Can Doc Rivers the Coach Validate Doc Rivers the General Manager?September 16, 2015
In just two years with the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers has managed to consolidate organizational power in a way that few (if any) outside the owner's box have in the NBA.
With former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer now comfortably in place of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Rivers has more of an ear than ever with the man who writes his $10-million-per-year checks.
The only problem: According to TMZ, Gillian Zucker, the team's president of business operations, has been butting into Rivers' side of things.
Rivers has denied that there's a power struggle going on within the Clippers organization. Even if there were, he has the know-how and the experience to more than hold his own. He's more than just the head coach and president of basketball operations; he's also the face—specifically, the mouthpiece—of a franchise fronted by two of the league's most recognizable stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
This summer, Rivers has used that power to not only keep the team largely intact—namely, re-signing DeAndre Jordan and son Austin Rivers—but bolster its bottom line of talent, with the likes of Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich and Chuck Hayes.
Now it's the responsibility of Rivers, the coach, to turn the fresh ingredients cobbled together by Rivers, the personnel guru, into a meal that will satisfy Clippers fans and bigwigs alike.
Like his overall profile with the Clippers, Rivers' reputation for roster construction has come a long way in a relatively short time.
Though Rivers initially earned high marks for the Eric Bledsoe-J.J. Redick-Jared Dudley deal, his marks for executive work soon took a turn for the worse. Redick missed 47 games due to injury in 2013-14. Dudley persevered through 74 games, despite discomfort in his knee, but ultimately lost his starting gig to Matt Barnes and cost the Clippers a first-round pick in a subsequent salary dump.
Meanwhile, Bledsoe broke out as a franchise cornerstone for the Suns. Dudley, on the other hand, healed up and more than held his own as a wing-forward and all-around hole-filler in Milwaukee last season.
Their successes stood in stark contrast to Rivers' mounting struggles to strengthen the Clippers' depth chart at multiple positions.
Darren Collison proved to be a productive replacement for Bledsoe before bolting to Sacramento last summer. In Collison's place, Rivers signed Jordan Farmar, another UCLA product, to serve as Paul's understudy, but Farmar failed to find a comfortable niche and was gone after just 36 games.
To compensate for the Clippers' shortfall of ball-handling and playmaking, Rivers auditioned Lester Hudson and Nate Robinson, but only after he brought his son to L.A. The Rivers family reunion drew ire from folks around the league, including Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:
With that context in place, this deal looks like an ill-advised move for the Clippers. Indeed, the most logical part of this trade -- perhaps the only logical part of it -- is that Austin Rivers is Doc Rivers’ son. If Austin Rivers were some other random player (Say, “Austin Lakes”), the consensus response would be, “What are the Clippers doing?”
That question was as much a response to Austin's poor play prior to his arrival as it was to what the Clippers gave up to get him—namely, the bulk of their wing depth, in the form of Reggie Bullock and Chris Douglas-Roberts.
Neither one had played up to par in L.A., but without them, Doc was left only with a 35-year-old Barnes and a rookie (C.J. Wilcox) to hold the fort at small forward. Barnes responded by playing arguably the best ball of his 12-year career (10.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 36.2 percent shooting from three in 2014-15).
Rivers did what he could to replenish his stores behind Barnes, but neither Dahntay Jones nor Jordan Hamilton registered much of an on-court impact. Jones, though, did play a part in restoring the Clippers' locker room culture.
Still, Rivers' reputation as an executive suffered a subtle sting every time Dudley had a big game for the Bucks—and every time Pierce nailed a crucial shot for the Washington Wizards. "Last year he should have been here too," Rivers said of Pierce during a July press conference introducing the Clippers' free-agent signings, via NBC Los Angeles' Michael Duarte.
Pierce might've had that opportunity had Rivers not spent the team's mid-level exception on Spencer Hawes. In Hawes, Rivers hoped to find a big man who could stretch the floor and play next to Blake Griffin and/or DeAndre Jordan. That archetype had become Rivers' own white whale after the likes of Byron Mullens, Stephen Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu fell short of expectations.
As with Captain Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick, Rivers' obsession came back to bite him in a big way. Every move he made to fill one hole seemed to rip open another. The Clippers' bench, once a decided strength, became the team's Achilles heel.
That heel held up well enough in Round 1 against the San Antonio Spurs this past spring but snapped amid L.A.'s second-round playoff collapse against the Houston Rockets, prompting ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin to proclaim, "It’s all on Doc Rivers the GM to give Doc Rivers the coach the pieces he needs to win."
At this point, Rivers' most recent moves look like they could pan out positively for the Clippers.
In June, he pelted two birds (if not more) with one stone when he dealt Hawes and Barnes to Charlotte in exchange for Stephenson. That one move made the Clippers younger, stronger and more skilled on the wing while clearing Hawes off the cap—albeit at the expense of losing a valuable veteran in Barnes.
Whatever savvy, attitude and versatility the Clippers lost with Barnes departure, they more than made up for with Pierce's reunion with his old Boston Celtics coach in L.A. Any threat of Smith and Prigioni killing the Clippers again come playoff time went out the window as soon as those two signed on Doc's dotted lines. Those two also shored up the roster at forward and point guard, respectively, and in the general category of shot creation.
Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers forward, came aboard to give the Clippers yet another live body to play anywhere from the 2 through the 4. Hayes, another former Rocket, joined fellow free-agent signee Aldrich among L.A.'s backup bigs.
But Rivers' biggest coup of the summer came from within the organization. As soon as Jordan decided to renege on his moratorium commitment to the Dallas Mavericks, the success of the Clippers' offseason was all but assured.
"Once he wanted to come back, we had to figure it out," Rivers told Sports Illustrated's Justin Barrasso. "That was the day with the emojis [on July 9]. We were just sitting in his house, his mom was making food, and we were watching the Summer League games. I didn’t know about any of that emoji stuff, or that Blake had one with a chair blocking the door, but at the end of the day, DJ changed his mind."
By doing so, Jordan also assured that Doc the GM had somehow pulled off the improbable. The Clippers came into the summer without any cap space to offer free agents or draft picks (until 2019) to use as trade bait. Instead, Rivers' own prior maneuvers had left him with only the mini-midlevel exception and the veteran's minimum with which to upgrade his roster.
Despite those impediments, Rivers managed to stock his cupboard full of borderline All-Stars and smart role players and, in turn, give his coaching counterpart arguably the most talented roster in Clippers history.
A Relationship Business
Regardless of which hat he's wearing, Rivers' greatest strength is his ability to bring people together. His strong relationships with Pierce and Jordan—forged over years and through blood, sweat and tears—helped him appeal to them in free agency. His erstwhile talent for connecting with all people, friends and strangers alike, likely gave him a leg up in pursuit of L.A.'s other signees.
Those same people skills will be crucial to Doc the Coach's quest to fashion a champion out of the parts that Doc the GM put before him.
That effort begins in the locker room, where the team's chemistry could be more combustible than ever. As Rivers said in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated's Justin Barrasso:
We have to get along. I’m not talking about the whole DJ-Chris thing, which was overblown, but we have to get along as a group. We have a lot of personalities on our team, starting with me as a coach right down to Paul and Lance. Collectively, individually, we’re as good as anybody, but we haven’t proven that we can function as a team. If we do that, we’re going to be hard to beat. So our goal is for people to sacrifice. If we do it right it, I think we’re going to [be] special, and I can’t wait to get started.
In a vacuum, Rivers' challenge here isn't unlike those faced by every other coach at the start of each season. But as with Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and Flip Saunders (when he's healthy again) in Minnesota, Rivers faces the added responsibility of being the one who brought these personalities together in the first place. As such, it's on him to figure out who has to sacrifice for the good of the team—and how much.
For one, there's plenty to sort out at small forward. Stephenson seems certain to begin the season on L.A.'s bench, though who snags the starting spot is a matter of speculation at this point. According to the Orange County Register's Dan Woike, Johnson could see time in the Clippers starting five, both to preserve Pierce and allow him to play other positions. As Rivers told the Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach:
Paul will be great. I don’t want to overuse him, I know that. I don’t even know how we’re going to use him yet. I’m going to play him at [power forward] a lot, but what I want him to be is healthy in the playoffs. So however we can figure that out, that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m really looking forward to it.
Playing the Part
If Rivers plans to play Pierce at the 4, that could mean more minutes for Griffin at the 5 and fewer overall for Jordan.
That may be a tough sell for the Clippers' primary bigs. Griffin has worked diligently in recent years to sharpen his jump shot and expand his game outward. Putting him at center would force him to spend more time inside, where his newer skills won't be so useful and, more importantly, he'd be more prone to the sort of flagrant contact through which he already suffers so much.
As for Jordan, try telling a guy who just signed a four-year, $87.6 million deal—and who could've been cast as an All-Star in Dallas—that his role could shrink if small ball becomes a bigger part of L.A.'s repertoire.
Chris Paul might see a reduction in his playing time, as well, though for good reason. He's coming off his first 82-game campaign, capped by a playoff collapse against Houston in which he was hobbled by a bum ankle. What's more, Rivers has a history of resting his veterans, and at age 30 with 10 NBA seasons under his belt, Paul certainly qualifies for a lesser load.
"I just think it's important [to rest veterans]," Rivers told Fox Sports' Colin Cowherd (h/t Clippers.com's Rowan Kavner). "I think it all depends on the team you have. You have an older team, you need to understand it's a long season."
The Clippers certainly hope it'll be a long one. The return of Rivers the Younger and the arrival of Prigioni—in addition to the on-ball abilities of Stephenson, Smith and Jamal Crawford—should give Rivers the relief he needs to keep Paul fresh throughout.
But that ample supply of playmakers at Rivers' disposal could come with conflicts of its own. How does he divvy up possessions between all those players in the previous paragraph, with Griffin getting a share as well?
Or does he? Could this be the year the Clippers' offense goes equal-opportunity?
They're pretty close to that already. According to NBA.com, L.A. has ranked among the top five teams in assist percentage in each of the last three seasons, dating back to the tail end of the Vinny Del Negro era:
If the Clippers spread out their offense and sharpen their defense this season, they should do more than hold their own in the cutthroat Western Conference. By the end of September, it'll be time for Rivers to bring the best out of his players, after spending the summer bringing the best possible team together.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.