Doc Rivers gave a faceless franchise an identity, saving it from perpetual embarrassment and crisis, and guiding the Los Angeles Clippers with a steady hand off the floor to the path of respectability.
For the Clippers to go from respectable to champions, they need far more than any coach who’ll follow behind Rivers can deliver: leadership on the floor.
Rivers was masterful at getting the 2008 Boston Celtics to jell in a short period of time, wrangling so many disparate personalities to fit en route to a title and years of contention. It also meant he was expected to repeat the task in subsequent years, amassing talent without regard to natural chemistry because Rivers could magically cure all the ills. That assumption led to overinflated expectations and, possibly, the lack of ultimate playoff success. Perhaps he couldn’t live up to his own mythology as opposed to it being an unearned reputation as a supreme psychologist, considering it doesn’t feel like any coach could’ve glued together this Clippers bunch.
It sounds crazy, but Rivers won only three playoff series in his seven years; Lakers coach Frank Vogel has won three series this season to get the Lakers back to the NBA Finals.
Of course, Vogel has LeBron James as his best player and, most importantly, his on-floor leader who sets the tone with his voice and actions. James is perhaps the best lead man in the game. Rivers’ Clippers this season had the bravado and the mouths to take on the Lakers in what was supposed to be a battle of Los Angeles before turning into chokers and squandering a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets in the West semifinals.
But the Clippers lacked cohesion, and, by varying accounts, didn’t seem to get along with each other as squabbles made their way to public view when they lost control against the Nuggets. The roster flaws were laid bare and couldn’t be covered by their actual talent when it counted. And given the draft picks and pick swaps they surrendered to the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire Paul George, the pressure to win this season was massive.
Not even the bubble or the stop-and-start nature of the playoffs or the Clippers players missing time due to tragedy or lemon pepper wings could quell the title expectations.
Rivers could very well be the unluckiest head coach in recent memory, even more so than perpetual bridesmaid Mike D’Antoni. Rivers’ 2015 team, which blew a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets in the second round, simply ran out of gas with a great starting five but not much behind it.
In 2014, after surviving the Donald Sterling nonsense, his franchise player, Chris Paul, committed a series of gaffes against Oklahoma City that prevented the Clippers from advancing to the conference finals.
And there was no way he or anyone else could have seen the Golden State Warriors coming to power. Rivers’ Clippers were boxed out more than any other potential contender who was in line to control the West before regrouping to build this champion-or-bust squad.
But in remaking this brash outfit with designs on the big picture and not the details, the Clippers lacked a leader who could bring it all together. Kawhi Leonard didn’t have to exercise those muscles in San Antonio or Toronto, going from a wild card to a superstar on established teams with hierarchies in charge.
There was Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, who did the heavy lifting vocally with the Spurs when Leonard was a pup. Kyle Lowry was the leader in Toronto, with Leonard just being able to come in and play without having to worry about the extra stuff.
His story isn’t written, but the robotic nature he’s taken to go about his business should be assessed and altered if he is to redeem himself.
George’s admitted struggles make it impossible to put the burden of leadership on his shoulders, with no fault assigned to his vulnerability, but it’s a void the franchise must address regardless.
The potential for combustibility was obvious from the start, but the Clippers need someone who’s willing to be in charge. For years, it was Paul. Anyone can see the effect Rajon Rondo has had with the Lakers, and the Miami Heat are a team made in Erik Spoelstra’s, Pat Riley’s and Jimmy Butler’s personalities.
The thought with the Clippers, through all their inconsistencies, was that they would get it together when it counted, in large part due to faith in Rivers’ ability to command a room.
He did, several times. When he had to speak up to the players in the bubble with the season on the brink, he might’ve very well saved the NBA from disaster. When he emotionally addressed the plight and fears of Black Americans, it was poignant and necessary, and very few could’ve done it with the passion and clarity he did.
On the floor, the Clippers had more than enough to win and certainly enough to give the NBA world what it wanted in terms of a showdown with the Lakers.
But even though coming up short cost Rivers his job, the Clippers had better not go about business believing their only questions are on the sidelines.
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