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Doc Rivers' Exit From Boston Was Messy, But His Celtics Legacy Can't Be Ignored

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Doc Rivers' Exit From Boston Was Messy, But His Celtics Legacy Can't Be Ignored
Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

After a nine-year tenure that resulted in seven playoff runs, six Atlantic Division crowns, two finals appearances and one NBA championship, the Doc Rivers era in Boston is officially over. Danny Ainge announced it in a press conference on Tuesday, as reported by Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston. 

Rivers is now heading off to the Los Angeles Clippers to contend for a title with Blake Griffin and (likely) Chris Paul, while the Celtics receive a 2015 first-round draft pick as they grapple with the ramifications of a deal that was reported to be dead by Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski on June 21.

Celtics fans are justifiably upset at Rivers.

He was tabbed to be the face of Boston’s eventual rebuilding project when he signed a five-year contract extension worth $35 million during the 2011 offseason.

With uncertainty about the futures of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Rivers was expected to, along with Rajon Rondo, usher in the next phase of Celtics basketball once their Hall of Fame forwards left the court for good.

Still, despite the unceremonious nature of Rivers’ departure and the fact that he essentially forced his way out of Boston in the same manner that Dwight Howard and Chris Paul forced their ways out of Orlando and New Orleans, Rivers’ Celtic legacy boasts plenty of positives. He finished his career with the third-most wins of any Boston coach at 416, trailing only Tom Heinsohn (427) and the immortal Red Auerbach (795).

As Rivers begins a new chapter of his career with the Clippers and Boston begins the tedious process of finding his replacement, let’s take some time to reflect on the complicated legacy of the coach who brought Ubuntu to the Celtics in 2007 and who ended it in 2013.

Elsa/Getty Images
Rivers inherited a very young Celtics team when he was hired in 2004.

 

Doc’s Arrival and the Early Years

Doc Rivers joined the Celtics in the 2004-05 season, a year after being fired by the Orlando Magic in November 2003 following a horrid 1-10 start. Rivers replaced interim coach John Carroll, who stepped in for Jim O’Brien and led Boston to a 14-22 record and a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the top-seeded Indiana Pacers.

Led by Paul Pierce, who averaged 21.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game, the surprisingly consistent bench play of Ricky Davis and the midseason acquisition of Antoine Walker, Boston unexpectedly emerged as one of the league’s better offensive teams under Rivers. They were fifth in the league in points per game at 101.3 and posted an offensive rating of 107.5, good for ninth in the NBA.

Though Boston suffered a disappointing 4-3 loss in the first round to Indiana, Rivers was able to establish a consistent rotation (something he would later struggle with) and put faith in rookies Tony Allen and Al Jefferson, who emerged as valuable role players.

Being blown out in a Game 7 at home was not how the third-seeded Celtics anticipated going out, but things still appeared promising for Boston. The Celtics appeared to be one of the more promising young teams in the league behind Rivers.

Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case.

With Walker dealt to Miami, the 2005-06 Celtics floundered due to excessive youth and Rivers’ struggles. Armed with a slew of rookies and second-year players, Rivers could not settle on a consistent rotation and the team stumbled to a 33-49 finish.

To illustrate, the 2005-06 Celtics used 18 starting lineups, while the 2007-08 Celtics used only 10. The 2006-07 Celtics, whom we’ll discuss shortly, used 24 starting lineups and posted a ghastly 24-58 record.

Pierce continued to play well, posting 26.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists in '05-06, but he had little help around him, both from his teammates and his coach.

Boston could not win on the road, going 12-29, failed to execute in crunch time, and, despite the continued development of players like Allen, Jefferson and Delonte West, were unable to keep pace in a fairly weak Eastern Conference.

Unfortunately, things only spiraled further downwards in the 2006-07 season.

The Celtics posted their fewest wins since the 1996-97 campaign (not counting the '99 lockout year), including a horrific 18-game losing streak. The team was among the worst in the league on both ends of the floor (22nd  in points scored per game, 18th  in points allowed) and Rivers could not establish a consistent system or rotation that allowed this young, but talented team to flourish.

Luckily, a major move was on the way that would drastically alter the floundering franchise’s future.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Rivers' defensive scheme and team-first message was a huge reason Boston won the 2008 championship.

 

The Big Three, Ubuntu and the 2008 Title

Coming on the heels of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the Celtics acquired stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in a pair of blockbuster trades, making themselves into overnight championship contenders. The trio of Allen, Garnett and Pierce all boasted numerous individual accolades, but none had ever made it to the NBA Finals.

In order to keep his team focused on team success instead of individual glory, Rivers instilled the principle of “Ubuntu” during the team’s 2007 training camp in Italy. Ubuntu is an African term noting the importance of trusting others and creating a sense of kinship and community, and it became the battle cry of the Celtics as they embarked on their run to the 2008 championship.

With the help of Garnett and assistant Tom Thibodeau, Rivers established an aggressive, pressure-based defensive system that held opponents to just 90.3 points per game, second in the league.

By stressing from the outset the importance of sharing the ball and trusting teammates, Rivers was able to get his three stars to mesh instantly. All three averaged more than 17 points per game as Boston finished with a 66-16 record, the best in the NBA.

Rivers also smartly put faith in second-year point guard Rajon Rondo, who averaged 10.6 points and 5.1 assists for Boston, and fifth-year center Kendrick Perkins, who came into his own defensively under the tutelage of Rivers and KG. Rondo and Perkins made a combined 155 starts in the regular season and 51 starts in the playoffs.

Despite some struggles in the postseason with the upstart Atlanta Hawks and LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, Rivers did a tremendous coaching job, making the right adjustments, calling smart plays in the fourth quarter and relying on veteran role players like James Posey, Sam Cassell, P.J. Brown and Eddie House, all of whom came up huge for Boston in the postseason.

Rivers did a phenomenal job game-planning for Kobe Bryant in the finals. Bryant shot just 40.5 percent for the series and 32.1 percent from three-point range. After the Game 6 loss, Bryant even admitted, “They were definitely the best defense I’ve seen the entire playoffs.”

The 2007-08 season was an excellent one for Rivers, as he emerged as not just a motivator for the Celtics, but a more confident X’s and O’s coach as well.

While the talent upgrade certainly helped, Rivers undeniably came into his own during the C’s title run.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
After the 2008 title, Rondo emerged as an elite point guard under Doc's tutelage.

 

Injuries, Bad Luck and the Hunt for Banner 18

After winning the 2008 title, it appeared the Celtics had a dynasty on their hands. But a number of poorly timed injuries made the path to another championship all the more difficult.

Boston dominated the 2008-09 regular season, posting a 19-game winning streak and the third-best record in the league at 62-20. The defense was as solid as the prior season, Allen was looking more comfortable as a Celtic and Rondo continued his development as a top-notch facilitator under Rivers.

However, a right knee sprain cost Kevin Garnett 25 regular-season games and the entire 2009 postseason. With Garnett sidelined, Rivers turned to second-year power forward Glen Davis, who had a tremendous playoffs, averaging 15.8 points and 5.6 rebounds on 49.1 percent shooting.

While he was not nearly the defender Garnett was, Rivers was able to use Davis’ rebounding and jump-shooting ability effectively to create space for Rondo and Pierce to attack.

Perhaps most importantly, Rivers put an unprecedented amount of faith in Rondo, who delivered by averaging 16.9 points, 9.7 boards and 9.8 assists in the 14 playoff games. Rivers used Rondo brilliantly in the pick-and-roll while also giving him the freedom to deviate from the team’s more measured offense and push the pace when the opportunity was available.

The future still looked bright in Boston, but the 2009-10 regular season was where the first signs of trouble began to show. Even with Rondo nearly averaging a double-double and Pierce continuing to score well, the team’s offense was pedestrian.

The Celts ranked 19th  in the league in points per game at 99.2 and were exactly in the middle in offensive rating at 107.7. Though their defense remained elite, Garnett began showing the mileage he had accrued, averaging just 14.3 points per game and forcing Rivers to use him almost exclusively out on the perimeter.

To make matters worse, 2009 was allegedly when the beef between Rondo and Allen came to a head. Allen told the Miami Herald that he learned of a possible deal Rivers and Ainge proposed that would have sent the guards to Phoenix for a package of Amar’e Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa and the 14th  overall pick in 2010.

Rivers acknowledged to Yahoo! Sports in 2012 that a rift between Rondo and Allen existed, but ultimately he could not do enough to stop it, which prompted Allen’s eventual departure.

The team finished fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 50-32 record and appeared to be headed for also-ran status, but Rivers was able to sell that doubt as motivation for his team and inspire them to an unlikely playoff run.

Boston throttled Miami, but it went down 2-1 to Cleveland after being embarrassed 124-95 in Game 3. Rivers masterfully was able to energize his team and adjust the defensive strategy to be more physical with James and force the Cavs to jack up outside shots.

Against Orlando, the Celtics took away the three-pointers Dwight Howard generated for his teammates and allowed Perkins and Garnett to force Howard to work down low. While the strategy yielded a few big games for Howard, Rivers’ decision to stick with it ultimately worked, as he simply could not score consistently on excellent defense with his very raw post game.

In the finals, Rivers’ squad again was able to stifle Kobe Bryant, allowing him to shoot just 40.5 percent overall and 31.9 percent from beyond the arc. However, Boston had trouble handling Pau Gasol inside, while the basketball player formerly known as Ron Artest was able to do a commendable job on Pierce defensively.

Rivers also made the costly decision to keep his rotation short, even with Ray Allen struggling after Game 2. His eight three-pointers lifted Boston to a huge win in Los Angeles, but the Lakers corralled him for the rest of the series, including a dreadful 0-of-13 performance in Game 3.

Tragedy struck when Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL in a blowout loss during Game 6, but the Celtics still had an opportunity to win a championship by besting the Lakers in Staples Center.

Unfortunately, Rivers decided to stick with an old and overmatched Rasheed Wallace for 36 minutes while playing the younger and stronger Big Baby Davis for just 21 minutes. Wallace scored 11 points, but he shot too many ill-advised perimeter jumpers and did little to keep Gasol, Bryant and Lamar Odom off the boards.

Add to that the continued struggles of Allen, an off-night for Pierce and some shaky officiating and the Celtics headed home trophy-less and heartbroken after losing a 13-point second-half lead.

Elsa/Getty Images
Perkins was a key piece of Boston's defense, and the team struggled once he was dealt.

 

Big Four, the Perkins Trade and a New Contract

After reportedly considering retirement to spend more time with his family, Rivers decided to return to pace the sidelines of TD Garden for the final year of his contract in 2010-11.

The Celtics rolled through the regular season thanks to extremely efficient performances from Rondo, Pierce, KG and Allen, all of whom were named to the 2011 All-Star game. With Perkins rehabbing his knee, Rivers used with the tandem of Shaquille O’Neal and Glen Davis at center, as fans geared up for Perkins’ return and another championship run.

However, a scary spinal injury to Marquis Daniels forced Boston to pursue a backup wing player at the trade deadline, and Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on a controversial trade that sent Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.

While Green’s emergence in 2012-13 and Perkins’ struggles for the Thunder have made this trade look better in hindsight, the Celtics’ trademark defense was not the same without Perkins down low and Green did not adjust well to Doc Rivers’ systems.

After the Perkins deal, the Celtics went just 15-12 after going 41-14 before the trade.

Boston rolled over New York in the first round, blanketing Carmelo Anthony and the injury-depleted Knicks, but struggled against LeBron and Wade’s Miami Heat. Krstic and Green provided almost nothing in the course of the series and Pierce had difficulty covering James one-on-one.

Ultimately, Rondo’s dislocated elbow was too much to get past, and Boston succumbed to the Heat in five games.

Rivers admitted after the team’s loss in the Eastern Conference Semifinals that he “would [have waited] until the year was over” to make the Perkins-Green swap, according to ESPN Boston’s Greg Payne.

That offseason, Rivers signed the lucrative five-year contract that seemed to indicate he would be in Boston for the long haul even with the Big Three’s days numbered.

The Celtics brought back their core for the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, but they struggled in the early going, posting a 15-17 record before the All-Star break.

Injuries to players like Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal robbed Boston of its size, and despite again posting strong defensive numbers (second in points allowed, first in defensive rating), they simply could not score the ball with any kind of consistency.

Facing a first-round bloodbath at the hands of the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat, Rivers made the gutsy decision to move Kevin Garnett to center full-time. The move rejuvenated KG, who thrived playing against heavier, slower big men. The C’s went 24-10 after the All-Star break, earning the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference once more.

KG averaged 19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds during the postseason as Boston came up one game short of the finals, losing to Miami in seven games. Injuries to Allen and Bradley forced Rivers to rely almost exclusively on Garnett, Rondo and Pierce in the playoffs.

Throughout the series, Rivers did a masterful job of making adjustments and throwing different looks at the Heat defensively, but the excellence of LeBron in Game 6 was simply too much for this aging, injury-plagued team to overcome.

In the 2012 offseason, Boston reloaded.

The Celtics re-signed Jeff Green and Brandon Bass while bringing in Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, hoping that a deeper roster would give the Celtics a shot to dethrone Miami in the Eastern Conference and offset the defection of Allen to South Beach.

Unfortunately, Rivers could not get the pieces to gel. Lee and Terry both struggled mightily to grasp the team’s defensive system. Pierce was playing decently, but had more difficult creating his shots against defenders and the inconsistent play of Rondo hurt the team's chances.

The team stood at a disappointing 20-23 before Rondo’s ACL tear forced Rivers to completely restructure his offense. Suddenly, Pierce was playing the point-forward role, players were cutting better and the ball was moving around the floor.

Though the Celtics came back down to Earth after a 13-4 start to the post-Rondo stretch, the fact that they managed to stay in the playoff picture is a testament to Rivers’ ability as a motivator and the veteran culture the Celtics had created.

Unfortunately, with their backcourt struggling and Pierce turning the ball over at an absurd clip, the team fell in six games to the Knicks, beginning a long and painful offseason where Celtics fans have had to endure every possible trade rumor imaginable pertaining to Pierce and KG.

Still, Rivers was able to rally Boston to wins in Games 4 and 5, shortening the team’s rotation and attempting to get the ball out of Pierce’s hands more, since he was struggling against New York’s pressure.

Though a first-round loss is disheartening for these Celtics, it was a testament to Rivers and the team’s mental fiber that they were able to pick up two wins over a superior opponent.

While rumors of Rivers retiring were realistic and teams like the Brooklyn Nets contacted Boston about Rivers’ availability, it seemed far-fetched that any part of Stephen A. Smith’s absurd trade rumor would come true.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Rivers' introductory press conference with the Clippers.

 

Final Thoughts and Rivers’ Lasting Legacy

Despite Danny Ainge saying he does “not believe Doc quit on the franchise” in his press conference on June 25 , it is hard not to look at it that way. Rivers had committed to being in Boston for five seasons back in 2011, and there was no way to realistically expect this team, as constructed, to still be contending for titles in 2016 with KG and Pierce.

Rivers obviously wanted to continue competing for titles, a sentiment he felt Boston’s front office did not share with him. Doc has coached 14 years already and has been part of 121 playoff games, so the thought of leading a team that might only win 30-40 games in 2013-14 was not exactly appealing.

Ultimately, Rivers’ legacy with Boston will be that of a coach who improved and developed by leaps and bounds during his tenure.

Sure, Doc won Coach of the Year with Orlando back in 2000, but his Magic teams never made it out of the first round of the playoffs.

When he got to Boston, he struggled to instill a consistent defensive system, establish a rotation that allowed his team to play to their strengths, or string together wins. While the talent level of his players undeniably skyrocketed after the 2007 offseason, Rivers’ philosophy as a coach also changed.

Ubuntu may become a punch line for Celtics fans and sportswriters because of the unglamorous end to the Big Three era, but the fact that Rivers was able to get three franchise-caliber players to value their own egos and numbers below team success is what kept Boston competitive even as the talents of Pierce, KG and Allen declined.

Although he’ll never be considered an offensive genius, Rivers was always a good motivator, and his growth as a tactician during his time with the Celtics proves the value of a franchise sticking with a coach even if he is not instant successes.

Unfortunately, Rivers’ awkward exit will make it difficult to look at his legacy objectively, as will the Rondo-Allen clashes and a recent report from Chris Sheridan that Doc and Rondo almost came to blows at one point.

Rivers' Boston teams consistently performed at or near their expected win level.

For better or worse, Rivers’ tenure will also always be linked to a slew of what-ifs involving injuries. KG’s injuries robbed the team of a shot at a title in 2009 and Perkins’ absence in 2010’s Game 7 allowed L.A. to bully Boston inside.

Later, Rondo’s dislocated elbow in 2011, Allen’s ankles and Bradley’s shoulders in 2012 and ultimately Rondo’s ACL tear in 2013 all hurt the C’s in the postseason.

While it will ultimately take some time for fans to move past Rivers’ departure, his lasting legacy in Boston should be as a coach who, with help from his veteran players and a savvy crop of assistants, took the Celtics from being bottom-feeders to perennial title contenders and revived Celtic pride in the process.

He’s no Red Auerbach, but Rivers was the coach that the Celtics needed during the Big Three era. While the nature of his departure is a shame, his lasting contributions to the winning culture of Boston basketball should not be ignored.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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