Doc Rivers is out as head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers in one of the more surprising moves in recent carousel history. Now both sides have control of the market. The Clippers become one of the more desirable jobs in recent NBA history, and Rivers becomes one of the most accomplished free-agent coaches the league has ever seen.
The credentials are obvious: the 2008 championship, a 2010 trip to the Finals, years of contention in both Boston and Los Angeles, and such respect among superstars that he was able to recruit Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers in the first place. Rivers will have a new job in the very near future. The question is where. Here are the best fits for Rivers as he explores the job market for the first time since 2013.
Virtually every flaw that led to Mike D'Antoni's dismissal is a strength for Rivers. D'Antoni doesn't prioritize defense? Rivers won a championship in Boston largely thanks to his defense. D'Antoni doesn't trust his bench enough? The Clippers just lost because Rivers placed too much trust in his bench. Coaching hires tend to be overcorrections. Whatever it was that didn't work in the last coach gets fixed in the next one.
Plenty needs to be fixed with this roster, but it's far from unfixable. If James Harden's refusal to take mid-range jumpers is what causes his playoff meltdowns, for instance, few coaches would be better equipped to fix that than one who has worked with Kawhi Leonard, Paul Pierce and Tracy McGrady. If anyone could rein in Russell Westbrook, or convince Harden to move off of the ball, it would be Rivers. Players listen to him.
The one possible hiccup here is money. Rivers is going to be one of the most expensive coaches in basketball, a distinction that is well earned. But the Rockets are headed for the luxury tax next season, and their owner, Tilman Fertitta, just took out a $300 million loan to keep his businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Expect Houston to explore cheaper options before shopping at the high end of the market.
There is no greater challenge in the coaching world than fixing the 76ers. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, to this point, simply have not fit together offensively, and Philadelphia's front office has compounded the problem by surrounding them with mediocre shooters. The roster needs changes, but if the fundamental structure of Simmons and Embiid is in place on opening day next season, coaching will be the single-most important factor in determining whether or not this team succeeds or fails.
If anyone could convince Simmons to start shooting 3s, it would be Rivers. If anyone could get Embiid into killer shape for an entire season, it would be Rivers. Say what you will about the decisions that cost the Clippers their season, but players buy into Rivers' message. The 76ers need that as much as they need a tactician. This is an organization sorely in need of a leader, and that is Doc's single-best trait as a coach.
If Rivers wants to take it slow and spend a season or two adjusting to his new situation before championship expectations kick in, there isn't a better long-term situation for him than New Orleans. The opportunity to shepherd the career of a young talent like Zion Williamson comes along but once in a generation, and it is the rare sort of opportunity that Rivers hasn't already gotten in his coaching career. In Orlando, Boston and Los Angeles, he worked largely with established stars.
The other major advantage New Orleans offers? Optionality. Zion is going to be in place for the foreseeable future, but the rest of the roster is malleable. David Griffin accumulated a number of draft picks on the trade market last offseason. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball have already been traded for a superstar once. If Rivers wants to coach a certain player, with few exceptions, the Pelicans have the means to get him. Few other jobs offer the same flexibility. Considering his former GM powers with the Clippers, that is a benefit Rivers is likely to prioritize.
Take a year off, hop back on the carousel next year
If Rivers doesn't like his options so late in the coaching cycle, there are a few promising jobs that could, theoretically, open up a year from now. Let's say Rivers takes the year off, works on his golf game, and returns to basketball reinvigorated next summer. Here are some plausible destinations.
- Atlanta Hawks: Two lottery seasons haven't quite been enough to put Lloyd Pierce on the hot seat, but a third almost certainly would, especially given the frustrations Trae Young has expressed with losing. The Hawks traded for Clint Capela to try to speed up their rebuild at the deadline. If they miss the playoffs again, they might lose even more patience, and the chance to coach Young would be awfully tempting, especially for someone who once worked with Chris Paul.
- Portland Trail Blazers: Portland snuck into the playoff field this season, but faces a loaded Western Conference next season. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum aren't getting any younger, and aside from a 2018 trip to the Western Conference finals aided by a lopsided bracket, the Blazers have won only one playoff game since 2016. Doc is the "get Lillard over the top" Hail Mary play.
- Milwaukee Bucks: If the Bucks miss the Finals yet again next season and need to make a big splash in order to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rivers is the play. Few coaches have his track record of connecting with superstars.
Nobody would blame Doc for seeking out redemption. If he wants to remain coaching, he certainly deserves the chance to do so. But he's already spent 21 years in coaching. He has a championship to his name. He's worked with several All-Stars, been a part of every kind of team, and even if he never takes another job, his reputation as one of the better coaches from this era is solidified. There is an argument to be made that Rivers has already done everything there is to do in coaching. If that's the case, he'd be welcomed back into the media world with open arms.
Rivers spent a year on ABC after leaving the Orlando Magic and formed one of the most short-lived but well received broadcasting pairings in NBA history. Al Michaels likely has no intention of returning to the NBA, but should Rivers decide to return to the booth, the competition for his services between ESPN and TNT would be fierce. Rivers is among the more personable coaches in basketball. Few would be better at explaining complex basketball concepts to general audiences while keeping them entertained than him. Hiring Doc Rivers as a coach would be a win for any of the teams on this list. If ESPN or TNT hires him as a broadcaster? That's a win for all of us.