IN THE NIGHT The LA Clippers landed Kawhi Leonard as a free agent and traded for Paul George last July, Doc Rivers spoke to the team’s basketball operations president, Lawrence Frank, dozens of times.
First there was a debate over how much the Clippers should have given up trading with the Oklahoma City Thunder for George. Would Leonard really sign with rivals Lakers if the Clippers failed to acquire George as his co-star? Could they afford to find out?
The conversation had been going on for days, but on the night of July 5th it was time to decide. Four future first round picks and promising young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were plenty. But trading for George and hiring Leonard would make them instant title contenders. Clippers president Steve Ballmer would make the final decision, but he also wanted their opinion.
For Rivers, the choice was simple. If you have a chance to win a championship, do it. Because those possibilities don’t happen very often.
Rivers was having dinner at Nobu, a high-end sushi restaurant in Malibu, when Frank sent him a message saying the deal was closed. It largely contained his excitement, although a curious security guard saw him shout, “Yesssss!”
Once Rivers got in the car, he and Frank could have been more candid about what the franchise had just done. He had already experienced franchise-altering moves like this one. When he had coached the Boston Celtics, the team acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 to mate with Paul Pierce.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick advised him at the time: “Either you land the plane without problems or it’s a plane crash.”
A championship was now planned. And if it didn’t work, Rivers joked with Frank, they’d all be fired.
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IT WAS NOT the kind of joke you laugh at. Just a fact, funny only in its searing honesty. However, when it came to Rivers, it was hard to imagine the Clippers being able to cope with the implied threat. Even when he publicly took responsibility for the Clippers’ failure to exit the second round of the playoffs, bringing a 3-1 advantage in the series against the Denver Nuggets, few within the organization or across the league suspected Rivers would take the fall.
This was Doc Rivers, the coach who had brought credibility the franchise had never had before with his arrival in 2013. Doc Rivers, the man who led the franchise and league through the racist remarks scandal. ‘former owner Donald Sterling in 2014. Doc Rivers, the black coach NBA Players Association President Chris Paul called to speak to league players on August 26, when the NBA stopped to address social justice issues.
His voice had become one of the most powerful in all sports. And after three other black managers were fired this year, it was hard to imagine Rivers would be fourth.
Behind the scenes, however, no one knew where Ballmer would land. As excitable and full of expression as he generally appears during games, he was difficult to read as an NBA owner.
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When he bought the team in 2014, Ballmer was keen to say that he would take his time to learn and study the organization before making big moves, “I don’t know the first thing about owning a basketball team,” Ballmer said. over a long lunch after his introductory press conference. “I was joking with some players, ‘You all know more than me about what an owner should do because I haven’t worked for an owner nor been an owner.'”
And in fact, Ballmer took his time to consider how best to advance the Clippers. His most memorable change in the first few seasons was probably creating a mascot for the team, Chuck the Condor.
But those close to Ballmer knew it was only a matter of time before he put his mark on the franchise. He made his fortune as a tech entrepreneur by constantly trying to innovate. And once he learned the basics as an NBA owner, he brought that culture to the Clippers. Employees were encouraged to come up with new ideas and present supporting evidence.
So when Ballmer and Rivers began discussing what went wrong this season, sources said instinct is what led Ballmer to wonder if a new way of looking at the team, or a new voice, was. what the Clippers really needed.
Over the course of about 10 days after the Clippers’ Game 7 defeat to the Nuggets, the third straight game in which the team had gained double-digit lead in the second half, Ballmer and Rivers had longer phone conversations, sources said. .
Ballmer consulted with Frank, minority shareholder Dennis Wong, consultant Jerry West and CEO Michael Winger. Before a final decision was made, sources said Ballmer called several key players – including George and Leonard – to get their opinions. Nothing the players told him, the sources said, changed Ballmer’s mind about switching to Rivers. Ultimately, Ballmer’s decision to separate from Rivers.
Rivers did not feel comfortable continuing as a manager without Ballmer’s full support, believing a solid relationship between the manager and ownership was critical to success in the NBA. Ballmer did not feel entirely convinced Rivers had a better strategy and approach to next season than a new manager with a new point of view would.
It was made official Monday morning, but sources said it became obvious over the weekend that the relationship had come to an end.
THE DECISION SENT shock waves throughout the league. As Belichick warned him many years ago, the manager of a team with championship expectations either wins a title or falls. But the Clippers’ failure as a team was so widespread that it was difficult to attribute it solely to Rivers.
Rivers believed the team had been ruined by a lack of chemistry and leadership. They needed more time together than the handful of games they played at full capacity as Leonard and George recovered from injuries and slowly integrated into the more gritty team they had overcome the year before. And he believed they were finding that identity, right before the season stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For the past 10 games, we were turning into Clippers,” Rivers told reporters in a Zoom call during the hiatus. “We started to understand each other. … We played seamlessly through Kawhi and PG. It wasn’t forced anymore. The boys weren’t trying to keep each other away. You could hear the beat.
“I really thought we were going to have a crazy run down the stretch. And unfortunately, bam, it stopped.”
Rivers had hoped the bubble environment would be good for the Clippers’ chemistry. Instead, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams lost significant time due to the deaths of family or friends out of the bubble. Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet arrived late after contracting COVID-19. Then Beverley and Harrell struggled with their conditioning once they returned to the team.
The biggest problem, however, was the collective spirit of the team.
During the 4 and a half months of layoff, the team tried to stay together via text messages and training. Sources said that as the resumption of the season approaches, George and Leonard have organized team training several times a week, in Los Angeles, the Inland Empire or San Diego.
However, there were several key players – Williams in particular – who had never fully agreed with ending the season in the bubble. And against the backdrop of social unrest across the country, Rivers gathered the team for a vote on whether to start over.
It was approved, but not unanimously.
After the season ended on August 26, the Clippers again voted on whether to end the season. This time they voted no. It was only when Rivers was called up for a late night team meeting that the team voted to continue the season.
For Rivers, that was all. None of the chemistry issues and injuries that kept them from finding a rhythm on the pitch would change unless the players embraced their time together in the bubble and the chance to win a championship.
He didn’t mind talking about emotional issues with his team, but he couldn’t continue to be the loudest voice in the room, pushing them forward. At some point that leadership had to come from within. Neither Leonard nor George had ever been a vocal leader. Beverley wasn’t afraid to voice her views, but had a hard time getting back into shape during the restart and then staying on the pitch and out of trouble. Williams was seen by many as a leader, but at first he was not thrilled with the bubble and disappointed many in the organization by visiting a gentlemen’s club in Atlanta while in the area for a friend’s father’s funeral.
When Rivers retraced and analyzed what went wrong with Ballmer, these are the issues he focused on. His plan for next season included staff changes, schematic adjustments, and better chemistry from another year of playing together. He also believed that they needed a real point guard to organize their offense.
For Ballmer, the questions were different: Why was there a lack of leadership? Why was there no chemistry? Why were players so unenthusiastic about playing in the bubble?
RIVERS AND BALLMERS delved into all these questions and problems in the 10 days following the end of season defeat to Denver. They simply couldn’t find common ground on a vision for the future.
When Rivers and Ballmer spoke on Monday, the only thing left to do was discuss how they would communicate and present the news, the sources said.
It was not lost to anyone that the official statement from the Clippers stated that Ballmer and Rivers had made the mutual decision that Rivers would step down. This was among them. Two strong-willed titans of their own industries who had reunited in an arranged marriage six years earlier. The marriage had survived a long time in those six seasons. Frankly, he has survived better than most marriages where the owner chooses their own coach.
Ballmer had been methodical and deliberate in learning how to be an NBA owner. He had spent six years evaluating the franchise he had bought for $ 2 billion and formulating a vision for its future.
He had traded a huge amount of draft picks and young talent for George and the best chance of signing Leonard. Then he lost $ 400 million to buy Inglewood’s Forum to pave the way for his franchise to have a sparkling new arena to play in. This is his vision.
Doc Rivers has always had the gift of knowing exactly what to say in the most difficult situations. But Steve Ballmer said everything he needed on Monday when he decided it wasn’t enough.