Thompson: Doc Rivers does things the right way

Thompson: Doc Rivers does things the right way
December 16, 2010, 12:52 am
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010 7:50 p.m.

By Ron Thompson

This space recently focused on the players who keep the NBA's Boston Celtics atop any conversation about the 2010-11 championship hunt. The profile weighed rising guard Rajon Rondo, seasoned power forwardcenter Kevin Garnett, and durable veterans Ray Allen as well as Paul Pierce. But Boston has another name familiar with successful and failed runs at the NBA title. His experience as a player now serves him as one who moves the Celtics to reset after botched plays and close losses, or who diagrams various scoring drives toward their goal of winning an eighteenth championship. In a league sprinkled with athletes and coaches who often distinguish themselves with exceptional talent, Glenn Anton Rivers represents both. He brings a former top-player's deep acumen for playmaking and defending. As a coach, he also shows extreme comfort with the keys to success, from encouraging or managing top-flight talent (and egos), to valuing every point in every game. Like his predecessors Arnold "Red" Auerbach and K.C. Jones, Boston's current coach is also motivated by its winning legacy, and he should rank as high as they do for trying to continue it.

Long before leading the Celtics, "Doc" Rivers lead basketball teams at Illinois' Proviso East High School and Marquette University in Wisconsin during the 1970s and 80s. Then-coach Rick Majerus bestowed Rivers' nickname after seeing him in a T-shirt featuring Philadelphia 76ers legend "Dr." Julius Erving. With a degree in hand, Rivers entered the NBA Draft toward an All-Star career as a scoring- and assists leader with the Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, and San Antonio Spurs. He spent nearly a dozen years among its most skilled, versatile, and successful players. He watched Michael Jordan alternate between a scoring threat and a defensive menace, then saw David Robinson develop from a halting defender into an unstoppable force. Rivers played when the league's most successful teams were often those whose players and coaches embraced the need to give maximum effort and talent toward winning. (He also witnessed heartbreaking defeat, sitting on then-coach Pat Riley's New York Knicks roster in their seventh-game championship loss to the Houston Rockets.)

Doc Rivers retired in 1996, then briefly turned to broadcasting before becoming a rookie head coach three years later with the Orlando Magic. He benefited greatly from coaching talent whose drive and work-ethic resembled that of former colleagues. Where he earlier saw the daily workouts of Knicks teammate Patrick Ewing, he later watched Orlando star swingman Grant Hill's nightly on-court grind. Rivers also came to treasure the lesson of adaptability, reshuffling his lineup after Hill's devastating injury. Taking the reins at Boston in early 2004 gave Rivers keen insight into coaching a storied organization, and a chance to continue shaping the pieces seen throughout his playing career. That role would also bring an invaluable opportunity to apply two decades of experience and vital lessons toward the goal of a lifetime.

Rivers rode a rollercoaster early in Boston: he stood among a wavering squad distinguished by a wildly talented Pierce, then also saw sellout games, a division title, and a playoff appearance. Those years were also notable for juggling the waning talents of Gary Payton with Allen, another guard and Bostons longtime perimeter shooter. There, Rivers experience was key. Having played among Jordan, Ewing, Celtic icon Larry Bird, and Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson was as instructive for Rivers' coaching strategy as it was for his on-court performance. That quartet possessed towering abilities and egos. They were also blessed with extraordinary discipline, and knew how to adapt their individual talents to the larger goal of winning. Jordan was known for his late-game scoring dominance, Ewing was reliably intimidating, opponents feared Bird's perimeter consistency, and Johnson's playmaking versatility once represented a five-front assault. More too, their coaches were expert at when and how to harness or encourage those talents and personalities. But having talent is one thing; having the ability to manage it is just as vital. In that sense, Doc Rivers is blessed. He finds a way to reach his players, in turn widening his interest in their talents and steering separate efforts toward a unified goal. Rivers' approach matched coach Phil Jackson's use of Jordan, Jones' of Bird, and Riley's work with the Lakers, then the Knicks. As Doc settled in at Boston, Paytons substantive contributions rose, Allen battled trade and retirement rumors toward a respectable scoring average, and Pierce continued growing into a formidable competitor. When Rondo joined that roster, from Kentucky by way of Phoenix's Suns, he widened the Celtics fine mix of tempered experience and explosive talent. (Their mid-2010 acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal also highlighted the use of available, seasoned talent to build on existing success.) Bostons coach soon enjoyed a steady incline: Pierce racked up scoring averages that the franchise hadn't seen in decades, and high-school phenomenon Al Jefferson proved the exception to talented young players who fail to match high expectations. During the 2007-08 season Doc Rivers Celtics successfully built on its 1980s championship rivalry against the Lakers.

Though Boston lost a rematch in the following post-season, Rivers' capacity for successfully corralling such talent and diversity is very laudable. His "Big Three" (if not "Four" or "Five") remain capable of double-digit contributions, and seem prepared for another title run. In their two post-championship seasons, the Celtics ended 62-20 and 50-32, respectively. Heading into Thursday nights game at New York the Celtics were 16-4, one win in the Eastern Conference over Doc's old squad in Orlando, yet one win behind the Spurs, who sit atop the West. Boston may more than double their wins before February's All-Star break, but then anything can derail even the strongest start. All things considered, given his recent and current records, it is long time for Rivers to be mentioned among the best coaches in the league. Boston sits almost perennially atop the league for its defense, though sometimes Doc's role in that has gone unnoted. (In recent seasons, Boston's smothering defense was credited to then-defensive coordinator and assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, who now holds the top role with the Chicago Bulls. As the Celtics currently lead the league for defensive play, some have credited Thibodeau's replacement for its defensive prowess, which again seems to ignore Doc's influence. Why not simply commend him for that success?)

No surprise here, winning generally is a steady measure of success in sportsmore often than not, losing teams or coaches don't receive much (if any) recognition, compared to the victors. To that end, and given his record, Glenn Anton Rivers should be regarded as notably as his title-winning peers, and above those with matching tenure but absent the success. As an All-Star during his playing days and a championship coach with a legendary organization, this doctor's record doesn't merit a second opinion.