The Clippers have built a reputation around the NBA for making important, effectual decisions without much warning, bolts of lightning that have quickly pushed the franchise in new directions.
They dealt Blake Griffin without much notice and traded Tobias Harris in the middle of the night. They swooped in to sign Kawhi Leonard and acquired Paul George in a way that stunned the rest of the league.
And Monday, the Clippers did it again, cutting ties with coach Doc Rivers after seven seasons and six postseason trips. The official release said the sides reached a “mutual decision,” but people with knowledge of the situation said Rivers was surprised to learn the Clippers wanted to move on.
Rivers, 58, was a cornerstone of the Clippers’ organizational rebirth, helping legitimize the team from its wretched past. He navigated the franchise through the Donald Sterling scandal, hosted key meetings with Leonard and, inside the NBA bubble, reasserted himself as one of the NBA’s most passionate and trusted voices in the fights against racism and police brutality.
He holds franchise records for most games (564), wins (356), winning percentage (63.1), playoff games (59) and playoff wins (27). Yet his teams never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
“Doc has been a terrific coach for the Clippers, an incredible ambassador, and a pillar of strength during tumultuous times,” Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said in a statement. “He won a heck of a lot of games and laid a foundation for this franchise.”
Rivers issued a statement on social media.
“Thank you Clipper Nation for allowing me to be your coach and for all your support in helping make this a winning franchise," he wrote. "When I took this job, my goals were to make this a winning basketball program, a free agent destination and bring a championship to this organization. While I was able to accomplish most of my goals, I won’t be able to see them all through. Though it was a disappointing ending to our season, you are right there and I know what this team is capable of accomplishing with your support.
“Thank you to all the players, coaches and staff for helping us get here. Most importantly, thank you to the fans. We went through a lot, and I am grateful for my time here.”
Internally, Rivers enjoyed support even after the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. But ultimately, the sting from yet another disappointing end to a season prompted the change.
Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy are considered possibilities for the job, though other candidates could emerge.
For anyone within the organization uneasy with Rivers’ ousting or unconvinced that the team’s failings in Orlando, Fla., fully represent Rivers’ value, Lue is an attractive choice. An NBA champion with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lue is Rivers’ protege with a strong reputation for working with superstar players.
However, he has other suitors. He’s set to interview with Philadelphia this week and New Orleans and Houston are also interested, according to people in the league.
Van Gundy hasn’t coached since 2007 after 11 seasons in New York and Houston. He is a lead analyst on NBA broadcasts for ESPN.
The Clippers might also consider candidates without head-coaching experience as the team enters a critical season. Following 2021, both Leonard and George can become free agents.
The team traded for Rivers in 2013, hoping he could lead the “Lob City” Clippers to the next level. His first team stalled in the second round of the playoffs, beset by blown opportunities against Oklahoma City and Houston. Injuries factored into disappointing finishes in the years that followed.
After the Clippers’ dealt Griffin, Rivers guided two beloved teams of overachievers, the underdog story getting even more pronounced in 2019 when the team traded Harris while contending for the playoffs. The team didn’t fade and fought Golden State to six games in the opening round, earning leaguewide respect. And the coach was rewarded with a long-term contract extension.
The Clippers were title favorites this season, but injuries limited the team’s ability to play together before the season shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the team reconvened, Rivers didn’t get the full-team practices he wanted because illnesses and family tragedies kept the Clippers from being at full strength until the playoffs started.
The collapse against Denver spotlighted in-game adjustments that weren’t crisp and, with some exceptions, the Clippers struggled with player development throughout Rivers' tenure. Ultimately, the results weren’t good enough.
“I’m the coach and I’ll take any blame for it,” Rivers said after the Clippers were eliminated. “But we didn’t meet our expectations, clearly, because if we had, in my opinion, we’d still be playing.”
Staff writer Andrew Greif contributed to this story.