Looking ahead to the 2013-14 season: with Doc Rivers heading to LA, Thunder still favorite in the West

USA TODAY Sports

As former Celtics coach Doc Rivers heads to Los Angeles to coach the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still the favorites to win the Western Conference.

The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder head-to-head match-up just got a little more interesting.

The Clippers announced Tuesday that former Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers would be their new coach. Rivers was traded to the Clippers for a 2015 first round draft pick. Rivers replaces Vinny Del Negro, who was fired after the Clippers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies.

With Rivers as the head coach, the Celtics were 416-305 and the team won the 2007-08 NBA Championship after finishing with an NBA-best 66-16 regular season record. Under Rivers, Boston had six Atlantic Division titles, was crowned the 2009-10 Eastern Conference Champions and had a 59-47 playoff record.

According to the online betting website Bovada, the Clippers were listed at 18/1 odds to win the O'Brien Trophy in 2014, as we reported earlier this week. After announcing Rivers as head coach, the Clippers moved to 9/1 odds.

It will be interesting to see if Rivers can get the Clippers to the promised land and see if Vinny Del Negro was the reason they could never get to the Finals. Clearly the oddsmakers believe this is the case.

Dating back to the 1973-74 season, when they were known as the Buffalo Braves, the Clippers have had a moribund existence and a meager playoff record of 26-38. If you would like to see a full chronicling of the Clippers' history, Bill Simmons has you covered. It isn't pretty.

By contrast, since moving to OKC from Seattle, the Thunder are 136-135 overall in the playoffs and in the past 3 seasons have won 50, 47*, and 60 games.

(*this was the lockout-shortened season. 47 wins based on a 66 game season equates to a 58 win season based on 82 games.)

Dating back to 1970, the Thunder lead the regular season series against the Clippers, 124-68. While the Clips have experienced a resurgence these past 3 years with the addition of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, there is still evidence that organizationally, players and coaches are not on the same page. One of the key pieces of evidence was a story written by the L.A. Times' Clippers reporter T.J. Simers, who wrote:

The feel-good Clippers are gone, with DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin's immaturity dragging the team down.

Jordan wants nothing to do with Coach Vinny Del Negro because he blames Del Negro for burying him on the bench.

Yet Jordan's inability to play consistently or make free throws, thereby turning the ball over to the opposition much like a turnover, makes him a liability in close games.

Jordan sees it differently, and he has for the last two seasons, maintaining he would be more productive if allowed to play more.

He's as likable as they come and overloaded with athletic ability. But as an NBA starter on a team that wants to compete for championships, he's more cancer than consistent contributor while failing to justify what he's being paid.

He'll be unhappy to hear that, and he doesn't react well when not happy. But it's time to grow up as a professional.

Griffin is Jordan's buddy, and still a kid.

His development has been sabotaged by his inability to accept criticism of any sort.

[..]

The pair have also grown tired of Chris Paul's voice, which is understandable at times.

Paul, very much like Kobe Bryant — who has turned off Dwight Howard with his out-of-this-world standards — is relentless. He never shuts up. And Jordan and Griffin have become weary of him.

After Del Negro was let go, Simers asked Clippers owner Donald Sterling several questions about what happened. The exchange was telling:

"So I wonder, is this decision being made because the players are now calling the shots? Am I off base?" Simers asked.

"No, you're not off base," Sterling said. "This is a players' league, and, unfortunately, if you want to win you have to make the players happy. Don't you think that's true?"

Del Negro told Yahoo! Sports that the reason why he didn't return was because Chris Paul wanted a different coach.

"Paul was going to be a free agent in July, so they needed to make a decision. He's going to have a lot of say-so in a lot of things as he did the previous summer when we put the team together."

By contrast to this player-coach mess, Doc Rivers has staked his coaching career on keeping the ear of his players while making the tough and sometimes unpopular decisions. Whether it was the headstrong personalities of Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, or Ray Allen, Rivers never balked at maintaining who was in charge, which is a far cry from what is happening in L.A. The outstanding question: is this change enough to right the Clipper ship?

Which brings us back to OKC, where you don't hear that sort of stuff happening. Thunder GM Sam Presti knows how to pick players and head coach is responsible for coaching the team. Players are paid to play, not paid to play and coach. As long as the Clippers organization gives more deferment to their "special players" than their coach, they won't be successful.

Another reason the Clippers are going to be challenged to surpass the Thunder is because of injuries. Besides Russell Westbrook getting injured in the playoffs, no real significant Thunder player has missed any time due to an injury. Before he got hurt, Westbrook had never missed a game in his playing career. The Clippers however are an older team prone to injury. Griffin was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009 and he missed the entire season. Last year, he got banged up in Game 5 vs the Grizzlies, and as a result the Clippers lost 4 straight to Memphis. Chauncey Billups is 36 and coming off of a ruptured Achilles. Even Chris Paul has had to deal with various injuries that have limited his effectiveness.

Despite similar levels in talent, there are a number of things that still keep the Clippers behind the Thunder. This season will tell us whether the coaching was one of them.

***

Thunder's year to year record vs the Clippers

Season Wins Losses
2012-13 3 0
2011-12 1 3
2010-11 2 2
2009-10 2 1
2008-09 1 3
2007-08 1 2
2006-07 2 2
2005-06 1 3
2004-05 1 2
2003-04 4 0
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