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How overrated is Doc Rivers?

Published by Yoshi on 30th October - 14:00 (CET)
The short answer to that question is "very", but how fun would it be to leave it at that?

Don't get me wrong, Coach Doc Rivers is a not a bad coach, but he is nowhere near as good as his reputation says he is. For whatever reason he has received a label as being a "great" or even "legendary" coach in NBA circles both among journalists and players. For years I have been flabbergasted by this, but with yet another relatively unsuccessful campaign as the head man for the Los Angeles Clippers maybe, just maybe we can all drop the charade and face the facts?

Let's start from the beginning.


Orlando Magic - 1999-2003

Doc's first shot at being the main man on the NBA sideline came with a fairly anonymous Orlando team right at the turn of the millenium. With point guard Darrell Armstrong leading the team in both MPG and PPG, Ron Mercer being the number two guy and a supporting cast of Chris Gatling, Tariq Abdul-Wahad and young guns Ben Wallace and Corey Maggette, this Magic team was neither very impressive nor bad. The team managed to put together a respectable 41-41 record, good enough for ninth in the Eastern Conference. It seemed that this team was just missing that one superstar to actually make some noise, right?

Enter Tracy McGrady - possibly the biggest star in the league at this time! Not only did the Magic land a McGrady hungry to get out of Vince Carter's shadow in Toronto, they even drafted the very talented Mike Miller while also retaining Darrell Armstrong and glue guys like Bo Outlaw, Pat Garrity and Monty Williams. These moves skyrocketed Magic's performance all the way to... seventh in the East with a full two win improvement over last year, ending the '00-'01 season at 43-39. In the Playoffs, the Magic barely squeezed out one W against the Milwuakee Bucks in overtime and were eliminated in that first round 3-1.

All right, let's give the same roster a year to mesh and bring in veterans Horace Grant and Patrick Ewing to help the young bucks cultivate a winning culture. That'll do it, right? Damn right! Doc's squad improved their record for the second consecutive year, ending all the way at... 44-38. You gotta be kidding me. This was enough for a fifth seed in the East but yet again the Magic only managed to squeeze out a single W in overtime as the fell 3-1 to the Charlotte Hornets in the first round.

Ok, let's try '02-'03. Tracy McGrady leads the NBA in scoring with his astonishing 32.1 PPG, yet again some veterans are brought in to help the young stud turn his individual excellence into team success, aaaand Doc's fourth year leads the Magic to a 42-40 record, only one win better than the year he took the team over and instilled his leadership greatness. Orlando placed eight in the Conference and lost a tough first round series against the Detroit Pistons in seven games.

Eleven games into the '03-'04 season, with only one win gathered, Orlando leadership finally gave up on Doc and fired him.


Boston Celtics - 2004-2013

Be honest, you didn't remember any of that mentioned above ever taking place. You probably thought Doc was an assistant coach on the Celtics prior to 2004 and got the chance at being the main man after some time with the club. Most people associate Doc with the Celtics like peanut butter with jelly, and it is in Boston that the Doc Rivers greatness myth was born. In more than one way, Doc struck gold when taking over the Celtics at just the right time. The team had seemingly everything needed to bring back some of that leprechaun glory that the city's older residents remembered so well. There was the established superstar in Paul Pierce, potent second options in Ricky Davis and Raef LaFrentz, and none other than one of the best defensive guards of all time running the point in Gary Payton. Heck, the team even made the ECF a couple of years earlier and remained Playoff regulars in the years before Doc arrived. So how did he perform with his new, green toys?

The first year with Doc leading the way saw the Celtics improve their record from being an eight-seeded 36-46 team the year before all the way to 45-37, good enough for a third seed and some recovery of Doc's reputation. In the first round of the Playoffs, however, they matched up with a tough Indiana Pacers team that took the Celtics to a seven game series and blew them out 97-70 at home in the decisive game. Ouch!

But being the legendary coach he is, Doc of course used this defeat to motivate his squad which was already a top team get to even greater heights, right? Damn right again! Well, greater heights in the draft lottery at least. In '05-'06 Boston took two steps in the wrong direction and ended up with an even worse record than the year before Doc's arrival; 33-49. The Celtics plummeted from third in the East all the way to eleventh, watched the Playoffs on TV and prepared for next year.

By prepared I guess I mean shredded cap space and basically called it quits on the '06-'07 season as they completely flunked and crashed to a 24-58 record and dead last placement in the East. LEGENDARY!

Now in '07-'08 is when we really saw the genius in Doc Rivers' coaching, because that is the year he suddenly was coaching arguably the most versitile PF of all time; 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett. His coaching was actually so good that he even started coaching Ray Allen that same year. It's incredible how multiple years of coaching a team can really bring out the best out if its players. Money surely can't buy that kind of success! The Boston Celtics proceeded to dominate the league that season mostly thanks to staggering defense completely masterminded by Coach Doc and just slightly assisted by Tom Thibodeau - a no-name assistant coach the Celtics just happened to pick up in '07 as well - and went on to win the championship, beating the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

The rest of Doc's years with the Celtics brought varying degrees of success. The Celtics did make it to the Finals again in '09-'10, but saw their path to glory being intercepted by the Lakers that year and Lebron James in other years. In 2012 Ray Allen took his talents to South Beach, and by the end of '12-'13 the Big Four (don't forget Rajon Rondo) was blown up, leaving Coach Doc with a much more familiar season record of 41-40.

Doc's contract was bought out and his golden years with the Celtics were counted.


Los Angeles Clippers - 2013-Present
I don't intend to go into as much detail with the Clippers years as with the previous ones, as they are not part of what built the myth regarding Doc Rivers' coaching greatness. Rather they seem to have the opposite effect, and I pose to you this question; how much more of this before we stop pretending and accept that he is a mediocre coach with a great reputation?

The Clippers have been far from bad with Doc at the sideline. They've made the Playoffs every year in a conference that has been ridiculously competitive during that time. But the Clippers were far from bad without Doc at the sideline too.

In '11-'12 and '12-'13, while still being coached by Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers posted records of 40-26 and 56-26 respectively, placing fifth and making it to the second round in '11-'12, and fourth with a first round exit in '12-'13. When Doc took over, the Clips boosted their record to 57-25, just one W more than the year before. Sound familiar? They again made it to the second round of the Playoffs that year.

The following two years the team's record fell first to 56-26 and then to 53-29, with a second round and a first round exit respectively.

As the '16-'17 season begins we see pretty much the same Clippers roster going for it again with the same coach and there is, in my mind, no reason to believe that the declining trend will not continue. When this happens, can we please finally stop acting like this man belongs in the upper echelon of NBA coaches and call him for what he is; a man who happened to be at the right place at the right time and who is still reaping the benefits.


Summary

For a few years when some of the best talent in the league, both on the floor and on the sideline, was concentrated around Doc, his teams commanded respect and were a force to be reckoned with in the NBA. Aside from that period his career has been epitomized by mediocre results and declining records over time for the teams he has spent multiple years with.

Unless he gets his hands on another superteam with another overqualified assistant coach by his side, there is no more champagne in sight for Doc Rivers as a head coach, and it's time for people to start accepting that and stop mentioning him in the same breath as some of the real coaching legends of our time.

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