Doc Rivers has been a coach for four different NBA teams in his 20-year career. During his tenure with the Boston Celtics, Rivers won the elusive NBA Finals ring, in addition to making multiple deep playoff runs with his Celtics’ Big Three: Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. After their fall from grace, Rivers sought a new environment to continue his success, focusing on a younger, more athletic team with championship aspirations.
How did it go with his new team? Unfortunately, it ended up in multiple upsets, choke jobs, and injuries to key players. In the second part of this series, I will examine his tenure during the “Lob City” era with the Los Angeles Clippers.
In 2013, Celtics GM Danny Ainge traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a first round pick. This move was mired with skepticism, as it was rare for a coach to be involved in a trade package. Doc was also sending mixed signals as to whether or not he wanted to stay coaching for Boston. At the time, Clippers fans were jumping for joy, as they had a fresh new coach in Doc Rivers, who’s won an NBA Finals, something that the Clippers hadn’t achieved in their franchise history.
The move to a new environment with a younger “Big 3” appeared to be the perfect spot for Rivers on paper.
Many analysts believed Doc needed a new team with championship potential to coach because the Celtics core was getting too old. With All-Stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, along with rim protector and athletic slasher in DeAndre Jordan, adding Rivers to this squad immediately sparked title contender conversations for the Clippers. A solid bench included Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Darren Collison in the first couple of seasons. On paper, this appeared to be the better situation. They appeared to be the better team. Young, athletic, with hardly any aging or injury issues.
In reality, it was more of the same.
In hindsight, Doc’s Clippers had the most success that the franchise ever had in their history as a team in the NBA. Before, they were looked at as the little brother compared to the success backed by the Los Angeles Lakers. Making the playoffs was seen as an afterthought due to the Lakers being the better team over the last few decades.
Move Over Lakers, There’s a New Sheriff In Town
Fortunately for the Clippers, the late Kobe Bryant was in the tail end of his career following his Achilles tear in the 2012-2013 season. This, along with chemistry issues between an aging Steve Nash and a disgruntled Dwight Howard led to the downfall of Kobe’s Lakers. After this season, Kobe was a shell of himself, and Pau Gasol was eyeing other teams to maintain his success in the NBA.
The Lakers were a completely different team in the 2013-2014 season, which was a perfect time for the Clippers to take over as the top dogs in LA. Looking a bit closer, Docs Clippers teams during the Lob City era failed to capitalize on the Lakers downfall. Lob City was infamous for collapsing under pressure, most notably in years 2014 and
Outcoached and First Sign Of Collapse
Doc failed to outcoach his opponents in the playoffs, leading to multiple team collapses in a myriad of ways. Notable examples include the 2014 Western Conference Semifinals against the Thunder.
In Game 5 they were up by 13 with three and a half minutes left in the 4th quarter. Winning this game was crucial, as the Clips would take a 3-2 series lead heading back to Staples Center. But due to costly choke jobs by Chris Paul with a couple of turnovers, as well as Doc not calling a timeout during the momentum shift, LA would lose control and fail to secure a stop even with 49 seconds left when they were up by seven.
One could argue the Clippers failing to capitalize was due to drama surrounding the departure of Clippers longtime owner Donald Sterling. Sterling was banned for life from the NBA in 2014 following leaked audio of racist remarks were made public. This may have affected the teams relationship with the front office.
Best Chance To Win
In the following year with a new owner, the Clippers weren’t as healthy, but they had their best chance. Although their leader in Chris Paul played through a hamstring injury, Doc’s Clippers upset the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in a seven game bloodbath. This headlined a game-winning shot by Chris Paul playing on one lone leg in Game 7.
What’s more promising is that in the second round, LA was up 3-1 against the Houston Rockets. This was due to securing multiple blowout wins in games one, three, and four.
Doc looked to be outcoaching Rockets’ Kevin McHale, as the Clippers offense appeared much faster, had a sense of urgency, and were impeccable with DJ and Griffin locking down the paint.
Looking to avoid elimination, Houston secured a Game 5 win and took the Clippers to Game 6 as they headed back to LA.
You’re on your home floor, looking to advance to the Western Conference Finals against a Rockets team that had a depleted Dwight Howard and a struggling James Harden, who was the MVP runner up. What could be a better time to advance?
In the beginning, it seemed like this was the mindset. The Clippers were up by thirteen heading into the fourth quarter. It appeared that Coach McHale at the time was waiving the white flag. He benched Harden for the entire 4th quarter following another lackluster playoff performance. McHale had most of his bench on the floor along with Howard playing in the final stretch.
Rockets Bench Comes Alive
After what appeared to be another underwhelming season for Houston, suddenly, afterthoughts in Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, and Terrence Jones caught fire, hitting shot after shot. Brewer was playing like Kevin Durant, pulling up off the dribble and slivering to the basket with ease. Smith played his best brand of basketball since his Atlanta Hawks days, knocking down shots from long range. Jones looked like the player Rockets fans hoped he would become, posting up in the paint with ease.
What’s astounding is that Doc, besides hacking Dwight to the free throw line, had virtually no answer to the Rockets bench coming alive. His play-calling often had the supporting cast, such as JJ Redick and CP3, livid with his ill-advised decisions. There was hardly any effort from the Clippers defense to close out open shots beyond the arc.
The Clippers’ thirteen-point lead transformed into an eleven-point deficit by the final seconds of the 4th quarter, marking another collapse in Doc’s coaching career.
Doc’s Clippers missed a grand opportunity to win Game 6, seemingly their last ditch effort. The Rockets, playing on their home turf at the Toyota Center, finished off the Clippers by blowing them out in Game 7. It marked the second time Doc had relinquished a 3-1 lead, the first dating back to his days coaching the Orlando Magic.
Never Came Close
Following this collapse, Doc’s Clippers never came close to this attempt at a Conference Finals. In 2016 and 2017, they didn’t make it past the first round. This was due to Griffin being injured in both years and Paul injured in 2016. For example, in Game 6 against the Portland Trailblazers, Doc’s gameplan included starting players like Jeff Green, Luc Mbah a Moute, and his own son in Austin Rivers.
Calling 2016 and 2017 a collapse wouldn’t be the right answer. LA had plenty of chances early on before the injuries to their stars piled up. Rivers overused both Paul and Griffin’s athleticism which led to a myriad of injuries. This left the team incapable to perform at their highest level. While DJ was a good player in his prime, he needed CP3’s presence on the floor in the pick-and-roll offense. Without Paul’s expertise in ball facilitating, DJ’s offense was a non factor.
The Fall of Lob City
The Big 3 never performed the same much longer as they went to play for different teams. This subsequently began the teardown of “Lob City” in 2018. Both Griffin and DJ eventually lost their step and turned into bench players out of the rotation after their contracts expired on different teams. Chris Paul on the other hand, gained a bit of success after his departure to Houston, Oklahoma, and now Phoenix.
NBA critics at this point pointed out Doc’s perceived inability to make crucial adjustments and manage player egos effectively during high-pressure situations. Some believe that his coaching style relies too heavily on veteran players, which can lead to over-reliance and fatigue come playoff time. Others cite his seemingly passive approach to in-game strategy adjustments, which often results in his teams being outplayed and outmaneuvered in critical playoff games.
This casts an overshadow on bench players who are capable of performing well in the rotation. However, without star egos involved, this is where Doc really shined. Even with the collapse of Lob City, Doc still remained as coach for the Clippers.
You’d think that Doc Rivers would learn from his costly mistakes. The 3-1 choke jobs didn’t end here. In the final part of this series, I will address the tail end of Doc’s career with LA along with his short-lived stint with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Jeremy Gretzer is a contributor on Back Sports Page. Along with receiving his MBA in Marketing, He has over a year in sports journalism, and has interviewed various NBA figures such as Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, along with players such as Jarred Vanderbilt, Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun. Gretzer has a podcast on YouTube called Cut The Nets which airs every Tuesday night along with his co-host Brian Ramos. For more on Jeremy, his Twitter is @Jr_Gretzer and Instagram (@J.r.gretzer).