After a devastating postseason collapse along with the crashing realization that both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can become free agents next summer, parting with Doc Rivers on Monday has only increased the stakes. This is a crucial moment in franchise history.
It’s the type of move that could end up being the start of a championship story and remembered as a gutsy call by owner Steve Ballmer. Or it eventually could be seen as compounding disappointment and putting the team on the road to catastrophe.
But for now, Ballmer and team president Lawrence Frank must execute one of the hardest things to do in high-level sports: replace a successful coach. It’s not something that typically succeeds without a plan — and if the Clippers have one, it has to be good. The discomfort in understanding the set of circumstances that precipitated the season’s end was exacerbated by just how difficult this Clippers team was to read. And that was a discomfort that Ballmer undoubtedly had to mull in the two weeks since his team blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets.
Was the failure a one-off? Did the bizarre nature of the Orlando bubble, combined with players who had been sick with COVID-19 and others who had dealt with personal tragedy, result in a derailment? Or was it the outward manifestation, brought about by maximum stress, of issues that had been dogging the team for months?
In the days that followed the Game 7 loss, the consensus within the Clippers’ front office was the latter, sources said, and that forced some harsh realities to be dealt with — difficult assessments such as: If Doc Rivers wasn’t “Doc Rivers,” would he have lasted as long as he did as Clippers coach?
Rivers won just three playoff series in seven years despite having excellent talent throughout most of his tenure. His teams repeatedly blew leads, including those two 3-1 series stains — this year to the Nuggets and in 2015 to the Houston Rockets.
His time as team president was flawed, and three years ago he was stripped of the title, though it was framed as a positive outcome that everyone was amenable to at the time — not unlike how Ballmer presented the separation with Rivers on Monday as a mutual decision.
Rivers also happens to be a tremendous leader of men. He was the team’s rock during the Donald Sterling affair in 2014 that caused tremendous stress in the middle of the playoffs. He was a leading voice in Orlando this year after the players chose to sit out games, speaking in front of all the players, offering advice and dealing with his team, which initially voted to leave the bubble.
And he demonstrated his leadership a multitude of times in between, whether it was holding the franchise together after Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were traded, or acting as a lead recruiter when Leonard and George were mulling their big move.
Rivers got more leeway than the average coach because he was anything but the average coach. But frankly, his playoff results had been average long enough for that grace period to expire.
There were whiffs of speculation that Rivers’ job might be in trouble after the Nuggets series, but often it came back to the same bottom line: whether Ballmer had it in him. That answer should’ve been known. Ballmer is used to winning. He just got done winning a multiyear fight with James Dolan that will clear the way for him to build a new arena in Inglewood.
Perhaps the quintessential Ballmer story happened in 2013 when he resigned under some pressure as Microsoft CEO after investors had grown frustrated. The next day he profited $1 billion when the stock leaped on the news of his departure. Later that year he bought the Clippers for $2 billion in cash.
Last fall Ballmer was asked about his fight over land and principles with Dolan, and his answer spoke volumes: “We’re grinders. We’re long-term players, and we’re grinders. You want to hit us in the nose? OK! We’ll keep moving. You can’t knock us down.”
That’s about to be put to the test.