If there were any doubt that Doc Rivers is no longer making the decisions for the L.A. Clippers, look no further than Tuesday’s trade of Austin Rivers to the Washington Wizards, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Beyond the optics and the awkward conversations at the dinner table this Thanksgiving, this is a good organizational move for the Clippers. When Rivers was both the lead decision-maker in the front office and the head coach, the primary concern was that his preferences—whom he coached before, who played well against him before—superseded the necessary long view. The Clippers solved that issue when they hired Jerry West just more than a year ago, and doubled down on it when they dealt Blake Griffin months after signing him to be a “Clipper for life.” But there is no bigger proof that the page has officially turned than dealing not only the coach’s son, but the player at the center of much consternation at the end of the Lob City era.
Doc was behind the controls when the Clippers traded for Rivers in 2015 and when they gave him a three-year, $35 million deal during the 2016 offseason. Behind all of the jokes, Austin actually became a serviceable (albeit overpaid and overeager) role player—he shot better than 37 percent from 3 the past two seasons. But as Chris Paul forced his way to Houston, rumors swirled that Doc’s preference to keep his son rather than trade him for Carmelo Anthony was the last straw for Paul.
Now one year later, Austin is headed east, and it’s hard to argue with the logic from a basketball perspective. The Clippers’ backcourt became a traffic jam once they drafted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson last week; someone had to go. It just happened to be that the coach’s son made the most sense. (Lou Williams just signed an extension, Patrick Beverley is coming back from injury, Milos Teodosic just opted in for $6.3 million, and every other Clippers guard is making less than $6 million a year.)
Both Rivers and Gortat are on expiring contracts, at $12.7 million and $13.6 million, respectively, so a one-for-one swap was easy to pull off. And though Gortat has largely been a necessity, not a preference, for the Wizards’ pick-and-roll attack, he’s perfect for the Clippers either as a stopgap big to give backup Montrezl Harrell (a restricted free agent) some time to ease into a more prominent role, or as a buyout to recoup some money.
Read the tea leaves, though, and you’ll see this move may also signal the end of the DeAndre Jordan era. Jordan has spent his whole career with the Clippers, despite nearly ditching them for the Mavericks during 2015 free agency and then almost being moved before this season’s trade deadline. Bringing in Gortat seems to be the right play given that, according to reports, it sounds like whether Jordan opts in to or out of his $24 million option Friday night, he will not be on the Clippers next season. The bigs market is hopping, apparently, because Jordan has already registered interest from the Mavericks, who are looking for a center to pair with their young backcourt to compete next season.
And then there’s the Wizards. Going small and leaving Gortat on the bench proved to be useful at times this past season, but Ian Mahinmi can’t be your starting big in 2018. Read even deeper into the tea leaves, and what you’ll see is an open runway for the Wizards to go after DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins is an unrestricted free agent coming off a season-ending Achilles rupture, and it doesn’t sound like the team that can offer him the longest deal is willing to do so. The Pelicans reportedly prefer a short, make-good deal. Washington, meanwhile, might be ready to give up whatever it takes (Otto Porter Jr.?) in a sign-and-trade to get Boogie. It’s risky, sure, but pairing Boogie with John Wall, his former Kentucky roommate, has always felt like destiny. Getting Rivers, an underrated defender, for Gortat, a player who has passed his prime and worn out his welcome with Wall, is a solid move on its own. But it also may lead to something even bigger.