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Was Doc Rivers Actually the Issue for the Clippers?

There was Lob City, Magic City and now this: Overreaction City, home of the L.A. Clippers, which responded to a disappointing second round exit in the NBA bubble by firing Doc Rivers on Monday, creating a head coaching vacancy just months before the most important season in the history of the franchise.

There will be no full-throated defense of Rivers here. He was bad, just as Kawhi Leonard (career-low 32.9% from three this postseason) was bad, just as Paul George (39.8% from the floor) was bad, just as Montrezl Harrell (a fourth quarter liability defensively) was bad. But you can’t fire the players, so Rivers, it seems, had to go.

“Doc has been a terrific coach for the Clippers, an incredible ambassador, and a pillar of strength during tumultuous times,” Steve Ballmer said in announcing the “mutual decision” for Rivers and the Clippers to part ways. “He won a heck of a lot of games and laid a foundation for this franchise.”

Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers reacts during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden.

Indeed. The Clippers owned the NBA’s fifth-best regular season record since Rivers took over in 2013. But in L.A., Rivers legacy may be the two blown 3–1 postseason series leads and his inability to take the team deeper in the playoffs than his predecessor, Vinny Del Negro. In Game 6 against Denver, the Clippers blew a 19-point second-half lead. In Game 7, they coughed up a 12-point lead in the first half.

It’s a reason to be upset, sure.

But is it a reason to fire a coach of Rivers's caliber?

Every team dealt with adversity in the bubble. The Clippers, though, battled through a lot of it. There was the late arrivals of Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac. The was L'affaire Lou Williams. There was an injury to Patrick Beverley that kept him out for most of the first round.

The Clippers struggled to find chemistry before the NBA shut down.

They had little hope of discovering it when the season restarted.

Again: Not an excuse. The Nuggets dealt with as many issues as the Clippers did. They rose to the occasion in the first round, rallying from a 3–1 deficit to beat Utah. They climbed out of the same hole against L.A. While Leonard and George scuffled, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic played like stars.

Is some of that on Rivers? Yes.

Is all of it? No.

Maybe this is about history, about the string of early exits, about seven years of underwhelming playoff results. Because you would hate to think that Ballmer, who is as qualified to unilaterally make a coaching change—nowhere in the Clippers four-paragraph statement announcing Rivers's exit is team president Lawrence Frank—as I am to fix a Microsoft Surface, just reacted to a disappointing season. The Clippers were rolling when the pandemic hit. They had won eight of the last nine, beating Denver, Oklahoma City and Houston along the way. They looked like real contenders.

Would the outcome have been any different if the season continued? Who knows.

But there were plenty of reasons to give Rivers a chance to run it back.

Instead, the Clippers will go coach shopping in a suddenly crowded marketplace. There are some obvious candidates. Ty Lue was Rivers's right-hand man all season, and he has championship experience, as well as a proven ability to connect with star players. Jeff Van Gundy has been in the mix for several jobs, and he could be a candidate for this one.

Then there is Phil Jackson. Jackson has been out of the NBA since 2017, when an unsuccessful three-year run as the Knicks' top basketball exec came to an abrupt end. There are plenty of reasons Jackson wouldn’t want the job. He’s 75, with a long history of physical ailments. He has a frosty relationship with Jerry West, an influential Clippers advisor. He left coaching behind nearly a decade ago, and has never really looked back.

But Jackson has had three years to recharge the batteries. He is certainly comfortable living in L.A. He would have an owner who could hand him a blank check. He would have a chance to stick it to the Lakers, the team that didn’t grant him the most graceful of exits. The Clippers aren’t a long-term job, either; the title window with this group is probably three or four years, max. A championship wouldn’t just increase Jackson’s cushion as the most decorated coach in NBA history. It would make him the first to win one with three different franchises.

“I am … extremely confident in our front office and our players,” Ballmer said. “We will find the right coach to lead us forward and help us reach our ultimate goals. We will begin the search and interview process immediately.”

Whomever the Clippers hire, there will be instant pressure. Leonard and George can become free agents after next season. If either leave, the Clippers—who surrendered a cache of assets to extract George from Oklahoma City—could crumble. A new coach will have to implement a new system in a shortened season that no one knows when will begin or what it will look like.

In firing Rivers, the Clippers identified him as the problem.

They better be right.