Note to reader: Due to scheduling conflicts, I was forced to write the inevitable “Doc Rivers has been fired!” column before they actually fire him. The official announcement could happen as soon as Saturday night, after Boston blows a 22-point lead at MSG and the Knicks rally by running the same high screen with Nate Robinson and Channing Frye 27 consecutive times without the Celtics making a single defensive adjustment, followed by Doc blaming the players after the game for “having to get better defensively.” I refuse to let Doc make me work on a Sunday when it’s already been bad enough watching him bungle my favorite team for the past 25 months. That’s why I’m handing in the column now. Thanks for understanding.
And now, without further ado, the future Pulitzer Prize winning column, “So Long, Doc ”
When my father was leaving the Jazz-Celtics game on Friday night, two Boston fans were walking ahead of him and singing the words “Greg Oden, Greg Oden, Greg Oden, Greg Oden,” almost like they were chanting the words to a nursery rhyme. So much for the greatest franchise in NBA history. Not only is Red gone, not only have 20 years passed since our last championship, but our fans are singing the names of potential lottery saviors four games into the season. And if that’s not bad enough, my father (a 34-year season-ticket holder) wasn’t even remotely appalled.
“It’s like they were reading my mind,” Dad recalled. “I say we trade Pierce and keep Doc for the whole season. Let’s go for Oden.”
I found that comment fascinating: Not that Dad wanted to trade Pierce, but his unbiased belief that keeping Doc Rivers gave Boston the best chance at finishing with a high lottery pick. Seriously, what more do you need to know? If we’re gunning for Oden next spring, either we could be blatant about this quest, fire Doc and hire Joe the Alcoholic Counter Guy from the Charlestown Store 24 or we could keep Doc and guarantee six more months of close losses, defensive breakdowns, stagnant offense, convoluted excuses and an NBA coach substituting players every 90 seconds like he’s coaching a hockey team. Unfortunately for Oden lovers, Danny Ainge and the Boston owners believe their team still has a chance — and they might be right, given the lack of talent in the East this season — so Joe the Alcoholic Counter Guy is out. And so is Doc.
(Note to reader: When we update this section after the actual firing, assuming it happens, I’ll say something nice about the interim coach and point out that his best quality is that he’s not Doc Rivers. Also, if Danny decides to take over the team — and for the love of God, I hope he does — it’s worth mentioning that he finished his Phoenix stint with a 136-90 record and was considered one of the best young coaches around before resigning for family reasons. Anyone who wins 56 games without a center and with Rex Chapman as a go-to guy is legitimate in my book. Back to the column.)
Doc must be relieved. Secretly, anyway. He spent the past two weeks coaching with the same look that Michael Corleone had when he was working up the courage to shoot McCluskey and Sollozzo. On opening night, his team crapped the bed in front of a sellout crowd and 20-25 former Boston legends on hand to honor Red Auerbach’s legacy. That was followed by predictable losses to Detroit and Washington, then an ugly nail-biter win over a putrid Charlotte team (with Doc getting lustily booed during the pregame introductions). Last Friday night, he waited three quarters to go small against Utah, even though New Jersey had beaten them two nights before by playing Kidd, Jefferson, Vince and Antoine Wright at the same time. (By the time Doc tried the same tactic, we were trailing by 15 and it was too late. Either we need more scouts, or Doc needs to spring for League Pass.) The following night, we blew a 25-point lead in Cleveland in the span of about three seconds — it would have been an unbelievable collapse except for the fact that everyone who follows this team could see it coming a mile away.
Wait, you don’t believe me? Driving to a birthday party in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and listening to the game on Sirius, we were up 70-45 midway through the third when I was parking the car. Did I feel safe with a 25-point lead? Of course not. About 45 minutes later, I couldn’t get reception on my cell phone and made a buddy hunt down the score to make sure we didn’t blow the game. “Wow, it’s 94-93, Cleveland!” he exhaled, glancing up from his phone in shock. I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t even remotely shocked. That was also the night Ogi in NYC sent me this e-mail: “Why the Celtics must keep Doc Rivers: Greg Oden 7-0 265 C Ohio St. Fr.”
(Ladies and gentleman, the Doc Rivers era!)
During a somber home game on Monday, Doc (now looking like Mikey after the answering machine scene in “Swingers”) played 11 guys in the first 13 minutes against Orlando (the same team that fired him after a 1-10 start). The subs were coming fast and furiously, to the point that I think our penalty-killing line was out there at some point. Meanwhile, Jameer Nelson was putting himself on the map as the fifth opposing point guard in six games to destroy the Celts on high screens. (Quick tangent: Defending the high screen comes down to philosophy and coaching. We have neither. We couldn’t even defend the high screen when Antoine Walker and Gary Payton were here, which was interesting because they jumped ship to Miami and immediately regained the ability to defend high screens.) Anyway, thanks to a spark from Rajon Rondo (our most talented point guard, even though it took Doc until mid-November to realize it), we surged ahead in the final three minutes before the “everyone stand around and watch Paul” offense killed the momentum. Eventually, Orlando regained the lead and clinched the game on one of those “team grabs an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, then gets the backbreaking layup off a bad defensive switch” sequences that have defined the Doc era.
Following the game, Doc blamed Pierce for failing to box out on the missed free throw, which was interesting for two reasons. First, Pierce DID box out. I recorded the game on TiVo. The ball just bounced over his head. It happens. And second, instead of putting in two rebounders with Trevor Ariza at the line (a poor free throw shooter), Doc went in the other direction and yanked Kendrick Perkins (our tallest guy) for Ryan Gomes (who’s 6-foot-7), leaving two small forwards on the low block to grab a potential Ariza miss with less than 90 seconds to play. I mentioned that he’s a career 60 percent FT shooter, right? The important thing to remember is that the whole thing was Pierce’s fault because he was too short to grab the rebound. Whatever. The players screwed up the “little things” down the stretch, as always. It’s the hallmark of a poorly coached team, whether you’re watching Doc and the Celtics, Terry Stotts and the Bucks or whomever else.
Speaking of Stotts, Tuesday’s Milwaukee paper ran a “what’s wrong with the Bucks?” column that easily could have been written about the Celtics, Grizzlies or Raptors. See, it’s not hard to tell when your coach stinks. You usually know when your players are constantly saying things like “We just need to sustain that intensity for four quarters,” “We need to play the kind of defense we’re capable of playing,” “We can take big leads, now we need to learn how to keep them,” “We’re a young team, so we’re still learning how to bring the same consistency every night,” “We have to start getting stops,” and my personal favorite, “We need to learn how to execute down the stretch.”
All if it is B.S. All of it. Players from well-coached teams never say these things. If those fake quotes look familiar to you, or if that Milwaukee article looks eerily familiar to others that have been written about your own team, then your coach is underperforming and needs to leave.
Four recent NBA links that I enjoyed:
1. From Steven in Clarkston, Mich.: “Have you seen the Bryan Colangelo YouTube video of him in the war room from draft night trying to get Marcus Williams? It’s fascinating, and gives a glimpse of what draft night is really like for a GM.” Plus, the Danny Ainge part is great.
2. Check out my new screen saver.
3. From Jake Browne: “Found a great YouTube clip. Can’t Zach Randolph find some dying kid to go visit? Since when is visiting the overprivileged part of the NBA Cares program? And what parents openly support idol worship of Zach Randolph? Was he the fourth option behind Miles, Q. Woods and Telfair? I guess in Oregon it’s a battle to not raise a hippie.”
4. This link tells you everything you need to know about the Tony Allen era.
So why did the Celtics retain Doc last summer, you ask? Because there wasn’t an available coach out there who was discernibly better. If you owned an NBA team, would you pay two people to perform the same below-average job for a young roster with a 45-win ceiling? Of course not. It’s easier to cross your fingers and hope he improves, right? What followed was inevitable: Doc spent the preseason tinkering with lineups he could never use during real games (my favorite was the one with three point guards and Gerald Green playing power forward), handing minutes to players who didn’t deserve them (like Tony Allen, who’s been playing this season like he’s recovering from a serious head injury), inexplicably playing his best rebounding forward 20 feet from the basket (Gomes), and awarding a starting job to someone who would be more effective coming off the bench (Telfair, a shoot-first point guard who seems determined to kill Bob Cousy every time the Cooz announces a home game). If Doc didn’t have a master plan last season, he certainly doesn’t have one this season. He overstayed his welcome by about nine months, since the last time I wrote that he needed to go. And now he’s gone.
(Well, not yet. But let’s pretend he is. Come on, this is fun.)
Look, it’s never fun to write that someone should lose his job. By all accounts, Doc is a super guy — that’s the main reason both local papers and radio stations kept spinning his B.S. and enabled him to keep his job for this long. Just this week, the one local writer who understands basketball and all its subtle nuances — the Globe’s Bob Ryan — endorsed Doc and absolved him of all blame. Here was his reasoning:
“And, yes, I’m a Doc guy. I can’t help it. I’ve known him too long. I have too much respect for his intelligence, common sense and goodwill to abandon him in this hour of crisis. Do I know for sure that he can convey all the basketball he knows to others? No, I do not. But I know it’s there, and I’d sure like to play for him (assuming he could use a 6-foot, 1-inch forward with 1965 post-up moves).”
With all due respect to Ryan, the greatest basketball writer of my lifetime what the hell does that even mean? He’s your friend, so you can’t admit that he’s a bad coach and you need more time to evaluate him? Nearly 200 games wasn’t enough? Come on.
This speaks to a whole ‘nother issue: When I started writing columns for my old Web site and built a miniscule base of loyal readers, the local establishment (the Globe, Herald and WEEI) pooh-poohed me in a variety of ways. At first, they played the “nobody’s reading him” card. Once it became apparent that some people WERE reading me, they switched to the “he doesn’t matter, he doesn’t come into the clubhouse card,” which was funny because I wanted to infiltrate the clubhouses. Unfortunately, this was the late ’90s — when you told someone you wrote an Internet sports column, they reacted like you were selling knives door-to-door. Really? You get paid for that? I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting a press pass from any local team. Not being allowed in clubhouses was the best thing that could have happened — it forced me to think outside the box, write from the fan’s perspective, try to anticipate potential column ideas before everyone else and offer something different from newspapers. In time, I came to realize that you didn’t need a press pass to write an entertaining column about sports. So thank you, everyone who blackballed me.
Now it’s 2006 and I’m wondering if a press pass does any good. Unlike the old days, basketball reporters rarely get extra access anymore — it’s just the same herd of writers hovering around the same people, day after day, writing down the same boring quotes from the same group of bored people who just want them to go away. Unlike the old days, we can watch every minute of every game on TV. We can watch the postgame press conferences. We can watch highlights and sound bites on ESPN. We can argue about the team with other fans on message boards and blogs. By the time most newspaper stories are published, the news always feels a little dated. I’m telling you from experience — it’s possible to follow a professional basketball team without reading the local beat writers now. I do it every day.
It’s just a different world. For instance, reading the Boston papers as they sorted through the wreckage of a shocking Patriots loss, the Herald reporters (John Tomase and Michael Felger, both of whom do a good job) played up the relative discontent in the locker room, with a couple of veterans openly declaring that they had been outplayed and outcoached. And that’s exactly how the Herald guys should have played it; it was the best newspaper angle to take. On the other hand, they had been outplayed and outcoached — anyone who watched the game already knew that. So why was this a big deal? Isn’t that like interviewing Britney and having her say, “In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have married K-Fed”? Thinking over the past 10 months of Boston sports, I can’t remember a single time when somebody with “inside access” helped elucidate something about the Red Sox, Patriots or Celtics that I couldn’t have figured out myself.
Which brings us back to Glenn Rivers. When I wrote my “Fire Doc” column last January, much to my surprise, it became a big deal back home because nobody had brought the topic up locally even though Doc’s competency was the most pervasive topic on every Celtics blog and message board. Doc lashed out at me on WEEI, calling me “just a blogger,” wondering how I could be qualified to have an opinion about the team when I never go to practice and I live 3,000 miles away, and seeming genuinely dismayed that I would write such a detailed personal attack when I didn’t know him. Of course, I didn’t take a single personal shot in the column. Not one. I was criticizing his coaching performance for a team that I follow obsessively, a team that plays a sport that I happen to fundamentally understand, and I used as much evidence as possible (statistical and anecdotal) to prove my point: namely, that Doc was a lousy coach.
None of this mattered. For months and months, Doc had been sheltered in Boston simply for being such a nice guy. Every writer following the team felt bad about ripping him, most notably Ryan and Gerry Callahan (the best sports columnist in town, but someone whose opinion was compromised by the fact that Doc was appearing on his radio show every week). In this overprotective climate, an ESPN.com column “slamming” Doc seemed to come completely out of the blue. Even my father called me that day just to say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you killed him like that,” followed by me saying, “Wait, haven’t we spent the last year talking about what a crummy coach he is?” and Dad following that up with, “Yeah, but still.”
Nine months later, I’m writing him off for one simple reason above everything else: He can’t get through anymore to his best player, Pierce, who has slowly morphed into Teen Wolf after receiving so much deserved praise last winter. Since the All-Star break last February, he’s been breaking plays, routinely taking on three defenders at once, throwing up awful 3-pointers and turning the ball over at an alarming rate (an astonishing four turnovers per game since mid-February). But since he’s playing hard, rebounding, guarding the other team’s best wing player and saying all the right things on a relatively hopeless team, few people have noticed or cared. I liked him more when he was a team player — there was something admirable about watching him constantly find open players who weren’t as good as him. He’s a better all-around player than he’s shown lately, especially these past seven games, when his arrogant shot selection hurt the team in every defeat. Since the coach can’t reach him, it’s time for the coach to go. And he will. It’s for the best. After all, he’s a much better announcer than coach.
As for the Celtics, the heat turns to Danny Ainge, and rightfully so: The team isn’t any better than it was four years ago. Over that time, he’s been remarkable with the draft — picking no higher than No. 13 and as low as No. 50, he’s selected six players with a chance to become legitimately good (Rondo, Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Kendrick Perkins, Ryan Gomes and Gerald Green, who fell into his lap at No. 18, but still) and two others who are/were just good enough to be overpaid by a stupid team (Allen and Marcus Banks). He’s like a draft savant. Unfortunately, his trading record has been uninspired — with the damaging LaFrentz/Walker trade and last year’s bizarre Telfair trade standing out as legitimate reaches — and he seems to have a fetish for acquiring overpaid white guys with bad knees. He also handed out deadly contracts to two stiffs (Scalabrine and Mark Blount) and overpaid a subpar coach (Rivers). These are the facts.
Honestly, I don’t know how to feel about him. On the various boards and blogs, a fervent anti-Danny movement has emerged, which seems a little desperate to me, like people are just searching for someone to blame. Remember, when he took over the team in 2004, he had three max contracts, no lottery picks, no cap room, one untradeable player (Vin Baker) and no promising players under the age of 25. They’re much better off now. There’s no question. At the same time, they’re stuck in no man’s land — just enough talent to compete every night, not enough experience to find any real consistency — and once Pierce gets frustrated and stops killing himself every night (FYI: He’s leading the league in defensive rebounds right now), there’s a real chance this team could implode. Bringing Doc back damaged the team’s chances of reaching its potential and tainted the Celtics to the degree that it looks like they expect to lose close games now. That’s a tough trait to shake. Yes, you can blame Danny for this problem. As well as the owners.
Now they have two options:
Option A: Blow everything up and trade the two best guys on the team (Pierce and Wally), then cross their fingers for Oden in May.
Option B: Keep the team together and hope Doc’s replacement turns everything around (like Jim O’Brien did a few years ago).
I’m leaning toward Option A. Two playoff teams match up perfectly with the Celts: Dallas could use Wally’s outside shooting with everyone collapsing on Nowitzki, and the Bulls could guarantee themselves a spot in the 2007 Finals by trading picks and young players for a crunch-time scorer like Pierce. So let’s say the Celts trade Wally to Dallas for Austin Croshere’s expiring deal, D.J. Mbenga and a No. 1 pick, then trade Pierce to the Bulls for P.J. Brown’s expiring deal, Ty Thomas and the rights to New York’s No. 1 pick in 2007. (And no, I’m not saying these exact trades could happen. Just pointing out the type of trades that could make sense.) Would that direction (three No. 1’s, two potential top-five picks and a fleet of young players with potential) make more sense than attempting to rally from a horrid start with one star player, a painfully young nucleus and an interim coach? I say yes.
Then again, I’m the same guy who vehemently rooted against them 10 years ago, back when an excruciatingly bad Celtics team ended up finishing with 15 wins, two top-six lottery picks and a 25 percent chance at Tim Duncan. We didn’t get him. That’s the thing about lotteries — you never know. And I have to be honest: the Duncan thing was devastating. Nearly 10 years later, I still blame myself. I was dating a blonde at the time who convinced me to spend the weekend in Hyannis Port over watching the Duncan lottery with my dad. Looking back, it was the worst sports-related decision I ever made. I single-handedly swung the lottery to San Antonio. I will always believe this. We broke up two weeks later, mainly because she was a little crazy, but also because I couldn’t look at her without thinking of Duncan wearing a Spurs jersey. Looking back, I’d have to rate the reasons for the breakup as 85 percent crazy, 15 percent Duncan. I have never forgiven myself for what happened.
If the situation repeats itself next May, I promise to fly back to Boston to watch the lottery with my father. It’s the least I can do. Greg Oh-DEN, Greg Oh-den, Greg Oh-DEN, Greg Oh-den. Barring a miraculous turnaround, it’s the new theme song of the 2006-07 Boston Celtics. And if we end up getting him, and Oden plays his first game for the Celtics next November well, I just hope Doc Rivers gets to announce it.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.