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Doc Rivers

(Harry How/Getty Images)

Is Doc Rivers overrated?

Doc Rivers
(Harry How/Getty Images)

Is Doc Rivers overrated?

A staple of the NBA coaching scene for two decades and, prior to that, an accomplished 13 year veteran – and one time All-Star – as a player, Doc Rivers is a part of the furniture in the living room of the modern NBA.

As a coach he’s often depicted as some mix of medieval apothecary – mixing up creative solutions from seemingly nothing – and discount Barack Obama, a master orator and motivator of men.

But is he really all that?

Let’s make one thing clear, right off the bat: to have a 20 year career as an NBA coach, you can most certainly coach! Rivers has proven time and time again that he deserves his place on an NBA sideline.

With 992 regular season wins in this 22 year NBA coaching career, Doc sits in 10th place in NBA history. If the Sixers keep winning at their current rate, Doc could conceivably be in the top five once his current contract expires. In the playoffs, Doc’s 97 wins ranks him 7th all time. He’s an NBA champion. He won Coach of the Year as a rookie head coach all the way back in the year 2000. The man is a really good NBA coach. But is he a great NBA coach?

There is a lingering doubt, if not about Rivers’ ability as an NBA head coach, then around his status amongst the coaching fraternity. About his ability to match it at the very highest levels. In other terms, his reputation as a guaranteed title contender. Doc’s teams have had some major league flameouts over the journey – and may be in the midst of one right now.

So let’s ask the question: Is Doc Rivers overrated?

The man has a formidable CV and has coached some incredibly talented squads, so looking at a bare naked statistical case is probably not going to make for a fair analysis. So let’s break this down by examining each of Docs stops over his coaching journey. Let’s see how he performed against expectations.

Let that dreamy harp music play as we go back in time……

Orlando Magic

Doc got his start in Florida, taking over a Magic squad that, despite making the playoffs in 1999, had shed many of its veteran stars and as such was expected to be truly, truly awful. Instead, Doc somehow turned a steady diet of Darrel Armstrong, Ron Mercer and Tariq Abdul-Wahad into a 41-41 whirlwind that ran at every opportunity, created early offense mismatches, and switched consistently. None of those things sound revolutionary now, but remember we were coming off the 90’s, where teams would regularly put up as much as 70 (that’s seventy) points in an entire playoff game.

Doc won what is to this point his only Coach of the Year award as much for his out of the box tactics as he did for Orlando’s surprising record.

Armed with a bright young coach and a fistful of dollars – or cap space, at least – the Magic retooled in a major way for the 2001 campaign. They inked Pistons superstar Grant Hill to a big money contract and though they fell just short of snaring Tim Duncan, they consoled themselves with a precociously talented though somewhat unproven young wing named Tracy McGrady.

One of those signings turned out somewhat better than the other.

From 2001 through 2003 Doc led the Magic to the playoffs, falling each time in the first round, never gaining home court, although it has to be noted that the 2003 exit to the fancied Pistons came after surrendering a 3-1 series lead. Remember that score: 3-1. It’s importance will come to the fore later.

Rivers had the NBA’s leading scorer in McGrady at his disposal in 2003. McGrady owned Detroit through four games, but Pistons coach Rick Carlisle made a simple adjustment that seemingly left Rivers flummoxed: length.

After earning a DNP-CD in game one, rookie wing Tayshaun Prince was summoned to try and slow McGrady down in game five, which he did with aplomb. Doc wasn’t able to make the adjustments to get his main man room to attack, nor was he able to manufacture enough offense from the rest of his roster. The result was half brave defeat, half opportunity missed.

After an atrocious 1-10 start in 2004, Rivers was shown the door.

The consensus at the time was that Rivers had taken this side as far as he could, especially considering Hill’s constant availability issues. He was given much of the credit for developing McGrady into an All-Star.

Offensively, Rivers had his teams regularly outperforming their collective talents. Defensively, it was another story. Doc just couldn’t seem to put together anything close to an average defense, though in fairness, he didn’t really have the tools.

Whilst he didn’t achieve everything he wanted to in Orlando, his time was considered a qualified success. Doc wasn’t as shiny and new as he was after that remarkable first season, but he was seen as a coach with considerable potential.

Boston Celtics

Perhaps because of what happened a few short years after Doc’s arrival in Beantown, perhaps because of that famed Celtic mystique, most people seem to forget that Boston was not very good when Rivers came on board. They had gone 36-46, losing in a 1st round sweep to the Pacers the season prior to his hiring.

Rivers was seen as a free hit for relatively new head honcho Danny Ainge: a young coach with some experience who could grow alongside stars Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker and (ahem) Ricky Davis.

In that first season, the Celtics improved by nine wins. They again faced the Pacers in the opening round, this time taking them to seven games. Things were looking up. Unfortunately, 2006 and 2007 were massive let downs, with the C’s winning 33 and 24 games respectively.

The Celtics had talent, to be sure. Pierce was in his prime. Wally Szczerbiak was an able lieutenant, and youngsters Al Jefferson, Tony Allen and Delonte West were emerging as real players. It just wasn’t working, though. Doc was widely believed to be hanging by a thread.

Then Danny Ainge made the first of his reputation defining moves, swinging for the fences and landing Kevin Garnett from the Timberwolves and Ray Allen from the Sonics (RIP). It was magic.

Led by a rejuvenated Pierce, a manic KD, finally released from his Minnesota shackles, and to that point arguably the greatest shooter ever to play in Allen, Doc led the Celtics to their first championship since Larry, McHale and The Chief graced the Old Garden.

Or did he?

To hear Glen Davis – a rookie reserve on that team – tell it, Doc was ‘lucky as hell’ to catch lightning in a bottle.

More than most other team sport, basketball is a game defined by its players. If you have top end talent, you can achieve anything. It’s why Sam Hinkie died for somebody’s sins (but not mine). It’s how Scotty freaking Brooks coached an NBA finals series. Talent wins out.

That talent still needs direction, though. After the 2008 triumph Doc was suddenly perceived as a master coach. But was he?

The Celtics of 2008 possessed a balanced offense. All three superstars subjugated themselves to each other and credit must go to Doc for keeping all those egos in check for the greater good. But by far Boston’s biggest strength that season was its league leading (and it wasn’t close) defense. Who was Doc’s top assistant that season? An unknown defensive revolutionary – who, by the way, now has more Coach of the Year awards than Doc – named Tom Thibodeau. How much credit for that dominant defense needs to be given to the head coach; how much to the defensive warlock that sat next to him?

Boston was perhaps a Kevin Garnett knee injury away from claiming a 2nd crown under Doc in 2010. Two titles would perhaps put the entire concept of this article to bed, alas, it wasn’t to be. It was the year in between those runs that, in retrospect, saw the first cracks appear in the Doc Is Elite argument.

The Celtics again won over 60 games, but an upstart Chicago took them the distance in the opening round before an equally rambunctious Orlando – led by that nice young man Dwight Howard – took down the defending champs. There were reasonable explanations for the Celtics losing: the Magic were good enough to go to the finals; Boston were an old team coming off an emotional finals run; repeating as champs is really, really difficult.

It has to be said, however, that a team that was relying on Hedo Turkloglu and Rafer Alston for play making shouldn’t be able to take down a star studded team like Boston. Stan Van Gundy’s (whatever happened to him?) simple 4-out system bamboozled Doc. Whilst Garnett was able to keep Howard in check, the rest of the Magic ran riot.

The remaining years of Doc’s Boston stint saw his grizzled veterans lose to the Heatles in the 2011 and 2012 playoffs, causing Ray Allen to take the ‘can’t beat them, join them’ route, for which some in Boston have ever forgiven him.

A 36 year old Garnett and 35 year old Pierce were knocked out on the first round in 2013 and the end of an era was apparent. It was cemented by Ainge’s next legacy defining moment, this time hoodwinking the Nets in a trade that shouldn’t need to be explained to you.

Rivers, seeing the writing on the wall and not wanting to coach through a rebuild, negotiated his way out of his contract, looking west.

Los Angeles Clippers

Doc maneuvered his way out of a rebuilding Celtics team to a young team that already had its building blocks in place. Blake Griffin was 24 years old, Deandre Jordan 25. Even Chris Paul and JJ Redick were still in their 20’s. They had an excellent crew of reserves in Jared Dudley, Darren Collison, Glen Davis (remember him, Doc?) and Jamal Crawford.

The Clippers had won 56 games the previous campaign, but coach Vinny Del Negro just didn’t appear to have the gravitas to muster all of the talent at his fingertips. Doc, on the other hand, had a ring on his finger.

Through the regular season, at least, Doc’s Clippers seemingly always met expectations, barring the 2018 campaign that saw Paul, Griffin and Redick jettisoned. The Clippers were winning 50+ games (or were on pace to in shortened seasons) every year and would come into the playoffs with a high seed, a talented roster and the expectation that this – this – would be the year that the Clippers finally broke through.

But, this being the Clippers, all they managed to do was find increasingly creative ways to shoot themselves in the foot.

In 2014 they fell in the 2nd round to the Thunder. Even if they had overcome that all time ‘What If?’ squad, they likely would have fallen to the fast passing buzz saw that was the San Antonio Spurs.

The next season saw Doc lose another series 3-1, this time to the Houston Rockets in the 2nd round in what remains one of the most perplexing playoff series in memory.

The Clippers had outlasted the Spurs in seven dramatic games in the opening round, with Paul hitting a memorable game winner to seal the series.

Unfortunately, he also injured his hamstring and sat out the opening two games of the Rockets series. Los Angeles, however, stunned the favoured Rockets in game one and took games three and four at home with Paul back on the floor to hold a commanding (and foreboding) 3-1 series lead. Houston took care of business in game five, leaving the Clippers with the chance to close out at home.

The Clippers led by over 20 points late in the 3rd period as the Clippers went into party mode. Houston coach Kevin McHale left superstar James Harden on the bench for most of the 4th quarter, seemingly in resignation of the result. What happened then still defies belief, as the Rockets stormed home behind Corey Brewer and Josh Smith to take the quarter 40-15, and the game by 12.

There were a myriad of adjustments that Doc could have made in that game as the Red Wave crashed upon him. Here’s some basics: put the ball in Blake Griffin’s hands as Paul was having a shocker; stop playing an aging and defensively inadequate Crawford and a not up to standard Austin Rivers; switch on defense. Doc did none of those. The Clippers lost game six, and were still likely punch drunk as they lost game seven.

The 2015 season was, in retrospect, the Clippers best chance at a title. The Spurs were slain, the Rockets were as sturdy as wet crepe paper, the Warriors were not yet THE WARRIORS and the LeBron James’ Cavaliers were hobbled. The Clippers, by contrast, were in their prime.

The Lob City Clippers were never the same after that, losing in the 1st round in both 2016 and 2017, eventually resulting in the 2018 breakup of the core.

Of course, the Clips were not to be in the doldrums for long.

Doc returned to his roots, pulling the same trick he did in Orlando back in 2000 in getting a rag-tag group to play above their station. He let high scoring jitterbug guard play off a diving roll man for offense (substitute Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell for Darrell Armstrong and Chris Gatling) and had the rest of the group scrap for their lives on defense.

This group was far more talented that his old Orlando team. As a result, Doc got them to the playoffs where they went toe-to-toe with a now fully formed juggernaut in Golden State, pushing them to six tight games.

This was, in many ways, Doc’s best coaching effort in years. His team had nothing to lose and they played like it, bloodying some noses along the way.

Come 2020, and the script was flipped again. The acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George suddenly gave Clippers Nation some seriously lofty expectations. Even this writer held them up as title favourites.

But a combination of injuries, chemistry and some minor pandemic that will probably just blow over soon saw the Clippers, whilst still winning games, not exactly blow teams off the floor as was expected.

Come the playoffs, all those old Doc Rivers tropes came back to the fore.

In round one, Mavericks phenom Luka Doncic torched the Clippers. To start the series, Rivers went with defensive bulldog Patrick Beverley to guard Luka. It didn’t end well. Despite having two all world defenders in Leonard and George, both possessing the requisite size and speed to match Doncic, Rivers chose – for reasons that are still unclear – not to go with those options.

As mentioned earlier, the NBA is a talent league. As such the superior talent of the Clippers eventually overwhelmed the one-man Mavericks.

In the next round, though…oh my: another 3-1 loss!

It was Murphy’s Law for Doc, as everything went wrong.

His teams formidable depth proved useless. Harrell and Williams were ineffective. Doc’s insistence on playing them heavy minutes (in particular Harrell, who was coming off injury and COVID) was inexplicable.

Rivers also decided that it would be a good idea to double team newly minted MVP Nikola Jokic every single time he touched the ball, despite the fact that he is one of the greatest passers the game has ever seen. Letting the Serbian pick apart a defense 4-on-3 went about as well as you might expect for Los Angeles.

To be fair to Rivers, his star men didn’t exactly bail him out – both George and Leonard went scoreless in the game seven loss. Despite that, the result was another earlier than expected exit, once again by blowing a 3-1 lead.

Philadelphia 76ers

Finally, we come to the present day.

Rivers rode in on his white horse, to give direction to a pair of precociously talented young starlets, just as he did seven years prior.

Once again, through the regular season, Doc seemed to have figured out a way to make all of his square pegs fit into round holes. Embiid was perhaps an injury away from an MVP campaign, Simmons had his best season yet on defense, and was an efficient weapon on offense. Tobias Harris – so good for Doc as a Clipper – was equally as effective for Doc as a Sixer. Rivers pushed his son in law Seth Curry to another level, made Furkan Korkmaz a legitimate NBA weapon and even managed to find consistency in the aging Dwight Howard.

Yet again, though, Rivers’ team finds itself in a similar playoff quandary, staring premature elimination in the face.

After dispatching the brave but undermanned Washington in the 1st round, the Sixers are in serious trouble against an Atlanta side that is certainly talented, but shouldn’t be able to hold a candle to this Sixers squad.

After getting torched by Trae Young in game one, Doc made the adjustment he refused to make last season – and one that he should have learned in 2003 – in putting length on the opponent’s main play maker. Ben Simmons has done an excellent job on Young, as expected. It’s at the other end where the Sixers are struggling.

Embiid, as is his won’t, has been unstoppable on occasion in this series. Unfortunately, his two main flaws – health and inconsistency – have reared their heads. The big man is playing under duress with a partially torn meniscus, though the flourishes where he owns the basketball game for extended stretches makes one question how much of an impact that knee is having.

Doc seems unable to coerce a consistent, four-quarter effort from Embiid. He, like Brett Brown before him, can’t find the solution to the Embiid/Simmons offensive fit. He’s unable to unlock that extra something in Harris that is needed in the playoffs.

As a result, he may once more be standing on the outside looking in when we get to the pointy end of the season.

So what does all of this mean?

Doc Rivers has undoubtedly had a long and successful coaching career. He’s proven able to rouse something in lesser talents, making them play well above their station.

As evidenced by his Big Three in Boston, he’s able to get his superstars to sacrifice for the greater good. That appeared to be the case in Philadelphia and – Paul aside – Los Angeles, as well.

What he hasn’t proven he’s able to do, is make adjustments against the very best coaches.

Not only has Rivers lost a trio of series when leading 3-1, he’s also lost three series when leading 3-2:

To go into more detail:

As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz recently observed, five of the eight largest playoff comebacks in just the past two seasons have happened against Doc Rivers coaches teams.

From the outside it looks as though his carefully constructed plans see his team take early advantages, only to see his lack of counter adjustments bring his teams back to Earth. That holds true both in a single game, as well as over a series.

Rivers appears to be a ‘game plan’ coach, in that he is able to construct a perfectly good game plan that will work against any given opponent. The issue is that in the NBA, coaches can figure out counters pretty quickly. When that happens, Doc’s toast.

Rivers is a motivator. A wonderful overseer of spirit and culture. Who can forget how he led the Clippers though the Donald Sterling Fiasco, or his ‘this country does not love us back’ speech?

That type of coach will have a long career in the league. They’re wonderful at making poor teams average and average teams good.

What Doc isn’t, is an X’s and O’s master. He’s not the sort that can look at a scenario happening live, decipher it, then make the appropriate adjustment. Those coaches too often get taken apart at the very top level.

Doc Rivers is a great coach. He’s a champion, in fact. Nobody, least of all this humble analyst, can take that away from him.

But he is not elite. He’s not Popovich; Spoelstra, Carlisle, Kerr or Nurse.

That, I’m afraid, means Doc Rivers is overrated.

That lead’s to one final question: is that Doc’s fault? Or is it ours?

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