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Life after the presidency: Doc Rivers lost some power, and everybody won

Doc Rivers kept coaching the Clippers after losing the title of president two years ago, and he has emerged rejuvenated. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers arrived in California with blind ambition.

With the core of his Boston Celtics aging, the Los Angeles Clippers offered Rivers, a coach of the year winner with an NBA title in Boston, a dual coaching and front-office role — a then-popular trend to lure highly regarded coaches, including Stan Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau.

The catch was that Rivers would work for Donald Sterling, widely regarded as one of the league’s worst owners, which only raised the stakes: Rivers could attempt to transform a laughingstock into a contender.

Over the past six years, Rivers, 57, has outlasted the owner who hired him, the executives who first supported him, the superstar trio he built the team around and both Van Gundy and Thibodeau. That survival story is a testament to his coaching ability — the Clippers have won more games than all but four teams since his arrival — but it also owes to his rare willingness to cede the power and prestige that brought him to Los Angeles. And the team is better off for it.

“I always wanted to do all of it,” Rivers said after a recent practice, candidly reflecting on his four-year tenure as a coach/executive hybrid that ended when he was removed as the Clippers’ president of basketball operations in 2017 but kept his coaching job. “[President was] a job that I wanted to do. I thought I could do it. But for me, it was a lot. For me, it was too much.”

Chemistry tests

Rivers’s launch into his dual responsibilities, of course, was compromised by Sterling, a real estate investor long known for a hands-off approach and badly understaffing his organization. Sterling sat down with Rivers on only two occasions during their time together, and their relationship fractured for good when recordings of the owner’s racist comments became public during the 2014 playoffs. Before long, Sterling was banned for life by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and Steve Ballmer had purchased the franchise for a record $2 billion.

Despite the ownership change, Rivers’s central task remained the same during the team’s “Lob City” heyday: to find functional, low-cost role players to surround stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. But second-guessing of Rivers’s personnel moves mounted as the Clippers failed to reach the Western Conference finals year after year. He was accused of overlooking player development, stocking his bench with past-their-prime veterans and engaging in nepotism by trading for his son, Austin.

His tenure’s central challenge, though, was managing his core’s personalities. “You’ve got to know when you can’t,” he said, noting that his concerns with chemistry first surfaced in the 2014 playoffs. “Even after the first year against Oklahoma City, there were major questions. We didn’t have bad guys. They just didn’t fit and coexist the way you need to if you want to be a champion.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Rivers said the Clippers “should have pulled the plug” after the 2016 playoffs, when the team suffered a first-round loss to the lower-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, rather than wait until Paul asked for a trade to the Houston Rockets the following summer. “It was denial,” Rivers said. “We tried to move pieces around the main guys to see if we could get that right instead of moving the main guys. Look, it takes courage to [trade stars].”

This calculation — whether to part with superstar talent in the face of chemistry concerns — is an example of why many teams avoid hybrid coach/executive positions. Coaches are closer to the players and almost always prefer known quantities.

As the playoff disappointments accumulated, Ballmer, the excitable former Microsoft chief executive and a constant presence around the team, concluded that he needed to restructure and dramatically expand his front office.

The first major change came in 2016, when Rivers promoted assistant coach Lawrence Frank to vice president of basketball operations. After a year of assessment, Michael Winger, a highly regarded thinker who worked for the Oklahoma City Thunder, was brought on as general manager in 2017. Basketball legend Jerry West arrived as a consultant the same year, as did assistant GM Trent Redden, who was with the Cleveland Cavaliers for their 2016 title.

A basketball operations department that had been a shoestring operation has more than doubled to 60-plus employees, including expanded medical and scouting staffs and a player services division. In conjunction with that overhaul, Rivers was stripped of his coveted president of basketball operations title — no small demotion, given his standing in league circles. Frank stepped into the position.

The awkward optics prompted speculation: that Rivers was being blamed for the Clippers’ playoff failures or that he was on the coaching hot seat or that he might seek a dual role with another franchise. Rivers concluded that the “unusual” transition was an opportunity for him to embody his own coaching advice. “How can we preach to our players to play a role and be a team if we’re not doing it?" he said. "We have a saying: ‘You go first.’ Let us go first. Let us show them this is how you act as a group and as a team. We went first.”

The new arrangement might have flopped if not for Frank, a 48-year-old basketball lifer and former head coach whom Rivers had brought to Boston as defensive coordinator, then lured to Los Angeles in 2014 as an assistant coach with an understanding that Frank eventually wanted to transition into a front-office role with the team.

Because Rivers hired Frank, the latter’s promotion didn’t feel like a hostile takeover. “This [transition] only works if you trust the people you’re giving the power to,” Rivers said. “I go to bed rested and mentally free. I’m not staying up wondering what [the front office] is doing.”

Under the new setup, Rivers hoped to mimic the “unity” he enjoyed during his time with Celtics President Danny Ainge, whose long basketball career includes stints as player, coach and executive. Frank’s experience as a coach proved vital during the transition, and the two communicate daily, even when Frank is traveling.

“In many situations [around the league], there’s a preservationist mentality,” Frank said. “Who is going to outlast who? Doc and I are in this together. I’ve sat next to him on the bench. We’ve both done each other’s jobs. Other people in my position spend a lot of time worrying about their coach. I spend zero.”

Unexpected benefits

The Clippers under Frank have been extraordinarily busy, turning over their entire roster since Paul’s trade in 2017 in pursuit of youth, flexibility, value deals and overachievers. Griffin, given a new five-year deal just months earlier, was surprisingly traded for Tobias Harris in January 2018. Jordan, a mainstay at center, departed last summer in free agency. Harris was then dealt last month at the trade deadline.

Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are two of the top sixth man of the year candidates, and they combine to make just $14 million. Danilo Gallinari is the only significant contract on the books after this season. At the deadline, the Clippers snagged guard Landry Shamet and center Ivica Zubac, promising prospects on low-cost rookie deals.

How Montrezl Harrell made the leap from NBA’s fringe to Clippers’ ‘heart and soul’

The busy deadline highlighted the benefits of Rivers’s slimmed-down role, which he called “way more efficient.” Rather than leading brainstorming scenarios, poring over video of trade targets or handling the high volume of phone calls needed to scour the market and negotiate deals, Rivers was simply kept in the loop on major developments by Frank and asked for input once decision time neared.

In a twist, Rivers’s firsthand understanding of how difficult it can be to make major trades has made his successors’ lives easier. “If Doc hadn’t done both jobs, we wouldn’t have been able to pull off the trades we’ve made,” Frank said. “Trading guys sucks. Doc isn’t the traditional coach who is only thinking about winning today. The trades might hurt him, but he gets it.”

Thanks in part to their new structure, the Clippers (44-30) easily have surpassed preseason expectations and should soon clinch their seventh playoff trip in the past eight seasons. Rivers, who signed a contract extension in 2018 that included an opt-out for this summer, was so sold on the organization’s direction that he recently agreed to a second, longer extension that removed his option. Opposing coaches, such as Chicago’s Jim Boylen and Boston’s Brad Stevens, have hailed Rivers’s coach of the year merits and taken notice of his rejuvenated spirit. “Nobody has done a better job than Doc,” Stevens said. “He looks like he’s having a blast.”

Rivers has poured his extra time and energy into the finer points, dispensing tough love to rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, firmly encouraging Williams to become a more vocal leader and digging into lengthy postgame video reviews.

After the Harris trade, the coach held “therapy” sessions, assuring his players that they weren’t tanking. “People see Doc’s charisma but not the grind behind it,” Frank said. “There are some coaches that can get to their players’ heads and others that can get to their hearts. Doc gets to both.”

Ballmer and his front office have big dreams: They want to win the first title in franchise history, and they know they need superstars to do it. Rivers will be present in all of the important meetings this summer, and his experience — and newfound perspective — is a compelling part of the Clippers’ pitch.

“My life has changed for the better,” Rivers said. “The workload is better. I’m happier, absolutely. This is a better setup for me, as opposed to being the guy in those meetings at the facility all day. I’m not watching all those college games during the season. At this point of my life, I’m in a perfect place. I love coaching. I love trying to create winners. The [president] title is great, but I don’t know what that does for you.”

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