The most powerful person in the NBA is not LeBron James, despite his status as a worldwide name with perhaps more influence than any other player in the league.
Adam Silver and the rest of the men and women littering the league office fall short as well. They can pass rules, levy sanctions upon violators of those rules and change the way the Association works, but their power is still limited.
Maybe not to the members of the NBA themselves, but certainly to the world at large.
In fact, it's a humble coach who has surprisingly claimed the title of "most powerful person in the NBA," though I'm sure he'd be quick to disagree.
Fresh off the Donald Sterling drama that has swirled around the Los Angeles Clippers ever since the owner's racist statements were made public during the opening round of the playoffs, Doc Rivers is that man.
Leading a Championship Charge
Don't make the mistake of underestimating the amount of influence a coach has during the NBA playoffs.
Sure, the players are the ones winning and losing on the court, but when the games slow down and every possession becomes more important, strategy is vital. Hell, it's more than vital.
A head coach can hold his team back if he's either lacking in the creativity department or too stubborn to make adjustments when they're necessary.
Vinny Del Negro doomed the Clippers during his time there when his offense devolved into handing the ball to Chris Paul at the end of games and hoping for the best.
But Rivers doesn't do either of those things.
He might not be the best at developing talent—he maximizes it; he doesn't build it—but he's a true master of team chemistry. Additionally, the plays he designs are some of the best in the league, particularly in out-of-bound situations.
Even though CP3, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the rest of the Clippers roster get the vast majority of the credit, LAC would not be alive in this postseason without Rivers pacing the sideline.
Ben Bolch, writing for the Los Angeles Times, presumably concurs, though this quote came before the start of the playoffs:
Doc's orders have elevated a team that has been a punch line for most of its 44-year existence, making it a more realistic title contender than the teams that lost early in the playoffs the last two years. As they head into the playoffs this weekend at Staples Center, the Clippers have won a second consecutive division title and set a franchise record for regular-season victories.
And just listen to Jamal Crawford, who used Rivers' tutelage and schemes to win Sixth Man of the Year.
"Doc is the true MVP to get everybody to buy in," Crawford said while reflecting on what earned him the award, via Bolch.
But this alone doesn't make Rivers the most powerful man in basketball. It doesn't put him within sniffing distance of the title.
There are still eight coaches leading their teams toward the championship, though Terry Stotts is quickly falling out of that group. And among those eight, Rivers, Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich all belong in the same tier.
But recent developments have pushed Rivers ahead of the pack, even if Pop is still the best coach in basketball.
Dictator of the Clippers
In the wake of the Donald Sterling scandal, Rivers has become so much more than a man with a clipboard in his hands.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst explains in what was really the true impetus behind the overall claim of this article:
NBA leaving all Clipper basketball decisions in Doc Rivers hands. Doc essentially now has broader powers than any one man in league— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) May 9, 2014
The league recently appointed Richard Parsons, the head of Time Warner, as the CEO of the Clippers—reported by NBA.com's David Aldridge—but that doesn't mean the businessman will have much influence in the arena of basketball decision-making.
Bleacher Report's Alex Kay explains that he's mostly there for the purposes of stability:
Parsons' presence will hopefully bring some stability to a club that has been anything but stable since Sterling's comments came to light in late April...
There is plenty of turmoil on the horizon for the Clippers, however.
Shelly Sterling plans to fight to keep the Clippers in her possession, according to a report by ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne, and it could become an even more drawn-out legal process if she or her husband files for divorce.
Regardless, adding Parsons into the fold was a major step toward returning this franchise to normalcy. It will be interesting to see the impact that the 66-year-old has on the Clippers as they contest for an NBA championship and head into a crucial offseason.
There isn't going to be any settlement on the ownership front coming in the near future.
First, the owners have to officially vote Sterling out, which seems inevitable. But the time frame for those proceedings is unknown, and the complications will be drawn out long after what should be a unanimous polling of those 29 executives.
After all, Shelly Sterling plans to fight any ownership changes, and it's extremely likely her husband (for now) will do the same. Divorce proceedings only provide further complications.
All the while, Rivers is the man who will be trusted with making any and all decisions for his team. Nothing will be done without his consent, especially if the Clippers want to keep him on the sidelines going forward.
Sorry Warriors fans, Doc's staying in LA. RT @WindhorstESPN NBA leaving all Clipper basketball decisions in Doc Rivers hands.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) May 9, 2014
The head coach has already said that it would be difficult for him to stay if Shelly remained in charge, via ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne:
I think it would be a very hard situation, I'll say that much. I think it would be very difficult. I guarantee you every person wouldn't be on board with it. Whether I would or not, I'm not going to say, I just know that would be a very difficult situation for everybody.
But he elaborates in saying that the difficulty comes "because we wouldn't know who was really in charge."
Well, apparently we do know now. And it's Rivers.
It's worth noting that "dictator" doesn't necessarily have to hold negative connotations. Rather than thinking of the modern definition, one that invokes memories of history's vilest leaders, consider the ancient Roman sense of the word.
That title was bestowed upon an individual when he was appointed by the Senate to take control of the Republic and hold absolute power in times of emergency. It wasn't until Julius Caesar that the term was bastardized into something more modern.
That original meaning, not some sort of tyrannical status, is what is meant by calling Rivers the dictator of the Clippers.
This is what pushes him ahead of Popovich and Spoelstra. Not only is he leading a championship chase for a team capable of holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but he's also going to be consulted on any and all basketball decisions.
Who else in the NBA has power like that?
Additionally—and this might be more anecdotal than anything else—Rivers has the added appeal of being able to draw free agents to the Clippers like never before.
So long as he's pacing those sidelines and motivating his troops while controlling the franchise in some form and fashion, he's turned the Clippers from a black hole that everyone avoids to a major destination.
And there's more.
His Word Carries Weight
As soon as the Sterling news broke, Rivers became a de facto leader. Not just for the Clippers, but for many players around the league.
Lest we forget, the support for LAC was universal.
Not in terms of having them beat the Golden State Warriors, but in the rest of the league exhibiting solidarity against racism. Rivers became more than just a coach; he was the figurehead behind this charge against views that have absolutely no place in the NBA.
Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Shortly after the Sterling comments had hit the general public, Rivers released an official statement that first appeared on the Clippers' website. It's admittedly a lengthy quote, but it's worth reprinting in its entirety:
I would like to reiterate how disappointed I am in the comments attributed to [Donald Sterling] and I can’t even begin to tell you how upset I am and our players are. Today, I had a meeting with the members of our organization. When you are around all these people, you realize they are just as upset and embarrassed by the situation and it does not reflect who they really are. That was what I got from all of them. They are now a part of this and they are upset at this. But, they are all going to hang in there and so are we - I can tell you that as a group and as a team. From our fans’ standpoint, I want to say that they have been amazing, I can tell you that. We need unbelievable support right now from other people and I’m hoping we get that. My hope is that whatever the fans do, it is as one. I think that is what we all should do.
We want to make the right decisions here. We’re doing our very best to try and do that. We know that fans are in a dilemma as well. We want them to cheer for their players and their team. It will always be their players and their team. From the fans that I have heard from, that’s how they feel. ‘This is my team. These are my players that I’m cheering for and that’s not going to change.’ I hope STAPLES Center is packed and people are cheering for the players. The players are now in the middle of this, and they have to deal with it.
We are all trying to figure out everything as it goes and just do our best and we hope that it is the right answer. I’m still going to do my best and do what I think is best for the team and for everybody in this case. It is very difficult because there are so many emotions in this. This is a very emotional subject, this is personal.
My belief is that the longer we keep winning, the more we talk about this. I believe that is good. If we want to make a statement - I believe that is how we have to do it. I think that is the right way to do it, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t wrestle with it every day and every moment. That is the difficult part.
We are all doing our best here. Our players are doing their best. There are a lot of people involved in this. From one man’s comments, a lot of people have been affected and the conversations that we’re all having do need to be had.
That is not the message of a head coach. Then again, that's no longer the only role you can point to as important on Rivers' resume. He's also served as senior vice president of basketball operations, but this goes beyond that as well.
This is the voice of a social leader. It's the speech of a man who's well aware that he can be a figurehead in the push for racial equality, something that sadly doesn't always exist in 2014.
At the risk of opening up an unclosable wormhole, sports are not just about sports.
Just as you shouldn't make the mistake of underestimating how much influence a coach has during the playoffs, you likewise shouldn't underestimate the role of the NBA on society.
Social issues are magnified because of the large-scale appeal of professional basketball, and the way significant figures act can shape the feelings, beliefs and decisions of a widespread audience.
And boy oh boy did the Clippers-Warriors series draw quite an audience. Here's the Associated Press, via MercuryNews.com:
The Donald Sterling saga is drawing many more viewers to the Los Angeles Clippers' NBA playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.
Sunday's Game 4 was the first time the teams took the court after a recording of the Clippers owner's racist comments surfaced a day earlier. It drew 6.5 million viewers on ABC, up a whopping 48 percent from the 4.4 million who watched Game 1 on the network just over a week prior.
Then Tuesday's Game 5 was played hours after NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced a lifetime ban for Sterling and plans to try to force him to sell the team. It was also the Clippers' first home game since the comments became public. More than 4.7 million viewers watched on TNT, up 34 percent from an average of 3.5 million for the previous two games on the network during the series. It was the highest-rated playoff game on cable this season, Turner Sports said Wednesday.
It's common for TV ratings to increase as a series goes on, but not to this extent.
What do you think caused that uptick? Was it a sudden spark of interest in how Paul and Griffin would perform?
It's because a game that can often be dehumanized by numbers and narratives was suddenly rehumanized by a political and social story. It's because the sport of basketball expanded and found itself influencing people in a real, tangible way far beyond the reaches of that 94-by-50-foot rectangle of hardwood.
And Rivers was right at the center of those attempting to deal with the consequences of a rogue owner while simultaneously looking to provide leadership for those on his team who so desperately needed it in such a mentally trying time.
No one else in the league has that type of power. Not even Adam Silver, who was able to use his platform as the commissioner of the NBA to deal out some heavy-handed sanctions and make it clear that racism has no place in his league.
You've all heard the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility."
Well, it's true.
And fortunately for the NBA, it can feel safe with the most power in the hands of one of the league's most upstanding citizens.