For the proud franchise that is the Boston Celtics, losing games is not acceptable. So when the C’s put together a string of two straight losing seasons midway through the new millenium’s first decade, including the ever-forgettable 24-win campaign in 2006-2007, somebody was going to feel blame’s scorching heat. It should have been the players; after all, it was them on the floor kicking games away. It was the players who were throwing turnovers, missing jumpers and losing games. But it wasn’t.
It was Doc Rivers. In retrospect, of course, it was ludicrous to expect that team to win many (any?) games. They had Paul Pierce, but he missed almost half the season. Every other significant player had at least one problem, too: Al Jefferson (just blossoming into the player he’d become), Delonte West, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo (too young), Ryan Gomes (too limited), Wally Szczerbiak (too washed up), and Gerald Green, Tony Allen, and Sebastian Telfair (after all, they’re Gerald Green, Tony Allen, and Sebastian Telfair). There was certainly some talent there, but the talent had holes and the holes were clearly evident on the court. Doc tried to coax wins out of the sorry bunch he was given, but not even Jesus Christ himself could have taken that team to the playoffs (though Red Auerbach might have been able to).
Still, Boston was out for Doc’s head. The city was in arms about one of the worst teams in franchise history and wanted its head coach gone. When Danny Ainge decided to keep Rivers for the following year, cries ran out in the streets of Southie; Ainge had blown it, letting Rivers stay on. How could Rivers get another chance, after such an abysmal performance? Ainge said he saw something in Doc, that Ainge alone was informed enough to make the decision, due to his access at practice and in the locker room. But did anyone believe him?
A couple years later, the Celtics are great again. Unquestionably, the Celtics are one of the NBA’s best teams. They have talent and depth at every position, and three Hall-of-Famers in the starting lineup. Now, Rivers doesn’t get any more blame, but he doesn’t get much of the credit either.
Maybe it’s because he’d already earned a reputation in Boston as being a poor coach. Maybe it’s because his players are so talented and experienced that people just think they’re good enough to coach themselves. No matter what it is, Doc Rivers is still rarely (ever?) mentioned among the NBA’s elite coaches. In a recent top ten list on Ball Don't Lie (maybe the best NBA blog around), Rivers wasn't named in the top ten. Even though he has five playoff appearances this decade, seven winning seasons in nine years, a championship and a Coach of the Year Award. Maybe Doc doesn't deserve to be in the top ten, but it's about time he starts to get his due as one of the NBA's best managers of talent.
Nobody talks about his role in molding a team of star-studded individuals who had never won anything into a championship team in their first year together. Most of the credit for that goes to Kevin Garnett and his infectious energy and boundless leadership. The credit that doesn’t go to Garnett goes to Pierce and Ray Allen, for sacrificing their own games for the good of their team.
Nobody talks about his role in the development of the other two young starters, Rondo and Perkins. Those guys were supposed to be the weak links who would hold Boston back from being true contenders. But somewhere they found the confidence to play alongside three Hall-of-Famers and the know-how to find their way. They played with belief and they played with aggression. But none of the praise goes to Doc Rivers for helping the young starters play to their capabilities. People said Rondo progressed well because he has “swagger.” And Perkins was alright because he knew his role and had the tutelage of assistant coach Clifford Ray.
The Celtics’ defense was great, too, but Doc didn’t get any credit for that, either. It was Tom Thibodeau who received all the adulation. After all, he – not Doc – was the defensive guru brought in from Houston to shore up the Celt’s “D”.
In football, linemen often get no credit when things are going well and they are blocking their man, even pancaking their man, from reaching the quarterback. But as soon as the quarterback is sacked, linemen are noticed, and never in a good way. Coaching is often the same. When things are going wrong, it’s the coach who’s the first one out the door. It isn’t the players who get fired – or “sacked”, if you will – it’s the coach. When the losses mount up, it’s always the coach who feels the most blame, who encounters the “hot seat.” After a loss, there’s always an adjustment the coach could have made, a play the coach should have called.
But when things start to go well, nobody pays attention to the great play call, or the perfectly-timed substitution. It’s the players who earn the wins; the coach who screws up the losses. Other coaches have received credit, but it takes years of winning to establish credibility in the thankless profession that is coaching. Guys like Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson have finally earned the recognition of being great coaches, but the esteem didn’t come easily; it took time and year after year of winning.
People will always be skeptical of Doc Rivers. Due to the nature of his profession, every loss is magnified, every mistake exaggerated. But keep track of all the good things he does. Next time a player goes down to injury, don’t merely blame Doc for playing him too many minutes; watch as Doc plugs in the next guy and somehow persuades the team to move on smoothly. Next time you see the Celtics move the ball swiftly and selflessly around the perimeter, don’t just thank the heavens that your team was blessed with such worthy passers; give Doc a little credit for instilling a team-first mentality.
Doc will always have his detractors, and he may never get his deserved due for leading Boston to its first championship in 22 years. But he’ll be happy with winning games.
No matter who gets the credit.