A Stern voice on Clippers deal
It was the summer when a good NBA team was bold enough to become a great one.
It was 1999, and the team was led by two stars who had carried it to three consecutive playoff appearances. But each time it had fallen short of the NBA Finals and been swept out of the postseason in consecutive years. It was time for a change.
The two stars needed more than a new head coach; they needed a championship role model. They needed someone who could flash a coaching ring, pull out a deep playing resume, prove he was smarter than them.
Basically, they needed someone with the credibility to make them listen and learn, because only by listening and learning would they become champions.
The organization heard. On the verge of hiring a dear friend and beloved member of the organizational family, the competitive owner suddenly opened his mind and his vault to hire an outsider and make him the highest-paid coach in NBA history.
Instead of retaining homegrown Kurt Rambis as many expected, the Lakers suddenly and stunningly hired Phil Jackson.
The Clippers stand on that same threshold this week, and history says their next step should be an obvious one.
If they want to finish the job, they will acquire Doc Rivers.
If they want to capitalize on the presence of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin the way the Lakers once capitalized on the presence of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, they will change their traditional thought process, give up a first-round draft pick and pick up Rivers out of the ruins of the Boston Celtics.
The Clippers have been negotiating with Boston all week. Rivers wants to blow off the Celtics’ rebuilding movement and the remaining three years of his Boston contract and come to a place where he can win now. The Clippers want to show the sort of championship commitment that will persuade Paul to re-sign here.
It’s a no-brainer. It should be a slam dunk. They’ve been talking every day, the talks so frantic and furious that Kevin Garnett also became part of the deal, until the NBA stuck its head into the room and reminded both sides that any deal for a coach cannot include a player.
Fine. Make it all about Rivers. Of course he’s no Phil Jackson, but his sudden impact could be similar, and a first-round draft pick should do it, easy.
Except, of course, nothing with Donald Sterling is easy.
This is an owner who has seemingly changed his cheap way of thinking in every area but his head coach. He’s never truly valued his head coach. He doesn’t think they make a difference. He will keep a coach employed to avoid paying him off (Mike Dunleavy). He’ll hire a coach because some of his contract is being paid by a previous team (Vinny Del Negro).
The word is that Sterling will finally brave his new frontier by paying big money for Rivers. But he’s apparently wavering in his opinion of his value, because he’s still reluctant to give up a first-round draft pick. This is silly for many reasons, especially this: If Doc Rivers leads this team to its potential, how much is that first-round draft pick going to be worth anyway?
For this deal to happen, Sterling has to believe that in the NBA, a championship coach with credibility is worth more than an unproven late first-round pick. In the case of Rivers, it’s not even close. Only four active NBA coaches have rings, and he’s one of them. Only two active NBA coaches have won titles with huge player egos, and he’s one of them.
He’s one of the most respected coaches in the game, particularly by the tough sort of players who win championships. He’s a Jon Gruden-type basketball coach, which brings up another historical precedent.
In 2002, Gruden was traded from the Oakland Raiders to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for four draft picks, including two first-rounders. That season, he led the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl.
The Miami Heat was once ordered to give the New York Knicks a first-round draft pick for Pat Riley, who eventually led the Heat to a title. The New England Patriots were ordered to give up a first-round pick to the New York Jets for Bill Belichick, who led them to three championships.
Some coaches are worth more than even a high draft pick. Doc Rivers is one of those coaches. The other Clippers candidates -- Brian Shaw, Byron Scott, Lionel Hollins -- are all nice guys and would be decent choices, but none of them raises the heat on the championship thermometer like Rivers.
Sterling has seen the power of a credible head coach displayed down the hall from his team’s locker room 14 years ago. Surely he hasn’t forgotten it by now?
Either the Clippers follow the lessons taught by the Lakers past, or they could be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the Lakers present.
One can already hear the chants during next season’s opening night at Staples Center if the Clippers are losing and the guy standing in front of the bench is not the guy standing in front of them now.
“We want Doc ... we want Doc.”