Doc Rivers rises to rare power
There are no outright winners in the Donald Sterling situation, which is trending uglier by the day with no end realistically in sight. Yet it has also become clear that no one has benefited more from the events of the past 15 days than Doc Rivers, who has taken the unanticipated sequence and weaved it into a stockpile of capital and a rare expansion of influence.
Last week after a quick search, the NBA appointed former media and banking executive Dick Parsons as the CEO of the Los Angeles Clippers for what promises to be an unknown interregnum as the lawyers on both sides mobilize for potential battle. One of the first things Parsons made clear, no doubt at the behest of commissioner Adam Silver, is that Rivers would control all basketball decisions.
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As a result, Rivers is now one of the most powerful men in the NBA with perhaps the broadest set of responsibilities. He controls everything from who starts, who sits, how much the assistant coaches earn, who gets drafted, who is gets dealt and who gets hired and fired at every level of basketball operations. This sort of brass ring is a prize top coaches have been chasing for decades and very few have actually been able to secure.
Phil Jackson, who has 10 more title rings than Rivers does, left the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers (twice) at least in part because he could never obtain the scope of power that Rivers has consolidated in Los Angeles in less than a year. Jackson's new and far-reaching influence plus his massive salary with the New York Knicks puts him on a short list. But even Jackson can't match Rivers' level of control. And Jackson has chosen not to coach and still must deal with an aggressive owner in Jim Dolan.
The only true peer Rivers has now is the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich, who has strong sway in all personnel decisions. Last year, for example, Popovich decided he was done with temperamental forward Stephen Jackson, so Jackson was cut just a week before the start of the playoffs. Coaches -- even high-profile, fully tenured coaches -- get fed up with players all the time but don't have the juice to cast them off the roster.
But even Popovich technically has two people over him in the Spurs' flowchart: team president and current Executive of the Year R.C. Buford and team owner Peter Holt. Popovich likely gets just about everything he wants, but it has to pass through the desks of those two well-respected men. Once in a while, he does get turned back.
Pat Riley with the Miami Heat and Larry Bird with the Indiana Pacers sit at the top of the executive pyramid with the complete trust of their owners and contracts that essentially allow them to work as long as they want. Riley's fingerprints can be found everywhere in the Heat organization, from the photos on the walls to the layout of the offices. Bird has enough clout that he has no problem calling up local reporters or going on Indianapolis television stations to call out his players and coaches.
Yet neither Riley nor Bird roam the sidelines anymore. They sit in on practices, regularly meet with coaches and are intriguing to watch in the stands during the games, but they are no longer part of that fray or in those huddles like Rivers. They also ultimately have to answer to the billionaires above them.
Bird, for example, has been barred from passing into the luxury tax and had to work creatively to avoid it while retooling the team's bench over the last year. Last summer, Heat owners Micky and Nick Arison cut Mike Miller using the amnesty clause days after Riley had publicly declared he was against the move.
Rivers' previous boss, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge, retained top authority over Rivers and that was unlikely to change as the Celtics began a rebuilding process last summer. While Rivers had attained senior status among the league's head coaches, he would still remain as the No. 2 in Boston.
In Los Angeles, Rivers moved up a rung, even before the departure of Sterling, when he came in as senior vice president of basketball operations. Now, Rivers answers to no owner, and there is a decent chance he will never have to speak to Sterling again. By Parsons' own admission in various interviews following his appointment, he will act as a rubber stamp for the foreseeable future when it comes to the player decisions. If Rivers wants to trade Blake Griffin or Chris Paul this summer, he will be able to do so. If he wants to extend DeAndre Jordan's contract, he has the full power to negotiate and execute it.
In theory, he could give himself a contract extension and a raise. He's believed to already be the highest-paid coach in the league at $7 million per year -- though the details of Popovich's contracts have always stayed largely secret and he may be earning more -- and perhaps he deserves a bump now that his responsibilities have grown.
It is important to point out that what is happening with the Clippers is not the equivalent to what happened with the New Orleans Hornets when the league took over the team in 2010 then infamously vetoed a trade that would've sent Paul to the Lakers. At that time and in that situation, the 29 owners had the final say in those roster moves, and they collectively decided they didn't want the Lakers to have Paul, so they collectively shot down the deal.
Then-commissioner David Stern was made the bad guy, but he was simply listening to his bosses. Hornets general manager Dell Demps was at the opposite end of the power spectrum than Rivers -- he had 29 bosses but had sway with none of them.
The Clippers are in limbo, but they are not owned by the NBA. Their decisions will be made by Parsons and Rivers -- and Parsons will not be getting in Rivers' way.
Rivers is in this position because he's pulled off the rare double of earning the total trust of his players and the respect of owners and top league officials. Clippers players have repeatedly praised Rivers as a steadying force when the Sterling tapes first became public, and he scored huge with the public for his demeanor and leadership as the only member of the Clippers brass who said all the right things publicly.
Silver and the league's owners also have faith that Rivers will use this power responsibility. If and when a sale can be forced, the Clippers' price could reach 10 figures. With ligation on the horizon and revenue challenges with uneasy sponsors, the NBA doesn't want to have to worry about the basketball portion of the process.
The league could have gone with a veteran basketball mind such as Jerry Colangelo or even Stern himself to take over the Clippers in the short run. But it clearly believes that Rivers will prudently use his powers to keep the team a championship contender and not become reckless in a way that might damage the value of the franchise. Entrusting him is one massive vote of confidence in Rivers' character.
When Rivers came to the Clippers last year, he had a good idea of what kind of man he was going to be working for. He haggled over terms of the contract to make sure Sterling had no wiggle room to try to go back on his word later. Having this distraction was unfortunate for his team in the midst of the playoffs, and it's hard to see him as a victim. He certainly is not.
But through it all, Rivers has accomplished something most impressive: He filled a power vacuum with grace and now gets to preside as a benevolent dictator.
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