At the NBA’s Disney World bubble, though, the Clippers never fulfilled their vast potential. There were extenuating circumstances: Multiple players left the bubble to attend funerals, point guard Patrick Beverley missed time with a leg injury, and key players appeared not to reach full form after the four-month hiatus. Still, the Clippers were one win away from reaching a long-anticipated conference finals showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers before a stunning collapse in which they lost three straight games to the less-experienced Nuggets.
In another blow, the rival Lakers eliminated the Nuggets in five games to reach the Finals, in which they are now the clear title favorites against the Miami Heat.
Rivers and his players offered a laundry list of excuses following Game 7, with the coach citing conditioning issues and a lack of shared experience, and players pointing toward a lack of chemistry. George even surprisingly said the season was “not a ‘championship or bust’ year for us.” For hard-driving owner Steve Ballmer, these surely sounded like unacceptable excuses in the face of the biggest disappointment of his tenure.
The Clippers termed Rivers’s departure a “mutual decision” in a statement Monday, but the coach, who signed a contract extension last year and had two seasons remaining on his deal, had given no public indication he was eying an exit.
“Doc has been a terrific coach for the Clippers, an incredible ambassador, and a pillar of strength during tumultuous times,” Ballmer said. “He won a heck of a lot of games and laid a foundation for this franchise. I am immeasurably grateful to Doc for his commitment and contributions to the Clippers and the city of Los Angeles. I am also extremely confident in our front office and our players. We will find the right coach to lead us forward and help us reach our ultimate goals.”
Rivers issued a brief statement Monday, thanking Clippers fans for their support and noting that he was “grateful” for his time with the organization. He departs with a 356-208 (.631) record and six playoff appearances in his seven seasons with the team.
“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,” Rivers said in a statement. “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.”
Ballmer, the billionaire former Microsoft executive, has spoken repeatedly about his focus on winning a title, spending a record $2 billion to purchase the Clippers in 2014, pursuing a billion-dollar arena complex in Inglewood and purchasing the Forum for $400 million in May to clear the way for his franchise’s new home. He has invested heavily in a deep front office and a loaded coaching staff, and he surrendered a horde of draft picks to secure Leonard’s commitment by landing George in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This isn’t the first move of Ballmer’s tenure that could be read as cold and abrupt. In January 2018, the Clippers traded franchise icon Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons just months after heavily recruiting him to sign a long-term extension. That move was a home run; it positioned the Clippers to land Leonard and George, but it opened up Ballmer to accusations of disloyalty and betrayal.
Rivers, who arrived in Los Angeles in 2013 to guide Griffin’s development and build a winner around Chris Paul, is now enduring his own unceremonious departure. The coach led five of the six winningest seasons in Clippers history, and he navigated the organization through the Donald Sterling saga, its darkest chapter. Rivers played a central role in recruiting Leonard and, thanks to his innate comfort with the media, he has spent years as the face of the organization. In the bubble, he was a leading voice on social justice issues, counseling players on whether to sit out games to protest police brutality and delivering an impassioned speech about racial inequality.
Yet Rivers also oversaw a 3-1 collapse in the 2015 playoffs and struggled to right the ship against the Nuggets. Ballmer has multiple assistant coaches on hand who have received interest in other coaching openings, including Tyronn Lue and Sam Cassell. As the NBA’s richest owner with a net worth of approximately $70 billion, he has unlimited resources to pursue Rivers’s replacement.
“We didn’t meet our expectations, clearly,” Rivers said, falling on the sword after the Game 7 loss that would be his last with the organization. “That’s the bottom line. I’m the coach, and I’ll take any blame.”