The Los Angeles Clippers and Doc Rivers have officially broken up after a fruitful, yet unfulfilling seven-year relationship. This season with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, and a plethora of elite role players failed after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals.
This blown 3-1 lead marks the third for a Doc Rivers coached team, and with Rivers now on the market for another head coaching job, a large portion of the NBA Twitterverse has been relentless in their critique of Rivers, connecting him as the one to blame for the blown leads.
Doc Rivers is not a bad coach whatsoever. He’s actually one of the best coaches in today’s NBA. While I can’t speak too much on the first blown lead in 2003 with a young Tracy McGrady-led Orlando Magic team (I was 10-years-old and too focused on the Lakers), the debacle of 2015 and 2020 have a lot in common. I don’t believe he’s the main culprit behind the Clippers losing either one of their 3-1 leads.
Evidenced by his time in Boston, Doc is an elite coach, and most, if not all of his former players would testify to that. Here’s a brief-ish history of Doc’s coaching tenure after his time with the Magic, where he won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award in 1999, which was his first season coaching.
Rivers took over the head coaching job for the Boston Celtics in 2004 and led them to the playoffs in his first year. In the next two years, the Celtics didn’t make the playoffs. During those two years, his coaching style was picked apart by some critics, more specifically Bill Simmons, who called for his job. He parlayed those critical years into five-straight seasons where the Celtics finished in the top half of the Eastern Conference and won a title with the original ‘big three’ of this era; Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
Why didn’t he win more than one title? He had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and the Lakers to worry about in 2010, and in 2011 and 2012, lost to LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s big three. That’s pretty good company, isn’t it?
That brings us to his tenure with the Clippers, where the Celtics traded Rivers for a first-round draft pick in 2013. In his first season, he led the Clippers to their best season in franchise history with 57 wins and the third-seed in a stacked Western Conference. Yes, he had Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on his roster, but you can say that about every great coach. They all had great players.
The Clippers lost in the Western Conference Semis to the Thunder in 2014, who had two generational greats in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Understandable. In 2015, they blew the 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets. While the collapse was inexcusable, I wouldn’t place the brunt of the blame on Rivers.
In 2016, after a long offseason with DeAndre Jordan playing seesaw with the Clippers and Dallas Mavericks on where to sign in free agency, there was a storied tension within the franchise, most notably between CP3 and Jordan, as well as Josh Smith and an assistant coach that derailed their season. Two seasons of a discontent roster resulted in two first-round exits in 2016 and 2017, which prompted the Clippers to trade Chris Paul to the Rockets. The season after Paul left, the Rockets finished 10th in the West.
What everyone seems to forget is last season, 2018-19 where the Clippers didn’t feature one superstar like every other playoff team in the West. Last season was the biggest test for Doc as a coach since his first year with Orlando, and he did a masterful job with the gritty, young core that earned the eighth-seed in a stacked Western Conference with 48 wins.
Nobody talks about that.
But this year, since the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA bubble to the Denver Nuggets, the hot thing to say is that Doc Rivers is the problem. Instead of blaming the grown men, more specifically, the superstar-caliber players on the court that make significantly more money than Rivers for not performing, the easy thing to do is blame Doc.
The Clippers franchise made the playoffs six times in the 30 years before Rivers became their head coach in 2013. In Doc’s seven seasons in LA, they made the playoffs six of those years. Rivers played a huge role in building a new identity for the Clippers franchise in his time there, despite all the drama he dealt with.
Remember the Donald Sterling scandal of 2014? Rivers was at the forefront of that as head coach and made a stand saying he wouldn’t continue coaching the Clippers if Sterling remained as the Clippers owner. After Sterling was banned for life by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Rivers was promoted to president of basketball operations in conjunction with his continuing head coaching duties.
More recently, and something we all can remember is the Clippers’ decision to gamble with their entire future to get the stacked team full of hype, more controversy, and no results in return.
The Los Angeles Clippers have a long history of fumbling bags. The inevitable implosion of the franchise as we know it is impending. The implosion just started with Doc Rivers departing from the franchise. Rivers isn’t the problem. The Clippers are. If Rivers can find a young team that’ll buy into his coaching style, he’ll prove how elite he is once again.