To anyone watching the Los Angeles Clippers crumble in the second half of last Sunday’s crucial Game 7 against the Utah Jazz, the Clippers’ lack of depth was apparent. While Utah used waves of energized reserves to overcome Rudy Gobert’s injuries and foul trouble, Los Angeles had no real solution for Blake Griffin’s playoffs-ending toe injury.
In 2013, the Clippers hired Glenn “Doc” Rivers as head coach and president of basketball operations. It was a smart coaching hire; Rivers had coached in two NBA Finals with the Boston Celtics, winning one. However, he had no experience making personnel decisions. Danny Ainge had built the championship roster in Boston.
Almost 4 years later, Rivers still has not advanced farther in the playoffs (with the Clippers) than his predecessor, Vinny Del Negro. There are many reasons for this, such as injuries, a historic 4th quarter collapse, and plain bad luck. Some of the disappointment in Los Angeles, however, has to be attributed to Rivers’ personnel decisions.
With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick, the Clippers have had a championship-level core group for the past six years. Unfortunately, Rivers has failed to put the necessary pieces around that core.
Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs is an example of a head coach becoming president of basketball operations and succeeding. To say Popovich has succeeded in San Antonio would be an understatement. He has won five NBA championships. San Antonio has never been a free agent destination, but Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford consistently gave Tim Duncan a solid supporting cast by scouring the late first round and second round of the draft for international players and underappreciated college talent. Tony Parker was picked 28th and Manu Ginobili 57th to form the best “Big Three” of the 2000s. Popovich also set up the Spurs for the post-Duncan era by trading for 15th overall pick Kawhi Leonard. For Pop’s next trick, rookie point guard Dejounte Murray, the 28th pick in 2016, will start for the remainder of the playoffs after Parker tore his quadricep.
Rivers’ draft record is as weak as Popovich’s is strong. The Clippers have drafted six players during Rivers’ tenure, three of them in the first round: Reggie Bullock, C.J. Wilcox, Branden Dawson*, Brice Johnson, David Michineau*, and Diamond Stone*. Only Johnson and Stone are currently on the roster, and they played in a combined 10 games this season. Former first round picks Bullock and Wilcox were both traded before the conclusions of their rookie contracts.
*Acquired in a draft-night trade
Essentially, Rivers has not been able to extract any value from his draft picks. Yes, it is not easy to find value late in the first round, but making personnel decisions in the NBA is hard. The Jazz beat the Clippers with homegrown players, some of them late first round picks. Utah found Rudy Gobert 27th in the 2013 Draft, two picks after Rivers chose Bullock. Rodney Hood was drafted 23rd in 2013. Successful NBA franchises find value late in the Draft, and Rivers has been unable to do so.
Rivers wasn’t filling out the roster with young prospects, so he tried to add depth through free agency and trades. The Clippers never had much cap space available. Most of it was always taken up by Paul, Griffin, Jordan, and Redick. Consequently, the Clippers could not chase a fourth star, and had to fill the starting small forward and bench spots with cheaper options.
The best NBA GMs can find contributors with the mid-level exception or minimum contracts. The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks won 60 games, partly because GM Danny Ferry found a starting small forward in DeMarre Carroll for $2.4 million. This season, Pat Riley fueled a Heat team that finished the year 30-11 with cheap contracts like Dion Waiters and James Johnson.
Rivers’ free agent signings rarely outperformed expectations. They were rarely young players who might have been undervalued because of their previous situation. In February 2016, ESPN’s Amin Elhassan went on SportsCenter and explained that there are three groups of players that Rivers tends to sign or trade for: players he coached in Boston, players who had abnormally good games against him, and players who are related to him (his son Austin). (SB Nation’s Rodger Sherman did a deeper dive on this topic if you are interested in reading more.)
Doc’s biases led him to give roster spots to Glen Davis, Nate Robinson, Josh Smith, and Hedo Turkoglu, all players on the downside of their careers who disappointed in Los Angeles. Rivers’ love for his son has been the only positive bias for the Clippers. Austin turned into a productive combo guard off the bench after Doc pulled him out of New Orleans (via Boston).
How much does Rivers really value personal relationships and a few head-to-head matchups? It’s hard to know. But Elhassan and Sherman list too many examples for it to be a coincidence. The trend suggests that Rivers does not dedicate the necessary time to research players around the league. Not only does Rivers not have any prior experience in personnel, he probably doesn’t have enough time to thoroughly do his job. Being an NBA head coach is more than a full-time job. So is being a President of Basketball Operations. It takes a special type person to handle that level or workload, and even that special person needs an extraordinary organization under him or her to succeed. Otherwise, trying to do both jobs at once is likely to produce half-assed results.
Bill Belichick, Head Coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots, is another coach who makes the final call on personnel decisions. Like Popovich with Duncan, Belichick has had his own historically great franchise cornerstone in Tom Brady. One of the reasons why Belichick is an outlier is that he rarely trades a player too late. He tries to trade players when their value is at its peak. Midway through this past season, Belichick traded starting linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns ahead of his impending free agency. He is not afraid to temporarily worsen his current team in order to make the future brighter. He never offers a bad long-term contract to keep the team respectable in the short term. Along with having Brady, Belichick’s personnel strategy has kept the Patriots in Super Bowl contention for most of the century so far.
Rivers, on the other hand, has not exhibited the same foresight. Take Griffin, for example. The top pick in the 2009 Draft rose to stardom in Los Angeles as part of Lob City along with Paul and Jordan. Griffin peaked during the 2015 Playoffs, averaging 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists in 14 games as the Clippers fell to the Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals. The next season, Griffin played in only 35 games due to a partially torn quad and a broken hand, killing his momentum from the previous year’s playoff run. This year, Griffin was healthier, playing in 61 games. Still, he missed over a month after a minor knee surgery, adding to his long list of lower body injuries (https://theringer.com/blake-griffin-injury-affects-free-agency-nba-3a0a4cbd8e2a).
To make matters worse, Griffin missed the final 4 games of the series against Utah after injuring his toe. Now, Rivers will not be able to recoup nearly as much in a trade for Griffin as he could have three years ago. Griffin could also sign with another team in free agency this summer, in which case the Clippers would get nothing in return.
Rivers has put the Clippers in a position of little flexibility. Either they can let go of Griffin and fellow free agent Paul and start to rebuild or they can resign both to massive long-term contracts and hope to finally catch some breaks in the Playoffs.
While giving up on the Lob City core might be the most prudent move for the Clippers’ future, Rivers will not do it. Trading his stars and rebuilding would force Rivers to coach a young and inexperienced team that would likely lose a lot of games at first.
Rivers’ unwillingness to relent and rebuild sheds light on the biggest problem with letting a Head Coach make personnel decisions. Having the same person in both positions often causes a conflict of interest. Rivers, for example, is used to winning as a coach, and, judging from how quickly he left Boston for Los Angeles after the Celtics began to rebuild, is not interested in coaching a losing team. Rivers seems to be making personnel decisions based on how they can improve the team he coaches today, instead of trying to set up the franchise for future success.
The logic behind hiring the same person as head coach and president of basketball operations is simple. Organizations often falter when the head coach and personnel team is not on the same page. If the head coach and personnel guy is the same person, there will never be any conflict. However, conflict can sometimes be a good thing when creating ideas. Challenging good ideas makes them even stronger.
Unfortunately, some of the best coaches available on the market now want decision making power. Stan Van Gundy was able to gain full control of the Pistons in 2014, and his brother, Jeff, has said he will only coach again if he can control his roster. Tom Thibodeau, the most coveted free agent coach last summer, leveraged the demand for his services into a gig as head coach and president of basketball operations in Minnesota. The jury is still out on whether Van Gundy and Thibodeau are right for the job, but NBA owners should keep in mind that coaching success doesn’t always translate into front office skill. For every Popovich, there is a Rivers. For every Pat Riley, there is a Rick Pitino.
Being a head coach and personnel decision maker is a huge responsibility, and only the best, like Popovich and Belichick, can truly excel in that role. Rivers has clearly shown that he is not prudent or responsible enough to be making roster moves. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer would do well to remove Rivers’ decision making power this summer.
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