When the Clippers’ season ended last month, their two biggest personalities were standing on separate darkened ends of a long Staples Center hallway, the team’s immediate future hanging in the murky middle.
On one end, the coach said he might not stick around. On the other end, the owner could not guarantee he could keep him.
On one end, coach Doc Rivers was not thrilled about entering the final year of his contract as a lame duck with no extension.
“I love what I do, but that doesn’t mean you keep doing it every year, you know what I mean?’’ he said.
On the other end, owner Steve Ballmer sounded uncertain why somebody who had a contract would need an extension.
“The other thing I’m really just learning about the NBA is that in a regular business, a five-year contract is a five-year contract and you talk about the sixth year after the fifth year,’’ Ballmer said. “That doesn’t seem to be the protocol in the NBA.’’
For the sake of a stable beginning of a new era, it was important that these two men eventually meet somewhere in the middle.
Three weeks later, it appears they have.
Although nothing has been made official, all indications are that Rivers and Ballmer have reached an agreement on a multiyear extension that will keep Rivers here for a remodeling job that will begin soon.
This is big. This is cornerstone big. This is the Clippers setting the foundation for the post Lob City era with a guy who is coaching even better now than when he led them through the Donald Sterling crisis upon his arrival five years ago.
Chris Paul is gone, Blake Griffin is gone and DeAndre Jordan could soon be gone through free agency, but Rivers will remain the face of the franchise, and all is good. With his gravelly voice and giant presence, Rivers gives the Clippers the sort of credibility they need as Ballmer sets out to remake the team in his image.
It is Rivers’ style that can attract this summer’s potential free agents like Paul George and maybe even LeBron James. It is Rivers’ schemes that will coach up their two lottery draft picks. And it is Rivers who will lead them with player assets and cap room into a flush free-agent class of 2019 that could include Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and, if he’s not traded, Kawhi Leonard.
Neither Rivers nor the Clippers would comment on his contract, but both have been saying nice things about each other.
In an interview this week, Rivers said, “I love where the organization is at right now.’’
Ballmer has made no secret of his affection for Rivers, earlier describing the coach’s performance this season as “amazing.’’
It was, in fact, pretty amazing. After struggling for four seasons to control locker room drama created by clashing All-Stars Paul and Griffin — and after laboring over a mostly unsuccessful stint as the club’s personnel boss — Rivers was freed up this season to just coach, and it showed.
He won his fewest games here — 42 — but he made his biggest impact.
He held together an already depleted team that suffered numerous injuries, keeping it in the playoff race until the final days. He did it with 37 different starting lineups, a league high. He did it with 11 players missing a combined 264 games. The likes of Jamil Wilson, Tyrone Wallace and C.J. Williams all started at least 10 games while injured veteran Patrick Beverley played in only 11.
“This season gave me life, it really did,’’ Rivers said. “This year’s group was great to coach, an extraordinary group, and it tells you that you can bring in the right guys and build the right culture and we can get this done.’’
His resume continues to build. He ranks second among active coaches with 846 career wins. He is only one of six active coaches who have coached an NBA champion. Although he doesn’t have much competition here, his .632 winning percentage is the best in Clippers history.
All of this has apparently been enough to convince Ballmer to break free from his past business experience and offer the extension that will keep Rivers in a strong and steady position. It’s a smart decision, one that bodes well for Clipper fans as they watch to see whether the owner’s reshaping job will live up to the rising ticket prices.
Since Paul’s defection last summer forced his hand, Ballmer has made nothing but dramatic and decisive moves. He hired Jerry West as his top advisor. He installed the respected Lawrence Frank and a team of noted basketball minds to run the personnel side. He re-signed Griffin, then traded him when he realized his mistake.
The extension of Rivers’ contract will be his next big move, and here’s guessing it won’t be his last.
“It feels like the start of something,’’ Rivers said this week. “I feel like we’re on a level playing field, not only on the floor, but off the floor. Steve understands what it takes to make an organization solid, he wants to do the right thing’’
This is the right thing.