The Los Angeles Clippers have come to terms with head coach Doc Rivers on a two-year extension. The 19-year NBA coach has shown a proven track record of winning and re-building franchises. However, the recent extension granted to Rivers may have been gifted to him based on previous successes and experience over the current situation the Clippers find themselves in.
In understanding the reasoning behind this new contract, it must first be understood what his history as a head coach looks like. Is his career dressed up to look prettier than it really is? Or has he proven time and again to prove he is one of the better coaches in the NBA? Evaluating his career as a coach as well as his most recent season with the Los Angelas Clippers will shed light on that.
First Head Coaching Job
Orlando Magic: 4 seasons (5th year fired after 11 games) – Record 176-179
Rivers got his hands on his first coaching gig in the magic kingdom of Orlando. There he had a roster that consisted of Darrell Armstrong, a young Ben Wallace, Correy Maggette, and Monty Williams. So essentially he did not have much to work with. Armstrong led the team in points that year and Wallace, Maggette, and Williams were all non-factors. However, he was able to go .500 with that team. Unfortunately, that was not good enough to crack the playoffs in his debut season. Although, he was honored with the NBA Coach of the Year award at seasons end.
The 2000-2001 season saw Rivers and the Magic let Wallace walk (they would regret that later as Wallace’s pedigree will show) but they landed Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill and fifth overall pick Mike Miller in the off-season. They also just barely missed out on bringing in Tim Duncan as well. Suddenly, with more talented players on the roster the more wins it brought them. Granted, it did not skyrocket them leaps and bounds, but their win total increased by two games to sneak into the playoffs with a 43-39 record. They were defeated in four games (lost the series 3-1) by the Milwaukee Bucks. Rivers now had the team he had wanted and a playoff appearance under his belt in only his second year.
The third and fourth seasons of Rivers tenure with the Magic mirrored each other. After trying to squeeze whatever was left out of elder statesmen Patrick Ewing (in his 17th and final year) and Horace Grant (in his 15th year and second stint with the Magic), in the 2001-2002 season, the Magic would return to the playoffs again, going 44-38 and earning the fifth seed heading into the playoffs, only to lose the same way they did the previous season…in four games (lost 3-1 to the Charlotte Hornets).
The fourth season for Rivers saw the Magic return a similar roster which included the NBA’s leading scorer in McGrady (averaged 32.1 PPG) and swapped a retired Ewing for a 33-year-old Shawn Kemp. However, the win total dropped to 42 wins but was good enough to earn the eight seed in the playoffs where their woes would continue. Orlando and Rivers would go on to lose the opening series in seven games to the top seed Detroit Pistons (and former Magic big, Ben Wallace).
After starting the 2003-2004 season 1-11 and in the midst of a 10 game losing streak, the Magic decided it was time to make a change and Rivers was the one ousted out the front door. They had not won a playoff series with him and they felt he would never propel them to a championship. For what it’s worth the Magic finished 21-61 that year.
Success or failure?: Failure
For his first gig as a head coach, I would say he did a pretty good job. Three consecutive playoff appearances in his first four years as a coach was impressive. However, not being able to win a single playoff series (with a close to peak McGrady for one of them) in four years ultimately ends up in the failure category. To keep a job you have to show that with progression there is an end goal of success and having strong regular seasons only to be bounced in the opening round three consecutive years was not an indicator of that.
Atop the NBA world
Boston Celtics: 9 seasons – 475-352
While it was not clear that Rivers would be the hero to bring the Celtics to it’s first NBA championship since the 1985-1986 season, he wasted no time in getting started. In his first season at the helm for the 2004-2005 season, he led future franchise cornerstones Paul Pierce, Tony Allen (a rookie at the time), and a second-year player in Kendrick Perkins to the third seed in that year’s playoffs. He had the help of veteran players such as Antoine Walker, Al Jefferson, and the glove Gary Payton along the way. However, much like his last playoff appearance in Orlando occurred, the same happened in his debut season with the Celtics, losing in seven games in the opening round (lost to the Indiana Pacers.)
The following two seasons (2005-2006, 2006-2007) were repugnant. In those two seasons, the Celtics would not come close to sniffing the playoffs and posted a combined record of 57-107. The Celtics became the laughing stock of the NBA. The only thing they had going for them was Paul Pierce and a few dusty banners in the rafters.
All this changed when Doc Rivers (with the help of Danny Ainge) landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen following the 2007 season and decided to join Pierce in Beantown for a shot at glory. Those superstars joined the aforementioned Pierce along with T. Allen, Perkins and a firey point guard for whom they traded for in the 2006 NBA draft by the name of Rajon Rondo. Together they formed the birth of the modern-day superteam and went on to clinch the leagues best record and the franchises third largest win total in a regular season. Oh yeah, they also went on to win the NBA Finals versus their nemesis, the Los Angeles Lakers. Rivers got his title and the 2008 Boston Celtics went down in history as champions.
Rivers and Boston went on to make the finals one more time two years later with that same crew but fell in game seven (seems to be a trend for Rivers) of the NBA Finals to the same team they beat in 2008. After the Finals loss in 2010, the Celtics would struggle to have further success. In 2011, they were upset by his former team the Orlando Magic 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Their last Eastern Conference finals appearance with Rivers as the coach came in 2012 when the Celtics lost in seven games to another superteam in the Miami Heat.
It was not the losing that tore the Celtics apart but rather the locker room issues that emerged. With all the superstars on the roster and tension and expectation that winning had created, tempers rose. Including Rivers’. With reports that Rivers wanted ‘to fight’ his own point guard (Rondo), all signs were pointing to his exit sooner rather than later.
That exit came following the Celtics 41-40 season and short playoff run (lost in six games, 4-2 in the first round to the New York Knicks).
Success or Failure: Success
He was able to capture one NBA title in his time there and in the process put the Celtics back on the map of the NBA world, breathing life into an organization that seemed lifeless. The Celtics were led by superstars, yes, but they were able to win because of Rivers and how he was able to get those superstars to all to come together and buy into what he had wanted and achieve basketball’s ultimate prize. Not only did he win the NBA Finals, but he did it against a hated enemy, and in the process glorified him with fans and put him in the same breath of great Celtics coaches like Red Auerbach and K.C. Jones.
Los Angeles Clippers: 5 seasons (277-173)
After his time with Boston ran its course and he was traded for a first-round pick, Rivers was awarded the role of coach and president of basketball operations for the Los Angelas Clippers. Now with more of an influence on free-agents and essentially full control of this team, Rivers could get the team he wanted…again.
In his first season with the Clippers, Rivers’ roster was stacked top to bottom. With a blend of 10+ year veterans (Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Antawn Jamison, Stephen Jackson, and Hedo Turkoglu), established players in their fifth or above season (JJ Reddick, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Darren Collison) and a young and blooming prospect in his first few years (Blake Griffin).
These Clippers were dominant throughout the 2013-2014 regular season and won 57 of their 82 regular season games (Rivers’ highest win total with the Clippers). As their season kept rolling, Rivers led them past Golden State in the first round (before the Warriors began their illustrious dominance they have asserted over the past few years). In the second round, the Clippers ran into a buzzsaw that was Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Rivers and the Clippers battled but fell short in six games.
The following year some of the veteran players left (Jackson, Jamison), however, their main core of Paul, Jordan, and Griffin remained intact. Rivers led them to an almost identical season where they would win 56 regular season games and gain the three seed only to lose in the second round to the Houston Rockets in seven games.
A growing skepticism about Rivers and his team became apparent after the Rockets loss and would carry over into the 2015-2016 season. The win total dropped to 53 and they were now the fourth seed in the playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers upset the Clippers in six games and the same would occur for Rivers and the Clippers the next season (earned the fourth seed only to be upset in the first round in seven games to Utah). Something had to change.
That change came in the form of Clippers owner Steve Ballmer relieving Rivers of his role in the front office. The hope was that with these early post-season exits, Rivers was not focusing on coaching the team. The relationship between Rivers and All-NBA point guard Chris Paul became uneasy for many alleged reasons, whether it was Rivers not wanting to trade his son Austin in order to land Paul’s close friend in Carmelo Anthony, or whether or not Griffin, Paul, or Jordan knew who the alpha was on the team. Simply put, Rivers had yet another quarrel with the franchises point guard.
Paul later was traded to Houston and Rivers was left with Griffin, Jordan and complementary role players like Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, and Danilo Gallinari. Later in the season, Griffin was traded to the Detroit Pistons and the core that had made up the Clippers was now down to Jordon, who may be leaving this off-season in free-agency. After failing to make the playoffs last season the Clippers run of six consecutive postseasons streak ended as well as Rivers’ streak of 10 straight playoff appearances.
Success or failure? Failure!
Not only did he not get past the second round of the Western Conference, he was upset in the first round twice in back to back years where the Clippers had no reason for losing either series. Whether or not it was a matter of pulling them apart in the locker room or not, it was clear he did not keep them together as well as he did with the Celtics. Although the regular seasons may have been good enough to earn a high seed in the playoffs, the Clippers, as well as Rivers, did nothing to get better. In fact, since his first year in Los Angelas, Rivers and the team regressed each season.
The final question: Was it smart to extend Rivers contract?
No, it was not. Yes, Rivers is a great coach and his win total (including playoffs) of 928-703 (.568) speaks for itself. This article is not to bash Rivers and say he is a bad coach. However, one should question if the Clippers current roster is best suited for Rivers. Throughout Rivers career, he has started each job with either limited success or little roster talent. Rivers then took that and worked his tail off to get the front office to get him more help. Orlando and Boston listened and did so. However, the Clippers seemed to have worked in an opposite direction with Rivers. The front office gave him all the talent/power up front and told him to win now. Clearly, that did not work.
With the Clippers now lacking a true superstar and their future appearing murky, is Rivers really the guy they should want to initiate another rebuild? If Jordon leaves, Rivers now ‘leader’ will then be a 31-year-old Lou Williams with no clear vision of what/who they are targeting in the off-season. Assuming they draft a transcendent talent in the upcoming draft (they hold the no. 12 pick), or sign a big free-agent or two, how long before the relationship between the player(s) and Rivers goes sour?
Rivers deserves a job in the NBA, just not for this team.