LOS ANGELES -- The Clippers presented Doc Rivers with jersey No. 25 on Wednesday, the same one he wore for them in 1991-92, when he had to call a trainer every morning to find out where the team would be practicing. That humble telephone tree has sprouted a roster so alluring it can now pry an elite coach from a franchise with 17 championships even though he's in the middle of a contract. "It's been a heck of a transformation," Rivers said at his introductory press conference, gazing around the Clippers shiny training facility, a dramatic improvement from the local high schools where he used to work out.
Rivers does not like to be called Coach -- he prefers Doc -- a reminder that he remains a player at heart, and like LeBron James or Chris Paul, he is willing to sacrifice goodwill in one place for success in another. Rivers is not here because he prefers L.A. to Boston or the Clippers to the Celtics. He is here because the path to a championship, hard as it may be for historians to believe, appears shorter and clearer. "At this point in my life that's the only reason I'm coming, to try to win titles," Rivers said. "That's why I'm here."
At the end of every season, Rivers is always drained, convinced he will retire. The feeling inevitably wanes and a second wind returns. "This time," he said, "it lasted a little longer." There is still some confusion as to why the Celtics traded their coach to the Clippers for a 2015 first-round draft pick, but Rivers provided his side of the story, or at least a sliver of it. He started by flashing back to a post-season meeting with the Celtics front office, including general manager Danny Ainge.
"We sat around as a team and thought, 'What's the best way to improve the Celtics,'" Rivers recalled. "We went into talking about different scenarios. A couple teams came up and Danny talked about assets -- me and Kevin [Garnett] -- and the name Clippers came up. I thought, 'Well, that's interesting.' I really stepped back and Danny did the talking and would report to me. I was kind of left out. There were never any threats -- 'If you don't get me here, I'm not doing this, I'm not coming back.' It was a negotiation with Danny and (Clippers president) Andy Roeser and if it worked I would consider it. The closer we got the more I got interested."
Rivers made it sound as if Ainge viewed him as a trade chip one day after Ainge held a press conference in which he made it sound as if Rivers was the impetus. Likely, the truth lies somewhere in the middle; Rivers saw an opportunity to win more games while Ainge saw an opportunity to expunge a $7 million-a-year-coach from the payroll while garnering something in return. Clippers general manager Gary Sacks confirmed that his club had no idea Rivers would be available. The Celtics initiated the talks. "Danny approached us," Sacks said. "We weren't aware of it."
For the second time in two years, a star landed in the Clippers laps. First it was Paul, after Commissioner David Stern rejected a trade to the Lakers. This time, it was Rivers, but not before the teams negotiated for nearly two weeks and the league rejected a swap that included Garnett. On Sunday, before Rivers ducked into a gym in Orlando to watch his youngest son play an AAU game, he said he called Ainge and told him: "I'm coming back. I'm staying. I'm coaching. Let's move forward." Ainge replied: "That sounds great. But what if the Clippers call again?" Rivers said: "Figure it out." He turned off his phone for the game, and when he turned it back on, he said there was a message from Ainge that the deal was done.
The pot had been sweetened for Rivers, who is still making $7 million a year, but has added senior vice president of basketball operations to his title. Just like Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Rivers will make the decisions in the Clippers front office. "When you have the opportunity to do both, you have to take it," he said. "When we first started talking -- when Danny first started talking -- that wasn't available, and that's probably why talks weren't going a lot of places. But when that part was added, from my end, it became very attractive. It became a different challenge."
The intro for Rivers, on the main court at the Clippers practice facility, was almost identical to the one for Paul in December of 2011. Paul did not attend -- he is holding a basketball camp in San Diego -- but his specter hung over the festivities. Rivers does not know him well. He believes the first time they met was when he restrained Paul from fighting with Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. "But I've talked to him many times," Rivers said. "I like his feistiness. I've always liked that in guards. I like players with a fire about them so I like Chris Paul."
Paul is a free agent July 1, which Rivers characterized as a source of concern, but chances are he won't have to do much recruiting. The Clippers have made moves for the past 18 months to placate Paul. The addition of Rivers is likely the final stroke. He would not have left the Celtics simply for Blake Griffin, though he did rave about the high flier's underappreciated playmaking ability, as well as DeAndre Jordan's fly-swatting potential, even though Jordan was the one nearly exiled for Garnett. "With DeAndre and Blake, I think you can absolutely form an unbelievable defense," Rivers said. "They're long, they're athletic and that starts it." How Rivers develops Griffin and Jordan, selling them on protecting the paint, will determine if the Clippers become true contenders.
Two days after Christmas, the Clippers were in the midst of a 17-game winning streak, which temporarily gave them the best record in the NBA. The Celtics happened to be in town, and during a practice at UCLA, Rivers raved about the new Clips. "Most teams don't have 11 good players," he said at the time. "They have a team where five guys can play poorly and they still win by a lot of points. You name all the names, it's silly."
If he wasn't envious, he was at least impressed.