Yesterday, I talked about the coaching question from the viewpoint of Doc's critics and his negatives. But in fairness, there is another side of the argument and Doc does have his supporters. As I was reading through message boards and blog posts, it seems that Celtics fans and writers are just about equally divided as to Doc's capabilities, with a slight edge going to those against Doc.
In the Globe, Doc had this to day about his situation compared to that of Greg Popovich.
Rivers has endured a lot of criticism this year, even before a wave of injuries decimated his team. Rivers said he takes the criticism in stride and evoked the name of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "I know [that] I know what I'm doing," said Rivers, who has a 101-142 record in three seasons with the Celtics. "You just wait for the day when you have the tools to prove that. I was laughing with someone the other day. I said, 'How did Gregg Popovich get Tim Duncan?' They had a terrible record and he was the coach. Could he coach that year or did he become a better coach all of a sudden?"
What he said has some merit. In the 1996-1997 season, Popovich coached 64 games for the Spurs and finished with 17 wins and 47 losses. The next season, after drafting Tim Duncan, the Spurs improved to 56 wins. Who knows, if those lottery balls had bounced differently, it would be Rick Pitino who would be coaching the Celtics to championships while Pop was an assistant somewhere. Talented players can make a coach look very good and mask a lot of weaknesses.
Another coach to look at would be Sam Mitchell. A year ago, Sam Mitchell was widely regarded as a lame duck coach, just a guy biding his time until Bryan Colangelo found his real head coach. Mitchell had combined for a paltry 60-104 record in his first two seasons. But then, in his third season, he surprised a lot of people by making the Raptors into a legitimate playoff team, leading them to a 47-35 record and an Atlantic Division title. Suddenly, he was a top coach in the league. Could Doc have a turn around like Mitchell? It is safe to say that just the personnel changes will account for at least a 45 win season, even without a coach. The key will be to manage the stars minutes so as not to wear them out before the playoffs, and to manage the bench to fill in around the 3 stars. Also a strong team defense will be crucial, but with Tom Thibodeau here, that should be taken care of. He has done it everywhere else and should be able to do it here. It will be to Doc's credit if he allows Thibodeau to run the defense since he specializes in that area.
Regarding Doc Rivers, Ryan has long been on the bandwagon. He states, Before the sixth game of the 1988 Hawks-Celtics playoff series, I went over to Doc (then a guard with Atlanta) and told him that he was one of the best guys I ever covered. I love Doc.
So, is being a former NBA player essential to being a successful NBA head coach? Ryan answers, You have to have credibility. Look at (Spurs coach) Gregg Popovich. He was in the military and that helps, but he never would have won without Tim Duncan. Popovich would have been an itinerant assistant sitting on the end of a bench.
Once again, the fact is mentioned that Popovich having Duncan to coach has made him a better coach. Having a veteran team will automatically make Doc look much better.
"He is one of the smartest people I've ever met when it comes to basketball. He sees a play before it happens. Nobody can break down a play on the chalk board like he can. Not only that, but he always has a counter. He is always one step ahead. I can't tell you how much I've learned from him."
He obviously has the support of his assistants who feel that he is very capable. Many of the errors he has made in the games (like failing to foul when down 3 with just seconds to go in the game and one of the top 3 point shooters in the league on the other team) just seem so basic that I can't explain why he would make them but maybe I am missing something behind the scenes. I am willing to put all of the past mistakes behind to give him a chance with to show that he can coach with this team.
Dickerson: Doc Rivers can coach. He's a very good coach. But it hasn't shown up on the court because you have 21-22 year olds who don't always execute his game plan. It's different now. Tommy: Yeah it is. I think all the people who were rapping Doc last year, you gotta look and see what he did in developing all these young players to the point that we were able to enhance the value of the entire team.
Dickerson: And that team never quit on him once the entire season, even during that 18 game losing streak. Tommy: Absolutely. They just didn't have enough experience. I mean we got 5 guys. I mean we had Allan Ray having to score 20 points. He was the 15th guy on the roster at one point and he had to be the go to guy. Come on. I mean and they were still in the games. I think he did a great job. He created the value that made these guys tradable so they could end up with the 2 guys they did.
Yes, Al Jefferson was the centerpiece of the trade for KG and yes, Doc helped to develop him, but I would put more of the credit on Clifford Ray, who is the big man coach and who actually worked with Big Al on his moves, defense, footwork, etc. But yes, Doc did work with all of these players to help develop their value as players.
There were extenuating circumstances that hindered the team in each of the seasons that Doc coached. The most obvious is that we had a very young team with a core of players that jumped directly from high school to the NBA. These players needed to be taught much of the NBA game and it has taken time for them to develop. Secondly, the team has been decimated by injuries for two years in a row. Last season we lost a staggering 312 player games to injury. Combine youth and injuries and it would have been hard for any coach to win. This is from the Patriot Ledger:
In Boston, he was dealt a near death sentence by Director of Operations Danny Ainge, who came up with lots of youngsters and never did convert them into experienced assets - players who knew how to play the game. Rivers was left to spend 90 percent of his time teaching the game to kids who didn’t have a clue. This year it was Gerald Green, Allan Ray, Leon Powe, Sebastian Telfair and Rajon Rondo. He was forced to throw them into the mix while emerging players Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Delonte West and Ryan Gomes perhaps had their growth slowed because of the excess youth.
Every one of the experienced players Rivers was counting on eventually came up lame. The coach finished the season without Paul Pierce, Tony Allen, Wally Szczerbiak, Brian Scalabrine, Michael Olowokandi and Theo Ratliff. They lost 40 points alone when Pierce and Szczerbiak went out. He was handcuffed when Jefferson, Gomes and Perkins were hurt, and when they returned, there was little hope for solidifying.
Rotations? What rotations? Rivers was criticized for not establishing a solid rotation, for using 25 starting lineups. How could that happen with his players going down left and right? On the other hand, he had the guts to sit Telfair, who was a disaster. Telfair came to Boston pegged as a can’t-miss point guard, yet Rivers stuck to his principles and sat him in favor of the emerging Rondo. The coach never compromised himself by easing up on the youngsters. ‘‘Doc is a good coach,’’ Ainge said last night. ‘‘Doc did a good job, in my opinion, and that’s why we’d like to keep him coaching this team and give him a real opportunity and chance to coach. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect, but I think he did a very good job coaching this team.’’
Danny has shown unwavering faith in Doc and Doc has followed the company line all the way. He has takent the criticism and never once gave up even when faced with tremendous odds. Doc is very confident in himself. From the Herald article:
He is a man very confident in his abilities. Some would call him cocky. When he looks you in the eye more than once and says, “Every time I’ve had a decent team, we’ve won,” he appears more than willing to put himself on the line. There should be more room for Rivers to operate, too, although that can be a double-edged sword. He can win more now, but he has to. He has this year and, after signing a one-year extension, another left on his deal - and the buyout for the latter is more than you’ve heard. But time is clearly of the essence with a nucleus of 30-somethings. If the Celtics lack cohesion a fair distance into the season, the club will likely not hesitate to change the staff. There is too much money invested in the three All-Stars to worry about coaching dough.
But Rivers believes in himself.
“I feel like I have a shot,” he said. “We feel like we have a shot, and that’s all you want. You want an opportunity. You want a chance to show up at the arena and feel that no matter what they put out on the floor that you have a chance to beat that - and without tricking the game up or anything else.”
Seated at the table Tuesday were Pierce, Allen and the newest Celtic, Garnett. With that triumvirate, Rivers has already become a better coach.
"Well, I become smarter, there's no doubt about that," he said afterward. "We'll draw up the same play that we drew up (before), but it will probably have a better chance of working, even if it's a bad play."
With the improved roster and with the addition of Tom Thibodeau as an assistant, we should have a shot at improving exponentially. If we don't, as the Herald article said, the owners won't think twice of making a coaching change. With Tom Thibodeau considered by many to be the assistant most likely to land a head coaching job, the ownership may have just lined up some assurance of continuity should Doc stumble and out of the gates this season. But Doc feels very confident that he can do the job and maybe, with the best roster he has had in his coaching career, he just may prove his doubters wrong.
When the conversation turned less serious, it was suggested that any abuse he takes is because he’s a bad coach. “That’s right,” he said with a laugh. “I get booed because I suck. But other than that, no.
After all he has been through with this team and all the abuse he has taken for his coaching, he can still laugh and that is a quality that may be his biggest strength in this league.