‘This Culture Is One Of A Kind’: Inside The LA Clippers’ New Path To Success
If you only had one word to summarize the significant difference between this year’s Los Angeles Clippers unit and last year’s vilified group, it wouldn’t be hard to narrow down.
It may get the reputation as a buzzword in team sports, especially in the modern era. You hear “accountability” uttered throughout every organization – countless times over the course of a long season.
There is a reason for it. The word carries powerful meaning within the context of a team locker room, particularly in basketball, a sport with approximately 30 individuals working together on a night-to-night basis after taking into the account the players, coaches, and training staff. It inherently feels different than football, where the roster size is more than three times as large, and every player isn’t responsible for playing both offensive and defensive snaps.
For as often as you’ll hear it from an NBA coach, accountability isn’t an overused word. It’s not an overrated dynamic within a team. Instead, it’s the most necessary building block a championship team must have. They must nail it from day one of training camp and stay attached to those principles over a seven-month span to be successful.
Ty Lue saw the blueprint once he took over the Clippers’ head coaching role in November 2020, replacing his longtime friend Doc Rivers after both Rivers and management decided to part ways.
With a front-row seat during the Clippers’ infamous collapse in the second round of the 2020 Playoffs, Lue wasn’t blind to the team’s primary issues. A common misconception fans may have about an assistant coach is thinking they can overstep the main guy in charge. Or, in Lue’s situation where the former assistant takes over as head coach, there’s a notion that a team can’t look significantly different the next season.
In his first season guiding the team, Lue has debunked that theory. One thing to keep in mind is how long Rivers has been around, and how he falls closer to the “throwback” category of coaches than the modern group. For the most part, he was rigid in his coaching style and not exactly know for making swift adjustments when things went awry — both over the course of a game and two-week playoff series. Combined with the history between Lue and Rivers, as the two developed an unbreakable bond in Boston during the Pierce-Garnett-Allen era, it’s not hard to imagine a dynamic where Lue would know exactly what Rivers was willing to change (or at least budge on), and the areas he wouldn’t.
Regardless of Lue’s prior experience coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers to multiple Finals and the 2016 championship, he wasn’t the loudest voice in the locker room. His voice didn’t carry as much weight as Rivers’ throughout the season – or in the bubble.
For the front office, moving on from Rivers and promoting Lue made the most sense after conducting interviews and hearing Lue’s outline for the team. Not just the outline for the players, his offensive style, or how he’ll repair a fractured locker room. But also Lue’s plan for assembling one of the most well-rounded coaching staffs in the sport, which is still an underrated component of head coaching duties.
Immediately after getting the job, Lue put on his recruiting hat and started building a team of coaching talent from around the league.
Kenny Atkinson, former Brooklyn Nets’ head coach and Atlanta Hawks’ assistant under Mike Budenholzer, joined the Clippers. While he’s one of the leading voices offensively, Atkinson is also known for his passion in the player development aspect of team-building. He helped many young players tap into their potential while coaching Brooklyn, and he’s carried that attention to detail over to the Clippers. You will always see him working individually with Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, and others during the players’ pregame routines.
Dan Craig, a former Miami Heat assistant for seven years under Erik Spoelstra, was lured away from South Beach to become the primary defensive coordinator for the Clippers. Despite not having professional experience working together, Lue clearly wanted a new (and successful) voice to help install the defensive principles that are necessary for championship run. After all, for as much attention as the Clippers’ offensive hiccups garnered in the 2020 playoffs, the defensive lapses and rotation decisions were the bigger problems versus Denver.
Chauncey Billups, one of the most respected point guards of the last 20 years and Lue’s close friend, joined the staff as well. Larry Drew, who worked hand-in-hand with Lue in Cleveland throughout all of the NBA Finals runs, was on board to join the Clippers. Roy Rogers, an assistant with a reputation of helping the growth of young centers, was also hired. Ivica Zubac has credited Rogers on multiple occasions for pushing him in practice and showing him new techniques in order to be more successful during his minutes.
Revamping the coaching staff while collecting powerful, experienced minds from various organizations is what Lue planned from day one. Instead of spreading himself too thin and trying to dominate the room, Lue assembled his staff like a puzzle, filling in the Clippers’ weaknesses with people who he could trust to lead their respective departments.
Coaching is only a certain percentage of the game, though.
Ultimately, the buy-in has to come from the players. But unlike last year, when there were legitimate questions surrounding the leadership of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George when they stepped in the door, the team’s first priority was to set a higher standard – from top to bottom.
There was a very telling moment in late March, before the Clippers’ first night of a back-to-back in San Antonio. Wrapping up his pregame media session, Ty Lue was asked what comes to mind about Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich and his ability to keep San Antonio in the playoff hunt, year after year, for 24 seasons and counting.
When he gave the answer, it was evident Lue had been taking notes throughout his playing and coaching career. He quickly pointed to the most vital ingredient.
“The biggest thing with Pop is just accountability,” Lue said. “I think holding your best players accountable, everyone else falls in line. Just seeing what he did with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, he held those guys accountable. That’s how you build a tradition. That’s how you build a culture.”
Regarding the commitment from Leonard and George to step into larger roles this season and fill the leadership void, Lue acknowledged it was a talking point in training camp.
“It’s something we tried to incorporate at the beginning of the season,” Lue said. “Just like offense or defense, it takes time. I give PG and Kawhi credit. They stayed on these guys, worked with these guys, they are always around. Always trying to do things together. That’s how you build camaraderie.”
“It’s a joy to come to work every day,” DeMarcus Cousins said after spending just a week around the team. “It’s a super chill environment, everybody comes in and works their tails off. Always a good mood in the locker room. I mean, it’s crazy … to the point where every single person in our building gets along. You can go hold a conversation with the team chef, the team masseuse, whatever the case may be. Everyone gets along. That’s just an incredible thing. With it being such a long season, and the spirit and energy in the building like that on a consistent basis, it’s a rare thing. This culture is one of a kind. Definitely one of the top organizations I’ve ever been a part of.”