Doc Rivers' relationship with Danny Ainge was often characterized as a partnership. The Boston Celtics' head coach and president of basketball operations would work together -- on personnel moves and hires and the like -- but Ainge retained final say.
Now with Rivers serving as both the chef and the guy that buys the groceries for the Los Angeles Clippers, he dismisses the idea that there is any discernable difference between his old and new arrangements. Except for the most important part.
"There really is no actual difference in the two roles except when you do disagree," said Rivers, who is in his second season as Clippers head coach and president of basketball ops. "And Danny and I would disagree at times. At times he would say, 'I need to do this, can you go with me?' Or, 'You know what? I'll go with you.' And it's almost the same.
"[Clippers executives] Kevin Eastman, Dave Wohl and Gary Sacks -- it's no different. They'll come in and say they like a deal, and I'll say 'I don't like it.' They'll sit there and say they really like it and, 'You should do it.' One day, I'll go with you and one day I'll disagree. The only difference now is if I really disagree, I get my way."
Rivers might have said this with a wink and he'll continue to maintain there's no substantive difference, but he fully understands that ultimate authority is an enormous privilege -- and he's not going to apologize for that. It's no big deal but, yeah, since you asked, I have veto power.
The job of NBA general manager has advanced mightily over the past decade. As the salary cap has evolved from a polite restraint to a gnarly beast, taming it has become an essential task for every front office. In many respects, ignoring this reality of long-range planning might have as much to do with the state of the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks as anything else. Players still win and lose basketball games, but the guys in control of the machinery that assembles those players have never been more important.
It's in this environment in July 2013 that the Clippers acquired Rivers from the Celtics in exchange for an unprotected 2015 first-round draft pick and the three years and $21 million that remained of Rivers' contract. Though he absorbed a fair amount of criticism for his disinterest in coaching during a rebuilding process in Boston, Rivers was installed not only as head coach, but as senior vice president of basketball operations. Team president Andy Roeser, who had counseled Donald Sterling for 30 years, would still be the primary conduit to ownership, but Rivers would effectively own the general manager title, and the final say.
A little more than a year later, Rivers' contract was replaced with a new one worth $50 million over five years. He also traded a notoriously penny-pincher in Sterling for a rabidly enthusiastic and deep-pocketed Steve Ballmer. More than his resources, Ballmer meant Rivers no longer had to rely on Roeser as the filter between him and the owner. After enduring a spring wherein they were at the center of a gross public spectacle and lost a gut-wrencher of a conference semifinal to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clippers were on top of the world -- and Rivers was the man in charge.
Still, given his lack of experience, onlookers around the league have their fair share of questions about Rivers: The Executive. Does he respect the fact that management is a skill set unto itself, a craft honed not just by years of observation, but by a breadth of day-to-day experience over that same duration? Does he feel the work fundamentally matters? That the thoroughness of information-gathering can vary and that the specific processes employed by each of the 30 teams aren't created equal? Or is Rivers with those who believe the fortunes of a franchise ultimately reside with the head coach, his staff and the 15 players in the locker room?
"Let me say this: As a player -- and I was a player once -- when the deal's down, do you think the players actually think it's the coach and the players, then management, or do you think the players think it's the coach and the management?" was Rivers' rhetorical question. "I mean, come on. It's always the same. It's the same with even contracts. When a player doesn't get his contract, do you think he blames Danny Ainge or do you think they blame the coach? Most of the time, they blame the coach more because they think the coach didn't go to bat for them. You can tell them all day, 'Listen, guys. It was ownership. The only problem I have now is it's tough to blame ownership. You could say ownership didn't want to pay you last year. Now, it's hard to say. Now you have to say, 'I think ownership would pay, but we don't want to pay.'"
In Rivers' view, if and when the Clippers make trade calls on the likes of DeAndre Jordan or one of their wings, any blowback from the locker room was going to land at his feet anyway. But there's a collective belief that a general manager serves as an organization's long-term planner while a head coach feeds the competitive instinct of a franchise to win every night. It's the interplay between these two forces that allows a team to achieve a healthy balance. You actually want a head coach who is focused entirely on a 7:40 p.m. tipoff, just as you want a general manager who cares more about July 1 than tonight's game.
"When you're both coach and general manager, the challenge comes into play with checks and balances," said Mike Dunleavy Sr., who held the dual role for the Clippers officially in 2008, and effectively for a few years prior. "Once you take that job, you have to act in the long-term interest of the franchise. The rule of thumb is, 'If you owned this team, would you do this deal? Would you take this risk with your money?' It's always easy. You have to have other really good people there with you. You have to value their opinions, not just as sounding boards. Checks and balances."
To check him in the front office, Rivers installed longtime assistant coach Eastman as vice president of basketball operations, and league veteran and graybeard -- and also former Boston bench assistant -- Wohl as general manager. He retained Sacks, who assumed the vacancy at the top of the Clippers' executive ranks when former vice president of basketball operations Neil Olshey departed for Portland, though Sacks has effectively been demoted after finishing second for the 2012-13 executive of the year award.
When Rivers is pressed for specific details about his vision and process, he points to the San Antonio Spurs -- and Rivers has a legitimate membership card, having played 155 games with San Antonio -- as his blueprint.
"I just look at the San Antonio model, Pop's the whatever, but at the end of the day, R.C. is working and doing all the stuff," Rivers said. "Then they have a discussion."
But adhering to the sacrifices and discipline that enable such a setup isn't easy. Popovich performed the role of general manager for two-plus seasons before becoming head coach. In some sense, the dual role he claimed in 1996 was a natural merging of his two previous ones. He sits at the fulcrum of that spectrum of opinion about how vital the granular work of the front office is, and that centrism is a major reason why the operation in San Antonio is the NBA's gold standard and why a good fraction of the league's top team executives can trace their lineage back to San Antonio.
The structure and process in Los Angeles are works in progress. A survey of executives and agents reveals that most regard Wohl as the portal into the Clippers, with the understanding that a tight relationship with Rivers means a direct line. Sacks is a familiar entity among his classmates who came up through the scouting ranks. Eastman, who is new to the executive work, wasn't cited as an outgoing call. There's certainly no aversion to Eastman, but he's seen more as counselor or consigliere to Rivers than ambassador or agent and, more than anything, an unknown quantity as an exec as of yet.
Different members of a management team working different counterparts around the league isn't unusual, even in a traditional front office. The question isn't so much who's available, but who can turn the substance of a call into reality. Nobody wants to spend time and spill information about intentions to a rival exec if the person on the other end of the call can't make it happen. To what extent Eastman, Wohl and Sacks have Rivers' trust is still an open question.
"Dave [Wohl] is an information-gatherer, but not a decision-maker," one league power broker said. "Eastman is an unknown, and Gary [Sacks] is good at what he does, but he can't make anything happen."
At the same time, there's also an acknowledgment that earning Rivers' trust is an incremental process. Eastman has been with Rivers on the bench since his first season in Boston. But over time, Rivers upgraded his staff until he had one of the best in the league, and an assistant like Tom Thibodeau is nobody's yes man. If Rivers follows this trajectory in his executive career, we'll see a gradual investment of trust in his most industrious lieutenants with tweaks along the way when he sees opportunities to strengthen the staff. He'll eventually find his front-office Thibodeau, which is encouraging because few see a Buford on his current staff.
"You need to have someone you respect who will say, 'No,'" a rival general manager said. "Maybe Eastman is that guy. He seems reasonable, but does he have knowledge yet for his 'Nos' to be the right call? Dave is a nice guy and he knows the league, but I'm not convinced Doc feels like he has to listen to him because he's the smartest guy in the room."
Rendering a verdict on an executive's tenure is impossible after only 17 months -- and Rivers has worked for Ballmer with sole managerial authority for far less than that. He also inherited the core of team, three players in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan being paid a collective $49 million this season. So credit him some leniency for the dollars but consider him fortunate for the talent.
The highest-profile deal of the Rivers-Ballmer Era came in August, when the Clippers shipped Jared Dudley and a conditional 2017 first-round pick to Milwaukee for Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Raduljica and a 2015 second-round pick. Delfino and Raduljica were waived and stretched (i.e., their salary payments and cap charges were extended over an extended span of time). The head-scratcher wasn't the specific mechanics of the deal so much as how the Clippers boxed themselves into a situation in which they had to incentivize a $4.25 million salary dump with a first-round pick. After signing Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar in free agency, the Clippers were bumping up against the hard cap and forced to get off substantial money in order to field enough bodies for training camp. Far worse deals have been executed by NBA teams, but this wasn't the sort of maneuver associated with teams that have an advanced understanding of the cap's intricacies.
"As dump deals go, it didn't stack up well at all," said a rival executive, one who's mildly optimistic about Rivers' prospects as an exec. "To give up a first and take back two guys to stretch -- maybe it's the best they could do, but it's a bad deal."
More than one source around the league independently suggested the Bucks weren't the highest bidder for Dudley and the pick, but that the Clippers felt they were under the gun to act. In retrospect, the Eric Bledsoe deal -- orchestrated on the Clippers' side by a combination of Roeser and Rivers with a sign-off from Sterling -- amounts to Bledsoe, a No. 1 pick and Caron Butler for J.J. Redick (who could have been available for the mid-level), two guys waived under the stretch provision and a second-round pick that was originally theirs. There's also the familiar refrain that Rivers' taste in reserves is uninspired, and his filling-out of the Clippers' roster has displayed none of the flair of the Spurs' work on the margins. San Antonio might be an unreasonable measuring stick, but if Rivers says the Spurs are the standard, then they're the standard.
Though there's not a strong sense that the Clippers' executive machinery is well-oiled at present, there's still a healthy respect for Rivers' powers of persuasion. He might not spawn a managerial tree like the Spurs, but his arrival in Los Angeles guaranteed Paul's return. If every couple of years he can take Ubuntu into a conference room and sell a top-15 player on his vision, then who cares whether he ceded operational directives to Wohl, Eastman or Sacks?
"Doc's measuring his value that way," a front-office executive said. "I think he respects other executives who use asset management to try to win, but he feels like he can do it his way. And maybe he's right. I don't know anyone who wants to go up against him when there's a superstar doing the rounds [in free agency]. If they have [cap] space is a whole 'nother matter."
Salesmanship must extend to the courting of ownership too, and Rivers seems poised to have Ballmer in his corner. If Ballmer had owned the team in February rather than Sterling, Rivers might be starting 24-year-old Iman Shumpert at the small forward spot this season for $2.9 million. Since Ballmer took over, Rivers has hired a director of analytics, bolstered that staff and continued to advance injury prevention as an objective, an area where he's been ahead of the curve and more thoughtful than many (see sleep science).
And perhaps it's possible that the need for a separation of church and state is overblown because the Clippers have an organizational mandate to win now. Both the coaching staff and front office share an imperative to think short term and climb through the championship window while Paul is still in his prime. Even if Rivers doesn't regard long-range planning as holy, he works in a world defined by the present. That was his happiest time in Boston, so much so that its expiration prompted him to find another present reality, one whose timeline would be entirely in his control.
Doc Rivers found the perfect job for Doc Rivers.