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Doc Rivers hits coaching market, and Rockets are interested

The NBA coaching carousel just got turbocharged.

Time for the Rockets to hop on.

This is not to say they need to get first in line to hire Doc Rivers, who became available Monday when his run with the Los Angeles Clippers came to a stunning end. They do, however, need to move from the two weeks of planning and vetting since Mike D’Antoni told them he would not be back to step up the process to get a sit-down with Rivers and find if there can be a fit.

The Rockets do have interest in Rivers, a person with knowledge of the team’s thinking said. They were expecting and likely still plan to begin requesting permission to speak with candidates or scheduling meetings by Wednesday or Thursday. Those candidates are expected to include Tyronn Lue, Jeff Van Gundy, Kenny Atkinson, Wes Unseld Jr., Stephen Silas and possibly Sam Cassell.

The Rockets could expand their list, even before the first steps begin. They are focusing on former head coaches and top assistants and will not look at any former player taking his first job, as with the Nets’ selection of Steve Nash. They plan to have to a broader search than when former owner Leslie Alexander was quickly sold on D’Antoni in 2015 but will not cast as wide a net as when Kevin McHale was the choice in 2010.

The meetings the past two weeks were to assess their team and plot their strategies. The Rockets were wise to move at a deliberate pace, carefully studying their needs and options, examining potential candidates. There was no need to hurry in an attempt to fill an important vacancy, knowing the next coach will likely guide the rest of James Harden’s and Russell Westbrook’s prime and maybe beyond.

Even the potential competition with an abundance of open attractive jobs, rather than rebuilding projects, was not going to make the Rockets rush.

Rivers, however, could be a reason to immediately change the plan and timetable to determine if the latest free agent coach would be right for them. And if Van Gundy is to be a candidate in Los Angeles or Lue is a legitimate possibility in Philadelphia, there is more reason to move.

There is an overflow of recency bias about Rivers. The Clippers fell short. As with the Rockets, they were a win-now team with a pair of superstars and championship expectations. Their second-round loss was a bitter disappointment and, like the Rockets, not their first.

“We didn’t meet (expectations,)” Rivers said the night the Clippers were eliminated by the Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. “I’m the coach and I’ll take any blame for it. But we didn’t meet our expectations, clearly.”

He was also the guy that guided the Clippers from their past as the worst franchise in sports history, a rise that had begun, to the sort of team that could legitimately expect to win the championship. He led them through the ugly, final Donald Sterling scandal as owner and provided a sincere, clear (if raspy) voice to the passions and motivations of this summer and the NBA restart.

He did not win a championship. He did not get the Clippers out of the second round for a second time in L.A. with a 3-1 lead. Sometimes teams fall short of expectations, even with superstars. The Miami Heat of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (champions both) lost the Finals in six games in their first season. Sometimes, it takes time. And no season brought the chemistry-building hurdles of 2020 with the Clippers facing excessive bubble tumult.

The NBA, however, will not define Rivers by the way his 21st season in coaching ended or even the other times his teams had a 3-1 lead and did not advance. (Somehow, he did not devise a game plan to prevent getting 3-balled out by Corey Brewer and Josh Smith.) The Sixers and Pelicans will likely look his way, assuming he is interested.

Until Monday, Rivers was second among active coaches in career wins. He is a leader, the sort that can establish a culture. He has always put together loaded coaching staffs.

“Doc has been a terrific coach for the Clippers, an incredible ambassador, and a pillar of strength during tumultuous times,” Clippers owner Steve Balmer said in his announcement.

That does not make him the coach the Rockets have to get. It does make him a good place — the right place if he is willing — to start their search.

They are fortunate that they are looking for a coach at a time the market is well-stocked with qualified candidates, including two — Lue and Cassell — off Rivers’ coaching staff and several others — Van Gundy, Atkinson and Silas — they know well.

They will seek many things. They want someone that can embrace but perhaps enhance their philosophy and the core of the roster built to play it. They will want someone that fits with the management style of Tilman Fertitta and Daryl Morey, of the analytics team and especially Harden and Westbrook.

Most of all, they will seek a leader, someone the Rockets believe will get the most out of a roster they consider better than this season’s results.

That might be Rivers. Suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly, 15 days after Mike D’Antoni departed, it is time to find out.

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