We should acknowledge that quietly taking a demotion when you’re someone as famous and successful as Doc Rivers is praiseworthy. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday that Clippers franchise owner Steve Ballmer stripped Rivers of his title as president of basketball operations, giving front office power exclusively to friend of Rivers and current general manager Lawrence Frank.
Rivers remains head coach, and is reportedly comfortable with the arrangement. Woj indicated Rivers may have bailed had Ballmer brought in someone new to slide in above Rivers on the organizational chart.
Rivers likely does not believe he has failed as a GM, and Ballmer has carefully avoided public suggestion that he believes Rivers has failed as a GM. But you don’t usually replace someone doing a good job. We can all see the cards on the table. Roc Divers, Doc’s GM alter ego (shout out to NBA Twitter), got fired.
This type of move had already happened once this summer: the Hawks installed a GM, Travis Schlenk, above Mike Budenholzer amid a tumultuous offseason. Budenholzer didn’t quit; perhaps the odd nature of his initial ascension to that front office role amid the Danny Ferry racism investigation meant Bud never actually wanted it. (That’s a touch hard to believe.)
Anyway, at the time, I wondered if Ballmer could make the same sort of change, and whether doing so would cost the Clippers the coaching services of Rivers. Ballmer not only saw the need to try it, but by choosing Frank, he made it work without losing Rivers.
The next target has to be Stan Van Gundy in Detroit.
The Pistons had a madly disappointing season. The biggest disappointments on the roster were Reggie Jackson -- a player Van Gundy traded for and paid handsomely -- and Stanley Johnson, a Van Gundy lottery pick. Most of the roster is now made of Van Gundy acquisitions.
The one glowing exception is Andre Drummond, who is simultaneously the Pistons’ best asset and most maddening player. Van Gundy honestly doesn’t seem to like Drummond much. We keep waiting for his name to pop into trade rumors for real. Drummond is still the type of player GMs are willing to get fired for: a big prospect who could change the nature of the league if he ever puts it all together. Van Gundy must see that, even as Drummond is a bit of a nightmare for coaches due to his inconsistency and the gaping holes in his game.
You wonder if Van Gundy would have already made a Drummond trade if he were merely the coach of the Pistons. As the GM, he understands Drummond’s value and won’t trade him for a song. It’s a weird situation.
That sort of situation is one Tom Thibodeau has navigated ably in Minnesota. After one year, he traded fan and team favorites Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine. The LaVine decision was easy — he left town in the Timberwolves’ theft of Jimmy Butler. The Rubio trade is tougher to swallow, as he was a cap space dump to make room for Jeff Teague. Rubio is a hard worker on the court and beloved by his teammates. One presumes Thibodeau enjoyed coaching him.
But as a GM, Thibodeau understood the need for more shooting around Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins. Teague provides that. It seems like a fairly unemotional move in the end, one that GMs need to be able to make.
Rivers was never able to make that sort of move. Jamal Crawford stuck around for years although his salary space was probably better used for a younger, more defense-oriented wing. Austin Rivers, of course, has found a home in Los Angeles under his father. Rivers brought in a parade of both former players and former opponents. He relied too much on emotion to be a successful GM while using emotion to be quite a successful coach.
Van Gundy isn’t overly emotional in either role, but he’s barely keeping afloat. He was brought in to carry the Pistons into a new era of success, but he has two losing seasons in three and not a single playoff win. The current setup is not working. He is still a helluva coach — he was always underrated in Miami and Orlando — but someone else needs to be in the seat of power when it comes to the roster.
Detroit has some important decisions coming. Heck, the Pistons have already made some big decisions! Detroit sent Marcus Morris to Boston for Avery Bradley, which is a good move that opens some playing space for Johnson in theory. In a domino effect of that move, Van Gundy renounced the rights to restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, which was a bit mystifying to be honest.
Overall, Detroit isn’t appreciably better this season. That’s not good when you consider they missed the playoffs in the mediocre Eastern Conference last year.
The time had come for Roc Divers, and he accepted his fate. Will Van Gan Stundy do the same? Will he be forced to? For the Pistons, that would be best.