Doc Rivers and the inevitable end of the NBA's ruling coaching class

Will Doc concede power to Frank? (0:54)

Marcellus Wiley says new Clippers GM Lawrence Frank has more leverage than Doc Rivers in Los Angeles. (0:54)

Doc Rivers had finished talking about his vision of running the LA Clippers, about the partnership possibilities of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, about the Spurs' management model, about a bright new NBA vista, and now he was walking outside a lunch spot in Century City, California, on a sun-splashed September afternoon.

Arms stretched out, palms up, Rivers asked four years ago: "How can you not love this?"

He had revered his nine years in Boston, but his arrival in Los Angeles, given the talent on the Clippers and the opportunity to oversee a franchise with fledgling stars, spoke to something so much more intoxicating about his new Southern California home.

Eventually, through a harsh window in time, his Clippers reality would become exceedingly better: Donald Sterling was pushed out as owner, and Steve Ballmer -- supremely smart, richest of the richest owners and committed to investing in winning -- purchased the Clippers out of the grips of scandal and chaos.

Together, Rivers and Ballmer rebranded the Clippers in a post-Sterling era. Together, they chased a championship, only to witness an unholy blend of injuries and the clashing of star egos -- plus, yes, shortsighted choices with trade assets and deals. The Clippers sidestepped the free-agency loss of Jordan to Dallas but couldn't stop Paul's determination to leave in free agency -- and had to trade him to Houston.

Looking back, Rivers represented a shift into a new autocracy in the NBA, the centralized power of the championship coach to rule the organizational day. Miami's Pat Riley had created the image of the bigger-than-life free agent recruiter, but the reality of running a franchise's basketball operations is a far less dramatic ideal. It is a job of incremental progress and long-term strategic planning, gathering and cultivating assets to pursue the big deals. It is tens of thousands of hours of relationship-building, information-gathering and deal-making in the shadows. The impulsiveness of a coach can be ruinous, and it's no model for sustainability.

On Friday, Ballmer relieved Rivers of his role as president of basketball operations. Rivers' losing his front-office duties isn't so much an indictment of his individual fitness for the duties, but the fact that it is suited for no one coach in this modern era. For everyone trying to replicate the San Antonio dynasty, understand this: The Spurs have the greatest coach (Gregg Popovich) and greatest executive (RC Buford) of a generation. As much as it's the ultimate model, it's the ultimate aberration too. Popovich (also the president of Spurs basketball) defers to the expertise and judgment of Buford (the president of sports franchises) in ways that Minnesota president and coach Tom Thibodeau will likely never do with a GM.

"The job is enormous," Ballmer told ESPN on Friday.

It is two separate and distinct jobs, and that's largely why Rivers was so instrumental with elevating Lawrence Frank into the front office a year ago. Frank has started building out a serious-minded, process-oriented group that is trying to reflect the changing day in the NBA, where long-term strategic planning separates sustainability of success and the occasional spasm of success.

Rivers remains an elite coach, and it's a misjudgment to believe that Ballmer moving him out of the front office is a prelude to running him out of the organization. If the Clippers' new top basketball executive had been anyone else but Frank, Rivers might have walked himself. There's trust there, and a bond. This structure can work for the Clippers, and Rivers could end up signing a coaching extension beyond the two years, $23 million left on his contract.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver believes that Rivers did a great service to the franchise's value, and to the NBA, with how he held together the organization and its star players through the tumult of the Sterling nightmare. Silver wasn't necessarily against Rivers' ascension to the top of the Clippers masthead, but the commissioner has privately expressed concerns to owners and senior franchise officials in several instances, case by case, about the dynamic of the coach-in-charge model, league sources said.

The president-coach model has cycled through several incarnations, including the failed regimes of Rick Pitino and John Calipari, who never accepted that the players are the stars in the NBA; dictatorships work only on campus.

Four years ago, Rivers told me: "The risk is all mine. To go to an organization that hasn't won but [two] playoff series in their entire history, in a town where the other team is the best franchise in sports history -- that's risk.

"But the opportunity -- for me -- gives me life. If we get this right, it will be the story of stories to tell. At this point in my life, the gamble is worth it."

Four years later, Chris Paul is gone, and so is the absoluteness of presidential power. This doesn't need to be the end for Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, but rather only a reset on an experiment that had run its course. Perhaps this will be seen only as a demotion to everyone else, but maybe it's this too: How the structure should've always been, a championship coach on the floor with two All-Stars and a mandate to integrate nine new players, and a front-office structure with an eye on the long game.

The Clippers are back to the natural push-and-pull of management and coaching, Ballmer's new choice for honoring a $2 billion franchise investment. Looking back and looking ahead, it was inevitable.