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Doc Rivers believes Clippers needed to shake up roster

Coach talks the team’s new look, his former Celtics and that Blake T-shirt

Doc Rivers talked to The Undefeated before our exclusive interview with former Clippers guard Chris Paul.

LAS VEGAS — Doc Rivers sat on a stage at a news conference alongside newcomer Danilo Gallinari last weekend and made a proclamation after being asked if his Los Angeles Clippers were going to take a step back without Chris Paul.

“I don’t think so. I think we added talent,” Rivers boldly said.

Rivers was able to get forward Blake Griffin to re-sign and still has DeAndre Jordan at center. The rest of the Clippers, led by the arrival of Gallinari, are mostly new, and fans will be scrambling for a roster at season’s start. But considering Rivers’ success as a coach, it’s hard not to believe in his projection in the Clippers’ new era without the franchise-altering Paul.

In an interview with The Undefeated, Rivers talked about Paul’s trade to the Houston Rockets and moving forward, the success and failures of his coaching career, his responsibility of being a black president of basketball operations for an NBA team, the odd Blake Griffin free agency T-shirts, whether he can reunite Ray Allen and the 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics, and more.

How did you get word from Chris that he wanted a trade to the Houston Rockets?

We met with him, but he didn’t tell us. We just met with him and then his agent told us. Listen, it wasn’t like it was hard to figure it out. … We met. We had a very good meeting overall. The main reason he left was because of [Rockets guard] James Harden. He went down the road with this team and it didn’t work. He wanted to try it with another team. Contractually, it was going to be close enough.

On June 28, the Clippers traded Paul to the Rockets for Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a protected first-round pick next year and cash considerations. Instead of having a star player walk away as a free agent, how important was it for you to get value back for him?

That was huge for us. But that was huge for him, too. It wasn’t like they were doing us a favor. One of the things that [Clippers executive vice president of basketball operations] Lawrence [Frank] said was that, ‘We were very light on our feet going into free agency.’ We knew exactly what was going to happen. We showed everybody the game plan. Other than getting [one other major trade] that would have taken us to a whole different level, we’ve gotten exactly what we wanted to get this summer.

When the dust settled and you realized that Chris Paul is not here anymore, what went through your mind?

Losing Chris is tough, because he is a great player. But we have a lot of great players on our team that play so many different ways. That is why ‘Gallo’ is so important to us, because our thought was that if you’re not going to run a point guard-dominated offense, then you’ve got to run a movement offense with versatility. And I think we’ve accomplished that.

How good can this Clippers team be now?

We’re good. Listen, we have 10 new players, so who the heck knows? Visually, I love how we look. The next step is actually getting on the floor and seeing how it fits.

Did the Clippers need to shake things up?

Yeah. Yeah. I said that after the season. I said after last season, ‘I don’t know how we are going to be, but we are not going to be the same team.’ And we are not. We’ve won a lot of games. The one thing with Chris, Blake [Griffin], D.J. [DeAndre Jordan], over the last four years we’ve had the fourth-best record in the NBA.

We’ve had ample opportunities. The fiasco in Oklahoma [in 2014], that was a brutal blow. We were about to go to the West finals. The next year, a 3-1 lead, a huge lead, and we blow that [to the Rockets]. We’ve had some self-inflicted wounds on our own. But as far as being a good, solid basketball team, I don’t think we should be ashamed about anything except for not winning it. And that was the ultimate goal.

What is the truth about your coach-player relationship with Paul?

Our relationship was fine. We had more good days than bad. Chris’ numbers were the best in his career under me. But I still coached him. That’s what I do. I thought Chris handled it fine. Did he love me every day? No. But that’s part of my job as a coach. My job is to make you a better player and push you.

A lot of guys handle it, and some don’t. I thought that Chris handled it well.

[Rivers was asked about a report that his son Austin received preferential treatment from Rivers and that Paul and some of his teammates had a problem with it. Rivers said the report was not true and was not worth discussing.]

Did you have to meet with Blake and De’Andre after trading Chris?

No. We were bringing Blake in because we were recruiting him. We had to get him. Blake was fine.

How did you sell Blake on re-signing with the Clippers? (Griffin agreed to a five-year, $173 million deal.)

We showed him the model. We were prepared. We showed Blake the model exactly how it would look with Chris and without Chris. And Blake liked both. That’s why he signed. And Blake wants to be here. Blake started with the Clippers, and he wants to be a Clipper. He wants to end his career as a Clipper.

For me, that tells me our franchise is doing something right. When is the last time a guy said he wants to be a Clipper? And we have a great one. And I think that’s really cool.

Despite the new additions, do you think the Clippers are being slept on because of Chris’ big departure?

Yeah, but I don’t mind that. They should. The team that everyone should be looking at is Golden State. Everyone else is just noise until someone proves they can beat those guys.

After winning an NBA championship nearly 10 years ago with Boston, how painful has all the tough luck been since then?

Not at all. People forget the first three years in Boston. The first year in Boston we won the [Atlantic] Division with that team, which is crazy. Then we only went bad for two years, and then we started winning again. If I learned anything in Boston it is that winning is hard. It’s hard.

It’s only one team that does it, and everybody else is still trying to do it. So I don’t mind that part of it at all.

It’s not far away from the 10-year anniversary of the Celtics’ 2008 NBA championship team that you coached. How do you reflect on your lone title?

Just the whole run. Building it from scratch with [Celtics president and general manager] Danny [Ainge]. That experience alone … when I took the job and we were going to rebuild and then we won the division. After that we did it anyway, which took a lot of guts. We had some things go down our way.

Kevin [Garnett] turning us down [for a trade] allowed us to get Ray [Allen]. That allowed us to get Kevin. So things had to go our way. The thing I liked most about that team was, well, Kevin, Paul [Pierce] and Ray Allen were phenomenal, but if you look at that team, they had a bunch of instigator tough guys. Tony Allen, Leon Powe to [Big] Baby [Glen Davis] to Perk [Kendrick Perkins], James Posey. That team was built to win.

The only mistake was after that year we allowed too many of them to go. We kept changing. That 2010 [NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers] is something that we will think about forever. Perk going down in Game 6. Losing Game 7 was tough for us.

Was losing a Game 7 in Los Angeles during the 2010 NBA Finals the toughest loss of your career?

Yes. Forever. When you’re that close to winning something where no one gives you a chance. … No one gave us a chance to be in the Finals that year. We came from the fourth seed. People thought we were down. We were too old. We kind of knew what we were doing. We paced them perfect. In 2008, everyone thought it would take us a year to get it together. We won right away, which tells you how hard it is.

In 2010, everyone thought we were over the hill. What bothers me the most is 2009. When you look at that season, Kevin got hurt when we were on a record clip. We were playing the best basketball. When he got hurt, we never came back that season. Kevin was never the same after that. I always look back like he can’t, but what if Kevin never gets hurt? Do we win two [titles]? Do we win three?

That’s something that you can’t get back. That group was the best group. We still talk. All of us talk. It was a good group.

The departure of Allen to the Miami Heat fractured the relationship between him and key players on the Celtics like Pierce, Garnett, Perkins and Rajon Rondo. Will the relationship with Allen be mended before the 10-year anniversary is celebrated?

The Ray thing? I don’t know. I think it will [heal]. At the end of the day, that team was as close of a group of any I have ever been around.

So when one leaves, it hurts your feelings. I think that’s what happened with our guys. Ray’s a terrific guy. We all know that. The guys that are with him are terrific. It will get back.

Do you have to do something to fix it?

Yeah. I’ve tried to, slowly. But I think the time will help them get back together. Well, at least I’m hoping. So far, unsuccessfully. But I do think it will happen.

Do you ever look back and appreciate your 2008 NBA championship even more now knowing how hard it was to get?

It means a lot. It’s won. I’ve been there twice. But I also know how hard it is. Honestly, without that I probably wouldn’t be coaching. I probably would have stopped. The fact that I realized how hard it is and how tough the chase is, I swear it’s the only reason I coach. I love the chase. I want to get there. It’s pride. It’s hard, man. You have to have luck. You have to have health. Your guys have to play well. They have to make big shots.

There are so many things that go into it. As good as Golden State was last season, they will tell you that. As good as they were and as easy as it looks, they know it wasn’t that easy. It’s hard to win. And I respect that.

How much pride and responsibility do you have being one of three black NBA presidents of basketball operations among 30 teams in a league that is 75 percent black? (The Los Angeles Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri are the others.)

I take that seriously. I really do. I think there should be more and there will be more. Every time one of us does well, it helps. We are all often criticized. All I know is my record as the president of this organization is in the tops ever. We just want to keep this going and keep getting better.

[Clippers owner] Steve [Ballmer] is the one who allowed this stuff. He’s been phenomenal. He allows us to do our job. He’s responsible, and he’s been great. Without him this whole thing wouldn’t have been successful, and there is no way it would have worked.

How do more black front-office prospects get interviews or a consideration for president and general manager jobs?

No. 1, there are a lot of analytical guys coming into the league, and we have to join that force. I think it’s coming. I’m hoping it’s coming because there are a lot of qualified guys.

What did you think about the chatter regarding the T-shirts Clippers employees were wearing after Griffin’s recent free-agency meeting with him pictured among the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Michael Jackson, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln with ‘LA Pioneers’ underneath?

It’s a story that no one knows about. Those T-shirts are phenomenal. They really are. It wasn’t for anybody else. Those T-shirts have a special meaning to us. The players know exactly what they mean. Anyone else, we really don’t give a s— if they know what they mean or not.

We know exactly what they mean. I wore that shirt all [season] without Blake and no one even noticed it. We put other guys on there at times. We moved guys around. I have shirts with other guys’ pictures on it. There is a special meaning for our team, and we’re glad that we just know.

Would you like to explain it?

Oh, no. It’s ours. We’re keeping it.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.