The Doc Rivers saga finally reaches its conclusion this afternoon.
After weeks of excruciating (think Gilbert Gottfried and Fran Drescher performing Cruisin’, only worse) negotiations, during which we sat anxiously while the Clippers and Celtics agreed on a deal, the Clippers and Rivers agreed on a deal, and David Stern begrudgingly approved them both, Doc will be formally introduced as LA’s new head coach and VP of basketball operations.
Just like that (or like thaaaaaat), the face of the Celtics franchise is set to spend the next three years basking in the glow of the California sun, Chris Paul’s court vision and Donald Sterling’s leathery skin.
Naturally, this has all played really well with the fans and media in Boston. EVERYONE IS STAYING CALM. And in the meantime, we’ve seen the formation of two very distinct camps.
Let’s call them . . . Team Doc and Doc is Dead
Team Doc doesn’t fault the coach for wanting out of Boston. Instead of blaming Rivers for chasing greener pastures, they blame Danny Ainge for having such a crummy lawn. They blame Rajon Rondo for being an unappealing patch of crabgrass. They think that Doc deserves better than what was coming in Boston, and that he has every right to act in his own best interests, even if it means going against his word.
On the other end, the Doc is Dead crew is about as forgiving as a lead pipe to the shins. They now consider Rivers a fraud. No better, and probably worse than Ray Allen. In their minds, the Celtics basically proposed to Doc back in 2011. He said “yes”, accepted a $35 million ring, told the world he loved the Celtics, and that he’d be there through good times and bad. Then, at the first sign of trouble, he packed his bags and moved in with a crotchety billionaire with a cooler fleet of cars.
The truth about Doc probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, BUT . . .
For one second, let’s forget how this story ended. Push all the emotions of these last few weeks aside. Let’s rewind back to the press conference after Game 6 against the Knicks, when Doc wouldn’t commit and no one thought twice. Pause it right there and reflect on everything he accomplished during nine years as head coach of the Boston Celtics.
By the numbers, he’s one of the most successful coaches in franchise history. His nine-year tenure matches Tommy Heinsohn for the second-longest, behind Red Auerbach. He’s alone in second place (behind Red) with 721 total regular season games, 106 playoff games and seven trips to the postseason. He’s third all-time in wins. Third all-time in playoff wins. He was on the bench for the longest winning streak (19 games) in team history, he led them to six Atlantic Division titles (including five straight) and, most importantly, he’s one of only six coaches to lead Boston to an NBA Championship.
On the not-so-bright side, he was on the bench for the longest losing streak (18 games) in franchise history and the third worst season since 1960. (Although in terms of legacy, his first three years are probably negligible.) More significant, are the Celtics three blown 3-2 series leads: 2009 Eastern Conference semis vs. Orlando, 2010 NBA Finals vs. LA and 2012 Conference Finals vs. Miami. All three defeats come with enough excuses to fill Glen Davis’ stomach, but they can’t be ignored. Same for the fact that Rivers’ most successful seasons came with Tom Thibodeau by his side. And that, in recent years, the Celtics offense has been rendered unimaginative and stagnant (they haven’t finished in the Top 10 in offensive efficiency since 2009 and in the last two seasons finished 27th and 24th). There will always be questions about his ability, or more, his willingness to cultivate young talent, especially considering the details of his departure.
Now seems like a good time to mention that there’s really no perfect way to measure the legacy of a coach. Across the board, regardless of the sport, these guys get too much credit for a team’s success and too much criticism for failure. There are just too many random variables. In Boston alone, there’s an long string of alternate paths along the space-time continuum in which the most celebrated coaches of our time never amounted to a damn thing, and for reasons well beyond their control:
What happens to Terry Francona if Dave Roberts’ is thrown out at second? What happens to Bill Belichick if Mo Lewis never hits Drew Bledsoe? What happens to Claude Julien without Tim Thomas’ out-of-body experience and last month’s miracle against the Leafs?
And Rivers is right there.
What if Ainge had fired him in 2006 or 2007, when no one outside of Rivers immediate family would have offered an objection? What if they won the 2007 Lottery and drafted Greg Oden? What if Kevin McHale didn’t have a soft spot for the Celtics? What if, of all people, PJ Brown didn’t drain that 20-footer down the stretch against the Cavs? What if the biggest comeback in NBA Finals history (2008, Game 4 in LA) had come up short?
On the other hand, what if Garnett had stayed healthy for more than a year and change? What if Kendrick Perkins hadn’t torn his ACL in the 2010 Finals? What if Ainge hadn’t traded Perkins, broken up a contender and ripped out the heart of his team to start building for a future that’s no clearer more than two years later?
But for all the what-ifs, here’s what we know:
When we look back on the seven professional sports titles that Boston has won during this recent(ish) stretch of success, each franchise, at its best, has carved out a distinct identity. The Red Sox were the lovable idiots. The renegades who said screw the world, and just played ball. The Patriots began as the heart-warming underdogs, but will be remembered as a well-oiled football factory. The Unsullied NFL army, led by sweatshirt Khaleesi and an unflappable first lieutenant. The Bruins were the deep, scrappy bunch, void of a flashy superstar and powered by a legendary goalie. They were a team that lived on the edge but (in 2011 at least) always came together when it looked like they might fall apart.
The 2008 Celtics will be remembered and are defined by love, trust and sacrifice, by the Big Three, a trio of future Hall of Famers who came together at a desperate time in their careers, rallied around one common goal and accomplished everything they ever dreamed on the first try. They never won another title, but that love and trust was the foundation for five more entertaining seasons. And while you can argue that that culture was fueled and maintained by Kevin Garnett, there’s no question that Garnett was in large part fueled and maintained by Doc Rivers. The coach built the foundation for all of it. It doesn’t work without him. And this city and those players will never forget that.
“Man, I’d run through a wall for that guy,” Garnett said about Doc in 2012. “If he asked me to do anything drastic, I would never go into it thinking that he’s telling me something wrong.”
In other words, he trusted Rivers. After all these years, everyone trusted Rivers. He was nothing if not genuine. In a sports world full of selfish a-holes, he was a good guy. His players loved him (even if they didn’t always agree with him). The city loved him. The franchise loved him.
So what went wrong?
In the end, in my opinion, Rivers only loved two of those three things back. The city? Yes. There’s no question he loved Boston. The way he spoke (using words like “we” and “us”) and carried himself in the aftermath of the Marathon bombing proved that for certain.
The players? Yes. He loved his players, at this point, mostly Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But still, if he didn’t love his players, he would have walked away long before today. He wouldn’t have gotten himself into this mess to begin with.
But the franchise?
Nope. I’m sure he wanted to love it. In the moment, he probably thought he did. When Rivers spoke of loyalty and said things like “I am a Celtic,” I don’t think he was outwardly lying. I just don’t think he understood the magnitude of saying that he was a Celtic, because he’s not a Celtic. If he was, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Does that make sense?
Either way, it’s not an easy pill to swallow. Regardless of whether you’re an owner, player or fan, it sucks to feel lied to. There’s nothing worse than being abandoned by someone you trust at a time when you need them most. And that’s what happened here. Even if Doc had every reason to leave, especially given the promotion, the bottom line is that he chose improving his own situation over trying to improve the Celtics situation.
And you know what? He earned the right to make that choice.
But he’s also earned the criticism he’ll receive in the aftermath of making it.
As a result, while the “Doc to the Clippers” saga ends this afternoon, something tells me the “Doc leaves the Celtics” saga is just getting started.