PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — The Clippers didn’t realize it at the time, but the future of their organization hung in the balance as late as last Sunday night.
Doc Rivers had given up any thoughts of becoming their next coach. He turned off his cell phone and left home to watch his youngest son play in an AAU basketball game. He was already convinced he was returning to the Boston Celtics.
“I really had given up,” he said Wednesday after he was introduced as the Clippers new coach. “I just thought it was not going to happen.”
The fact it did, after almost two weeks of haggling with the Celtics, was important on two fronts: The Clippers got the coach who was at the top of their list, and they increased their chances of re-signing point guard Chris Paul, whose return still isn’t assured but will certainly be aided by Rivers’ presence.
“We’re just going to have to wait until he makes his decision and signs his contract,” team president Andy Roeser said. “All the indications are that he likes and respects Doc, and we hope that that helps.”
Rivers, 51, gives the franchise instant credibility from top to bottom. He played 13 seasons in the NBA and has coached for 14, winning an NBA title with the Celtics in 2008. Players universally respect his knowledge and his style, and Paul reportedly supported the hiring from the beginning.
Rivers is expected to name Alvin Gentry as associate head coach and will put him in charge of the Clippers’ offense. Gentry, who coached the Clippers between 2000-03, had been offered a position as assistant head coach with Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni but opted to join Rivers.
With the Clippers, Rivers also will carry the title of senior vice president of basketball operations, meaning he will have authority to make and approve any personnel moves. That’s something his predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, never had.
“When that part was added, at least from my end, it became very attractive to me,” Rivers said. “It’s a different challenge. It’s not just coaching a team, but trying to help build a team with the moves you want to make.”
He surely will have an impact this week. The draft is Thursday, and the Clippers, who hold the 25th pick in the first round, have needs. They must also decide which of their free agents to bring back.
The Clippers set a franchise record with 56 regular season wins, but they also lost their opening-round playoff series to the Memphis Grizzlies, a defeat viewed throughout the organization as a massive failure.
“We didn’t win it last year, so there’s clearly work to do,” Rivers said. “The reason I wanted this (job) when it was made available is because of what they have. I clearly think this is an extremely talented basketball team. There were times last year when they were the best team, but can we do that in the postseason? I like the talent we have here, but obviously we’re going to look to improve.”
The key components are going to be forward Blake Griffin and Paul, assuming he signs. Rivers praised Griffin and said he and center DeAndre Jordan could potentially be “the best combination of bigs in the league.”
Of Griffin, Rivers said, “He’s a super athlete, but he’s so much more than that. I don’t think he gets enough credit for all the other stuff. His dunks kind of block out all the other things he does. One of his best attributes that no one knows is that he’s a great passer, a European-talented passer.”
It was the Clippers’ youth — Griffin and Jordan are 24, Paul is 28 — that drew Rivers’ initial interest. But he hadn’t given them much thought until Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, told him the Clippers were one of several teams inquiring about him.
Rivers still had three years and $21 million left on his contract with the Celtics, but it didn’t stop the Clippers from identifying him as their primary coaching target.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was told he wasn’t available, both directly and indirectly,” Roeser said. “But that’s what perseverance is, and that’s what we decided to pursue.”
Asked why he believed Ainge would even consider parting with Rivers, Roeser said, “After you’re in this business long enough, you just develop a sense. I just had a sense that if we stayed after this, it could work out.
“There were times when I read in the papers and saw on the Internet that it was never going to work out, and times that it was a done deal. I didn’t believe either until we finished up with Danny on Sunday and ultimately with the paperwork yesterday.”
Rivers was among those who had given up on the possibility of coming to L.A. He knew of the negotiations, but when the teams seemed to reach an impasse Friday over compensation — the Clippers ultimately offered an unprotected first-round pick in 2015 — the wheels began turning again.
But until then, Rivers believed he was returning to Boston for a 10th season.
“I had just had enough of it,” he said. “I called Danny and said, ‘I’m staying, I’m coming back, I’m coaching. That’s what I am. Let’s move forward.’
“Two hours later he told me, ‘No you’re not staying.'”
Now the Clippers hope other matters will fall into place — Paul’s re-signing for the max deal of five years and $107.3 million, a useful draft pick and a change in culture that will keep the team moving toward an NBA championship.
“We’re going for it,” Roeser said. “Let there be no mistake, we want to win. We brought Doc here to help us do that.”