Big shoes to fill as Clippers look to replace Doc Rivers

Doc Rivers announced in late September through a statement on Twitter that he will not be returning as the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers released a statement on Sept. 28 stating that Rivers’ departure from the organization was a mutual agreement. 

“Doc has been a terrific coach for the Clippers, an incredible ambassador, and a pillar of strength during tumultuous times,” Clippers Chairman Steve Ballmer said. “He won a heck of a lot of games and laid a foundation for this franchise.”  

The news of Rivers being on the out from the Clippers franchise after seven seasons sent a shockwave throughout the NBA. The move came just two weeks after the Clippers exited the NBA postseason in dramatic fashion, losing in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs to the Denver Nuggets despite holding a 3-1 lead after four games.

It was an unceremonious exit for a future Hall of Fame coach, a man who laid down the foundation for winning games for a ballclub that used to be the laughing stock of the league. During his tenure with the Clippers, Rivers guided the organization to six postseason appearances and brought instant credibility for a once-troubled franchise.

He amassed a 356-206 (.631) record and took Los Angeles to the second round of the playoffs three times, but never made it past that. He left as the Clippers franchise leader in games, wins, and winning percentage as a head coach. The caveat here is that Rivers, who won a championship as coach of the Boston Celtics, was brought over from the Eastern Conference to deliver a title for the Clippers. 

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George Press Conference
© Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline – (left to right) Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and team owner Steve Ballmer pose for the jersey photo after an introductory press conference at Green Meadows Recreation Center for the two players on July 24, 2019

Unfortunately, for Rivers and the Clippers, their marriage did not work out because the organization’s hardware cupboard is still bare with zero championships. Rivers’ high-powered triplets consisting of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan could not get it done. The trade for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George amounted to a second-round disappointing exit in this season’s playoffs, despite being dubbed as The Team more likely to come out of the Western Conference and contend for the NBA title. 

With that said, Rivers was always the voice of reason for the Clippers, both socially and morally. While he found plenty of success on the court, Rivers’ impact off the court left a lasting footprint on both the Clippers organization and the city of Los Angeles. He was one of the key figures that guided the team through the Donald Sterling saga, one of the darkest hours in the history of the franchise. It’s no secret that he has been a huge advocate for racial equality.

After the Clippers routed the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of their first-round series, Rivers had very little to say about basketball in the postgame press conference. Earlier that day it was reported that Jacob Blake, a Black man shot multiple times by police in Wisconsin while his kids watched, would likely not be able to walk again after one of the seven bullets that entered his back severed his spine, leaving him paralyzed. Rivers’ focus following the game was on Blake and the larger context of racism in America.

“We’re the ones getting killed,” said an emotional Rivers. “We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones getting denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”

© Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline – Former Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers at an introductory press conference for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at Green Meadows Recreation Center in South Los Angeles on July 24, 2019.

Between books (Those Who Love the Game) he’s written about racial bias and discrimination in the NBA and his outspoken words on different topics, Rivers has been more than just a head coach. He is a moral leader that represents the fight for equality not only in the NBA, but around the world. The Clippers will likely miss his basketball success, but what the organization will miss more is his leadership off the court that served as a voice to the oppressed.

The search to fill the head coaching vacancy in Los Angeles is well underway and one name has repeatedly been thrown into the mix when bringing up potential candidates to fill that void; current assistant coach Tyronn Lue.

Rivers and the Clippers welcomed Lue to their coaching staff in 2018 in an advisory role but he was named as an assistant coach prior to the 2019-20 season. Lue had a wealth of championship and coaching experience under his belt, having served as the Cleveland Cavaliers head coach for three-plus seasons, including the team’s first-ever championship after taking over midway through the 2015-16 season.

Lue proceeded to make two more consecutive Finals appearances with the Cavs before being fired in October 2018 after an 0-6 start.
The duo’s connection can go as far back as the early 2000s when Rivers coached Lue while the pair was with the Orlando Magic. Rivers then went to the Celtics and eventually brought Lue onto his coaching staff there, and the pair moved to the Clippers organization together in Los Angeles when Rivers was named their new head coach.

Lue departed Los Angeles for Cleveland ahead of the 2014-15 season and remained there until he ended up with Rivers once again in Los Angeles. Lue has been around Rivers for most of the past decade, having seen Rivers’ coaching style and fearless advocacy in a very up-close manner that most people do not get the chance to see: at team practices and games, coaches’ meetings, team flights, pregame and postgame press conferences and behind closed doors.

He was there during the Sterling incident in 2014 and saw how Rivers was able to guide the team through that difficult time. He was a member of the team when Rivers had the emotional postgame speech about Jacob Blake and racism in America this past season. Lue was able to take what he learned while under Rivers and use that to thrive in Cleveland. It’s one of the main reasons why Rivers thinks so highly of him.

“Ty Lue, honestly, I cried when he won a championship as coach of the Cavs in 2016,” Rivers told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. “He followed me to Boston, then followed me to the Clippers. Then to go to Cleveland and win a title… for me that was as cool as it was for me to win a title. Ty is a great coach with or without me.”

Lue has had the golden ticket that most coaches or assistants do not have, and that’s being able to learn from Rivers on and off the court for as long as he has. Now he has the chance to emulate Rivers’ lessons and experiences and fuse them with his own to become the new light for the Clippers’ organization as their new head coach.

At the end of the day, there is a possibility that Los Angeles elects to go with someone else to lead the star-studded roster for the upcoming season. Whether that will be Lue or a candidate outside the organization, the only thing that is certain is that the expectations for the new head coach are substantial considering they have to bring success on the court while representing the organization off the court in an exceptional manner as Rivers did.

This is an organization that has experienced bigotry firsthand and any leader of the team must live up to the expectation and bar that was set by the prior moral leader of the franchise.

“I am immeasurably grateful to Doc for his commitment and contributions to the Clippers and the city of Los Angeles,” Ballmer added. “I am also extremely confident in our front office and our players. We will find the right coach to lead us forward and help us reach our ultimate goals. We will begin the search and interview process immediately.” 

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