Four years after orchestrating his exit from Boston, Doc Rivers finds himself in the same place he left.
Rivers made it clear he wasn’t interested in coaching the Celtics once the team began its rebuild in 2013, trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for a package that’s still paying dividends for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed today. Now, Doc is pleading publicly for Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer to keep another aging core together rather than face a rebuild.
The former Coach of the Year and 2008 champion had three years and $21 million left on his deal when the Celtics agreed to trade him to the Clippers for a first-round pick in July 2013. By all accounts, he would’ve stayed in Boston had the C’s clung to the hope a 36-year-old Pierce, 37-year-old KG and the rehabbing Rajon Rondo, who tore his ACL during that 2012-13 season, could still contend for a title.
Rivers is now in the third season of a five-year, $50 million contract, his Clippers trail the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, and he will be in a similar conundrum this summer, when Ballmer will have to decide whether investing some $85 million annually (plus luxury tax penalties) to re-sign soon-to-be free agents Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick is the best road to a championship.
Once again, Rivers made clear his preference, presenting his pitch to USA Today’s Sam Amick:
“Here’s my argument to (the question of whether all that luxury tax is worth it). Let’s say we don’t win this year — which I think we will, (but) let’s say we don’t. Do you give up on a 50-win team that has proven that they’re really close (to winning it all), or do you hang in there and keep trying to maybe make changes around (the core)?
“I always use Utah as a great (example). Thank God Karl Malone and (John) Stockton didn’t listen to people, you know what I mean? They fell (in the playoffs), and kept trying and kept trying. And finally, late in their careers, they finally broke through to the Finals. They didn’t win it (all). But you know, that’s the pursuit. I just think it’s so easy to (say), ‘Hey, they should break up,’ from the outside. And I think that’s such an easy opinion.”
The Clippers have won better than 60 percent of their games since Rivers arrived in 2013, just as they did in three years prior under Vinny del Negro after the team traded for Paul. Partly due to injuries and mostly because of back-to-back second-round collapses in 2013 and 2014, L.A. has never reached a conference finals. So, to say the Clips have “proven that they’re really close” is a little bit of a stretch.
Rivers sold us on similar excuses for his team’s lack of playoff success before this season, and his team went out and finished fourth in the West with 51 wins (two fewer than the Celtics, mind you). This despite Paul and Griffin each missing 21 games. If Ballmer had his doubts before about this team’s ability to stay healthy and get by a Golden State Warriors juggernaut, he must really be worried now.
Despite losing Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert to start Game 1, the Jazz handed the Clips a last-second loss on Saturday. Gobert remains out for Tuesday’s Game 2, but Utah is holding out hope he could return. Either way, the Clippers face an uphill battle in their first-round series, even before they can think about a potential Round 2 matchup against a Warriors team they haven’t beaten since Christmas 2014 (and haven’t lost to by less than double digits since February 2016).
Also the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, Doc told Amick he thought the new dynamic with Lawrence Frank as his VP passed this past offseason “with flying colors,” citing the signing of his son, Austin Rivers, to a three-year, $35 million deal as “a good move for us.” The elder Rivers listed 37-year-old Jamal Crawford’s two-year, $27.5 million contract and the veteran minimum signings of Raymond Felton and Mo Speights as further evidence of the front office’s ability to surround an expensive core — Paul, Griffin, Redick and DeAndre Jordan — with enough talent to compete for Ballmer’s stated goal.
Redick is an unrestricted free agent this summer, when he might command as much as $20 million annually in the NBA’s burgeoning salary cap era. Paul and Griffin will most likely terminate their 2017-18 options and respectively seek max contracts starting at $35.35 and $30.3 million. The Clips are also locked into another $54.6 million for Jordan, Crawford, Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson next season.
If L.A. hopes to keep its core together, as Doc would like, Ballmer will pay some $140.25 million (well over the projected luxury tax line of $121 million) to seven players, before they even begin to fill out the rest of the 15-man roster. As a repeat tax offender, Ballmer would also owe the league $61.8 million in taxes on those seven guys — plus $4.75 million for each million spent from $141-146 million, $5.25 million for each million spent from $146-151 million and so on and so on (per cbafaq.com).
As Amick noted, the 2013-14 Nets — they of the aforementioned Pierce and Garnett trade — set the league standard for $205 million in combined salary and luxury taxes. That team had an average age of 29.2 years old, second-oldest in the league, 1.6 years older than the 2012-13 Celtics and 0.7 years younger than the current Clippers (the oldest team in the league). By keeping their core intact, these Clips would almost certainly break that tax record, and we all know how that turned out for the Nets.
Sure, Ballmer, who paid $2 billion for the Clippers with some $20 billion to spare, can afford to break that record, but even the richest businessmen don’t like to throw good money after bad. This core has offered no proof it can get to Round 3, let alone contend for a title, and Paul will be 32 years old in two weeks. Those Jazz teams Rivers mentioned, they had been to three conference finals before breaking through to the NBA Finals in 1997. And they still couldn’t get past the NBA’s incumbent juggernaut.
You can understand why Rivers wants to keep this core together. He left himself little choice by not trading Paul or Griffin at the deadline. Those two still represent his two best free-agent options this summer, and it’s more fun coaching a 50-win team than stepping back. But that’s blinding him from seeing this core as a team president should, realizing what Danny Ainge did back in Boston four years ago — that they could no longer contend, and it was time to cash whatever chips he had left.
Rivers hasn’t learned from experience, and we are reminded of that fact every time we see a 39-year-old Pierce making a million dollars for each point he averages on the end of the Clippers bench. (Not to mention C’s-turned-Clips Glen Davis, Ryan Hollins, Nate Robinson, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass.)
Now, four years after Rivers said he wouldn’t stick around for the rebuild, Boston is a 53-win team with a young core constructed from the wreckage and still owns Brooklyn’s best odds at the No. 1 pick this year (and maybe even in 2018, too). They aren’t contenders, either, but at least they’re on their way up.
NBA life is cyclical, which is maybe why rumors are swirling about Doc’s interest in a front office role with Orlando or Atlanta. And if Rivers can trade himself to the Magic or Hawks for a first-round pick in the process, Ballmer might take that deal. Sooner or later, you always end up where you started.
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