Christmas Countdown: Bench boss

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
10:00
AM ET
Doc RiversJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesDoc Rivers is entering his eighth season as the Celtics head coach.
Editor’s note: From Dec. 12-23, we’ll countdown to the Celtics’ Christmas matchup with the Knicks (Dec. 25 at 12 p.m. ET) by hitting on 12 big topics facing the Green this season.

BOSTON -- During his introduction as a member of the Celtics last summer, future Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal was asked what convinced him to sign in Boston for the veteran’s minimum. Was it the 17 banners hanging above him and the franchise’s rich tradition? Or the four current All-Stars and the team’s title potential moving forward?

Shaq pondered the question a moment before noting, “His name is Doc Rivers."

With Phil Jackson riding off into the NBA sunset last season, you can make the case that 50-year-old Rivers is now the preeminent coach in the league. After guiding the Celtics back to respectability, highlighted by the franchise’s first world title in 22 years, Rivers has ascended to the throne of elite bench boss based on sustained success in recent seasons.

The Celtics proved that by inking him to a five-year, $35 million contract in May. A downright giddy Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, noted at the time, “The most important thing is that we have a really good coach for years to come. That’s exciting."

Few could have envisioned this back during the 2006-07 campaign when fans chanted "Fi-re Doc! Fi-re Doc!" as Boston won a mere 24 contests that season, limping through a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak at one point.

Ainge never lost faith in Rivers and he was rewarded that following season, aided in large party by a roster overhaul that united the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.

Sure, winning goes a long way towards improving public perception of a coach. Bill Belichick was no gridiron genius in Cleveland. But it’s impossible to understate just how much Rivers’ players think of him.

Asked after the Celtics’ season ended in Miami last season what it would be like to move forward without Rivers, point guard Rajon Rondo glumly noted, “I don't even want to imagine.”

Fortunately for Rondo and Co., they won’t have to image a Rivers-less bench. Despite lingering speculation each of the past two seasons that he would walk away to spend more time with his family, Rivers raised eyebrows when he agreed to the five-year extension just days after Boston’s playoff exit in May.

Entrenched, Rivers now commands even more respect from his players as a long-term fixture at the end of the bench. Not that that was a problem before. Garnett has often noted he’d run through a wall if Rivers asked him to, which shows you the type of pull he has with his veterans.

Amidst the team’s success, Rivers has emerged as the Picasso of the clipboard, earning a reputation as one of the best late-game play-callers in the league. His fingers almost always smudged with green and blue ink after games, Rivers has proven to be one of the best at concocting plays in pressure-packed situations.

It’s impossible to quantify how much a coach means to a team in terms of wins, but Rivers certainly aids that cause in Boston. Part of the reason many believe the Celtics can remain competitive this season, even with an aging core, is because of their head coach.

After the Celtics acquired combo guard Keyon Dooling from the Milwaukee Bucks at the start of this offseason, the 12th-year veteran gushed about the opportunity to play for Rivers.

"Doc has been somebody who's been a great mentor to me, I always pick his brain each time I see him, because I’m fascinated by him,” said Dooling. “He’s awesome. He’s everything that a player like me would want to be, even for the future. I’m excited for the opportunity to sit back and learn.”

When Glen Davis phoned old friend Brandon Bass to chat about the two being swapped in a sign-and-trade deal last week, the former Celtic had a simple message.

“You know what [Davis] told me, he said, ‘Man, you’re going to love Doc,’” relayed Bass. “That’s the main thing he said.”

Boston isn’t the most glamorous place to play, often bypassed by those who’d rather hoop in Hollywood or South Beach. But Rivers is a becoming a big reason why some guys are willing to put up with the cold and are warming to the idea of playing in Boston.

If it’s enough to lure the likes of Shaq, that speaks volumes about what Rivers means to Boston.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jeff Green
PTS AST STL MIN
16.9 1.7 0.7 34.2
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Sullinger 8.1
AssistsR. Rondo 9.8
StealsR. Rondo 1.3
BlocksK. Humphries 0.9