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Is Doc Rivers Really a Poor General Manager?

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It has been a little over three years since Doc Rivers became the coach (and de-facto leader) of the Los Angeles Clippers. With free agency winding down, let's take a look back at his tenure and see how he has done.

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Many people, both fans of the Clippers and of the general NBA, think Doc Rivers is a poor general manager. Jokes are made at Doc's expense all the time about alleged nepotism concerning his son Austin, or regarding his favoritism of players from the Eastern Conference during his Boston years who performed well against the Celtics. And certainly, some of those claims are true enough... on the surface. Doc did bring Austin over as he was on the cusp of falling out of the league, and has signed a bevy of players who lined up either for or against the Celtics in the late 2000's and early 2010's: Hedo Turkoglu, Nate Robinson, Glen Davis, Danny Granger, etc. Yet what is consistently lost is how those signings have actually performed.

Nate was bad, yes, but he also played in only 126 minutes and was an emergency late-season pickup. Granger certainly wasn't his old self, but he wasn't atrocious-- and he didn't crack the 200 minute mark either. Turkoglu and "Big Baby" were legitimately useful during their Clippers stints, both performing valuable services off the bench. So, was Doc biased in selecting these particular players to serve under him on the Clippers? Yeah, probably. But so what? As a group they were fine, and so were other similar signings. Might there have been better free agents available? Sure. But no GM hits on minimum signings consistently. Not one.

Let's talk Austin Rivers. Was there nepotism involved in Doc acquiring Austin last year? It's possible, but there is no real reason to think so. Austin Rivers was a lottery pick (an acclaimed one at that) back in 2012 who hadn't worked on his first team. Other teams take gambles on players like that all the time; this one happened to be a rare father-son transaction. While I'm sure Doc didn't want to see his son wash out of the NBA, it's safe to assume that wasn't his primary motivation for making the trade. And putting reasons aside, the trade has paid off spectacularly: Austin has transformed into a solid reserve combo guard, a perfect piece on the Clippers bench. While Reggie Bullock (I'll have more on him in a bit) played better in Detroit than he did for the Clippers, Clips fans would do that trade again every single time.

A topic somewhat related to Austin is Doc's "treatment" of rookies and young prospects. Namely, that he doesn't play them. The argument then goes: if he drafted them and still doesn't give them minutes, he either hates young players or he is a poor talent evaluator in the draft. The first part of that is a coaching decision, and one that is slightly more complicated than just "he doesn't play young players", but the drafting decisions are easy to look at and evaluate.

First off, we have Reggie Bullock back in 2013. He didn't get many minutes on the Clippers, and looked bad when he did play. However, he was then flipped for Austin Rivers (see above), so that pick has worked out fine for the Clips. 2014 saw the drafting of CJ Wilcox. Again, he hasn't played much either, but has shown flashes of rotation ability as a combo guard. Have the Clippers burned up two of his cheap contract years without much to show for it? Yes, yes they have. But the guard positions are crowded spots on the Clippers roster, and minutes are scarce.

The argument then changes into, "So, why did Doc draft him?" The simple answer is that Austin wasn't on the team yet, and there was every hope CJ would become the other backup guard to play alongside Jamal Crawford. Regardless, only several players drafted after Wilcox in 2014 look like better players than him: Kyle Anderson, Nikola Jokic, Dwight Powell, and Jordan Clarkson. Anderson was the only one of the four taken even somewhat near the Clippers pick at 28 (30, by the Spurs), and while I wanted him over CJ, there is still a chance Wilcox turns into a solid "3 and D" guard soon and becomes more valuable. Does CJ look like a miss of a pick so far? Yeah, kind of. But whiffing on a pick that late in the 1st round is not cause for sneering and "worst GM in the NBA" talk.

We now come to the 2016 draft, which did not go the way I wanted, but it is still far too early to judge. I would have preferred that Doc just take one of the 3 and D wings available at 33 (Malcolm Brogdon and Patrick McCaw) instead of trading down for 39 and 40, and drafting David Michineau and Diamond Stone. But getting two bites at the apple instead of one, especially for that small of a downward shift, is a good overall use of assets in the 2nd round. Let's be clear: I'm not a huge fan of either Stone or Michineau, and even at 39 and 40 there were players who I would much rather the Clippers had taken. On the other hand, it's only been two weeks since the draft, and judging a GM based on the quality of his 2nd round draft picks is brutally unfair. So I will wait to see them in the NBA, see how the players who I liked perform, and maybe return to this draft in a year's time.

Doc Rivers has made plenty of mistakes. He dumped Jared Dudley for cap space that he would use on Spencer Hawes, and had to give up a 1st round draft pick in the process. The Hawes signing was a bust, as were the Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson pickups last summer. But most of those moves were acclaimed at the time. I never liked Lance or Hawes on the Clippers, but a lot of (very smart) people did, and there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about them. The Jeff Green trade this past spring was awful, not necessarily because of what the Clippers gave up (a protected 1st round pick that will most likely to turn into two 2nd round picks), but because Doc should know by now that Jeff Green is not the answer to any NBA team's question. Again, I haven't been a huge fan of his drafts, especially this past one.

But Doc has made plenty of good moves too. His trade to acquire JJ Redick (and Dudley) all the way back in 2013 was brilliant, as Redick has become an integral part of the Clippers' success and one of the better shooting guards in the NBA. The Darren Collison and Matt Barnes signings were both terrific as well, as were most of his re-signs this summer: Marreese Speights on the minimum and Luc Mbah a Moute on the BAE are both steals of the highest order. And of course there is the Austin Rivers trade, which will (hopefully) continue to pay dividends for another three years.

Just like any other GM, Doc is a mixed bag. He has had good moves, bad moves, and everything in between. What he isn't is a Billy King or any Kings Executive from the last decade, someone who seemingly doesn't have any clue what he is doing and is repeatedly extorted by other teams. Doc Rivers is roughly an average general manager, maybe a bit below, but certainly not worthy of the scorn that is heaped on him every time the Clippers are involved in a rumor or mentioned in a trade.

I'm not a huge fan of the Coach and General Manager duties being handled by the same person, but other people have made it work, and Doc can as well. I don't think the Clippers are "doomed" as long as Doc is running the team. I do think that they need one or two things to bounce their way, but that is true for every team in NBA history. As long as Doc can capitalize on those game-changing opportunities when they occur, he will be doing his GM job the way he should.