Time ran out for Rivers

Updated: November 19, 2003, 12:08 AM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

Doc Rivers
Known as a communicator, Doc Rivers couldn't get through to his new Magic crew.
You wonder how it could have ended any different than it did. You wonder if three points on Tuesday night in Utah would have saved Doc Rivers' job. Or four points a couple nights earlier in Los Angeles against the Clippers. Or one more point in regulation the night before that in Denver.

You wonder if 3-8 or even 2-9 would have been enough for the Orlando Magic to keep their coach. You wonder if firing the coach was even a consideration following the season-opening victory in New York -- less than three weeks ago.

Since then, there have been 10 straight losses, including an unthinkable six consecutive setbacks at home. With each loss, the job security shrunk until, finally, it was gone. And so is Rivers. The Magic's next four games are against the Suns and Kings (on the road) and the Pacers and Celtics (at home). Good luck, Johnny Davis.

There is never a single culprit in these kinds of things. But it's invariably the coach who pays -- and no one had to tell Rivers about that basic fact of NBA life. Is he any worse of a coach than he was three weeks ago, when he walked off the floor of Madison Square Garden with an overtime victory? Does anyone think that, even at 1-10, the Magic are hopelessly out of the playoff race in the JV East? They're still only 4½ games out of first place in the Atlantic Division.

It wasn't all that long ago, if memory serves me, that Rivers was deemed to be the paradigm for NBA head coaches. His relative and swift success -- the Coach of the Year in his first season -- prompted some inopportune remarks from George Karl, who wondered why coaches who paid their dues as assistants were bypassed for Flavor of the Month guys like Rivers. (To which Rivers rightly retorted, "No one said that when Larry Bird was hired.") His teams seemed to overachieve, always played hard, and never lost more than they won. They were first-round playoff casualties the last three years, or four years fewer than the Minnesota Timberwolves, who still have the same coach.

Rivers was young, articulate, accommodating and an ex-player who could "relate" to today's PlayStation set. Unless you consider 42 to be old, Rivers is still all of those things. But, as Bill Parcells likes to say, "you are what you are." And 1-10 is 1-10.

Seven years ago, the Phoenix Suns, sort of the Western Conference's version of Orlando, started out the season with eight straight losses. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons called heir apparent and assistant Danny Ainge into his office and said, "I can't coach (two unnamed players.) I'm too old. And you are ready."

The next four games were against the Lakers, Bulls, Rockets and Heat. Phoenix lost them all -- and a 13th as well (to Denver) before breaking through against the Nets. The Suns recovered from the 0-13 start to go 40-29 the rest of the way and even made the playoffs, losing in five games to Seattle.

Certainly, it's not a lost cause for them. Ultimately, it comes down to this: 'Is there light at the end of the tunnel? What is the mindset of the coach? Has he lost his passion, not for coaching, but for coaching this particular group? Does it show in the body language? Can you regroup?'
Danny Ainge on the Magic
Ainge sees some similarities in his situation and the one which led to Rivers' firing. "Our team chemistry wasn't great," Ainge said. "We had a couple of injuries and some new people. So, certainly, it's not a lost cause for them. Ultimately, it comes down to this: 'Is there light at the end of the tunnel? What is the mindset of the coach? Has he lost his passion, not for coaching, but for coaching this particular group? Does it show in the body language? Can you regroup?' "

Rivers talked about the players perhaps needing to hear a new voice. But he was a new voice to most of them.

In the defining loss at Utah, only two players, Tracy McGrady and Andrew DeClercq, were on Orlando's active roster at this time last year. This season's team added Juwan Howard and Tyronn Lue from free agency and drafted Reece Gaines and Keith Bogans. Gordan Giricek and Drew Gooden came aboard last February.

Giricek has been injured for much of the season. Pat Garrity has yet to play and may be out for the season. Those guys aren't going to Springfield, but they are the type of players who can open up the court a bit with their outside shooting. We haven't even mentioned Grant Hill. Remember him? Rivers never had anything close to a productive big man who would command a double team or who could be an intimidator on defense. Whose fault is that?

But when you sign on to coach in the NBA, or in any pro league, you do so with eyes wide open. You have to expect that a 1-10 start isn't going to sit well with the folks in the home office, the same folks who gave you that very lucrative contract extension awhile back, by the way. You have to understand that when the ax does fall, it is coming down on your neck because you are the most visible, accountable, day-to-day individual who can be fired.

The Magic waited 11 games. Jerry West pulled the plug on Sidney Lowe after an 0-8 start last year and brought in Hubie Brown. A few years earlier, West pulled the plug on Del Harris when the Lakers started 6-6. But the Hawks waited 27 games before dismissing Lon Kruger last season. The Bulls waited 25 games before cashiering Tim Floyd in his fourth season after three straight eighth-place finishes in an eight-team division.

Prior to the Tuesday night defeat in Utah, Rivers told the Orlando Sentinel that it wasn't fair or proper to have the whole thing weighing on a win here or a loss there. "That's the worst way to treat a coach who's been extremely loyal to this team," Rivers told the newspaper. "I don't know if that's going on or not but that's what you hear."

Then came the two-point loss to the Jazz and the news that Rivers didn't want to hear but had to know was coming. He'll surface again, probably soon. Only the lucky ones or the prescient ones get out before that ax descends. Jeff Van Gundy saw what was coming in New York. Ainge and Dave Cowens (in Charlotte) left seemingly favorable conditions for personal reasons. Frank Layden tired of the pace in the fall of 1988 and left the Jazz in the hands of assistant Jerry Sloan, who, to that point, had a 94-121 record as a head coach. But most coaches leave involuntarily.

Rivers thus becomes the first coaching casualty of the 2003-04 season (although you might say Pat Riley was really the first and simply expedited things.) If history is any judge, he won't be the last and he won't be alone out there for much longer. Bill Cartwright, Don Chaney and even Byron Scott could just as easily be next in line.

You can wonder all you want if a hoop here or a rebound there might have somehow saved Rivers' job. You can wonder how things might have been different had he had different players. Or healthy players.

But the deal is pretty simple: You go with what you have and you live with what they do. Sometimes, you don't live very well, or very long.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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