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What went wrong for Doc Rivers and the Clippers



ON THE NIGHT the LA Clippers landed Kawhi Leonard as a free agent and traded for Paul George last July, Doc Rivers talked with the team’s president of basketball operations, Lawrence Frank, dozens of times.

First there was a debate over just how much the Clippers should give up in the trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for George. Would Leonard really sign with the rival Lakers if the Clippers failed to acquire George as his co-star? Could they afford to find out?

The conversation had been ongoing for days, but by the night of July 5, it was time to decide. Four future first-round picks and promising young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a lot. But trading for George and signing Leonard would make them instant title contenders. Clippers chairman Steve Ballmer would make the final decision, but he wanted their opinion, too.

For Rivers, the choice was simple. If you have a chance to win a championship, you go for it. Because those chances don’t come around very often.

Rivers was having dinner at Nobu, a high-end sushi restaurant in Malibu, when Frank sent him a text saying the deal was done. He largely contained his excitement, although a curious security guard saw him yell out, “Yesssss!”

Once Rivers got into his car, he and Frank could be more candid about what the franchise had just done. He’d experienced franchise-altering moves like this before. When he’d coached the Boston Celtics, the team acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 to pair with Paul Pierce.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick had counseled him then, “You either land the plane smoothly or it’s a plane crash.”

A championship was expected now. And if it didn’t work out, Rivers joked with Frank, everybody was getting fired.

MORE: The Clippers’ gamble to replace Doc has to hit

IT WAS NOT the kind of joke you laugh at. Just a statement of fact, funny only in its searing honesty. Still, when it came to Rivers, it was hard to imagine the Clippers making good on the implicit threat. Even when he publicly took responsibility for the Clippers’ failure to advance out of the second round of the playoffs, blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets, few within the organization or around the league suspected Rivers would take the fall.

This was Doc Rivers, the coach who had brought a credibility the franchise had never had before with his arrival in 2013. Doc Rivers, the man who led the franchise and the league through the scandal over former owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks in 2014. Doc Rivers, the Black coach whom NBA Players Association president Chris Paul had called to address the league’s players on Aug. 26, when the NBA paused to grapple with social justice issues.

His voice had become one of the most powerful in all of sports. And after three other Black head coaches had been fired this year, it was hard to conceive that Rivers would be the fourth.

Behind the scenes, though, no one knew where Ballmer would land. As excitable and expression-filled as he generally appears during games, he has been hard to read as an NBA owner.

When he bought the team in 2014, Ballmer made a point of saying he would take his time to learn and study the organization before making any big moves, “I don’t know the first thing about owning a basketball team,” Ballmer said over a long lunch, following his introductory press conference. “I was joking with some of the players, ‘You all know more about what an owner should do than I do because I’ve neither worked for an owner nor been an owner.'”

And indeed, Ballmer took his time in assessing how best to move the Clippers forward. His most memorable change the first few seasons was probably creating a mascot for the team, Chuck the Condor.

But those close to Ballmer knew it was only a matter of time before he put his stamp on the franchise. He made his fortune as a technology entrepreneur by constantly looking to innovate. And once he’d learned the ropes as an NBA owner, he brought that culture to the Clippers. Employees were urged to come up with new ideas and present evidence to support them.

So when Ballmer and Rivers began discussing what had gone wrong this season, sources said that instinct is what led Ballmer to question whether a new way of looking at the team, or a new voice, is what the Clippers really needed.

Over the course of about 10 days following the Clippers’ Game 7 loss to the Nuggets, the third consecutive game the team had blown a double-digit lead in the second half, Ballmer and Rivers had multiple lengthy phone conversations, sources said.

Ballmer consulted with Frank, minority shareholder Dennis Wong, consultant Jerry West and general manager Michael Winger. Before a final decision was made, sources said Ballmer called several key players — including George and Leonard — to get their opinions. Nothing the players told him, sources said, changed Ballmer’s mind about moving on from Rivers. Ultimately, the decision to part ways with Rivers was Ballmer’s.

Rivers didn’t feel comfortable continuing as coach without the full support of Ballmer, believing a solid relationship between the coach and ownership was fundamental to success in the NBA. Ballmer didn’t feel entirely convinced that Rivers had a better strategy and approach to next season than a new coach with a new viewpoint.

It was made official Monday morning, but sources said, it had become obvious over the weekend the relationship had come to an end.

THE DECISION SENT shockwaves through the league. Like Belichick had warned him all those years ago, the coach of a team with championship expectations either wins a title or crash lands. But the Clippers’ failure as a team was so widespread it was hard to pin it solely on Rivers.

Rivers believed the team was undone by a lack of chemistry and leadership. They needed more time together than the handful of games they played at full strength as Leonard and George worked their way back from injuries and slowly integrated into the grittier team that had overachieved the year before. And he believed they were finding that identity, right before the season stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The last 10 games, we were turning into the Clippers,” Rivers told reporters on a Zoom call during the hiatus. “We started understanding each other. … We were playing seamlessly through Kawhi and PG. It wasn’t forced anymore. Guys weren’t trying to stay out of each other’s way. You could feel the rhythm.

“I really thought we were about to make a crazy run down the stretch. And unfortunately, bam, it stopped.”

Rivers had hoped the bubble environment would be good for the Clippers’ chemistry. Instead, Patrick Beverly, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams missed significant time due to deaths of family or friends outside the bubble. Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet were late in arriving after contracting COVID-19. Then Beverley and Harrell struggled with their conditioning once they returned to the team.

The biggest issue, however, was the team’s collective spirit.

During the four and half-month layoff, the team tried to stay together through text messages and workouts. Sources said that as the season restart grew nearer, George and Leonard organized team workouts several times a week, in either Los Angeles, the Inland Empire or San Diego.

Still, there were several key players — most notably Williams — who were never fully on board with finishing the season in the bubble. And against the backdrop of social unrest around the country, Rivers gathered the team for a vote on whether to restart at all.

It passed but was not unanimous.

After the season was halted on Aug. 26, the Clippers again voted on whether to finish the season. This time, they voted no. It wasn’t until Rivers was summoned to a late-night team meeting that the team voted to continue on with the season.

For Rivers, this was everything. None of the chemistry issues and injuries that kept them from finding a rhythm on the court were going to change unless the players embraced their time together in the bubble and the chance to win a championship.

He didn’t mind talking through emotional issues with his team, but he couldn’t keep being the loudest voice in the room, pushing them onward. At some point that leadership had to come from within. Neither Leonard nor George had ever been a vocal leader. Beverley wasn’t afraid to express his opinions, but he had a hard time getting back into condition during the restart and then staying on the court and out of foul trouble during games. Williams was seen by many as a leader, but he’d been unenthusiastic about the bubble to begin with and disappointed many in the organization by visiting a gentleman’s club in Atlanta while attending the funeral of a friend’s father.

When Rivers retraced and analyzed what went wrong with Ballmer, these are the issues he focused on. His plan for next season involved staffing changes, schematic adjustments and improved chemistry from another year of playing together. He also believed they needed a true point guard to help organize their offense.

For Ballmer the questions were different: Why was there a lack of leadership? Why was the chemistry lacking? Why were players so unenthusiastic about playing in the bubble?

RIVERS AND BALLMER delved into all of these questions and issues in the 10 days following the season-ending loss to Denver. They simply could not find common ground on a vision for the future.

When Rivers and Ballmer spoke Monday, the only thing left to do was discuss how they’d deliver and present the news, sources said.

It was lost on no one that the Clippers official release said that Ballmer and Rivers had reached a mutual decision that Rivers would step down. This was between them. Two strong-willed titans of their own industries, who’d come together in an arranged marriage six years ago. The marriage had survived a lot in those six seasons. Frankly, it survived better than most marriages where the owner chooses his or her head coach.

Ballmer had been methodical and deliberate in learning how to be an NBA owner. He’d spent six years assessing the franchise he’d bought for $2 billion, and formulating a vision for its future.

He’d traded away a tremendous amount of draft picks and young talent for George and the best chance at signing Leonard. Then he dropped $400 million to buy the Inglewood Forum, to clear the way for his franchise to have a gleaming new arena to play in. This is his vision.

Rivers has always had a gift for knowing exactly what to say in the toughest situations. But Steve Ballmer said everything he needed to on Monday, when he decided that wasn’t enough.

MORE: Was Doc really the problem for the Clippers?


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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