In a move that falls somewhere in between “somewhat surprising” and “foreseeable”, the Los Angeles Clippers and their head coach of seven years, Doc Rivers, have mutually agreed to “part ways” after a disappointing second-round exit from the Bubble Playoffs. Although he had led arguably the NBA’s most the beleaguered franchise through its most successful era in league history, he ultimately could never get them past the second round of the playoffs.
It didn’t help that this season’s exit at the hands of a Nuggets squad with considerably less playoff experience was the third time he had blown a 3-1 series lead, making him the only coach in NBA history to blow three such leads with three different franchises (and even two). This was also the second star-duo he had failed to lead to the Conference Finals in Los Angeles, and both squads featured plenty of locker room tension, so on the surface the move seems understandable for a coach who is supposed to be known for his ability to deal with clashing egos.
However, there is more to his departure than what’s on the surface. Although Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were consulted before owner Steve Balmer made the ultimate decision to part ways with Rivers, reports say it was Balmer’s decision alone and not a request from either of his stars. (Although let’s be honest: if at least Leonard had said “keep Doc or I’m out”, he’d still be there.)
At this point you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Spurs. Sure, Leonard once played here, but that was two years — really three if you disregard his nine games from the 2018 season that he otherwise chose to sit out — and two teams ago. As San Antonio Express News’ Mike Finger puts it, the Kawhi Saga that has now spanned three franchises has proven one thing: Leonard is no sure thing even if you give him everything he wants, be it championships, roster control, or all the money that can be offered.
The Spurs did that to the best of their abilities despite having limited assets, including giving him full medical control of his quad, indulging in his shenanigans throughout the entire 2017-18 season (and even before), giving him some say on the roster, and offering a max contract extension. Their one requirement was he needed to fully commit to that extension before they gutted the entire team for him (which we’d later learn meant trading for George: something it’s hard to imagine the Pacers would agree to since they had already given the Spurs Leonard via a draft-and-trade). It never happened, and he was traded before he was lost for nothing in return.
A summer later, the Clippers, who already had the advantage of “location”, took things a step further and actually gave him everything he wanted despite only receiving a two-year commitment from him (the third year of his contract contains a player option), including gutting a promising young core for the teammate Leonard always desired in George, and Rivers had to entirely change his stance on “load management” to accommodate Kawhi’s need for “rest” games. It still wasn’t enough, and that proves a point for the Spurs.
But in many ways, Rivers and the Spurs prove each other’s point when it comes to dealing with one of the most talented, yet inscrutable players of his generation.
The Spurs were unwilling to revamp their entire organizational approach to accommodate Leonard, especially if he seemed intent on ending up in Southern California anyway. Now, they can point to Rivers, who after an ugly collapse in the second round of the playoffs left his post in what he and the Clippers called a “mutual” decision, and say, “See? Giving him everything doesn’t work.”
Rivers, meanwhile, can point right back at the Spurs, who fell out of championship contention the moment Leonard was traded to Toronto and then missed the playoffs for the first time in 23 years the next season, and say, “See? If you don’t give him everything, you’re doomed anyway.”
Anyone who thought the Spurs should have done more before letting Leonard walk may now realize he was never going to accept what they could offer because he had his own agenda, and doing everything for him anyways hasn’t worked either. If nothing else, it’s becoming easier to accept that the Spurs did the right thing in letting him go, even if it ultimately cost them their playoff streak and has them on the brink of their first full-blown rebuild for the first time since the mid-80’s.
But as Finger says, there are no victims here. Rivers is a fine coach with a championship pedigree, and he will land on his feat with another playoff contender in short order. There are still openings in Houston and Philadelphia, to name a few, and Philly’s already calling. Who’s to say their one missing piece for true title contention isn’t the right coach? (Update: Sources say the 76ers have indeed hired him as their new coach.)
At least for the moment, Leonard is where he wants to be with the sidekick he always wanted, and most likely the Clippers will continue to give him what he wants to keep him happy. If they don’t, he can start hunting for another suitor next summer when he can opt out of his current deal, and there will be plenty.
The Raptors have a ring to show for their one season of dealing with Leonard, are still a contender despite losing him for nothing, and his departure paved the way for a younger, more dedicated player with star potential in Pascal Siakam — whom Toronto reportedly refused to include in a trade for Leonard, knowing the risk — to grow into the role of franchise player.
And finally, the Spurs will be fine, too. The trade haul they got in return for Leonard may not match what they lost, but Kawhi made that impossible. DeMar DeRozan still helped extend the playoff streak to tie the NBA record, Jakob Poeltl is a promising young talent who is interested in helping the Spurs rebuild, and perhaps most notably, they may have gotten the steal of the 2019 Draft with the pick they acquired for Leonard in their most favorite draft spot: Keldon Johnson at 29th.
They were able to move on from a situation that was looking more unwinnable by the day, and every move Leonard has made since then further justifies letting him go when they did.