Doc Rivers stinks as an NBA coach.
After watching him butcher my favorite team for 15 months and 134 games, I feel pretty comfortable making that assessment. On the surface, Doc seems fine. He always dresses nicely, his interviews are good, and his "Come on, guys, let's go!" clap ranks among the best in the league. When his team blows a winnable game -- which happens often, by the way -- you can always count on him to look sufficiently disappointed, almost like how Tony Almeida looks on "24" whenever Jack decides to disobey him. Doc has that look down pat. And if you weren't paying attention, you would almost think that he wasn't the problem here.
Well, I think he's the problem. And here's why I care ...
There's a decent chance that the Celtics could trade Paul Pierce within the next six weeks. I don't want that to happen because you can always find another head coach, but you can't always find another Paul Pierce. Still, the "Should we trade Paul?" question has been lingering over this team since November, when it became apparent that Pierce was heading for a career season on a subpar team. Playing his heart out every night, playing the most efficient basketball of his career, Pierce stands out the same way Tom Hanks stood out in late-'80s movies like "The Money Pit" and "Turner and Hooch." Back then, you always felt like Hanks could do better, that he would do better. Same with Pierce.
Pierce rarely forces anything, leads by example and does it with a smile on his face. During crunch time, where most franchise guys are looking to make the biggest shot, he's just as likely to grab a big rebound or take a crucial charge. As late as last spring, it seemed like the rigors of the league had beaten him -- just another young star who made too much money too soon, took everything for granted, trusted the wrong people and couldn't handle the burden of carrying his own team. Now he's one of the best all-around players in the league, a franchise player in every sense. Meanwhile, he's surrounded by mostly overmatched young players and wildly overpaid big men, as well as the only coach in the NBA who refuses to settle on a nine-man rotation.
And that's what worries me. One of these weeks, Pierce will push to play somewhere else. In NBA vernacular, this is called "Pulling a Vince" -- if someone dislikes his current situation, the collective bargaining agreement allows him to sabotage that same situation and keep getting paid until his team trades him for 40 cents on the dollar. (Note: This is the single worst quality about the NBA right now; seeing Vince making game-winning 3s in Toronto for the opposing team makes me want to shank somebody.) Pierce has more pride than Carter, who proved to be an opportunistic weasel with his immediate resurgence in New Jersey, but that doesn't mean Pierce couldn't inadvertently sabotage his own trade value. When a reporter broached the "Would you welcome a trade to a contender?" question after a devastating loss to Dallas on Monday, he seemed to welcome the idea. At least for a day.
That leaves the Celtics with two options:
1. Trade Pierce now. I mean, RIGHT NOW. Get what you can, whether it's Luol Deng and picks from Chicago, Corey Maggette and Shaun Livingston from the Clippers or whatever. If they can convince Isiah to take Pierce and the Mark Blount/Raef LaFrentz/Brian Scalabrine/Dan Dickau "Salary Cap Poison Package" for expiring contracts and Channing Frye, even better.
2. Fire Doc Rivers and see if the 2005-2006 Celtics could be salvaged with a competent coach.
I vote for Option No. 2. You can always find another coach. You can't always find another Paul Pierce.
Then again, I'm not running the team.
Which brings me to the real point of this column ...
The Doc Rivers Special is not a TV show or variety hour. It's not a DVD or a compact disc. It's not something you can order at a breakfast diner -- although if a diner DOES decide to name a dish after Doc, I hope it's the egg-white omelette with bacon and cheese. The egg-white request says, "I'm trying to eat healthy." The bacon and cheese request says, "I don't care about eating healthy."
Put together, those two intentions make no sense. Well, neither does Doc Rivers. And after 15 months of watching him coach, four words have emerged to describe any night in which the Celtics lost a winnable game only because of their coach: The Doc Rivers Special.
For instance, my father attended Friday night's home defeat to the Hawks, who lack a passable NBA point guard and don't have a single rebounder on the team other than Zaza Pachulia. They should NEVER beat anyone decent on the road. So the Celts let them hang around for three quarters, then switched to zone in the fourth so the Hawks could shoot open 3s (they were 11-for-19 for the game). Meanwhile, Al Jefferson (6-for-7, 17 points) sat at the scorer's table from the 6:30 mark to the 1:30 mark -- amazingly, there wasn't a single stop in play, and even more amazingly, Doc wouldn't call a timeout to get him in -- while poor Raef LaFrentz limped around trying to cover Al Harrington (who couldn't guard Jefferson down low if he was allowed to use a two-by-four). We even had two 24-second violations down the stretch, a Celtics staple over the past two seasons. All in all, it would have been an astonishing defeat if we hadn't already watched something as ugly at least 25 times over the past 15 months.
The next morning on the phone, my Dad deemed it yet another Doc Rivers Special, adding that Doc was battling the flu, but the fact remained, "Even when Doc feels good, he doesn't know what he's doing."
Now, my father couldn't coach an NBA team. Neither could I. But we have watched enough games over the years, especially in person, to distinguish the difference between a well coached team and a poorly coached team. The Celtics are poorly coached. You can discern this with the naked eye; you can discern this through a variety of statistical ways. Regardless, the local media doesn't seem to care -- there hasn't been a relevant writer covering the team since Jackie MacMullan. Casual Boston fans don't care, not when the Sox and Pats continue to keep banging out playoff appearances. Die-hard Celtics fans seem torn between blaming Doc and blaming GM Danny Ainge, who tied up the team's salary cap through 2007 with untradable contracts.
Well, you know who cares? Me.
I don't want Paul Pierce to leave town for even 60 cents on the dollar because his team is underachieving. Just compare Doc's season to Phil Jackson's yeoman effort in Los Angeles. Nobody has done more with less. Much like Rivers in Boston, Jackson has one superstar (Kobe Bryant) and one above-average talent/head case (Lamar Odom), but he is saddled with 10 other below-average players who can't be remotely trusted. But Jackson has his fake system in place, and he pretends that everyone has a stake in what's happening (when they don't), and then everyone gets out of the way and Kobe gets 40-plus possessions a night and looks like the prohibitive MVP favorite (even though he's a complete ball hog and a suspect teammate). Did you ever think Jackson would tailor his coaching style around the egocentric talents of one player, allowing him to hog the ball and disregard his teammates at almost all times? Isn't that the absolute antithesis of everything Jackson was about? Still, it's working because ...
A. It's the only way the Lakers can compete;
B. Kobe is an inherently selfish guy and wants to win this way, so Jackson knows that Kobe will kill himself on the court to make this work;
C. Jackson doesn't care -- he's coaching the team only because they pay him a lot of money and because he's whipped; and
D. There's an illusion of team play in place (the triangle, a set rotation, role players at every position), so none of the Lakers realize that Kobe is the wolf from "Teen Wolf" and they're basically the "Other Guys."
Well, you remember what happened in "Teen Wolf." The other guys eventually revolted, leading to the climactic scene when Scott Howard refuses to turn into the wolf for the championship game, then looks like a young Bob Cousy for four quarters (even though he can't dribble without looking at the basketball). With the Lakers, Kobe continues to show up dressed like the wolf and everyone else seems happy to be there except for Odom (a mortal lock to flip out soon). And that's only because Jackson's greatest skill has always been his ability to rally his team around a common goal, even when he's deceiving them in the process. They aren't a team, they're an entourage. But it's working. At least so far.
What would happen if Doc Rivers coached the Lakers? He would be playing 11 guys, juggling rotations, urging Kobe to share the basketball, blowing close games, using an offense in which Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown were forced to make decisions in the high post, telling the press things like "We gotta cut down on the turnovers" ... and everyone would be miserable. Unfortunately for Doc, the L.A. Times has writers like Tim Brown and J.A. Adande covering the team -- they understand basketball and would see right through him. In Boston, where nobody understands or cares, Doc could linger.
(And linger. And linger ... )
So how do you identify when your team has a bad coach? It's not as difficult as you think. Take last week's Celtics-Bobcats game in Charlotte. The Celtics shot 57 percent, the Bobcats shot 40 percent ... and the Celtics won by three points. On paper, that makes no sense. Well, the Bobcats grabbed 17 offensive boards. That's a lot. More important, they turned the ball over only five times and forced 23 Boston turnovers. That's ridiculous. The end result? The Bobcats attempted 100 shots (compared to 70 for the Celtics) and 35 free throws (compared to 31 for the Celtics), giving them an astonishing 32 more possessions during the game. If the Celtics shot anything less than 57 percent, they would have lost. Of course, after the game, Doc told reporters, "Turnovers frustrate me more than anything. We just don't value the ball."
Poor Doc sounded like the parents in that MTV "True Life" special about kids moving to New York, the ones who paid their daughter's rent, gave her a free credit card and money every month, then flipped out when she started going on spending sprees. What the hell did they expect? The same goes for Doc -- when you don't bench people for dumb turnovers, and when you're mixing and matching lineups like a hungover college kid picking a starting eight for his weekly fantasy hoops team, do you really think everyone will play well together?
Eight categories show if your NBA coach is in over his head. Call it the Bad Coaching Index:
1. Lousy record in close games
"Close games" means "any game with a final margin of five points or less." In those games, the Celtics are currently 5-11 ... although that record doesn't possibly convey how many dreadful games the Celtics have blown in the last 3-4 minutes. Somebody on this planet (where are you, 82games.com???) needs to come up with stats to determine things like "double-digit leads blown in the fourth quarter," "crunch-time field goal percentage," "24-second violations in the fourth quarter," "botched two-for-one possessions at the end of a quarter," "number of games in which your coach accidentally ran out of timeouts" and "number of times your final play of the quarter caused your fans to scream obscenities and throw a remote control." If these stats existed, the 2005-06 Boston Celtics would be seen in an entirely different light. I promise you.
2. Too many turnovers
The Celtics average 16.6 turnovers a game ... only the Knicks (17.0) are worse. Well coached teams take care of the basketball.
3. Too many offensive rebounds allowed
The Celts grab 10.0 offensive rebounds a game (26th in the league) and give up 12.2 (24th) for a differential of minus-2.2 (only Phoenix is worse). Well-coached teams don't give up second chance points.
4. Not enough winning streaks
Given the rhythms of a six-month season, even decent teams should peak two or three times per year, when players start clicking together, everyone's healthy and you strike the right scheduling quirk. Statistically, it's almost impossible for this NOT to happen, like if you kept flipping a coin and it showed tails one time, heads the next, then tails, and that just kept happening. If it's not happening, there's absolutely no rhythm to the season. Of course, the Celtics are 14-21 ... with a high winning streak of exactly two games, which happened just once. Keep in mind, Pierce and Davis (the best players on the team) have played every game. And according to ESPN.com's strength of schedule index, through their first 35 games, the Celtics played the second-easiest schedule in the entire league, facing opponents with a collective winning percentage of .485. What happens when the schedule gets tougher or Pierce suffers an injury? Take a guess.
5. Opposing 3-point percentage
This category shows whether you're giving up too many wide-open 3s -- well coached defenses like the Spurs and Pistons rotate well and contest open 3-point shooters. Of course, the Celts rank 23rd in this category. To be fair to Doc, some Boston players (Jefferson in particular) rotate about as fluidly as Kenny Mayne on "Dancing with the Stars" last week. But it's still on his watch.
6. Lousy record on the road
Poorly coached teams usually get eaten alive away from home. In a related story, the Celts are 4-13 on the road. Only the 3-15 Hawks are worse -- yup, the same Hawks who won handily in Boston on Friday night. I will now stab myself in the neck with Salim Stoudamire's afro pick.
7. Lack of a consistent rotation
The single biggest sign of a bad coach: Someone who can't settle on an eight-man or nine-man rotation. NBA players need consistency. They need to play together for prolonged periods. They don't like looking over their shoulder every time the horn blasts. They don't need a coach whisking guys on and off the court for four quarters, especially a young player battling to maintain his confidence. Of course, Doc can't stop tinkering with his lineups -- in the Dallas game on Monday night, Doc played all 12 guys on the roster in the first half. Who does this? Seriously, when have you ever seen that work? Poor Al Jefferson played 28 minutes against the Hawks on Friday night ... five days later, he played six. Hey, he's only the future of the team. Let's keep yanking him around.
(Note: In that second Hawks game, Scalabrine played a whopping 28 minutes because he was doing a good defensive job on Harrington, including all but 83 seconds of the second half. In the previous 11 games, Scalabrine played 37 minutes total. I should also mention that he has a crew cut and a beer gut. Really, you don't want to give Scales a longer breather in the second half when he's more maroon than a college kid in Cancun who fell asleep on a pool chair? Thanks to Doc Rivers, these are the nagging questions I deal with three times a week.)
8. Downright stupidity
It's the little things that makes the 2005-06 Celtics so frustrating to follow. Like Rip Hamilton getting a wide-open look with 0.8 seconds remaining to sink a buzzer-beater. Like nobody calling a timeout with six seconds to play in Golden State, trailing by two, leading to an out-of-control Pierce turnover to end the game. Like my buddy House calling me after attending the Wiz-Celtics game on Saturday night just to ask me, "Why didn't Doc go offense-defense with Delonte West and Marcus Banks down the stretch when Delonte had five fouls and you needed to foul?" ... followed by me answering, "Um, Doc doesn't understand the concept of offense-defense." Like the fact that the Celtics are so consistently atrocious at defending pick-and-rolls, opposing teams don't even bother running other plays anymore. Like a set offense revolving around uncoordinated big men (Blount, LaFrentz, Kendrick Perkins) perched on the high post and looking to find cutters near the basket. Like all of the botched two-for-one possessions at the end of quarters, or the predictable offense down the stretch that basically consists of "Post Paul up 20 feet from the basket and let him create." Like my Dad calling me just to say, "Yup, that was another Doc Rivers Special."
Anyway, those are the eight categories in the Bad Coaching Index ... and poor Doc fails all of them. Doesn't that mean that this current Celtics team is underachieving? He's not a great game coach. Young players don't seem to improve with him around (either in Boston or Orlando). So what's left? Why are we going through the motions here? If it were up to me, the Celtics would keep Pierce and fire Doc, stick Danny Ainge on the bench for the rest of the season (after all, these are his guys), see whether anything changes, then move in a different coaching direction this summer.
Believe me, I'm not asking them to spend six million a year on the next Larry Brown-type free agent -- if anything, I wish they hired a coach like Bobby Finstock from "Teen Wolf," someone who rolled the ball out for practices, played the same six guys every game and dispensed wisdom like "never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body." With Finstock at the helm, the Celtics would be a .500 team, maybe better. He wouldn't overcomplicate things. He'd play his best five guys as much as possible. In crunch time, he would call plays for Pierce and ignore everyone else. And the fans would love him.
See, it's not that hard to coach an NBA team. You need nice suits. You need a voice. And you need to keep it simple. Doc Rivers only does two of the three. And that's why he needs to go.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.