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Is This Doc Rivers’s Best Coaching Season Ever?

When the Clippers relieved their longtime coach of his front office duties it was widely read as the first step in a divorce. Instead, Rivers has pulled off a minor coaching miracle, taking a group of kids and role players to the postseason and possibly positioning the Clips as a more promising destination for free agents than their Staples Center neighbors in purple and gold.

Doc Rivers surrounded by Clippers players Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was Doc Rivers’s night, and he was in a good mood. The Los Angeles Clippers had just beaten the Indiana Pacers at Staples Center last week, a game that had potential postseason seeding implications for both teams. The postgame press conference featured the usual assortment of reporters, but the room was packed with more people than usual because students from Bradley University and USC were on hand. Rivers couldn’t help but play to the overflow crowd.

When he engaged the students, one asked how much he looks at the standings and which team he thinks would be the best playoff matchup for the Clippers. That’s an explosive question, one Rivers defused a few minutes earlier by deploying clichés when a journalist asked him roughly the same thing. Rivers told the reporter, “We don’t even look at positioning” and that if they “just keep winning” the positioning will take care of itself. That answer was standard operating procedure for any coach—and it was standard bullshit too. Of course he looks at the standings. Of course he has an idea of which team might make a better matchup for the Clippers and which he’d like to avoid. Naturally, no coach would ever reveal his real thoughts on the subject. Still, if we pull back a little and employ some perspective, it was interesting and more than a little surprising that Rivers was even in position to dodge that particular question in late March.

If the preseason forecasts were to be believed, Rivers should have been planning a pending offseason vacation by now. Vegas put the Clippers’ over/under win total at 35.5 for this season, which had them ahead of only the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Suns, and Kings in the Western Conference. FiveThirtyEight’s model was even less confident, predicting 33 wins and just a 16 percent chance of making the playoffs. Those predictions made sense at the time. The Clippers had a roster full of role players with no clear leader or star. It was tough to imagine them competing in the stacked Western Conference. And yet here they are, not just in the postseason mix, but playing their best basketball as the regular season concludes—and doing so after trading their best player, Tobias Harris, to the Sixers at the deadline.

Sunday’s win over the Knicks was the Clippers’ 10th in their last 11 games. They’re 44-30 and have moved into the fifth seed. It feels fair to say that no one outside the Clippers organization and their fans believed they’d be in this position, with these players and this coach—and it’s a big reason why Rivers is a Coach of the Year candidate, along with Mike Budenholzer, Mike Malone, Nick Nurse, and Nate McMillan. If Rivers pulls it off, it would be his second time winning the award—and his first in almost two decades; when he claimed the prize in 2000, he was still in command of the Orlando Magic. It’s been a long coaching run for Rivers, one that is somehow still going with the Clippers.

So no, he told the reporter, he doesn’t look at the standings. This is part of the Doc experience. He’s so smooth, so good at sugarcoating his spin that he can almost always get people to swallow whatever he’s pushing, true or not, sometimes without them even noticing what they just choked down. I’m as susceptible as anyone. A few years back, I remember him giving us the hard sell on his son Austin Rivers in pregame presser before the Clippers played the Sixers, and I also remember thinking that maybe I had been all wrong about young Austin, that maybe he really could play. And then I saw Blake Griffin do a killer Austin Rivers impersonation, which mercifully snapped me out of Doc’s spell.

But with the kids in the room, when he was asked who the “ideal opponent” might be, he put on a little show. This is also part of the Doc experience. The man is good in front of an audience, which isn’t surprising considering he’s done several stints as a color analyst. As entertaining coaching personalities go, someone like Tom Thibodeau is at one end of the spectrum and Rivers is waaaaaaaay at the other.

“I don’t care who we play,” Rivers said with that great, smokey, gravely voice of his. He paused for effect. “I could give you some names, but they’re not going to be in the playoffs.”

Everyone laughed. He may or may not win Coach of the Year, but he’s been a Hall of Fame interview his entire career—a career that will continue with the Clippers for the foreseeable future. That’s good for those of us who carry around recorders and cameras for a living. It’s also hard to believe.

It’s wild that Rivers is somehow the last man standing. All the Lob City guys are gone. DeAndre Jordan. JJ Redick. Chris Paul. Blake Griffin. They were supposed to challenge for a championship, but they never got out of the second round. I remember standing in a dimly lit lounge at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City two years ago when Rivers said that Griffin was injured again and would miss the remainder of the postseason. The Clippers weren’t quite cooked in the series yet, but the look on Rivers’s face made it seem like that particular era for the organization was coming to a close. The Jazz dispatched the Clippers from those playoffs—and then the Clippers slowly dismantled the most successful core of their otherwise unremarkable franchise history. Their four best players were eventually scattered to other NBA outposts, and Rivers was stripped of his title as team president. That’s probably for the best. Between his unflinching faith in his son and his fondness for former Celtics, his team building was suspect (washed Paul Pierce was probably grateful for the paycheck, but the best performance I saw him put on at Staples Center was after he went to ESPN and decided to mouth off to an obnoxious Lakers fan in the stands one night). As he told The Washington Post, “The [president] title is great, but I don’t know what it does for you.” Neither did the Clippers, evidently.

The smart money was on him doing TV by now and playing golf—or at the very least coaching somewhere else. For a while there, conventional wisdom among other media members and NBA executives I talked to was that it was a foregone conclusion that Rivers would be gone sooner than later—either by his doing or the organization’s. In addition to the indignity of losing his front office sway, the longtime knock on Rivers was that he wasn’t all that good at developing young talent. With a team that was clearly rebooting, Rivers suddenly seemed like a bad fit for the Clippers. The only thing holding up the divorce was the paperwork; he still had time left on his contract. The 2017-18 season began as a game of chicken between the head coach and the organization to see who would blink first. Maybe Rivers thought he’d get fired (and paid). Maybe the Clippers thought he’d leave his money behind for the right to flee. It made for what appeared to be a messy marriage—until, against long odds, the two sides reconciled.

In a move that surprised a lot of people around the league last May, Rivers and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer agreed to a contract extension for the head coach—one that had a clause that would have allowed Rivers to opt out this summer. That led to more whispers that it was still only a matter of time before he followed Griffin, Paul, and the rest of his crew out the door.

Last week, longtime NBA scribe Peter Vecsey reported that Magic Johnson would give his good friend Rivers the Lakers gig if he so desired, and that Doc has long wanted to “leash the Lakers.” Putting aside that odd language choice, there was a problem with the story: Unbeknownst to everyone else, Rivers and Ballmer had agreed to yet another deal for the head coach, one that removed his eject button provision. Rivers revealed that bit of news before the Pacers game. He said he has a job, and the Lakers have a coach (for now—my words, not his), and then explained why he’s “going to be here until Steve says ‘get out.’” He looked pretty pleased to knock down the rumor—possibly because he reportedly doesn’t have a lot of love for Vecsey. About a year ago, Vecsey called Rivers a “stone phony” and reported that the Clippers were eager to see him go so they could court Jeff Van Gundy or Villanova’s Jay Wright. (Jay Wright has been about to take every job everywhere for the last decade; he must be exhausted.)

For their part, the Clippers were also eager to get Rivers in front of a microphone last week. In addition to being the longtime and often-overlooked little brother in Los Angeles, the Clippers have been engaged in a nasty and public spat with the Lakers over their desire to build a new arena in the area. The idea that the Lakers might want to steal their head coach, who was locked up on a new deal, did not go over well. As soon as I got to Staples Center that night, several Clippers staffers hinted to me, unsolicited, that Doc had something to say and asked whether I was planning to hit his pregame presser. It was unusual, to say the least. Aside from the rollout, it remained striking that a coach and an organization that seemed certain to separate just 12 months ago were so deeply symbiotic. I asked Rivers about that, about his ever-changing relationship with the franchise and whether there was ever a time—especially when the Clippers were transitioning from the previous group to this new one—that he thought about leaving.

“I didn’t wonder about not being here,” Rivers said, “I just wanted to make sure it was the right fit for all of us.” It was a classic Doc way to put something: start with the hard-to-believe, proper PR deflection—then tip his hand just enough to signal the truth.

Despite the widely held belief that he wouldn’t want to coach a new team on the come-up—with the Celtics and the Lob City crew, he had teams built to win in the present, which doesn’t leave a lot of room to develop or think about what comes next—the irony here is that he turned out to be really good at it. While he was trying to decide whether he and the Clippers were still the right fit, the young guys who were supposed to prompt his departure ended up being a big reason why he stuck around. The front office job Ballmer took away from him also gave Rivers the chance to focus on something that maybe he had taken for granted: coaching. On the court, the Clippers are headlined by Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari, filled out by Patrick Beverley and underrated Montrezl Harrell, and supported by emerging talent like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, and third-year man Ivica Zubac. There’s no Big 3, but there’s a Really Intriguing 8—a deep team with interchangeable parts that no one will want to play in the first round.

So maybe Doc is staying because of how pleasantly surprising the Clippers have been this season, but he’s got to be excited about what they could be next season too. In addition to some nice young pieces and a host of quality complementary vets, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, Jerry West, and the Clippers front office have given the organization excellent flexibility. They owe the Celtics their first-round pick this year, but they restocked their assets by getting the Sixers to give them Philly’s first-round pick in 2020 and Miami’s unprotected first in 2021 for Tobias Harris, who was almost certainly leaving L.A. anyway when he became a free agent this summer. The Clippers also have three extra second-rounders coming in over the next five drafts, which maybe doesn’t sound impressive until you consider how the smartest front offices (like Daryl Morey in Houston and R.C. Buford in San Antonio) use them as currency in other trades or to unearth overlooked prospects. And the Clippers could clear enough cap space this offseason to court two max-money free agents this summer. They’re considered real contenders to land Kawhi Leonard or possibly Kevin Durant or (in the dream scenario) both. While the Lakers will be trying to recover from the self-inflicted wounds of the Great Anthony Davis Thirst of Early 2019, the Clippers are doing everything right.

Rivers has now been party to not one but two refurbishments of the Clippers brand. When he first went to L.A., he said he had two goals: win a championship and “make this place a place that people respect and want to come to.” That first part has still eluded him, but he’s managed to do the second part twice now with an organization that had never really previously managed it. Whatever you think about Rivers—whether you see him as a good coach or you don’t dig his shtick and consider him a “stone phony” like Vecsey—it’s hard to argue with those results. It’s also frankly still hard to believe that he stuck around long enough to take another bite of an apple that he previously chewed to the core. Rivers said he and Ballmer “wanted to test each other” over the last year-plus, to gauge their respective commitment to one another. Rivers added that he thought everything would work out, but “we wanted to make sure.” Once again, he started with the bland, rote remarks—then pivoted to something with a little more style.

“As my dad said,” Rivers continued, “trust everybody—but cut the cards.”

It was a good line, and it underscored the dichotomy of Doc. He’s a coach and as prone to tired talking points as anyone in his profession, but unlike a lot of his peers, he’s also a natural showman. He can’t help but display his personality. It’s what makes guys like me gravitate toward guys like him. There are only so many reliably good interviews among NBA head coaches. Steve Kerr. Brett Brown. Gregg Popovich (in his own way). They’re rare. Doc, too. Doc especially. In all candor, it’s the reason I’m glad he and the Clippers renewed their vows. The not-so-secret secret in our profession is that we root for story lines, for people (coaches, players, executives, staffers, mascots, equipment dudes, whomever) who are some combination of funny or clever, charming or candid. They make for good copy. A story always turns out better when you’re talking to a storyteller in their own right. Almost no one expected the Clippers to be in the playoffs again, and even fewer people thought Rivers would still be the head coach once they did. But here we are, and it’s a hell of a tale for Doc to tell.

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