By most objective measures, Doc Rivers is among the best basketball coaches in the world. He's one of only four active NBA coaches who has won a championship. Just over a year ago, a survey of NBA players named Rivers the coach they'd most like to suit up for, and there’s reportedly at least one Hall of Famer in Boston who would rather retire than play for another NBA coach.
Rivers has devoted himself to basketball his entire life. He played for four NBA teams and coached two others. He’s a 51-year-old man who has raised four children, and much of that parenting has been performed from 1,000 miles away. Rivers has spoken about this challenge, not as an expression of self-pity, but as a window into his feelings about some of the tougher compromises we make in life.
After nine seasons with the Boston Celtics and two years into a five-year contract, Rivers decided that his work life needed a change. Fortunately for him, his desire to leave his current job in Boston for a new one in Los Angeles coincided with the interests of several other parties. This doesn’t happen very often, but a combination of circumstance and goodwill created a confluence of mutual benefits for just about everyone involved in the transaction.
The Celtics will save in the neighborhood of $15 million over the next three seasons by releasing Rivers from his contract and signing a younger, more affordable head coach while they rebuild their roster. The Los Angeles Clippers will not only obtain the services of an elite coach, but also likely will guarantee that Chris Paul remains with the team for a long time. Surrendering assets for a coach is dicey, but at a critical juncture of the franchise’s evolution, the Clippers acquired the gravitas and leadership they badly need. For Rivers’ part, he gets to take a crack at answering one of pro basketball’s most difficult riddles -- taking a franchise that’s been a historical laughingstock and delivering it a title.
One of the privileges that comes with being an industry leader is the freedom to define career goals along the way -- as well as the terms of employment in pursuit of those goals. That’s how it works in virtually every sector on the professional landscape, where talented people navigate their careers and make choices that feed their sense of professional fulfillment. But not in sports, where a sincere change of feeling about the job is often interpreted as treason.
For a certain kind of achiever, permanence offers the most comfort. They like to plant a stake, build something and then preside over it until it’s time to walk away. But not everyone has the same temperament or starts in the same place. We live in a dynamic economy where circumstances change, markets change and the things about the gig that get people up in the morning change.
A year or two ago, Rivers thought he’d be a Celtic for life, and he was pretty expressive about that belief. Was he full of it? It’s possible, but it’s just as likely that his view changed, that a rebuilding effort that looked like a fun puzzle to be assembled when viewed from the benefit of distance appeared entirely different when he stared it in the face.
Sensibilities evolve over time, and while it’s tempting to regard that as a character flaw, double-talk or a betrayal of principle, it’s a condition that’s both very human and very practical. These are the inconvenient byproducts of growth, and few NBA coaches have grown more in the past 15 years than Rivers.
Forget for a moment that Rivers-to-Los Angeles is a victimless crime through which every side profited. Say you had a friend who fit Rivers’ general description -- smart, successful, trusted, imperfect but someone whom just about every firm in the business would want to hire and would be willing to pay.
A very cool opportunity that excites the hell out of him has surfaced. He gets to take the reins of a company in a geographically desirable location that almost certainly has a brighter future than the place he works now. Your friend hasn't been in a funk exactly, but over the past nine months or so, there’s a sense that his best days with his current employer are probably behind him. The most productive members of his staff will soon be retiring or moving on. The most talented staffer who remains is temperamental and the moodiness has been wearing thin for a while. The move would be a bit awkward, but there’s some reassuring news: For a variety of reasons, the partners at his current company would be OK with the move, and might even profit from it themselves.
When your friend asks your advice on the right course of action, do you tell him that loyalty trumps his self-interest, or do you tell him that he owes it to himself to chase the prize, to challenge himself and to write a new chapter?
We romanticize loyalty in sports and love the cleanliness of the team column on Kobe Bryant or Larry Bird or Tim Duncan’s stats page. But the world’s most talented people have a personal imperative to create situations that make the most sense for them, that allow them to work where, for whom and with whom they want. In this respect, the idea of commitment can be messy, but it’s up to an individual -- not us -- to define what commitment means to him.