Anytime an upper-echelon NBA team is in need of fixing, you can always bet there will be a basketball exec standing over their roster bellowing for a Doc in the house. He’ll give your team a tracheotomy when you were just choking on a bone, but for the umpteenth time, Doc Rivers is in a position to answer the call and fail up. Unless The Athletic’s NBA scoop master Shams Charania is being misled, the 2008 Coach of the Year is among five candidates being considered for the job including Nick Nurse, Frank Vogel, Suns assistant Kevin Young and Sacramento Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez for the vacant Phoenix Suns job.
Since getting tapped to lead the Orlando Magic for the 1999 season, all Rivers has done is stalk the sideline for 23 of the last 24 seasons. The only season he missed was the 2003-04 campaign when he was assigned color commentary duty for the 2004 Finals on ABC, alongside Al Michaels.
Rivers didn’t have to work his way up the ladder as an assistant coach. Typically, the retired players who get access to the head coaching jobs pipeline with zero sideline credentials are ex-superstars borrowing off their name recognition. Rivers was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the 1983 NBA Draft and parlayed a hustling role player’s existence into a prolific coaching career that has spanned decades.
During his prime in Atlanta, Rivers averaged a double-double once and was an All-Star reserve in ‘88. His middle name must be Spalding because I’ve never seen anyone bounce back — he also missed the final shot of the 1982 FIBA World Championships — so consistently from rock bottom.
Rivers has been touted as the ideal player-coach despite launching his coaching career by fumbling a Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, and Tim Duncan super team by refusing to relent on his rule preventing spouses from flying on the team plane during his free agency visit during the summer of 2000. T-Mac and Hill still consider that the moment Duncan decided not to sign with the Orlando Magic. Duncan stayed in San Antonio and added four more titles to his coffers. Phil Jackson was savvy enough to let Dennis Rodman blow off steam in Vegas during the Finals and Rivers had to be a hardass to a family man at that moment. Rivers’ Helen of Troy career buried a few more ships over the next two decades.
Doc Rivers has lost more Game 7s than any other NBA coach
Rivers’ flubbed pitch during the Duncan recruitment foreshadowed what has come to define his mishap-filled coaching career — Rivers failing to adjust in crunchtime and his team losing out as a result. He oversaw a 3-1 series collapse against the Detroit Pistons the next year. After falling into the Celtics’ laps, he managed to stay out of the way in 2007 long enough for KG, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Ray Allen to lead the Celtics to a title, but even that era is lamented as a disappointment because of their failure to win a second.
He escaped the Celtics’ collapse and rappelled to Lob City. Not only did the Clippers lust over Rivers, they gave up an unprotected first-round pick to acquire him. A year into the job, Rivers stumbled into the president of basketball ops role in the wake of Donald Sterling’s scandal. The Lob City Clippers always fell short, but Rivers’ brand kept its shine. After whipping up two Game 7 disasters in three seasons on Philly’s sideline, it appeared that the spell had finally worn off. But Rivers may have some juice left to squeeze out of another contender.
Rivers fails up like he was filled with helium. The only gasses capable of escaping his orifices now are gobs of hot air. Yet, he’s a respected figure off of reputation alone, but few ever ask why. Players supposedly like him, except James Harden, Ben Simmons, Chris Paul, Rasheed Wallace, and Blake Griffin. You get the point. His coaching prowess is smoke and mirrors courtesy of Kevin Garnett and since reaching the pinnacle in 2008, he’s been found wanting as a tactician too many times to count.
A Doc Rivers hiring may appease Chris Paul
For the sake of the Suns, Rivers may be on the final candidates list to appease Paul, who mended his relationship with Rivers years ago. Nick Nurse should be the obvious frontrunner, but he could ultimately decide to take the Milwaukee Bucks job or wind up in Philly, replacing Doc.
What then? Do Mat Ishbia and team president James Jones look around and realize their leading candidates are Rivers and Vogel because they can’t entrust Durant’s golden years to an assistant coach? Vogel has done yeoman’s work in Indiana and Los Angeles, but Rivers is the shiny object and Durant has an affinity for easy-going player-coaches without a system. The Suns’ new team owner has been known to lean on Isiah Thomas for advice and his name has been bandied about for a prominent role in the front office. To add smoke to that bustling fire, Rivers and Thomas were both Chicago high school basketball rivals. If Ishbia has any sense he’ll run from the Rivers talk, but his candidacy has better odds than you’d like. This is your warning.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex