Doc Rivers is tough and demanding, but he has pushed the right buttons for the Celtics this season. (AP)
Doc Riversis often referred to as a player’s coach by both the media and his own team, but that casual definition only hints at his coaching style. Rivers is demanding. He is candid, both with the press and his team. He’s also unafraid to make difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions mainly because his players believe that he is making them for the right reasons.
Rivers is a player’s coach in part because he lived the life himself. As a 13-year veteran, he is still best remembered by some as the point guard for the Dominique-era Hawks and the no-holds-barred Knicks. Yet, Rivers has now been on the sidelines for as long as he was on the court, and his playing days should also be remembered for the coaches he played for: Mike Fratello,Larry BrownandPat Rileywith a dash ofGregg Popovichat the end of his career in San Antonio.
It’s in their hard image that he has defined himself as a coach. He called his players out by calling them out of shape before the season started, and didn’t mind repeating it periodically during the first half of the season. He tore them up after a loss to the Bulls by calling them “cool,” stretching out the word like a disappointed father who just found out his kid cut school and suggested that his team wasn’t tough enough to beat Chicago.
Rivers rarely indicts players by name when he drops the hammer, but that didn’t stop him from tellingRajon Rondothat he should feel honored to have his name come up in trade talks with a great player likeChris Paul. He toldKevin Garnettto play the five andRay Allento come off the bench. This did not always go over well, but his players still swear by him.
“The thing that he does that separates him from the rest of the coaches is he allows players to be who they are,” Keyon Dooling said. “He’s not going to bombard with you a whole bunch of rules, regulations. The little things that a lot of coaches trip off of in our league. He gives us so much leeway, so much freedom to be who we are, as long as you do your job. He treats us like men.”
“WithDoc Rivers’ system, it’s much like Cuba. You really don’t have a lot of say. It’s the Doc Rivers show and if you don’t like it, then you find another show to be a part of. I understood it from day one that I got here, so if he needs me to play the five -- it’s my dislike and things I don’t like -- but I’ll do anything for him. He asked me to play the five and he thought it would be better for our team, so that’s what it was.”
Rivers has earned his players’ trust by putting them in position to succeed not just as individuals, but more importantly as a team. His system may be rigid, but his players have seen the results and that allows them to trust his process.
“By far the best X’s and O’s that I’ve been around,” Dooling said. “Second to none. I don’t know what our percentages are coming out of timeouts, but I’m sure it’s at the top of the league. Poise. Always poised as far as knowing what to do in the right situation. Communication, second to none. Doc carries a heavy load over here and his presence is felt. He holds everyone accountable.”
Garnett’s trust in his coach was the biggest reason he went along with the move to center, and it’s his definition of a “player’s coach” that’s the interesting part of this quote.
“Man, I’d run through a wall for that guy,” Garnett said. “He’s a player’s coach. Definitely the reason I’m able to be in the position I’m in, looking like I’m half decent in this league. He cares about players’ bodies and time off. All those things are important. I’d go through a wall for that dude. If he asked me to do anything drastic, I would never go into it thinking that he’s telling me something wrong. I hate playing the five, to be honest.”
There’s another part of this as well. Rivers may be something of a dictator, but he also allows the players to have a say over their lives within the team construct. Cards on the plane? No problem. Stay an extra night on an off day to be with family? It’s encouraged. He’s in charge on the court but the locker room belongs to the players, which is notable for being a mostly leak-free zone.
“It’s a reflection of him, but not him alone,” Dooling said. “He allows us to be men and he allows us to have a say in the team. We police ourselves in this locker room. Guys are professional. You got Kevin Garnett in this locker room. You’re not going to have anyone getting out of place. You’ll never have a locker room out of order if Kevin Garnett is in your locker room.”
The core players have stayed the same during the last five years, but each year is different with new role players, or players in new roles. Some adapt well to his coaching. Others don’t hang around very long.
What’s made this season so compelling for Rivers is that theCelticsbrought in eight entirely new players along with short-timers like Sasha Pavlovic andAvery Bradley. He has been tested this season trying to find out who they are, and at times he’s been lucky as well as good.
No one knew that Bradley was going to develop so quickly. Mickael Pietrus was the player who was slotted to move into the starting lineup before he suffered a severe concussion against Philadelphia, which gave Bradley his chance.
Greg Stiemsma was the odd big man out behind Garnett, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox in the rotation before Wilcox had season-ending heart surgery. Almost improbably, Stiemsma has gone from undrafted 26-year-old rookie to an invaluable backup center playing 20-24 minutes a night.
That may have been fortunate, but Rivers recognized those developments quickly and made them permanent. Along the way, thisCelticsteam has become a special one for the coach, imperfections and all.
“This team has resolve. They do,” Rivers said after they beat the Hawks in overtime. “On paper, all that stuff, you know who we are. But they figure it out. They like each other and I think that allows us to win games on certain nights that we shouldn’t win. I really believe it.”
Rivers went to far as to call this the toughest team he’s coached, placing it with his first team in Orlando, who hold an exalted place in his personal pantheon.
“I had one in Orlando, but we couldn’t win any games. We hung in a lot of games. This team, they’re just tough,” Rivers said. “I don’t know why. I wish I knew. Once we went small it was like, guys this is who we are and this is how we have to play the rest of the year and they’ve really bought into it.”
Calling Rivers a player’s coach is accurate, but there's so much more to it than that
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