Column: Clippers needed a new floor general, not a new sideline general
The Red Wedding.
For “Game of Thrones” fans, the Season 3 finale, when the entire Northern army and its leadership is murdered at a wedding reception, is considered the series at its best. One of the reasons why? Television audiences are accustomed to the “good guys” surviving these sorts of clashes. At least some of them. But nope, not here. Not women, not children, not even the dog.
The Red Wedding from “The Rains of Castamere” episode has become cultural shorthand for a mass cleansing.
The Detroit Lions went red wedding on Saturday when they fired coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn. Los Angeles was a VIP guest in 2017, when the Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss relieved her brother Jim Buss and longtime GM Mitch Kupchak of their duties, and the Kings eliminated coach Darryl Sutter and GM Dean Lombardi. The organizational slaughter was not restricted to the C-suite and the voices that embodied the old ways, but delivered to the roster as well.
This offseason the Clippers were expected to stage their own ceremonial departure from the past. After coughing up a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets, and failing to advance to the Western Conference finals for the 50th straight year, the belief among former players, executives and reporters with whom I spoke was that the firing of coach Doc Rivers was just the start. That everyone except Kawhi Leonard was on the trading block — including Paul George, Leonard’s running mate of choice if not, reportedly, The Claw’s first choice. Or even his second.
The point is, the Clippers’ collapse was about a flawed roster construction. Even with two of the NBA’s top 15 players, the Clippers lacked vocal leadership on the floor and were in desperate need of a starting point guard. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo were all floated as possible solutions but after a weeklong free agency frenzy, Paul, Westbrook and Rondo are all playing elsewhere.
The Clippers might have to turn to trades now to revamp their roster, with Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac and Lou Williams potentially on the block.
In fact, the roster pretty much looks the way it did against the Nuggets in Game 7, with the not insignificant swap-out of Montrezl Harrell for Serge Ibaka the notable exception. Not only that, the executive leadership remains intact.
The message is crystal clear: Owner Steve Ballmer believes the abrupt, ignominious end squarely falls on Doc.
Considering the popularity and track record of Rivers, Ballmer’s decision — more sniper than Red Wedding — was still shocking. Rivers certainly made some questionable moves — most egregiously, his loyalty to Harrell in the Denver series despite how awful the Clippers were defensively and offensively with Trez on the floor — but those weren’t Rivers’ three-point attempts hitting nothing but the side of the backboard. According to Second Spectrum Tracking, “Playoff P” and the gang got higher quality shots in Games 5-7 than they did Games 1-4, when Los Angeles went up three games to one. Rivers’ offense got them the good looks; the players didn’t knock them down.
Ballmer understands analytics as well as anyone, having made his fortune parsing data. He did not get rid of Rivers for empirical reasons, but for something systemic and less quantifiable that was exposed by the collapse against Denver.
Ballmer didn’t like the culture. One that didn’t teach the players how to handle pressure. One that made lemon pepper wings a national pandemic punchline. One that made such a collapse possible. When he bought the Clippers in 2014, he wisely sat back, observed and practiced patience even in the face of early crisis.
Parting from Rivers and not blowing up the team, for now, tells us he believes the roster isn’t incorrigibly flawed, however much others might protest. I guess we’ll find out by the trade deadline if he’s correct. The Houston Rockets are in the midst of holding their own bloody nuptials, so if Westbrook still ends up a Clipper, maybe it’s a sign Ballmer’s gamble didn’t pay off.
I recently rewatched the episode of the Netflix series “The Playbook: A Coach’s Rules For Life” that features Rivers.
I was particularly attentive to how Rivers — like another successful L.A. basketball coach, Phil Jackson — could take abstract principles, in this case the Zulu ideal of “Ubuntu,” or belief that a person is only a person through their connection to others, and sell it to a star-laden championship team, the 2008 Celtics. If you haven’t seen the sports docuseries yet, you have to make time for it. It’s an intimate and fascinating glance into some of the most successful coaching minds on the planet. What inspires them? How to motivate others? Why do they win?
Of course, Rivers is in Philadelphia now because he didn’t win. At least not enough for Ballmer, who is betting a lot on himself and the lessons he’s learned. We know Doc is going to be just fine with the 76ers because two winning decades tell you he will be fine. The Clippers needed to make a move for a floor general, not the sideline general.
Ballmer avoided a Red Wedding, but there is no guarantee that the fallout from a simple divorce will be any less messy.
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