By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES — The bold course was made clear opening night: Doc Rivers would isolate Donald Sterling from anything to do with the basketball side of the Clippers, even if it took embarrassing the owner into keeping his distance. And actually, building that moat with a public-flogging chaser was preferred.
Sterling tried to scuttle the J.J. Redick signing as part of a three-team trade in the summer and Rivers wasn’t going to cover for his boss when the meddling became public the way other GMs would. Rivers, hired away from the Celtics with the promise of being able to craft the roster as well as coach it, denied nothing with the 2013-14 opener about 90 minutes away. If it would be viewed as insubordination and resulted in being fired, fine. Rivers put Sterling into a corner and dared Sterling to do something about it, knowing that wouldn’t happen.
It’s the same thing now. Rivers won’t let Sterling in, doesn’t care who knows it, and it’s not just because Sterling is more toxic than normal right now. When news first broke of the audio recording that would lead to Sterling receiving a lifetime suspension and possibly being forced to sell the team, a seething Rivers wouldn’t so much as consider a phone call. When commissioner Adam Silver announced the discipline Tuesday, Rivers still had no desire to talk, because he was personally disgusted by the comments and professionally aware that Sterling should be at a distance even in the best of times.
This is Rivers’ team, period. That was the plan all along, his championship credibility from the Celtics as important as anything he would draw up on a dry-erase board, only it became a lot more important and a lot more obvious starting late last week. If the Clippers were going to climb from this deep valley, he would be the one to get them out.
There were more signs of that Tuesday, late in the morning when Silver made his finding public and Rivers realized it would be easier to stay with the organization if Sterling was gone. And more signs showed up last night in a 113-103 win over the Warriors at Staples Center. Both were critical developments.
The victory gave Los Angeles a 3-2 lead in the series and the chance to close out Thursday in Oakland. The clean air the commissioner pumped into the franchise gave Rivers a reason to hint that his conscience would now allow him to return to the team next season.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Rivers said. “I haven’t thought about leaving, staying. The main thing is, honestly, this should not be about me and what I’m doing and want to do. I want to coach. I love coaching. I’ve enjoyed these guys. Other than that… I don’t have an answer because I had given it zero thought as far as that goes. Obviously Adam’s decision, if there was going to be one made, makes mine easier.
“I think we’re just going to let this whole thing run its course and then we’ll all have better clarity. I’m not in the position, nor do I want to be in the position, where it sounds like I’m threatening anything. I want my players to be comfortable. Honestly. I think that’s the most important thing. Let’s just see where it goes with them. That’s important for me, their comfort.”
There is obviously uncertainty — if he was definitely coming back, Rivers would say so. But wanting the whole thing run its course means waiting to see Sterling’s location come July or August, and whether or not he still owns the team at that point, too.
Rivers had several advantages on Sterling all along, most of all that he didn’t need this job. He would be in great demand as a coach if things went bad with the Clippers and might even have the same deal in other organizations of running basketball operations as well as the sideline. And if no appealing job came along for a while, he would be sifting through network TV analyst gigs.
He knew the Clippers needed him more than he needed them, an attitude few coaches can afford. He also had a hammer in L.A. no one had before.
The organization appreciated the brilliant mind of Larry Brown and all he brought, but Brown didn’t make the personnel decisions, saving what would have been a weekly turnover of the locker room depending on his mood. Mike Dunleavy had Rivers’ dual role as coach and head of basketball operations, but he was also expendable like all those who had passed through the turnstile before him. Doc marked the first time the Clips had to hold on to someone, as opposed to the someone needing to hold on to the job.
Rivers never wanted to work for Sterling. He wanted to lead the Clippers, in a city he enjoys, with a roster he felt could win a title. He knew he would have to live with the fact that his paychecks would be signed by the same guy who needed to be neutralized. So Doc, aware of some of Sterling’s shortcomings as a human but insisting he didn’t know about the racial problems, lowered his standards in the name of a desirable job. He felt he could tolerate Sterling from a distance.
Now, though, Rivers not only tries to manage the locker-room firestorm his boss created, with poor results Sunday in Game 4 at Oracle Arena in taking the blame for the Clippers appearing listless and a better outcome Tuesday back home, he wants the morality play. He gets that this is about the bigger issue of race in America and understands people who argue teams should have boycotted at least one of the two.
Rivers welcomes the debate with the explanation that he wants to play because he knows his late father would have said not to let anyone stand in the way of doing your job based on what they think about you. Doing good work in the face of adversity would be the biggest statement. That’s why he didn’t want the boycott. Because Rivers wanted to be in charge.