Boston Celtics rookie head coach Brad Stevens will meet his predecessor, Doc Rivers, and the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night as part of the team's five-game road swing out west.
Both are adjusting; Rivers to life in the Western Conference, while Stevens is still getting his feet wet, 30-plus games into his NBA coaching career.
Rivers is coping with the loss of his star point guard Chris Paul for a month or so while Stevens simply is coping with losing -- something of which he experienced very little of during his six-year stint as the head coach at Butler University.
In an insightful Q&A session with both coaches, I discussed a variety of topics leading up to their meeting at the Staples Center.
Q: Doc, how do you view the huge disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences right now?
Rivers: "In the West right now, every road game is a dogfight. In the long run, it'll make it all better for the playoffs. We'll have been in hard road games every night. Playoff games won't be quite as difficult, and that's the silver lining. The East is the East. One thing people forget is that key teams out there are dealing with injuries. The New York Knicks haven't had their full team all year, the same can be said about the Brooklyn Nets. The bottom of the East has struggled, and people are talking about a new playoff format. But I'm not one of those alarmists who thinks we need to change the playoff format."
Q: Brad, what about the disparity between the NBA and the college game?
Stevens: "There are just so many more possessions in the game than in college because of the length of the game and also the shot clock. It gives the most talented players in the world more time for them to do what they do. It's much different than in college. It's also the amount of games and the lack of practice time. Another difference is that my phone rarely rings now that I don't have to recruit kids. Obviously, I'm on the road more with the longer season -- but I don't find myself checking my phone nearly as often. When I go home, I'm home."
Q: What is the biggest challenge of coaching in Boston?
Rivers: "Everyone expects you to win, but I never looked at that as a negative. Some people struggle with the intensity of the fans and the media, but I always viewed that as a plus. Who wants apathy? I'd rather have the passion and the expectations than people not caring. I enjoyed it, and embraced it -- and if you're going to be successful in Boston, I think you have to embrace it."
Stevens: "Boston has been great. The fans have so much passion about its teams. Obviously, we're in a situation where they know we're young and building, but there's been positive energy since we got here. We moved and the Red Sox won the World Series, the Patriots got the No. 2 seed and the Bruins never, ever, lose. It's a great time to be a Boston sports fan."
Q: Brad, how would you describe Rajon Rondo?
Both coaches referenced Rajon Rondo's competitive fire and leadership skills.
Stevens: "The biggest thing that's stood out to me about Rajon is how antsy he is to get back at it. He's not rushing because he wants to be 100 percent -- and he shouldn't get back out there until he feels 100 percent. But at the same time, he's antsy to get back out on the court. He loves when he's able to get out and practice, but unfortunately with our schedule, he's not able to practice a ton. He's done a nice job from a leadership standpoint even though he hasn't played a game yet. In practice, his voice is the loudest. He's so competitive."
Q: Doc, how does Rondo differ from your current point guard Chris Paul?
Rivers: "First, the most inaccurate statement was that I left because of Rajon Rondo. He had nothing to do with why I'm here or not here. Rajon is growing and trying. There's no truth to that at all, though. Our relationship is good. We still speak fairly often. He and Paul are completely different, but they have some similarities. Chris is a scoring point guard, but has an amazing floor game as well. Rondo is more of a floor general. He can score, but he likes to run the team more. There are three ways they are similar, though. They are extremely smart, very tough-minded and competitive, and both have an unbelievable memory and know where everyone else should be. In fact, both are as good as I've ever seen in that regard."
Q: Which team has been your toughest opponent so far this season?
Rivers: "I'd say San Antonio. They were there last year. They just know who they are and that's what makes them and Miami so good. Every player on their team has bought in -- and there aren't any outliers. That's what made us great in Boston for a stretch."
Stevens: "I can't go there. I can think of about 30 of them."
Q: What is your feeling on "tanking"?
Rivers: "I don't think that happens -- at least not with coaches or players. You can't tell me that any coach is out there trying to lose games. That doesn't mean management hasn't set up a team not to win, but coaches are trying to win. I'm coaching against [Philadelphia] Brett Brown and he's agonizing with every play."
Stevens: "I agree with Doc that no players or coaches are trying to lose games. We're focused on trying to be the best we can do and that will always be the case. I'm seeing progress every day, but the losses sting now. That's not fun. Everyone is trying to get better and win games. I'd agree that no one is out there trying to lose games. The whole word and concept frustrates me, personally. We have a young team, and everything we do is to try and improve and be good today and tomorrow, to establish a culture with these young players."
Q: Who's the best young player you've seen this season?
Rivers: "One guy I really like that I've seen so far is [Utah Jazz rookie] Trey Burke. He knows how to play, can shoot it and is competitive. I've been impressed with him since he came back from that injury."
Stevens: "I know he's been in the league for a few years, but Paul George is still young. I have watched him since he came into the league since I was at Butler and he's was with the Pacers. He hasn't taken baby steps, he's improved leaps and bounds -- and it's been incredible to watch. I paid close attention to him because he was drafted with the 10th pick in 2010. Like many people, I didn't really know much about him. Gordon Hayward went ninth and we thought maybe the Pacers were going to take Gordon, but he went to Utah and Indiana got Paul George. His progress has been meteoric. He's really special."