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How Did We Get Here? When Loyalty Clouds Everything

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Loyalty is often a good thing in general — but can produce dire results in the NBA.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Loyalty in the NBA has long been a conundrum. It is often addressed, but usually produces negative results.

The player-front office dynamic has almost exclusively been devoid of true loyalty for years. In his book “From the Outside,” Ray Allen said it’s not about loyalty, it’s about business. “Each individual player has to decide that for themselves,” he said. “It’s just the nature of sports. Teams stay, players kind of move on.” Of course, Allen was famously called disloyal for leaving Boston to join the Miami Heat. From a legacy standpoint, Allen made the correct choice, winning another title and doing so by nailing one of the most iconic shots in league history. To Allen’s point, Blake Griffin was loyal to the Clippers (to the extent taking a maximum contract allowed it), and we know where that got him.

When it comes to business, the dichotomy is a challenge for managers. “You are trying to create a sense of loyalty or trust in the firm,” Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gina told Forbes in Jan. 2016. Trust and loyalty often seem symbiotic; feeding off each other to create a warped sense of, for lack of a better description, who has whose back. It’s been clear throughout Doc Rivers’ coaching career, for example. He’s typically most loyal to the players he most trusts. It was evident in the players he acquired throughout his tenure in the Clippers’ front office (Glen Davis). He wanted to coach guys he trusted, and his blind loyalty likely cost the team.

In family settings, and don’t underestimate how much an NBA team resembles a family, therapists identify differences between genuine loyalty and blind loyalty. Unwavering devotion often results in family members assisting each other through crisis, remaining faithful to obligations and offering support and encouragement. However, when blindly loyal family members often enable, are codependent and can damage other relationships.

Now removed from the dual role of president-coach, loyalty and trust seemingly still live in a world that’s synonymous for Rivers. As Avery Bradley, a long-time Rivers favorite, toils as one of the league’s most inept offensive players and has evolved into an inconsistent team defender, he continues to start and play the third most minutes on the team (29.6 per game). After a particularly egregious Bradley outing against Portland (0 points on 0-for-4 shooting in 30 minutes while Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum somewhat casually dropped 66 points), Rivers was asked about changing the lineup and in effect said he hadn’t considered it.

Of course, the Clippers defeated the Mavericks on Thursday in DeAndre Jordan’s return to snap a four-game losing streak. The lineup remained. Bradley started and played 28 minutes, made one field goal, and for some inexplicable reason closed the game alongside Lou Williams, who returned from a hamstring injury.

In 10 December games, the Clippers are 3-7. Bradley has scored eight points or fewer in six of those games, including two games without a point. He has 12 rebounds, seven assists, and one steal in those six low-scoring games combined. Yet at a contribution of practically nil, he’s still averaged 31.2 minutes in those games with a combined +/- of minus-0.4.

So, why stick with him? I mean, one theory would suggest he’s being auditioned as a trade asset. For whom? The BIG3? Knowing how Rivers has tried to acquire ex-Celtics and been loyal to those around him for most of his coaching career, it has to be his affinity for Bradley that keeps him in the lineup. I mean, we’ve seen the potential for Tyrone Wallace to fill the void. We’ve seen the results when the team, sans Bradley, has thrived (the Clippers are 5-1 in the six games he missed due to injury).

In Kendrick Lamar’s track “Loyalty” he urges: “Tell me when your loyalty is comin’ from the heart.” There’s no question that for Rivers, it’s coming from the deep recesses of who he is. That makes it that much harder to change it. However, for the team’s sake, this is a time for Rivers to, for once, be disloyal.