Doc Rivers was the Clippers head coach for seven seasons. It seems like he has been around for longer than that, not just because he also suited up for the Clippers during his playing career, but because of the outsized role he played as the face of the organization.
When the Donald Sterling audio leaked in April 2014, Rivers spoke for the Clippers. He was the sounding board for players to air their feelings about playing for Sterling and what to do next. He spoke with season-ticket holders and addressed protesters at the team’s business office. He helped move the franchise forward.
Just over a month ago, Rivers was the mouthpiece of the NBA before the wildcat strike in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake. His words about the fear Black people feel resonated not just within the basketball community, but beyond, and the NBPA President Chris Paul asked Rivers to speak during the players meeting that decided the future of the season. No other coaches were called upon, just Rivers.
The Clippers — and the Spurs, where Rivers also played — are unique among NBA franchises in that the person they are most closely associated with is their coach. David Bernal made that point on the Clips Nation podcast the day before the team was eliminated by Denver, and used that as justification for why Rivers was safe no matter what happened in the playoffs.
Suffice to say, the esteem with which Rivers was regarded within the organization and around the league as a whole wasn’t enough to keep Rivers around. Despite reports within the last two weeks that Rivers would be back, the Clippers announced Monday that Steve Ballmer and the former head coach had reached a mutual decision that Rivers would step down. His latest playoff collapse proved too much to overcome, and the Clippers will presumably look for a proven head coach to shepherd a championship contender to its full potential next season.
For as well as he carried himself off the court, the decisions Rivers made during the games weren’t good enough. The Clippers had what was universally regarded as the most talented team in the league heading into the season, and they upgraded said talent during the year. They should not have lost in the second round of the playoffs had they been playing at their best, or close to it. Rivers’ preference for Montrezl Harrell over Ivica Zubac, a trend that had existed before the hiatus, made the Clippers a worse team in the postseason and was arguably the deciding factor in the series loss to the Nuggets.
Then there were the intangibles. Rivers’ reputation as an ideal choice to lead veterans is a result of the 2007-08 season, when the Boston Big Three coalesced in one season to win a championship. But one of those players, Ray Allen, is no longer on speaking terms with the other two. The Lob City Clippers were the poster child for locker room dysfunction. This year, the team had several reported chemistry issues, and several players cited chemistry as a problem after Game 7. Even if the players liked each other, they still didn’t appear to be on the same page on the court. Some of that has to be attributed to coaching.
On the whole, the Clippers did not succeed enough in Rivers’ tenure. They only won three playoff series in seven years, and they surrendered two 3-1 leads in the conference semifinals. Whatever Rivers meant to the team, and to the organization, it wasn’t worth prioritizing over getting a better head coach.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. The Clippers haven’t exactly been sentimental in their roster construction over the past few seasons. Chris Paul was traded. Blake Griffin was shipped out after the team told him they wanted him to be a Clipper for life. De’Andre Jordan left with no fanfare. The Clippers traded Tobias Harris in the dead of the night, right after he had just hit a game-winner. Even Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the future, was sent away for Paul George.
These moves all made sense to make the team better, but there was a personal cost. Losing Rivers will leave a void in this organization as well, even if hiring someone new also makes the team better.
There aren’t many coaches as successful as Doc Rivers in the history of the NBA. He leaves the Clippers 11th all-time in coaching wins. He hasn’t had a losing season since 2007. Players love him and go out of their way to share how much they do.
Rivers fundamentally changed the way the Clippers are viewed as a franchise. During his time here, the Clippers turned from a laughingstock into a model front office and free agent destination, even if there are still some vestiges of a Clippers curse. Rivers bore the weight of this organization’s history, ultimately he couldn’t shake free of it.
The Clippers and Rivers have gone through some real lows together. Maybe it’s best for both parties to finally break free.