The pride of the shipwrecked captain

ByKevin Arnovitz ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 11, 2018

As the champagne flowed in the Celtics' locker room inside TD Banknorth Garden, Doc Rivers sat alone. The solitude wasn't by design. Rivers had been ebullient on the dais as the 2007-08 Celtics were presented with the Larry O'Brien Trophy after a 39-point championship-clinching win over the Lakers, and had every intention to continue the celebration with the team.

Inside his office -- the sounds of unadulterated joy from the locker room reverberating through the concrete bunker -- he sat in his desk chair in what he expected would be a brief interlude on one of the happiest nights of his life. Then one minute turned into a few as he considered his father, who had passed away during the opening weeks of the season. At one point, Doc's youngest son, Spencer, drenched from a champagne bath courtesy of Kevin Garnett, popped his head into his father's office and pleaded with Rivers to join the party.

"I never got up," Rivers says. "No champagne. No goggles. There was a big celebration in the Legends club. I didn't do any of it."

As the Celtics reveled in the consummation of their magical season, members of Rivers' immediate family, including his mother, Bettye, trickled into his office for a considerably less boisterous celebration. As midnight passed, the Rivers family filed out of the office and made its way to Doc's pad at the Colonnade Apartments, adjacent to Copley Square. Bettye's plan was to cook breakfast for the family soon after the sun rose in less than five hours, but the refrigerator was bare. So just before 1 a.m., Rivers walked across the street to a 24-hour Shaw's and grabbed a grocery cart, roaming the deserted aisles on a Wednesday morning.

"When I go in the checkout line, the clerk comes around from the cash register and says, 'What the hell are you doing in here?'" Rivers says. "I said, 'I'm grocery shopping. We need breakfast.' She said, 'That's true,' then started shaking her head. I didn't see it as strange."

In the days that followed, Rivers enjoyed looking at video shot by his sons of a proud Garnett, every bit as intense in carousal as he was in competition. He had treasured a shared family moment. Yet Rivers has never been able to pinpoint the precise reason he didn't join his team as a celebrant.

"When my kids showed me the video, they said, 'Where were you? Why didn't you come in?'" Rivers says. "I don't even know why. But when I saw it, I thought, 'I'll do it next year.'"

As next year has tumbled into next year, and then the next, the regret of not stepping into that locker room has grown profoundly. Rivers had not only deprived himself of the most rarified, pure jolt of professional happiness sports has to offer but he'd done so on an innocent presumption that championships can be replicated with relative ease if the right talent is assembled -- and the right coach is at the helm.

"When I look back, I'm like, 'What the hell are you thinking?'" Rivers says. "I have a few 'sorries' in my career, but that would be one of them. But it taught me something -- winning is hard."

THIS WEEKEND, THE NBA postseason starts without Doc Rivers for the first time in 10 years. He has earned praise for guiding the league's most transitional team through an injury-riddled season that saw the midseason departure of a franchise player, after the offseason departure of another. But whatever pride exists in doing more with less, Rivers has fallen short of his primary objective in Los Angeles.

"When I look back 20 years from now, I will look at our record and know we were really good and really successful," he says. "But it's not what I came here for."

During his five seasons with the Clippers, Rivers has compiled a record of 259-150, but the team never advanced past the conference semifinals. The Clippers are certainly not the first very good squad that plateaued short of a Finals -- all but two teams have been shut out since 2014 -- but there exists something uniquely spectacular about their failure. Stacked with impressive talent playing in its prime, the Clippers were hyped as one of league's best shows, featuring stars with stage presence and title aspirations.

The hire of Rivers was a big splash for the Clippers. Rivers had engineered his exit from Boston -- through furtive back channels that raised eyebrows around the league -- with the advocacy of its two All-Stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The Clippers even forfeited an unprotected 2015 first-round pick to secure Rivers from Boston and named him their lead basketball operations executive.

To the outside world, Rivers was yet another signal that the franchise was turning the page on its gloomy history -- and making a play for the Los Angeles market and broad relevance in the NBA. Rivers had developed plenty of critics over his career. Those with ties to the Spurs organization, for example, say a strain of disdain for Rivers persists there -- one based on a perception that Rivers actively positioned himself as Gregg Popovich's successor in 1999, when Popovich was rumored to be on the chopping block, and on his aggressive recruitment of Tim Duncan in free agency the next summer (Rivers became the Magic's head coach in 1999).

In some respect, the Clippers presented a high degree of difficulty for Rivers. The first two seasons of the Chris Paul era, before Rivers' arrival, had resulted in 50-plus win seasons, but the team had regressed with a first-round postseason exit in 2013. There was no love lost among the core for Rivers' predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, and the players hadn't exactly forged a mutual affection, either. The team was petulant on the court, and factions were developing in the locker room.

Rivers was hailed as the man who could tame egos and help concoct the chemistry the Clippers lacked. In an SI players poll in 2012, Rivers was selected as the coach players most wanted to play for. In Boston, he had introduced "Ubuntu," an ethic of cooperation popularized by Nelson Mandela, which had become the creed of a temperamental team that had included the Big Three, plus Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and several outspoken vets. The expectation was that Rivers would do the same in Los Angeles. And for a short while, it looked as if he had.

"In the first year, it was fun," says Jamal Crawford, who played with the team for five seasons. "Then, the [Donald] Sterling thing hit, and he was the best person to lead us through that. 'I'll deal with this, and you focus on basketball.'"

The Clippers might not have been a paragon of unity, and a Game 5 loss to Oklahoma City in the conference semifinals was devastating. But walking across the embers of the Sterling affair during a competitive postseason left the Clippers, on the eve of Steve Ballmer's purchase of the franchise, a more unified team than they'd been a year earlier. Rivers leveraged the goodwill he'd generated by managing the crisis into a hefty new deal that named him the senior basketball operations executive.

But with that consolidation of power came a consolidation of trouble.

"GUYS WHO HAVE never played for Doc, they all love him for some reason," says Paul Pierce, now an ESPN analyst, who played for Rivers in Boston from 2004 to 2013. "I don't know what it is. I'd never go up to a coach before a game unless I played for him. But these are players who have never played for Doc, and they're always coming over to him, shaking his hand. I was always amazed by how liked he is amongst the league as a players' coach. Because he can be an a--h--- like any other coach."

What is it about Rivers that captivates those players? Pierce -- the only player on all nine of Rivers' rosters in Boston -- points to a range of qualities that constitutes the Rivers mythology. Rivers, as a player, started more than 600 games as a reliable point guard who maximized his talents. Players observed the reverence with which the Big Three in Boston, particularly Garnett, regarded Rivers, who helped cultivate a kind of brotherhood that pro athletes covet. Some grew up listening to his analysis on broadcasts, and admire the talking points from the postgame podium, where he consistently charms the room.

"And he's one of the few black coaches who has won a championship," Pierce adds. "Players recognize that."

Organizational principles can travel in the NBA, but unless you have a Tim Duncan or a Kevin Garnett -- the latter of whom believed deeply in chain of command in Boston and appointed himself the carrier of those principles -- the messages tend to get lost in translation. Such was the case in Los Angeles, where there was also another variable that didn't carry over from the Celtics to the Clippers.

"We had early success [in Boston]," Pierce says. "From day one, we came out winning and won a championship. When you have success, the trust is now there. It's easier because you always have that to lean on. From that point on, it's downhill. 'We did it before, so we can do it again.' Doc didn't have that with the Clippers. They didn't even get to the Western Conference finals, so now people get tired of each other and lose trust in each other. That's what I saw."

Or, as Rivers himself says:, "Once we didn't win, the buy-in got narrower every year."

The "dynamic" with the Clippers, as it was widely deemed, was generally defined as the sum of the interpersonal relationships that dictated the vibe on the team. As time wore on, according to multiple former Clippers players and staffers, Rivers became as prominent a character in the workplace drama as Paul or Griffin or any other member of the roster. And as the authority in charge of managing sensitivities and arbitrating disagreements, Rivers increasingly grew entangled with the rest of the egos.

AFTER PAUL EXITED for Houston, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reached out to his former point guard. As a relatively new owner, Ballmer wanted to learn from his organization's mistakes and invited Paul to share his thoughts about the current state of the franchise and, more pointedly, his reasons for leaving. When the two met over breakfast, league sources say, Paul stated that Rivers was one of the contributing factors.

More than half a dozen players from the 2013-14 to 2016-17 Clippers declined to speak on the record about Rivers' role in the "dynamic," but a reliable consensus emerged. To a man, they saw a coach who grew frustrated with his inability to manage a complex locker room and who began to act out himself.

Several former Clippers characterized in Rivers a tendency to placate a player by telling him what he wanted to hear, on occasion even criticizing a teammate that player was beefing with. Rivers didn't account for the fact that players, even ones who aren't always simpatico, talk among themselves and exchange notes. Though players regard him as reasonably honest in film sessions and on game night, keeping inventory of what their coach said about specific players became a parlor game among those players and their confidants.

Rivers' salesmanship has long been heralded as a strong suit. "We are all selling our stuff," he says, "That's what coaches do. We've got to sell what you think is the best way to win." But even those who admire Rivers' leadership style recognize his propensity to promise roles to players that don't materialize.

Indeed, over the course of Rivers' four years with the 2013-17 core, players came to doubt the sincerity of his comments or stated intentions. Some cited a statement by Rivers to ESPN's Zach Lowe this past fall that J.J. Redick was "begging" to return to the Clippers, a declaration that rang so false to anyone who knows Redick that there was a collective bewilderment that Rivers would even say it aloud in polite conversation. For several of his players, it was further proof Rivers had a willingness to peddle mistruths in an effort to spin perception to his liking. To them, Rivers had a talented politician's ability to inspire with rallying cries, but also to fudge the truth for personal expediency in the moment.

More than anything, Clippers players saw him as increasingly aloof as the team's playoff misfortunes mounted. They saw a coach who was frustrated and disappointed in the emotional makeup of his team and its unwillingness to buy in. He responded by maintaining a greater distance, forgoing necessary conversations and sometimes dispatching assistant coaches to deliver bad news.

Last March in Memphis at a team meeting, after a particularly dispiriting effort in Minneapolis the previous night, Rivers lashed out at the team. He told the room he had received a text from Garnett, who believed Rivers was too easy on the guys -- a departure from Boston, where he held players accountable. Rivers said he told Garnett that he couldn't hold his current group accountable because they couldn't take it.

For the Clippers, Rivers' message was an illustration of the degree to which the relationship between coach and roster had deteriorated: Rivers had all but abdicated his responsibilities because he perceived his team was soft. His message was the coaches' equivalent of: "I wish you were never born."

"I was aloof last year. I didn't want to be here with these guys," Rivers says. "I wanted to coach, but this team was a hard team to coach. I'm aloof anyway -- I'm an introvert -- and it was a hard group to like because they didn't like each other. For me, you have to want to figure it out. And we lost the ability to want to figure it out."

AS BOSTON PREPARED for a full-scale renovation in 2013, the ready-made roster in Los Angeles made for an appealing gig. Those positions rarely become vacant in the NBA, much less in an attractive market with good living. But Rivers was also drawn to the entrepreneurial challenge of branding the historically abject Clippers into an entity people around the NBA and in Los Angeles would respect.

"I thought, 'What a great opportunity to turn around the most dysfunctional organization ever,'" Rivers says. "But within two weeks there, I knew it was an 'Oh, boy.' The organization didn't have anyone working for it. I noticed how many people were underpaid and what that does to you. Everyone in the organization was underpaid. That makes you not loyal and bitter. In some ways, the Sterling thing was the best thing that happened because it gave us an opportunity to catch up. But it takes a while to recover."

The Sterling saga also proved to be a springboard for Rivers, who signed a lucrative new deal that gave him unilateral control over all matters basketball, with unfettered access to a deep-pocketed enthusiastic new owner.

Rivers' personnel decisions and his affinity for veterans past their prime have been well-chronicled. During his tenure presiding over the front office, the Clippers never coached up a late-first- or second-rounder, and rarely plucked a reclamation project out of the bargain bin and transformed him into a contributor. One exception was Luc Mbah a Moute, who evolved into a savvy, versatile 3-and-D forward with a selfless approach. "I think if we had had Luc that first season, we could've won," Rivers says. "He was so perfect for that group -- no-nonsense, defends."

The other exception was Austin Rivers, the No. 10 pick in the 2012 draft, whom New Orleans made available in 2015. Rivers was a combo guard on his rookie contract who never found his footing with the Pelicans. He was also Doc Rivers' son. The capped-out Clippers were on the hunt for underachieving players on their rookie deals who still held some promise. And when Doc Rivers had the opportunity to move Reggie Bullock, Chris Douglas-Roberts and a future second-round pick to acquire Austin Rivers, he moved on the deal.

With the acquisition, Doc Rivers buried another potential land mine on a landscape already fraught with issues. In addition to being the coach's son, Austin Rivers was also a brash young player entering a veteran locker room -- though even former teammates who found him abrasive admired his self-confidence, toughness and commitment to improving his game.

Former teammates say that while Austin Rivers' demeanor wasn't always suited to winning friends, the problem wasn't so much personal as circumstantial. Opportunity is the most precious commodity in the NBA, particularly for non-stars, and Austin's presence on the team complicated the relationship between Doc and the locker room. Among themselves, certain players wondered whether Rivers' minutes were always earned, and some felt Austin, though occasionally criticized in film sessions, wasn't subjected to the same accountability in practice or games. They bristled at the suggestion that Austin was an additive on defense, a premise that Doc presented to the media and internally.

"It was kind of weird for the guys," Pierce says. "Maybe people felt favoritism because his dad was coaching -- and playing -- him. I look at it that, if I was coaching my son, I'd probably have done the same damn thing, and paid him, too. But it was really hard for people to grasp that. I know the dynamic of Doc and his son. While Austin was growing, Doc wasn't really around. He saw an opportunity to have his son around. At the end of the day, Austin was a lottery pick, and he just needed the right situation. Doc thought he could give that to him. And he's turned into a solid NBA pro."

Austin Rivers has heard the criticisms, and provides a counterargument that is echoed by Doc Rivers.

"The whole aspect of me contributing to the CP-Blake-DJ-Doc issue is just ridiculous," Austin Rivers says. "When you don't win, people have to make up a reason. We don't have problems anymore. Nobody talks about it anymore. That's how you know it was B.S.

"[Doc's] whole deal was, 'I know his game, and I know he can play. So if I give him an opportunity, he can play.' I know it sounds naive, but it's very similar to what coaches do all the time with players who didn't work out in other situations, then go somewhere else and thrive. The numbers back this up. I've gotten better every year. So forget the why he did it, or how he did it, or what was the reason. It worked."

Perception in the NBA is an unforgiving reality, and even teammates who acknowledge that Austin found himself in a difficult, if auspicious, situation firmly believe that Doc, a man with a supposedly intuitive understanding of the psyche of the NBA player, should have known better. The duality of family and work was a distinction Rivers understood on a June night in Boston 10 years ago. Perhaps a locker room with a more resilient emotional constitution would've chosen not to make Austin's presence an issue, but Doc was well-acquainted with his team's combustibility. And when Doc extended a 3-year, $35 million contract to Austin in the summer of 2016, the atmosphere was heightened even more, especially when Austin assumed a more vocal posture with his teammates that fall, even as he continued to grow as a productive player.

"When you don't win, then you look for reasons why," Doc Rivers says. "So first it's, 'Blake and Chris don't get along.' That was first. Then it was, 'Doc the GM.' Then it was, 'Austin Rivers.' The question you can ask after the fact is that, 'Because of the team, was it the right move?' In retrospect, would I have done it again? 'I don't know' is the answer. But when you look at how he's playing now versus when we got him, yeah. But I don't know, because it's very complicated."

AS DOC RIVERS concludes his fifth season tonight with the Clippers, it's possible that popular perception of Rivers has gotten it all wrong all these years: Doc Rivers might not, in fact, be the ideal coach for a team of strong veteran personalities. Doc Rivers might be the perfect coach for a team in extreme transition.

The Clippers have used 34 starting lineups this season, the most in the NBA, and have lost more than 250 games to injury. Two-way players and players on 10-day contracts have played in a combined 84 games -- starting 46of them -- for a combined 1,782 minutes.

Still, despite the flux, including the departure of Blake Griffin midseason, the Clippers weren't formally eliminated from the postseason until Saturday. Rivers regards this season as one of his favorites during his 19 years as an NBA head coach. Throughout the season, he has lauded the roster as devoid of egos, a collection of castaways, journeymen and malleable vets who have bought in.

"This group this season -- it's been a breath of fresh air," he says. "It's been a group that has followed. They allow you to coach them. They're competitive as f---. We've got a bunch of guys who just want to compete. We have a formula -- our pace, our attacks and our draw-and-kicks. We're not good enough go off-formula and win. Defensively, our switches and our traps -- we're going against the grain."

Rivers' analysis dovetails with a sentiment expressed by more than a few former NBA players, well-tenured coaches and executives: He's been overrated as a manager of relationships and egos, and quite underrated as a practitioner of X's and O's with a practical sensibility and a creative flair.

If Rivers remains with the Clippers, he'll need to continue to tap that tactician's resourcefulness. The team is squarely in a reboot mode, likely several seasons from solidifying a new core. Its one mainstay, DeAndre Jordan, can opt out of his contract this summer, and his future with the club is uncertain. For Rivers, this is a stroke of tragic irony: A coach who left Boston because he wanted to avoid a rebuild and play for a title is now enduring a rebuild with the Clippers while the Celtics are primed for championship contention for many years to come.

Rivers has one year remaining on his contract with the Clippers. It's rare in today's NBA for a head coach, particularly one of Rivers' stature, to enter the final season of his deal without some clarity about the future. The thinking goes that such uncertainty signals to players and staff a lack of faith on the organization's part. Sources say that there's been no meaningful outreach from the Clippers to Rivers' camp about a potential extension. When asked whether his desire is to remain with the Clippers for the foreseeable future, Rivers conveys a hint of ambivalence.

"I love my job," Rivers says. " I love it here. I love the guys. I love the organization. It's so much better than when I got here. So, most likely, yes."

Those who know Rivers recognize him to suffer from a professional restlessness. Rolling the boulder back up the hill in Los Angeles would likely present the same kind of frustrations he sought to avoid in Boston in 2013. Although he's not someone prone to looking back and has come to terms with his demotion last summer from lead basketball executive to exclusively head coach, Rivers is synonymous with an era the franchise -- and he -- is eager to move past.

"I love coaching, and even with the injuries this season, it's turned my light back on in a lot of ways," Rivers says. "When you leave to go somewhere and your whole goal is to win the title, you're setting yourself up for either euphoria or failure. There's no other outcome."