Column: As Clippers’ general manager, Doc Rivers is a very good coach
Doc Rivers is among the top coaches in the NBA. He also maneuvered the Clippers through the Donald Sterling fiasco so masterfully that he could fetch millions on the crisis management lecture circuit.
That makes him two for three running the basketball side of his team.
His failure has come in his other job — as the Clippers president of basketball operations.
As the front office boss, Rivers has fallen short in his efforts to upgrade at small forward, bolster his bench and draft a rotation player in the first round. His best signing, backup point guard Darren Collison, was a player Rivers couldn’t re-sign last summer after committing four years and $23 million to free-agent forward Spencer Hawes, who has made a negligible impact this season.
Rivers did manage to trade for his son Austin last month, which prompted snickers throughout the league.
“I’ll let you do all the judging,” Rivers said recently when asked to assess the job he had done controlling his team’s personnel moves.
OK, here goes: The best grade you could give Rivers for his roster management is an incomplete. Some observers think not enough time has passed to evaluate the work Rivers has done tweaking the margins of a roster that included All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in addition to fledgling star DeAndre Jordan and top sub Jamal Crawford before Rivers’ arrival in the summer of 2013.
“Three, possibly four years, then we can look back at it,” said legendary shooting guard Reggie Miller, now an analyst for TNT. “Let’s see what they do in this year’s playoffs and what he does in the summer and in the draft and how this team is performing next year.”
Sorry to disagree with a Hall of Famer, but Rivers has had two free-agency periods, two drafts and two trade deadlines to make his team better. Has he?
The top four bench players have gone from Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes to Crawford, Austin Rivers, Hawes and Glen Davis. Barnes is now a starter alongside J.J. Redick, the shooting guard Doc Rivers acquired as part of the trade that sent Bledsoe to Phoenix in July 2013.
Redick has unquestionably improved the Clippers with his perpetual movement and three-point shooting, but the other player who came with him in the deal, forward Jared Dudley, was such a dud in one injury-plagued season that Rivers had to package a first-round draft pick with him just to persuade Milwaukee to take Dudley last summer.
And guess what? Dudley is now playing well for the Bucks and the Clippers don’t have any first-round draft picks to trade before 2019, one of the primary reasons they were unable to make any moves at the trade deadline last week.
Barnes’ presence as a starter is a constant reminder of one nagging deficiency Rivers has been unable to address. His efforts to convince Inglewood High graduate Paul Pierce to come home last summer fell so flat you would have thought Rivers told his former player the Clippers played their home games at the Forum.
“That would have resolved a lot of problems,” Miller said of Pierce joining the Clippers instead of the Washington Wizards. “They have to get better at the small forward position.”
Instead the Clippers have Barnes and went more than a month without a true backup at the position before the team Tuesday signed former Compton Dominguez High star Jordan Hamilton to a 10-day contract.
Rivers likes to grouse about the Clippers’ lack of assets and their proximity to the league’s hard salary cap, which limits the amount of salary the team can take back in trades. Those are valid points. The Clippers traded Dudley primarily to clear enough cap space just to complete their roster with minimum-salaried players.
But Rivers signed enough busts last summer to fill a wing of the Smithsonian. Backup point guard Jordan Farmar will finish his season in Turkey after being waived last month, forward Chris Douglas-Roberts was dispatched as part of the Austin Rivers trade, center Ekpe Udoh rarely plays and forward Hedo Turkoglu has made a marginal impact.
The only quality signing has been Davis, whose energy has contributed to several victories
Rivers and longtime lieutenants Dave Wohl and Kevin Eastman, who accompanied him from Boston, need to foster a more creative approach to complementing one of the NBA’s best core rosters. They don’t have to go all Moneyball like Houston General Manager Daryl Morey, who covets second-round draft picks and flips players like they’re pancakes at IHOP, but the Clippers’ most recent moves have been uninspired, unless you consider signing a head cheerleader in guard Dahntay Jones to be worthwhile.
Rivers has said he wanted to foster a working relationship with his underlings like San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, the coach and general manager who have collaborated to make savvy draft choices and redefine the value of international scouting.
So far under the Rivers regime, the Clippers’ first-round draft picks have been Reggie Bullock and C.J. Wilcox. You are forgiven for asking, “Who?” Bullock played sporadically and has already been traded to Phoenix. Wilcox may end up logging more time in the Development League this season than with the Clippers.
If nothing else, Wohl and Eastman don’t appear to be yes men. The executives pushed Rivers to make the trade for his son despite his initial hesitancy. Austin Rivers has been serviceable as the backup to Paul, but he’s not going to remind anyone of Collison or Bledsoe.
Ultimately, the Clippers will be judged on the moves they make on the court once the playoffs start. Rivers keeps saying he likes his team.
“I’m not a big believer in change unless you need it,” he said of keeping his roster intact at the trade deadline. “I would love to have added some players, I think everybody would, but … I like our team.”
The thing is, the team worth liking is largely the one that was here before Rivers’ arrival.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
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