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Doc Is Out. Is the Clippers’ Next Coach Already on Their Bench?

Rivers’s tenure in Los Angeles is over after seven seasons and two blown 3-1 leads. Steve Ballmer’s choice to replace him will shape the franchise for years to come.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The bubble has claimed another coach. Doc Rivers is out as the head coach of the Clippers, nearly two weeks after the team blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round of the playoffs to the Nuggets. Rivers, who was one of five Black head coaches in the NBA, reportedly had two years left on his deal. He released this statement on Twitter:

Despite what Paul George may have said after being eliminated, the Clippers’ season had title-or-bust written on it from the moment they signed Kawhi Leonard and traded away enough picks to start an expansion team in exchange for George. Falling short of a championship meant offseason changes were coming, but it was widely assumed that Rivers’s job was safe. For one, he was mentioned as one of the reasons Kawhi picked the Clippers over his other free agent suitors; their relationship, at least publicly, had seemed strong, but one has to imagine Leonard knew and approved of Monday’s move. So with even more pressure heading into next season, as Kawhi and George have one guaranteed year left on their deals, it appears that owner Steve Ballmer did not want Doc to continue his seven-year coaching stint with the Clippers.

From the Lob City era to trading away Blake Griffin to the Kawhi-George run, Doc’s Clippers tenure went through many iterations. But no matter which combination of talent he had, his teams were never able to get over the hump. He’s now blown three 3-1 series leads as a head coach, the most in NBA history. At the same time, Rivers averaged about 50 wins per season in L.A., getting the Clippers to the playoffs in all but one of his seven seasons, including overachieving with last year’s team.

The pressure that Leonard and George brought dissipated any and all good vibes left over from the scrappy, lovable team that took the Warriors to the brink in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. Instead, it placed all the responsibility on Doc to come through. With Leonard and George committed for only two years when they joined up last offseason, there was an immediate clock running, and because of load management and injuries, the team’s talent never cohered. The Clippers clearly felt like they couldn’t afford to swing and miss again next season, and as Brett Brown can attest, sometimes the coach has to be the fall guy.

The ripple effects from this shocking decision are fascinating. With their two stars in contract years and a new arena being built for the Clippers, this coaching decision will likely shape the franchise for the next decade. So, to whom should the Clippers turn? Tyronn Lue has sat next to Rivers this season knowing full well that he would get a head-coaching gig again next season. He would make almost too much sense for a Clippers team that’s trying to make a change, but not one that is too drastic. Lue already has relationships with the players and also has a ring. Then again, he has been the hottest name on the coaching market, reportedly attracting interest from Philly, New Orleans, and Houston.

Perhaps one reason Ballmer felt comfortable letting Doc go was because he didn’t want to let Lue leave and succeed elsewhere. However, the Clippers will likely interview other candidates as well. Some possible hires include Mike D’Antoni, one of the Van Gundys, or assistants who have gotten interviews elsewhere, such as Ime Udoka, Wes Unseld Jr., and David Vanterpool. Doc, for his part, should have his pick of coaching gigs should he want one. The Undefeated’s Marc Spears reported the Sixers and Pelicans have already reached out to Rivers.

While coaching the Clippers may seem like an attractive job, it’s also probably the toughest in the league. In addition to title-or-bust expectations, the locker room seems if not fractured then sprained, and the team’s best player is not a vocal leader. Yet the Clippers still have the talent to win a ring. And that alone may be enough to convince someone that their approach, unlike Doc’s, will yield a championship.