“Doc Rivers stinks as an NBA coach.” – Bill Simmons, 2006.
NBA coach Doc Rivers has had quite the tumultuous career in the NBA. On paper, Rivers has won an NBA Champion, a Coach of the Year, and is the 9th winningest coach in NBA history. He is also listed as one of the top 15 best coaches of all time, according to NBA 75.
If you really look at his career, most of the teams he’s been a part of includes rosters with all-star talent and veteran leadership, supposedly a surefire lock to make a deep playoff run or win multiple rings. Unfortunately, nearly all of his teams have failed to meet these expectations.
Following his commendable playing career from ’84-96, his coaching career spans over 20 years with four teams. Three of these four teams fired him, including his recent departure from the Philadelphia 76ers. Not only has he been fired multiple times, Rivers’ job was involved in a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for a first round pick. Aside from his departures, Doc still gets looked at as a reliable coach “capable” of taking a team to the finals.
Recently, Rivers was fired from Philadelphia after his team suffered a 2nd half Game 7 collapse against his former team, the Boston Celtics. Before this, Philly was up 3-2 against Boston but failed to win a close out game to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. This collapse adds to the many collections of multiple collapses Rivers has suffered in the NBA as a head coach. This can go back to the 2003 playoffs when he was coaching the Orlando Magic.
Rivers as a head coach was a likely spot at this point following his NBA career as a point guard. His leadership, tenacity, and facilitation as a generally translates well to coaching. This earned him a spot in 1999 with the Magic. In his first year at the helm, he led what initially looked like a rebuilding team licking their wounds from the Shaq and Penny era to an improbable 41-41 record. While they didn’t make the playoffs, Rivers established himself as a formidable head coach in his rookie year.
He earned the NBA Coach of the Year this season, an award many NBA executives and media expected he would earn multiple times throughout his career, given his ability to wheel a lowly Orlando team to a .500 record. This was supposed to be the beginning of his proposed legendary coaching career. Despite his early success, the Magic under Rivers never made it past the first round of the playoffs.
A Big Mistake
Let’s go back to 2000 offseason. Back then, a big time unrestricted free agent was looming in the NBA. This free agent was non other than San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan. Already an NBA champion and rookie of the year, he helped David Robinson and the Spurs continue their success as a quality playoff contender.
However, the Spurs main core was getting into their mid-thirties. Duncan at 23 years old was essentially the only threat on the floor against other teams. Robinson was 34, along with the supporting cast over 35 in Avery Johnson, Mario Elie, and Terry Porter. The Spurs were clearly on their last leg after losing against the Phoenix Suns in the first round in 2000.
In the offseason, various articles and reports surrounded the idea of Duncan signing a contract with the Orlando Magic. The Magic already made two splashes in acquiring Tracy McGrady and All-Star Grant Hill. Adding Duncan would hypothetically make them a complete super-team. Apparently, the contract was settled with Duncan and Orlando, and it appeared that the NBA would see him in a Magic uniform.
The only problem? Doc Rivers apparently refused to grant Duncan’s request of his family flying with the team during “some” games.
This main issue was the reason Duncan re-signed with San Antonio. If Rivers granted permission, his coaching career would have changed dramatically, along with the entire landscape of the NBA.
Maybe this article wouldn’t be written for all the wrong reasons.
Playoff Growing Pains
Nevertheless, the acquisition of McGrady, Hill, and drafting sharpshooter Mike Miller pushed Rivers’ Magic to playoff contention in the following seasons. Unfortunately, this core never made it out of the first round. Hill was constantly injured and only played a total of 47 games during his first three years in Orlando.
The first cause for concern in Rivers was his coaching. To substitute the huge loss of Duncan, the Magic tried a couple of options that were deemed insufficient. Power Forward Horace Grant, who was an integral part during the Magic’s Finals run in the mid-nineties, returned to make a second stint. Under Rivers, Grant didn’t survive the first two months of on the team because he didn’t get along with Rivers. The Magic would also sign aging star Patrick Ewing, a choice that tarnished his overall NBA career and many fans would love to forget.
Given their lack of depth in the front court, Rivers’ Magic surprisingly took the Detroit Pistons to a 3-1 series lead in 2003. This was where his choke jobs started happening.
Rivers eventually blew the lead and got bounced out of the first round for the third straight year. The main reason why Rivers blew this 3-1 lead was because of his depth and inability to make adjustments. Pistons head coach Rick Carlisle at the time made the adjustment to put Tayshaun Prince, a crafty defensive wing, on T-Mac after not playing him for Game 1. This essentially proved to be the deciding factor, as T-Mac was Rivers’ only scoring option.
Doc never recovered from this devastating loss, as he was fired in the following year after going 1-10 in the first 11 games of the ’03-’04 season.
The problem with Doc’s incapability of advancing was his predictable coaching style, his lack of adjustments, and the over-reliance on his star players. He relied solely on T-Mac for nearly 45 minutes per game on average every season in the playoffs. Since co-star Grant Hill was injured for most of his tenure as a Magic, Doc had less trust in McGrady’s supporting cast, and refused to use them to their capabilities.
Even with rookie talent Mike Miller finally receiving more minutes in his third regular season (37.3) the Magic would trade him away before the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies. Ironically, this is when Miller broke out as a player.
While these problems as a relatively new head coach could be normal, they never left Doc’s tendencies as he got older.
More Of The Same
At the time, media concluded that Rivers was still a young coach, and needed a change of scenery to regain the initial success he had with Orlando. Following his departure, Doc was hired by the Boston Celtics in the 2004 offseason. At the time, the Celtics had finally found their footing over the last few seasons.
After a long hiatus following the Larry Bird era, Boston was back in playoff contention after building their team around franchise star Paul Pierce. Even in 2002, the Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then it’s been mostly first round exits. Newly hired Celtics Executive Danny Ainge at the time believed hiring Doc would get them over the hump and become Finals contenders.
However, the first few seasons didn’t prove to be the case. Boston only made it to the first round in Doc’s first year and then suffered two consecutive seasons of losing records in the process.
Compared to Orlando, the city of Boston doesn’t take kindly to losing. Die hard Bostonians called for Rivers’ to be fired, including NBA media analyst Bill Simmons. Simmons, working for Page 2, ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy’s World, really grilled the Celtics young coach. This was the start of a long term feud between Simmons and Doc, and it’s still ongoing.
Finally, Some Success!
However, after an abysmal 24-58 in his third year as head coach, Ainge made some changes. Pierce, who was desperate for quality veterans, got his wish, and then some. In the offseason, the Celtics turned from a less than mediocre team with one franchise player to a Big Three. This followed the acquisitions of future Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen from both of their respected teams. Although these trades completely gutted their bench, it turned this roster into an immediate NBA Finals contender, going from 24-58 to 66-16 in just one season.
Pierce, Garnett, and Allen all had to be healthy in order for this to work. And if you know NBA basketball, it did. However, their championship run definitely wasn’t a cakewalk.
Near Playoff Upsets
The Eastern Conference during the mid 2000s was much easier to make the playoffs compared to the West. Namely 2008, where only two teams had over 50 wins, the Big 3 Boston Celtics, the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic, and the defensive minded Detroit Pistons. The eighth seeded team was the 37-45 Atlanta Hawks. Compared to the West, it was a dogfight. Seeds 1-8 had teams with at least 50 wins. Based on this information, you’d think the Celtics would run away with the East. Although they did reach the Finals, it definitely wasn’t easy.
In Round 1 of the playoffs, the 66-16 Celtics barely beat the 37-45 Atlanta Hawks in seven games. In a series where it was initially wasn’t supposed to be a challenge, Boston nearly blew their historic regular season.
The second round was also seven games. Against LeBron James surrounded by a bunch of has-beens, Boston’s Big Three nearly fell to a team that heavily relied on a 23-year old. LeBron’s usage rate during this series was 37.8%.
Fun fact, Boston heavily relied on their home court advantage, winning all their home games in the first two rounds. Both the Hawks and Cavs took Boston to seven games because of their in-game adjustments on the Big Three and Boston’s complacency. For Rivers to allow Boston to take both these teams in seven speaks volumes of the inability to face adversity against teams that have no business taking a chance to upset Boston.
The Eastern Conference Finals Matchup was against the Detroit Pistons. Finally, an actual team with championship experience worth playing. Oddly enough, Doc’s Celtics handled this series pretty well, defeating them in six games.
It’s definitely well-known that Detroit was on their last legs of a long playoff run dating back to 2003. After this year it was pretty much over and they went into a rebuild the following season.
Rivers successfully led the Celtics to their first NBA Championship, toppling the Los Angeles Lakers in a decisive six-game series. This triumph not only solidified Rivers’ reputation as a “top-tier” NBA coach, but also offered the sweet satisfaction of besting long-time rivals, the Lakers. Even Bill Simmons admitted he was wrong for a period of time.
The argument here was due to the fact that the Lakers were just getting acclimated by the trade that brought in All-Star Pau Gasol. The defense by Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett awfully made it difficult for Pau and Lamar Odom to get their rhythm in the paint. Also, Ray Allen was lights out from deep, with a blistering 52% on 42 total attempts. He was a pest guarding Kobe Bryant, as the Black Mamba shot only 40% from the field in this series.
Again, if you know NBA Basketball, this was the only ring Doc has ever won in his career. To this day, it’s arguable that he continues to receive work in the NBA because of it.
Let’s point out that this was the year that the Big three were not only healthy, but also, they were in their prime. Rivers was more than happy to give them all the minutes in the playoffs, as they each averaged 38 of them. The player with the highest minutes of the bench was James Posey, with 22. It’s also worth noting that Doc did not start any other player other than his traditional starting lineup.
After this ring, Rivers failed to win another NBA Finals. The only time he ever came close was in 2010. The Big 3 was getting older, with Garnett a year removed from a season ending knee injury. Even though most of their prime was behind them, Doc’s Celtics made it to the Finals again. Better yet, they led the 2010 Lakers up 3-2 heading to their home floor in Boston.
From the outside looking in, this looked like a positive Deja Vu moment. However, they failed to capitalize. A blowout loss in Game 6 along with their starting center, Kendrick Perkins, suffering a knee injury forced Doc to go into their depleted bench.
First and foremost, signing an out of shape Rasheed Wallace didn’t help. While his offense was there, his defense on the court lacked the bravado Wallace had on the Pistons. Moreover, Lakers’ Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum outdueled Wallace on the boards. The Lakers grabbed 20 more rebounds than Boston in this win or go home game.
This was far from replicating 2008, as the Celtics lost Game 7 in a defensive-minded game before taking a 3-2 series lead in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Oddly enough, this 3-2 series lead would become the new Deja Vu for Doc Rivers, as his Celtics main core continued to age and fail to make another deep playoff run. Following a loss to the new look Miami Heat in 2011 in five games during the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Boston recovered the next season with new leadership and took a 3-2 series lead against the Heat in the Conference Finals. Point Guard Rajon Rondo finally earned more trust from Doc this year. After a couple of All-Star selections, Rondo was coming in his own and earned a career-high in playoff minutes (42.6).
Heading back to Boston, they pursued to make a return to the Finals. Unfortunately, that was not on the Heat’s Big 3’s assignment. LeBron played his best brand of basketball ever in the TD Garden as the Heat came back from a 3-2 deficit and went to a second straight NBA Finals.
This was Boston’s last ditch effort to even make any sort of playoff noise, as they failed to make it past the first round against the New York Knicks in the following year. Ray Allen was on a different team, and both Pierce and Garnett were in their mid-thirties. Rondo also tore his ACL during the regular season and was out for the remainder of the year.
Big 3 Depletion
Doc failed to build around the aging Celtics three with younger talent. Aside from Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, the Celtics hardly had any established names in the back end of his rotation. Guard Jason Terry was in father time, two years removed from his legendary championship run on the Dallas Mavericks. Forward Brandon Bass was a complete liability on the offensive end.
Although Doc’s first year with the Big 3 glittered with a Championship trophy, it was all the team could muster. As the core aged over the years, the quest for a rock-solid bench became a recurring battle, casting a shadow over what could have been a dynasty.
In the second part of this analysis, I will continue to analyze Docs coaching career as his journey went to Los Angeles following his Celtics tenure.
Jeremy Gretzer is a contributor on Back Sports Page. Along with receiving his MBA in Marketing, He has over a year in sports journalism, and has interviewed various NBA figures such as Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, along with players such as Jarred Vanderbilt, Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun. Gretzer has a podcast on YouTube called Cut The Nets which airs every Tuesday night along with his co-host Brian Ramos. For more on Jeremy, his Twitter is @Jr_Gretzer and Instagram (@J.r.gretzer).