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The Genius of Doc Rivers

Doc Rivers [1] was named the Eastern Conference coach of the month for November before last night’s win over Orlando [2], one of those strange awards the NBA loves to give out to mark the passage of time. “I don’t know if coaches get better from month-to-month,” Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy [3] was saying before the game. “I won a couple of them in Miami and I wondered, ‘Did I really do a better job that month?'”

As Rivers himself pointed out, the award had everything to do with the Celtics [4] 16-2 record in November (and October) and not much at all to do with some blast of strategic brilliance from the sideline, but if the honor does have any significance, it’s further validation that Rivers is at the top of his profession.

That’s a long way from 2006-07 when fans were openly calling for him to be fired, and not all that far removed from those same fans wondering if Phil Jackson [5] would run circles around him in the NBA Finals [6]. But an NBA title does do wonders for a coach’s reputation. “That’s not for me to say,” Rivers said. “It shouldn’t (have an effect on other’s perceptions), but I’m sure it does.”

So, the question becomes, knowing all that we know about Doc in his tenure with the Celtics, how good a coach is he, really?

Think for a second about the NBA coaches who are acknowledged to be in the “great” category. How many of them are there? Larry Brown [7]? Phil Jackson? Gregg Popovich [8]? All of them have won championships, as Rivers has, but that’s not really their defining characteristic.

Brown has defined himself, and his teams, by “playing the right way,” a nebulous phrase that tends to mean solid defense and a reliance on smart offense, while eschewing the flashy and the spectacular. Jackson has mastered the art of fusing superstar egos into a team concept, and playing pop-psychology head games with his team and opponents. While Popovich, who may be the best in the business, has a no-nonsense (some would say “no fun”) approach to winning games that mirrors Brown’s, but without the drama.

Rivers is a meld of all three. When he came to Boston he had a rep for doing less with more, which is fine as far as it goes, but the problem with having less is it often means having a limited ceiling. His early Celtic teams lacked talent, but if they had one defining characteristic it was a willingness to play hard to the final buzzer.

Even the 2006-07 team, which won only 24 games, had a point differential of just -3.4, which shows effort was not a problem. “It was obvious,” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said last summer, “that Doc’s team’s played hard every night.”

Talent was not a problem last year, but the problem with talent is it poses its own set of questions for a coach to answer. A successful college coach once told me that the toughest thing in basketball is coaching talent because then you have to worry about keeping everyone happy.

“He’s a good communicator,” Ray Allen [9] said. “We can relate to him as a human being. Coaches have to find different ways to motivate players. Doc finds new ways to relate the same message. It’s six months of regular season basketball. You have to be innovative and make it fun.”

Sometimes, Allen said, that means referencing Bill Belichick [10]. Other times it’s Muhammad Ali [11]. There is the whole ubuntu thing, and while it may seem hokey to those outside the Celtics locker room, it still holds resonance with the players inside.

Rivers is also exceptional at communicating with the press, which is at once an overrated skill and also underrated. Overrated because keeping the media happy doesn’t put any extra points on the scoreboard, underrated because a content press corps is usually not a distraction. (For examples see the Knicks beat writers). Keeping the distractions to a minimum is a must for this team, most notably because the team’s best player, Kevin Garnett [12], does not like chaos.

The big complaint about Rivers in the past has been the lack of a set rotation. That is not an issue this year. The first nine in the rotation have remained the first nine and that is not likely to change. This is a team that thrives on routine, be it KG’s pregame quiet or Allen’s legendary shooting drills.

Rivers has hit on what makes this team tick. Yes, having three Hall of Famers, not to mention one of the best young point guards in the league, doesn’t hurt the bottom line, but getting the very best out of them on a nightly basis is the coach’s job, and through 101 regular-season games in charge of this team, Rivers has won 83 times.

“Our goal is to make sure we’re better,” Rivers said. “We have to be better than last year. (Success) has a lot to do with other people. The players, obviously, and I have a great coaching staff. That’s the ubuntu thing. We’re all tied together.”

Rivers has the Celtics, for lack of a better phrase, playing the right way. They rely on defense first and a balanced offense. He has seamlessly blended superstars into a team concept and he is able to keep the drama at bay. Sometimes the awards get it right.