Sometimes, a great coach takes a team to the next level and leads them to a championship, bringing the talent together and leaving open questions of just how bad the last guy was that he couldn’t figure it out.
Steve Kerr taking over for Mark Jackson and leading the Golden State Warriors to glory in 2015 comes to mind. So does Larry Brown working his magic on the Detroit Pistons to get them to two straight NBA Finals and that 2004 title over a Lakers team that was about to implode. Heck, if you’re old enough to remember it, Dick Motta finally taking the Washington Bullets to a title in 1978 and sparing Wes Unseld the indignity of getting into “best who never won it all” conversations qualifies. Unseld would’ve been remembered the way we remember Karl Malone but for that year when the eventually-Wizards got their only win in four 1970s Finals appearances.
Side note, but impress your friends: The Bullets lost to the 1971 Bucks, 1975 Warriors, and 1979 Sonics; they beat Seattle in 1978. So that’s two franchises who got their only NBA titles, and the Bullets themselves got their only title in franchise history. The 1970s were weird.
But sometimes a team is so good that a bowl of oatmeal could coach them to a championship. And sometimes, that poor substitute for a whole-grain breakfast proves throughout his coaching career that he was lucky, not good, to get a ring on the sideline.
And I’m not talking about the puppets for Hall of Fame players. Tyronn Lue has no legacy whatsoever to speak of as a coach, but he had LeBron James and a weak Eastern Conference and it’s not even fair to slam his coaching prowess since everybody and their sister knew that LeBron was the player-coach in all but formal name. If Lue gets a few years coaching guys who aren’t LeBron and falls flat on his face, then we can talk.
No, the worst offender in this category is Doc Rivers, coach of the 2008 champion Boston Celtics.
The problem is that those Celtics teams should’ve won at least two and possibly three rings between 2008 and 2012. That lineup, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Featuring Rajon Rondo ended up holding the bag and dealing with nothing but lame excuses first in the Finals (Kendrick Perkins being injured was the reason the Celtics lost a Game 7 where Kobe Bryant went 6-of-24? That’s your story? You sure on that?) and then in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, where LeBron flummoxed the defensive schemes of Rivers and the Celtics to go for 45 points in an elimination Game 6 on the Celtics’ home floor.
You’ll notice “flummoxed the defensive schemes”. In 2008, Tom Thibodeau was Doc’s assistant, the equivalent of a defensive coordinator in the NFL, and the Celtics put up one of the best seasons relative to league average for Defensive Rating in NBA history.
Thibodeau was an assistant in 2010 for the second Finals appearance as well.
In 2012, Thibs was coaching the Chicago Bulls. And the Celtics fell flat on their faces in front of their home crowd and blew the series, marking the end of an era that on the bright side at least led to one of the most lopsided trades in the history of the league when Danny Ainge decided to blow it up and start over.
But we need to talk about the proper context of the rest of Doc’s career.
Doc wasted the best years of Tracy McGrady‘s career in Orlando, unable to design a scheme around the high-flying young star.
Sure, part of that was Grant Hill unable to stay healthy, part of it was a way past his prime Horace Grant being expected to do the things he’d done in Chicago as a much younger player in the early 1990s, but “40-45 wins and a first-round playoff out” does not a good coach make—just ask Indiana Pacers fans.
One wonders if the way Doc used players made them more injury-prone; besides Perkins in 2010, Kevin Garnett couldn’t stay healthy after that title run in 2008; when he got hurt in ’09, it paved the way for the Orlando Magic to sneak into the Finals, giving Kobe a nice soft target to feast on in Dwight Howard—we’ll get to Howard’s legacy another day, but not for nothing did Kobe despise Dwight when they were teammates.
But what we’re really here for is the crime Doc committed against Chris Paul.
Those Lob City Clippers should’ve gone to the Finals at least once. Heck, they should’ve won the title in 2015.
But with Doc on the sideline, they committed one of the worst playoff self-immolations in recent memory. Every Clippers fan cringes at Game 6.
Los Angeles was up 19 with 2:06 left in the third quarter. 89-70. Houston scored 9 of the last 12 points in the third to make it a 13-point game with 12 minutes to go, then won the fourth quarter 40-15, making Game 7 in Houston all but a forgone conclusion.
The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead in that series. Lucky for them, the meme stopped being about them a year later.
But if there was a way for the Clips to blow a series with Doc coaching them, they always seemed to find it.
There was Game 6 in the first round against Portland in 2016, where the Clippers had a tie ballgame with 32 seconds left, couldn’t secure the rebound on a CJ McCollum miss, and saw Mason Plumlee eliminate them from the free throw line.
Or Game 7 against the Jazz in 2017, where the Clippers let Utah shoot 50.6 percent from the field at Staples Center in an elimination game and lost 104-91.
Or the blown 3-1 lead against Denver in the 2020 coronavirus bubble that somehow managed to cement both Doc and Paul George for all-time as playoff chokers, two guys who deserved each other and who probably had Kawhi Leonard wishing he’d just stayed in Toronto where he had Nick Nurse to coach him to a ring.
Everywhere you look with a Doc Rivers-coached team, you see lack of preparation, no fight when the going gets tough, and the only way the guy got a ring was with three surefire Hall of Famers, an up-and-coming young pass-first point guard to distribute the ball, and a defensive mastermind for an assistant, and oh by the way every veteran who wanted one last good shot at a ring before they retired on the bench.
A bowl of oatmeal could’ve coached the 2008 Celtics to a title.
And a bowl of oatmeal wouldn’t have let the freakin’ Atlanta Hawks take that squad to seven games in the first round, much less lost 10 playoff games total—it took Boston 26 games out of a maximum possible total of 28 to win a title with one of the greatest rosters assembled in the 21st century.
Doc Rivers was the garbage fire that nearly blew the best chance KG and Pierce ever got at a ring.
He is, quite simply, the worst coach in NBA history ever to win a championship.