NBA: Doc Rivers' legacy at the Los Angeles Clippers cannot be measured in statistics, records, or even trophies

In his seven years with the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers could never take the franchise to the NBA Conference Finals, let alone to a title. But his legacy at the team was far beyond numbers, or titles.

Amit Kamath September 29, 2020 21:14:53 IST
NBA: Doc Rivers' legacy at the Los Angeles Clippers cannot be measured in statistics, records, or even trophies

File image of Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. AP Photo

Legacies in sport are tricky things. Success, or the lack of it, is often calculated by trophies won or lost.

Seen through the solitary prism of titles won, Doc Rivers’ legacy at the Los Angeles Clippers leaves much to be desired.

After all, in his seven seasons with Los Angeles’ second-best team, they never did win the NBA Championship. Or even make it to the Western Conference Finals. Or completely emerge from the shadow of their illustrious city rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers.

This season, the team was considered to be a contender for the title after managing to lure two top stars in the shape of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the ‘other team in Los Angeles’. George, in fact, even snubbed the Lakers to go to their crosstown rivals. Yet, inside the NBA bubble in Orlando, they departed meekly, allowing rank underdogs like the Denver Nuggets to come back from a 1-3 deficit and floor them 4-3. This result, accompanied by the Clippers capsizing against the Houston Rockets in 2015 when they had a similar 3-1 lead, will be ever-present in the lede paragraph of Rivers’ stint in LA.

In the aftermath of the disparaging defeat in the bubble, as the clamour around removing him started to grow, Rivers accepted responsibility for the defeat. He was asked who he would blame for the ouster.

“I’ll let you do all the blaming. I don't play that game,” he said as his face hardened. “You can figure that one out on your own.”

It’s evident that the Los Angeles Clippers, led by owner Steve Ballmer, have found someone to blame. The Clippers ownership ― perhaps realising that they were on a clock given how the team was built to win now, and George and Leonard were on contracts just for another year ― pulled the plug on Tuesday.

But was Rivers the sole reason this Clippers team did not match up to expectations this season? And when it comes down to remembering his time with the team, will it be measured only by a lack of Championships?

Team culture

A week ago, talking to Indian media, three-time NBA champion Bruce Bowen said: “Some people are starting to say things like Doc Rivers may not be the end-all, be-all for that team right now because of what he’s done thus far. It gets to a point where making the Playoffs is not enough. It’s more about competing for Championships. You can’t look back and say ‘we had a great year, but we came up short.’ The Clippers have been coming up short for quite some time. It’s time for them to make the adjustments for them to come to the Western Conference Finals and possibly to the NBA Championship game.”

Bowen used to be a TV analyst with the Clippers until 2018, when he says he was fired because of a comment he made regarding Leonard.

Having worked with the franchise for a while before 2018, he knows a thing or two about the culture at the organisation.

“You look at the culture of that organisation right now: you have Steve Ballmer who took over a dysfunctional organisation. You’ve had change at the forefront. But because you had the same coaching staff for all this time maybe it’s time for change to shake things up and kind of clean up certain areas where they’ve not made the Western Conference Finals under anyone’s direction there. You had a team with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and you still didn’t make it to the Western Conference Finals, let alone compete for a Championship. So you have to take all those things into account. Then start to look at the dynamics of a team.”

Bowen believes that the team was lacking “contributing players that are role guys and can enhance what George and Kawhi do, and what Montrezl or Williams do”.

“Now they have a situation where they really have to stress to the players how important it is to be selfless. To tell players that they may not get 12 shots tonight, you may just get four. But we need you to be there defensively and rebound. As they continue to learn different roles, then things will fall into place.”

For his part, Rivers tweeted a short statement to confirm the decision to split with the franchise. “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 organisation. While I was able to accomplish most of my goals, I won’t be able to see all of them through… We went through a lot, and I am grateful for my time here,” it read.

Rivers’ legacy

Rivers leaves the Clippers as the coach with the most games won at the helm, the coach with the best winning percentage in franchise history, and the most number of Playoffs appearances.

But dry statistics do great disservice to what Rivers has given to the franchise.

It’s been barely a month since, following the shooting of Jacob Blake, the NBA season ground to a halt again, with players refusing to play. In the whirlwind of emotions, the Lakers and Clippers emerged as teams that were ready to walk away from the season in protest of the shooting.

At that time, it was Rivers who was the voice of reason for the players, urging them to play.

“You always play. You know what, we can fight for justice, but we still should do our jobs. I really believe that. Doing our jobs, people are seeing excellence from Americans, black Americans, and white Americans. I would still do my job. That's just my opinion. But if my players told me no (they won’t play), it would be no. I can tell you that,” he said just before the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their game against Orlando, setting into motion a series of strikes from players and sports teams across the world.

In that same media availability, Rivers’ impassioned speech calling out the Republicans and President Donald Trump also went viral, with former US President Barack Obama sharing it on social media.

Having experienced racism first-hand ― his house was burned down by skinheads many years ago ― Rivers was the ideal man to guide players inside the bubble.

“He’s a blessing,” said Pat Beverley while talking about Rivers’ impact on the team, and the nation, in the aftermath of the Blake shooting. “Doc, he’s helped us, not only as a coach, but he’s helped us kind of steer things in the right direction. He’s able to put out in words things that me as an athlete I might not be able to. He’s able to put those words out and deliver a message that not only gets through to the African-Americans, but also gets through to everybody.”

He was also the man at the helm of the Clippers when their players had considered a strike in 2014 when secret tapes of their then-owner Donald Sterling making racist comments were aired. Sterling was subsequently banned by the NBA and Ballmer bought the franchise.

At the stage, it was Rivers who had counselled the players into playing. He did something similar inside the bubble.

“My message (to players considering boycott) is: Go after your dreams. You don't allow anything to take you away from your dreams. During the Donald Sterling thing, Matt Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, they all pulled together. (Back then) the one thing we decided was that when we were little kids, we were in the backyard by ourselves, we had these dreams about winning the championships, Donald Sterling was not in our dreams, and neither were these cops. So they're not taking our dreams away, all right? So that would be my message.”

Those two moments will be his enduring legacy at the franchise much better than statistics, records, or even trophies, ever could.

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