Making Sense of Doc Rivers' L.A. Clippers Tenure After Sudden Exit

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2020

Los Angeles Clippers' Doc Rivers coaches during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Few things in the NBA are truly shocking, but the Los Angeles Clippers' decision to part ways with head coach Doc Rivers on Monday afternoon was a rare exception.

Even after the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals, nobody saw this coming. Most figured the coach who ushered the franchise through 2014's Donald Sterling scandal, made the playoffs in six of his seven seasons and helped bring relevance to the most irrelevant organization in the league would be as close to untouchable as any coach not named Gregg Popovich or Erik Spoelstra.

The timing was odd. It's been almost two weeks since the Clippers lost Game 7 to Denver, and there wasn't a peep that Rivers' exit was even on the table. As ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday, Rivers has two years remaining on his contract, and they aren't cheap—his $11 million annual salary is one of the highest for a head coach in the NBA.

The team's official announcement called it a "mutual decision," but, for what it's worth, Rivers thanked Clippers Nation and not the Clippers organization or team governor Steve Ballmer in the statement he posted to his Twitter account. Draw your own conclusions there.

Was Rivers' seven-year tenure with the Clippers a success? It depends on how you measure it.

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Rivers came to the Clippers in 2013 after nine seasons with the Boston Celtics, which included two trips to the Finals and an NBA title in 2008. With a blossoming Big Three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan already in place, the belief at the time was that upgrading from Vinny Del Negro to Rivers would be the move that transformed the Clippers into true contenders for the first time in franchise history.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press/Associated Press

By those expectations, Rivers came up short. His Clippers never made the Finals, let alone won a title. He didn't even get them to the Western Conference Finals, despite leading 3-1 in the second round in 2015 against Houston and this season against Denver.

Most of the Clippers' early playoff exits can be explained away by injuries or other extenuating circumstances; the two indefensible ones are the two blown 3-1 leads. His best coaching job was the 2018-19 season, when he led a young group with no All-Stars and no playoff expectations to the eighth seed in the Western Conference and unexpectedly took the Golden State Warriors to six games in the first round.

Ultimately, Rivers won three playoff series in seven seasons with rosters in five of those years that were expected to contend. There's no way to spin that as anything other than a massive disappointment.

But Rivers' impact on the Clippers cannot purely be measured by on-court results. He brought stability and credibility to an organization that had previously had none.

When he was looking to move on from Boston following the breakup of the Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce Big Three, he likely could have had any job he wanted. He chose the Clippers because they offered the most upside with Paul and Griffin locked in. That the Clippers could even get a coach of Rivers' stature, and were willing to pay for one, changed their perception around the league.

During the 2014 playoffs, when TMZ published a leaked recording of then-governor Sterling making racist comments, it was Rivers that held the organization together through the fallout. He was the one addressing reporters every day about a controversy he had no part in creating. He was the one keeping his players united (they considered boycotting Game 4 of their first-round series with the Warriors in response to the Sterling tape). He was the one attempting to keep up the morale of employees throughout the organization.

The Clippers needed a reliable, trustworthy public face as they reached one of the lowest points any pro sports franchise has ever reached. Rivers proved up to that job, and then some. A lesser coach—a lesser leader, really—might have mishandled it, or taken the opportunity to jump off the sinking ship. Rivers didn't. And when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life and the league facilitated the sale of the Clippers to Ballmer, there was no talk of the new team governor bringing in a new coach. Rivers had proved he was someone you wanted representing your organization.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

When Rivers joined the Clippers in 2013, he was given the dual titles of head coach and senior vice president of basketball operations. After he was promoted to president of basketball operations in 2014, that status as the most powerful person in the organization below the ownership level gave him the gravitas to lead the team through the Sterling debacle.

The downside: He wasn't a very good GM.

As an executive, Rivers tended to fall back on what he knew, signing past-their-prime veterans he had either coached (Pierce, Glen Davis, Brandon Bass) or coached against (Matt Barnes, Hedo Turkoglu, Stephen Jackson) in Boston. When the Clippers needed fresh bodies in the playoffs those years, they never had the depth to compete. Any discussion of Rivers' playoff shortcomings with the Clippers must include the role his own front-office decision-making played in putting those teams together.

It's no coincidence that in the summer of 2017, when Ballmer removed Rivers' front-office responsibilities so he could focus solely on coaching, the Clippers' rosters started to make much more sense. The payoff was that 2018-19 run, led by Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Rivers' responsibilities would have been spread too thin to coach that group to its full potential if he still had his front-office job, and Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger were more than capable of building him a quality roster.

This was the latest chapter in Ballmer's long-term quest to transform the Clippers into a destination, a true competitor to the Lakers, and it appeared to work last summer when Kawhi Leonard signed with them in free agency, bringing Paul George with him via a blockbuster trade.

The fact that a superstar the Lakers were also pursuing chose the Clippers is a testament to just how far the organization had come in the years since Sterling's ouster. And Rivers was a huge part of that.

Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

He's also been one of the NBA's most prominent and trusted voices on social justice in the Orlando bubble. He's taken on a role as a leader in this area, just as he did in moving the Clippers past the Sterling days.

It's troubling but worth noting that after his exit, along with the firings earlier this summer of the Indiana Pacers' Nate McMillan and New Orleans Pelicans' Alvin Gentry, there are only four Black head coaches remaining in the NBA: the Phoenix Suns' Monty Williams, Atlanta Hawks' Lloyd Pierce, Cleveland Cavaliers' JB Bickerstaff and Detroit Pistons Dwane Casey. With more scrutiny (rightly) on diversity across the sports world, the sudden departure of the NBA's longest-tenured and most respected Black coach is not good.

With Rivers gone, it's unclear where the Clippers will go to find his successor. The logical move would seem to be elevating his top assistant, Tyronn Lue, a championship coach in his own right who's been linked to all of the highest-profile openings this year.

Rivers will be fine. He'll get another job as soon as he wants one (less than an hour after news broke of his breakup with the Clippers, The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears reported that the Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers have already reached out). If he wants a break from coaching, he could easily go back to his old job as a television analyst, which he was excellent at.

Whatever Rivers decides to do next, he'll have supporters in all corners of the basketball world. The Clippers' disappointing playoff record during his time there is a big part of his story, but he represents so much more.

     

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.