THE RIVERS EFFECT

Photo: Doc Rivers
Top image: Doc Rivers as Head Coach of the Orlando Magic in 2001, followed by his return to Boston on 12/11/13.

It has been 15 years since Doc Rivers, a heady former All-Star point guard, first stepped onto the sideline to coach the Orlando Magic. 

One of his mentors, and former coach, Mike Fratello, called Rivers’ foray into the strenuous world of coaching, an “inevitability.”

“He was just one of those serious-minded players who it meant a lot to him, winning and losing,” Fratello said. “You have a feel for certain guys. They approach the game differently than other players do.”

Rivers melded his own coaching style from Fratello and others he was around as a player. He has the in-game intensity of Pat Riley (his coach with the Knicks), the x’s and o’s of Fratello, the candor of the late Rick Majerus (his college coach) and the belief in open and honest communication with his players that mirrors Gregg Popovich, who was in the Spurs front office in the final season of Rivers’ playing career.

Asked to compare himself to Rivers when the Spurs and Clippers faced off Monday, Popovich said, “Sense of humor is huge. We both enjoy screwing with the guys, for lack of a better phrase, sticking it to them, giving them some static. They give it back to us. People who can laugh at themselves and have a good time throughout the season are fun to be around. We both enjoy players that can do that, and we both have players that do have senses of humor. It’s an important thing to get you through the season.”

Rivers defeated Popovich, who is one of only two active coaches with more victories than Rivers, on Monday night to as part of something of a whirlwind tour over the past two weeks of his life in the NBA. He returned to Atlanta, the team that drafted him, and Boston, the team he won the 2008 title with and ascended to one of the league’s most recognizable and successful coaches, and on Wednesday faces off against former Spurs teammate Monty Williams who also coaches his son, Austin. 

In his 15-plus years on the sideline Rivers has made a lasting impact on a number of players he’s coached.

“He allowed me to become the player that I am now,” Jeff Green said. “He gave me confidence to just go out there and play my game and not hold back. And that was one thing I needed in transition to playing this position, the 3 and some 2, was to have confidence in it, and he gave that to me”

“I grew under him,” Nets forward and future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce said. “I was a young player and played nine years with him. I just continued to mature and become a better all-around player under him. I was really known as a scorer and then when he took over, he taught me the other parts of the game. He just helped my game grow and mature.”

Pierce played for Rivers for the duration of the coach’s nine years in Boston. He said he has maintained a relationship with Rivers now that they are a part. But that’s nothing new for Rivers. He has stayed in close contact with everyone from Kevin Garnett to Kendrick Perkins to Monty Williams, who played with Rivers in San Antonio, for Rivers in Orlando and will coach against Rivers when the Pelicans come to town on Wednesday.

When Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue first met Rivers, in his stop with the Magic, Rivers told him that if he ever wanted to coach, he’d give him a job. When Lue called shortly after retiring as a player, Rivers lived up to his promise, bringing Lue in as a player development coach in Boston.

In Summer League, when Lue was in charge of the Clippers, he said it was Rivers’ pushing him that got him into coaching.

“Doc’s been there helping me every step of the way and he’s critiquing me more than he’s critiquing the team,” Lue said in the summer. “He’s just trying to help me build to get to that next level of hopefully one day being a head coach.”

It sounds a lot like what Chuck Daly did for Rivers. He has long said that he was intent on heading to Orlando to learn from the Hall of Famer, two-time champion, and coach of the 1992 Dream Team.

While Rivers has certainly assembled a patchwork quilt of sorts from the legion of coaches he’s been around, he’s put a great deal of his own identity in it. He carries himself with a similar swagger and toughness as he did as a player from Maywood, Illinois outside of Chicago.

His keen attention to detail has made him one of the finest coaches in the NBA at drawing out-of-bounds plays and evaluating the sleep and rest patterns of his players, like when he gave the Clippers a day and a half off after returning from a 13-day road trip. And his scrambling defense has existed since his days in Orlando, and was only accentuated later in Boston alongside Tom Thibodeau where they made two trips to the Finals in a three-year span.

“He brings in a championship pedigree and that experience and kind of an attitude and mental preparation,” Blake Griffin said. “It’s really changed a lot for us mentally as players going into each game and thinking a little bit differently.”

And that different way of thinking may help lead the Clippers (17-9) in a direction they have never been before. Rivers would say it’s the players, or talent, who make or break a championship, and he’s right. But it’s safe to say his imprint will be all over it as well.