roll with Leonard?
The utter disruption that action poses to an opposing defense is the stuff that keeps NBA coaching staffs up at night. How can two defenders -- one in hot pursuit of Williams as he moves at high speed, the other attempting to match up with Leonard while also trying to avoid the screen -- possibly account for this tsunami of motion, strength and guile?
There was no guarantee that the Clippers would be able to reel in Leonard, but for an NBA coach, the thought exercise of visualizing talent in motion was too exhilarating not to workshop it.
Rivers' 2018-19 roster was in flux. But even after trading Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers in early February, the Clippers managed to cobble together a top-10 offense. In a spirited playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers scored at will. And they did it all without a brand-name superstar through aggressive pick-and-rolls and clever misdirection. Adding a player of Leonard's caliber would open up a trove of possibilities that hadn't been available to the team since the Lob City lineups of yore.
Rivers folded the paper and placed it in his pocket. When he returned home that night, he transferred it to a small stack that eventually made its way to his office on the second floor of the Clippers' facility in Playa Vista. Plays like the one he drew up at Madeo that originate on odd scraps are then copied onto the Clippers' blue, heavy-stock pads that feature a blank half court.
When the Clippers hit the motherlode in July, landing both Leonard and Paul George, Rivers revisited the set with great enthusiasm: Now he could afford both the swimming pool and the tennis court for his renovated offense. And the supercharged version of the action became even more lethal: While Williams and Leonard converge on the strong side for their pick-and-roll, George comes off a pin-down on the weak side.
As the Clippers' coaching staff spent the latter weeks of summer scribbling sets on their blue pads, compiling them, trading them, occasionally trashing a few before creating a master list ready for the practice gym, the realization came into focus: If these diagrammed plays appear better than in previous seasons, it's not because their creators are geniuses.
"When you get players like Kawhi and Paul, then every play looks like a good play," Rivers says. "When my coaches come in with a new play, I jokingly say, 'Where was this last year?'"
VIRTUALLY EVERY CHAMPIONSHIP team has fashioned an on-court style that defines its identity, often influencing the basketball world.
The triangle offenses perfected by Phil Jackson's teams in Chicago and Los Angeles shaped the basketball canon. Rivers' Big Three teams in Boston implemented a strong-side pressure defense directed by assistant Tom Thibodeau that changed the way the NBA defended the half court for the better part of a decade. After the San Antonio Spurs assembled two of the most artful postseasons of basketball en route to their title in 2014, more than half the league came into training camp that fall determined to "beat you with the pass." Then there are the Warriors, who harnessed the league's newfound emphasis on versatility with an off-ball ballet on offense coupled with a switching defense.
If LA makes good on the prognosis that this is the team most likely to win the 2020 championship, what defining characteristics will we associate with ClipperBall? Will Leonard and George -- when he returns from offseason shoulder surgery, probably in November -- emerge as co-pilots for a new offensive or defensive system?
At a Clippers practice soon after the start of training camp, Rivers had his team run some of those Leonard-Williams pick-and-rolls. First, Williams came off the double-pindown into the pick for Leonard. Then Rivers had his two wings swap, with Leonard coming off the initial action before setting a pick for Williams.
After the practice, Rivers asked Leonard whether he preferred to be the screener or the ball handler. Leonard told his new coach he liked both.
"If I come off the pick -- the double screen down -- to a pick-and-roll, Lou is either going to get a shot going left, or they're going to switch and I'll have a small on me," Rivers recalls Leonard saying. "When Lou comes off, they may jump out and try to take that away or whatever, and then you have the backside."
Leonard's appreciation for the range of positive outcomes from the set underscores the Clippers' capacity to score. Consider that while Leonard and Williams are unleashing their two-man game, a simultaneous action on the weak side will free up George as an option. There's nothing exotic or newfangled about this two-sided half court, and that's part of the appeal of this roster.
"We don't need to reinvent anything," Rivers says.
Rivers isn't a coach with a steadfast loyalty to a system or preconceived dogma. Even though he presided over one of the most brutally effective defenses in NBA history in Boston, he didn't import it to Los Angeles when he took the Clippers job in 2013. He has inclinations as a coach, but he's ultimately an empiricist who will craft a style through experimentation and pattern recognition.
Above all, LA's superstars don't lend themselves to a plug-and-play system, especially Leonard. He thrives in isolation, reads defenses deliberately and performs his fair share of freelancing. George can certainly operate in set offenses, but he's also a scorer who thrives with the ball in his hands. They can do choreography, though they prefer freestyle dance.
What they share in common are a physical and mental prowess as defenders, and if confetti falls on the Clippers next June, it might be because Leonard and George forged the best defense in a generation.
ERIK SPOELSTRA HATED facing Doc Rivers' Big Three defense in Boston. The first time Spoelstra matched up against that Celtics squad as the Miami Heat's head coach in January 2009, he was struck by two things: the front line, and all the noise.
Rivers and Thibodeau devised a scheme whereby the Celtics pressured the strong side of the court and forced every action to the baseline. Two defenders would zone up the backside, with big men Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins directing traffic -- Garnett with his booming baritone, Perkins with his loud, authoritative drawl.
"That level of communication was intimidating," Spoelstra says.
When asked what will be the single-most decisive ingredient in determining the success of the Clippers' defense in 2019-20, Rivers independently cites the same factor: "Talking," he says. "That will be the key to our defense. If we can get our guys talking like [Garnett and Perkins], we're going to be special. If we don't, we're going to be good."
Though the NBA's long-range-shooting revolution has rendered much of that Celtics scheme obsolete, the Big Three still stands as a touchstone. The best NBA defenses have traditionally started with an imposing front line -- a stalwart center, an intimidating power forward. Yet if the Clippers lock down opponents this season, they'll do it without a notable rim protector or an exceptional pick-and-roll-defending big.
In another era, a rotation of Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green and assorted undersized 4s might have disqualified a team defense from the elite ranks. But in 2020, the focal point of any offense is on the perimeter. The best rim protection happens 23 feet from the iron.
Leonard's strength, George's length, their common anticipation, four hands in a constant state of readiness -- the Clippers are poised to make life difficult for half-court offenses.
"We have the ability with Kawhi and Paul to be able to cut off a ton of paint points," says assistant coach Rex Kalamian, who helps lead the defensive game-planning. "Both move great laterally and cut off paint drives in isolation situations."
Passing lanes will be treacherous for offenses, made even more bothersome by ball pressure from Patrick Beverley. This means the Clippers' bigs will rarely be put in a position to fail. Zubac can drop and rely on his teammates to navigate through screens. If the Clippers want Harrell to be aggressive in spots, Leonard and George have the smarts and quicks to pull in on a roller and still get back to shooters (think LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in peak 2012 Heat basketball).
Whereas most teams spend October coming up with contingencies for damage control, LA enters the season with nothing but options.
Rivers: 'We've become an organization that people trust now'
Doc Rivers explains how the Clippers became an organization people can trust and believe in, then gives details about his pitch meeting with Kawhi Leonard.
AT THE CLIPPERS' first coaches meeting prior to training camp this season, Rivers and his staff laid out all the best ways to unleash this new defensive talent. The presence of Leonard and George give this group the flexibility to try anything: switching (to utilize their versatility), a conservative, stay-at-home scheme (to maximize their stoppers and protect their big men), trapping (to optimize their length and ability to pressure the ball).
The Clippers' collection of like-sized, versatile defenders seems to demand going switch-heavy. Leonard and George can guard almost anyone on the floor; Harrell, Green, Maurice Harkless and Patrick Patterson are eminently switchable; Beverley is only 6-foot-1, but he's not exactly a man a 6-6 forward wants in his personal space.
But as tempting as it is to routinely switch perimeter actions, Rivers expressed some misgivings to his coaches. Yes, the Clippers switched on dribble handoffs last season to some success, and it was a coverage beneficial for their guards. A Clippers defender chasing the receiver avoided having to slalom around the original ball handler to get back to his assignment and instead relied on his teammate who was already at the point of attack.
But with George?
"Last year you couldn't run a dribble handoff with Paul George involved because he'd blow it up," Rivers says. "We couldn't run one against him. Why wouldn't we allow him to be great at what he does well?"
The objective of this coaches meeting wasn't to enact specific dribble-handoff coverages for games that were still weeks away. Instead, Rivers' conviction served to define a theme for the season: "That was a great example of, 'There's going to be a system because they have to trust each other and buy in. But we will have different rules for different guys.'"
George and Leonard necessitate that kind of flexibility because they bring such distinctive skill sets. While the Clippers figure to do a fair amount of switching, convenience is no reason to neutralize the talents of elite one-on-one stoppers. Put another way: Switching is something a defense does when it can't match up with a Kawhi Leonard or a Paul George. Kalamian notes that the Milwaukee Bucks' top-ranked defense last season rarely switched despite featuring a 1-through-4 lineup tailor-made to do it.
How the Clippers guard possession by possession is less important to them than their commitment to stay out of defensive rotations altogether, whatever the coverage call. Given the personnel, the Clips believe there isn't any pick-and-roll or screening action they can't guard 2-on-2, any iso attack they can't either defend or strongly influence 1-on-1. If teammates show help, it's because they sense an opportunity, not because they need to.
Yet even the stingiest defensive units in the NBA are presented with problems that defy easy answers. For instance, one fascinating question for a Battle of Los Angeles matchup: Who on the roster has the combination of quickness and size to guard Anthony Davis? Probably not Leonard or George solo for 38 minutes. Like many dilemmas that will face the Clippers, this will be an ad hoc decision born through trial and error. Their advantage is the number of trial options available.
For all the impending tactical maneuvering, it's the Clippers' ability to guard scorers straight up that commands the attention of those around the league. That was the message Spoelstra imparted to Rivers when they saw each other at the annual NBA coaches meeting in Chicago last month.
"The personnel is different, and how they do it schematically will be different," Spoelstra says. "But I told Doc that I thought this Clippers team, the way it's constituted, has a chance to be as good [as the Big Three Celtics]."
AT 6-FOOT-9, GEORGE can rise over just about any perimeter defender with ease. Until George returns, the player coming off weak-side actions for catch-and-shoot opportunities might be second-year guard Landry Shamet.
Though Rivers says he is not wed to a half-court system, he's a coach who believes that the Ray Allens, JJ Redicks and Shamets of the basketball universe provide essential structure to an offense. The centrality of the catch-and-shoot option, no matter how talented the other players on the floor, is the most distinguishing characteristic of any Rivers offense.
"That catch-and-shoot draws attention and it creates its own offense all by itself because the bigs have to be up and show," Rivers says. "If they don't, the big is rolling. There are so many actions that can come off a catch-and-shoot. Everyone [on the defense] has to lean to the side, so if you skip back, now you have an open shot."
Though it's somewhat reductive to classify a multifaceted scorer like George as a "catch-and-shoot threat," only three NBA players took more of those clean 3-pointers and hit them at a higher percentage than the 39% that George posted last season: Danny Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, per Second Spectrum tracking.
Shamet logged a slick effective field goal percentage of 61.3 on catch-and-shoot jumpers, ranking ninth of 63 players who attempted more than 300. A good number of George's nearly 10 3-point attempts per game last season came on quick hitters and brisk screen-away sets, the kind of stuff Rivers has excelled at drawing up for Allen, Redick and now Shamet.
George won't subsist on catch-and-shoots alone, and he enjoys working with the ball in his hands. Like Williams and Leonard, George thrives as a pick-and-roll player. And like Williams, George will be helped by Harrell, who's among the most efficient roll men in the game. Defenses found themselves in a jam last season accounting for him: Pull in to Harrell and leave shooters open? Or watch him rumble to the rim without feeling a defender? With Leonard, George and Williams on the floor, this becomes an even more painful headache.
Despite his predilection for choreographed sets, Rivers probably will watch more isolations this season than he has been accustomed to. Since a plurality of these possessions will belong to Leonard, this is an adjustment Rivers is undoubtedly happy to endure. The Clippers will certainly move the ball, but frequently it will land in Leonard's hands for his deliberate one-man attack.
Rivers doesn't expect the Clippers to rank higher than middle of the pack in possessions per game. To the extent that they'll be able to accelerate their pace, it'll be -- what else -- the defense that precipitates it. George and Leonard combined for four steals per game last season, and George led the league in deflections and loose balls recovered. Though the Clippers don't have a true conventional playmaking point guard, Rivers sees a team where any number of guys can push the ball in transition -- another asset that should yield early offense.
"One through four will bring it up this year," Rivers says. "That's a bitch."
With that, Rivers rises from his desk chair and gathers a stack of materials, preparing to walk down from his office to the practice floor at the Clippers facility. He concedes that this season's squad probably won't patent a playing style on either end of the floor that inspires a movement. His team will find the right way to use each player over the course of the season, refine those uses, then refine them some more. By the playoffs, the Clippers will have a defensive template and a catalog of hits for each guy that, they hope, will propel them to June.
"Whatever way is the best fit for us to win, we're going to do that," Rivers says. "Some of them you may have seen, and some of them you may not have seen."
On the floor, the Clippers might not launch a new basketball trend in 2020, but they might perfect some existing ones.