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Can father-son, coach-player relationship work in NBA?

There are surely risks involved as Clippers coach Doc Rivers and his son, Austin, reunite in L.A.

POSTED: Jan 15, 2015 10:20 AM ET
UPDATED: Jan 16, 2015 2:23 AM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell


NBA team dynamics would make it hard -- but not impossible -- to maintain a good father-son relationship.

There are times in a coach's life when teaching the game to his son is a fulfilling perk of the job.

And it just makes sense. In the driveway with a hoop over the garage? Yes, absolutely. On the local high school team? Done all the time. In college? Happens more than you think. In these situations, they work.

But in the NBA?

Doc Rivers is all set to coach his son, Austin. This is one of those events never seen before on the highest level and for obvious reasons. The father and son must both be good enough to land NBA jobs ... and then have the quirk of fate to work together. On the surface, it's a made-for-Disney family moment, something everyone would root for.

The Starters: Austin Rivers Trade

Why did the Clippers do this? Seems to have limited their ability to really improve the team.

How wonderful would it be if Austin's young and (so far) unremarkable career is resurrected by none other than his father, and Austin manages to find a limited-yet-useful role off the Clippers' struggling bench? That would be the dream of any son who grew up around the game, as Austin did, and definitely a bucket-list checkmark for the father who taught him.

Back when Austin Rivers was still at Duke, Doc Rivers was asked about someday coaching his son in the NBA and he joked: "It would be great, but then I'd have to listen to his mother complain how I'm not playing him enough."

Actually, that would be the least of Doc's problems in a worst-case scenario. There's the potential for traps that can strip away all the feel-goodness of the experience, mainly jealousy from teammates and the perception of nepotism, especially if Austin Rivers bombs yet is brought back next season. It's hard to imagine his father, a stand-up coach who constantly gets high marks from his players for his ability to relate, allowing that to enter the mix. And he certainly took the pulse of the Clippers' locker room and ran the idea past Chris Paul before he even thought about bringing in Austin.

Fredette to Rivers

Jimmer Fredette finds Austin Rivers for the alley-oop dunk.

Still, the chance of it fizzling is there, which would be painful for all involved. That's why Mike Dunleavy never put him or his son in that situation.

"I've had a great relationship with my son," he said, "and the only way to screw it up was to coach him."

Dunleavy last coached in the NBA in 2009-10 (oddly enough, with the L.A. Clippers) and was 613-716 in a coaching career that spanned four teams (Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, L.A. Lakers) and 17 season.

My conversation with him, if he really wanted me to coach him, would be, 'If we do this, I would have to hold you to a higher standard than the other guys because of all the perception possibilities.'

– Mike Dunleavy Sr., on the notion of coaching his son in the NBA

Dunleavy was joking about his son, but he never felt compelled to add Mike Jr. when the two had the chance to bond back in the mid-2000s. Back then, the father was coach of the Clippers for seven years and had personnel power. His best chance to get his son was 2006 when Mike was on the market and traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Indiana Pacers, and again a few years later, when the Pacers were trying to clear cap space.

"We talked about it internally on our team about how it could be a good fit for us," Dunleavy said. "But when we had interest, his teams had no interest. There was never a time when he was offered to us. In the right situation, it could've worked out, but not early on. I would not have considered it. It would've opened too many cans of worms about his career, and maybe with the guys we already had, and how it would work out position-wise with a few guys."

Up/Down Report

The Starters' Up/Down report covers Doc Rivers potentially coaching his son, a man getting a DeAndre Jordan tattoo, and Gerald Green's "Foam Hand" memorabilia.

Besides, Dunleavy said his son didn't exactly twist his arm to make it happen, either.

"It was a mutual agreement," Dunleavy Sr. said. "And then it never really came up again. He would not have wanted me to coach him unless he was desperate. I don't think he really wanted to be in that situation where he might be forced to deal with things that are said or implied. He'd rather not have to.

"My conversation with him, if he really wanted me to coach him, would be, `If we do this, I would have to hold you to a higher standard than the other guys because of all the perception possibilities.' Some guys, the weaker guys on the team, would want to point the finger and say things. It's one of the negatives to doing it. Therefore, you'd need a veteran team that could handle it and understand it. It's a risk and you have to be really comfortable with it and with your son."

It didn't help that, much like Austin Rivers, Mike Jr. struggled at first to find himself as a player. A former Duke standout as well, Dunleavy Jr. was the No. 3 pick in the 2002 Draft and dealt with steep expectations with the Warriors. He averaged 11.0 ppg in 4½ seasons with the Warriors and eventually got a five-year, $44 million extension from them. But soon thereafter they deemed the deal too expensive and sent him to the Pacers for Stephen Jackson on Jan. 16, 2007.

Dunleavy is now 34 and has a home in the Bulls' rotation. If his father were coaching now, Mike Sr. says being with his son wouldn't be a problem.

That locker room is a sanctuary, usually off-limits to coaches. I would never put my son in position to where he would be compelled to tell me what goes on in the locker room.

– Mike Dunleavy Sr.

"He's more of a facilitator now," Dunleavy Sr. said. "He blends in very well with his teammates and makes them better. Mike is just in a different part of his career, and in a different role. He's more of a point forward. He passes up shots to get guys better shots. I think they like playing with him, as opposed to if he was a gunner, a guy putting up 20 shots, and he's your son. That would cause a lot of grumbling, I would suspect."

Austin Rivers is at the crossroads of his career, which could be why his father is reaching out to him now. He never seemed to be a good fit in New Orleans and appeared confused by his role. He struggled at both guard spots, never really showing a sharp court sense for finding teammates and shooting just 38 percent in his two-plus years there.

He was never coached by his father in high school or college and that could be fueling this father-son fantasy. Whether Doc is taking a risk bringing him to the Clippers depends on how he uses him, how many minutes he gives him, and most of all, how Austin responds.

NBA Rooks: Austin and Doc Rivers, Head to Head

After the Hornets' Austin Rivers addresses his recent struggles, it's an all-access pass to the much awaited matchup pitting son against father.

Will the son feel pressure, real or imagined, from teammates and the outside world? Can he play smarter and show consistency and a specific skill -- 3-point shooting, perhaps -- the Clippers can use? Austin Rivers will either be a novelty act -- hey, it's Doc's son! -- or a functional role player who finally finds a home.

Finally, how will the locker room react? If Austin is embraced by Paul, that's a start. Dunleavy feels if the father-son dynamic can work anywhere, it's with the Clippers. As a mostly veteran team loaded with players who have established and secure roles, there are likely no grenades in the locker room, no one who'll be fighting him for playing time.

"It needs to be a mature locker room, and it would need to be addressed with the players in that room by the coach," Dunleavy said. "That locker room is a sanctuary, usually off-limits to coaches. I would never put my son in position to where he would be compelled to tell me what goes on in the locker room. My conversations with him would need to be as a coach to a player, not as my son. And the other players would need to know that. I'm not sure if they would fully believe it or trust it, though."

Dunleavy laughed.

"That could be perceived as a negative, but there's the flip side as well. The players might use him to come to me with stuff. Like, 'Hey, tell your dad that we're dead and to ease up on us in practice. We got to have a day off.' They'd turn him into a messenger and he'd be instantly valued and accepted. That would be funny."

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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