After four long overdue years, Steve Ballmer and the Los Angeles Clippers have removed Doc Rivers from his front office role.
Luckily, Doc Rivers still has his coaching job. In a report from ESPN on Friday, Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that Clippers owner Steve Ballmer decided to relieve Doc of his double-duties after realizing that “running a franchise and coaching are two enormous and different jobs.” During the summer of 2013, Los Angeles hired Rivers as the head coach and the president of basketball operations. That combination — like pineapple and pizza — is one that seldom works.
To help make the Clippers transition smoother, Ballmer brought in Jerry West, who served on the Golden State Warriors board the last couple of seasons. NBA.com officially labeled West’s title as “consultant,” and he’s expected to report directly to Steve Ballmer just like Rivers and Executive Vice President Lawrence Frank. Woj noted how Gregg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau and Stan Van Gundy are the only remaining coaches who have the final say in the front office. Rivers will still be involved in the decisions, but it’s solely his task to focus on his personnel.
He’s had an excellent four-year run so far. Doc’s led the Clippers to four-straight 50-win seasons, capped off by four trips to the playoffs. He’s also amassed a record of 217-111. The downside is that Los Angeles has never been able to get over the hump, and they’ve had multiple chances they haven’t cashed in on. Some of the blame is on the other teams in the conference, who are just better; some more has to go on the players for not performing when it matters most (also some on the bodies of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who have battled injuries all throughout Doc’s tenure).
However, it was Rivers’ job to put the right pieces in place. And he didn’t. This summer, the Clippers made two huge decisions that are going to shape the future of the franchise, and it was Doc’s doing because he was still in the front office when it happened.
In June, he dealt Paul to the Houston Rockets for a king’s ransom: Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Lou Williams, Kyle Wiltjer, cash considerations and [huge inhale] a 2018 first-round pick. Less than a month later, Griffin re-signed for $171 million over five years. Those were Rivers’ two biggest moves since coming to Los Angeles.
His seasons have had the same theme: incredible starting lineups with no depth. When you’re in the same conference as Golden State, Houston and San Antonio, having bodies to bring off the bench is vital.
One of the first deals Rivers made was trading for J.J. Redick, who would step in as the starting shooting guard. That was back in 2013. In that three-team deal, Los Angeles gave up Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler. They went 57-25. Rivers had four players appear in more than 70 games: DeAndre Jordan, Griffin, Darren Collison and Jared Dudley, and this myriad of injuries is something we can’t blame on the coach/executive. His signings, however, are different.
That season, 20 players saw action with the Clippers, including Ryan Hollins, Willie Green, Byron Mullens, Danny Granger and Darius Morris. Over the next two years, the Clippers continued to look like Island of Misfit Toys by suiting up 20 and 18 guys, respectively. Austin Rivers and Lance Stephenson got traded for, and Rivers is one of the few players who are still on the Clippers. Josh Smith and Chuck Hayes are some others who Rivers signed, and Stephenson was later flipped for Jeff Green.
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Doc Rivers’ stint in Hollywood is one mired in weirdness. The icing on the cake is 2016-17 being one of his best seasons. And then it wasn’t.
It seems like forever ago, but the Clippers were 14-2 at one point and looked like a legitimate contender. They had the best defense in the NBA, and their two losses came to Oklahoma City and Memphis by a combined six points. Chris Paul was playing at an MVP-level, and Griffin looked like he could make a return to the All-Star Game. Most importantly, the Clippers had bench production! It was the second-straight campaign Doc wouldn’t have to worry about his bench, and guys like Jamal Crawford, Rivers and Marreese Speights helped account for the 38.2 bench scoring clip.
The wheels came off as the season wore on. Paul and Griffin both went down with injuries. Los Angeles’ first-round exit was courtesy of the Utah Jazz, who lucked out with Blake going down — again — in Game 3.
Going forward, Doc is going to handle his operations differently. A coach has a different relationship with his players than executives do. Typically, a coach will have his guys’ best interests at heart, whereas the front office guys want to do what’s best for their team and their business — the latter reason is important to remember. In a perfect world, everyone in the organization is buddy-buddy. The coaches coach, the players play and the owners run their team without stepping on anyone’s feet or getting people aggravated. That’s never going to happen; a perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies.
Although Rivers’ stint as an executive wasn’t a failure, it’s evident he’s better at coaching. I don’t think he was able to fully disconnect from his guys when he went to make a decision, and it’s hard to blame him. He’s in the trenches every night with them, building a bond that’s not easily broken. Doc had moments butting heads with Paul, but that happens when two alphas are stuck with each other.
The unfortunate part is that the Clippers aren’t going to get much better for a couple of seasons. I don’t see them crashing and burning, but Paul was an integral part of their success and having to play without him is going to force Rivers to experiment. On the flip side, he’ll be worrying about his duties as a coach first and foremost, and that’ll be huge for the franchise.
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