Green Thoughts

Chronicling the Boston Celtics quest for banner number 17... and beyond.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Smell of Death

Like him or loathe him, Doc smells like death right now. Here’s Rivers after the Toronto win:

''I've heard that all year: 'Play the young guys,' " Rivers said. ''Well, the young guys aren't ready all the time. They have to learn how to be ready. We send such a bad message in this league with 'play the young guys, but let the young guys earn their spot.' "

That’s pretty much been Rivers’ player development philosophy all year right? Make the kids earn their playing time. Now here’s Rivers after last night’s loss tot he Washington Wizards:

''I thought our young guys in the first half were terrific," said Rivers. ''In the second half, they were not. I do understand putting them all in at the same time is dangerous. I don't really care. They need to get out there and play minutes and I'm going to keep doing it."

Ummm… okay.

It could just be me, but it sounds an awful lot like someone from the front office took Doc aside and said “Coach, you’re 13 games under .500. The season’s in the crapper. PLAY THE GODDAMNED KIDS!”

You can get away with the “kids got to earn their playing time” stuff when you have a good team. You also might be able to get away with it if you’re an experienced coach with a long track record of success who commands respect around the league. When you’re Doc Rivers and you’re coaching a lottery team, though, you have no leverage. Think Al Jefferson got the message that the sun shined out of his behind when the Celtics dumped Antoine Walker last year and put Al's mug in all the ads and on the cover of the media guide? Think Jefferson figured out he was "the man" when the basketball cognoscenti were anointing him a can’t-miss all-star in the offseason? I wonder if all that had something to do with the fact that he never got in shape and spent much of the year on the DL…

The team is cruising to its worst record since the Rick Pitino era and, other than Delonte West, we don’t really know anything more about what the kids can do than we did last November. We're still talking about Jefferson, Allen and Perkins in terms of "potential" rather than production. Greene and Green are fighting for playing time. And the team seems curiously silent about Gomes’s future role, perhaps because his play has been so up and down in recent weeks.

Rivers will go. He has to go. Last year's team was slotted for 48-50 wins and a couple rounds in the playoffs. Two-thirds of the way through the season, Rivers had coached the team to a losing record. They needed Walker just to get to the post-season and the team’s performance in game 7 against the Pacers had to be one of the most humiliating moments in Celtics history. So the team bagged the “bad influences,” over the last year and went with youth. And here we are, staring a mid-level lottery pick in the face.

Even those who love Doc would never list “mental toughness” as a strength of any of the teams he has coached. There have been successes with the Celts: getting Gary Payton and Ricky Davis to play consistently; managing malcontents like Blount and Banks; the heady days after the Antoine Walker trade; the emergence of Delonte and Ryan Gomes; getting Paul Pierce to take it to another level. But at the end of the day, you simply can’t argue that Doc has met expectations. Antoine is gone. Payton is gone. Ricky, Blount and Banks are gone and the team still stinks. There’s no one else left to blame anymore. With one exception…

If Doc goes, should his boss Danny Ainge go? For me the answer is no… at least not yet.

Ultimately, this is Danny’s team. Other than Pierce, there’s no one left from the OB regime. The initial strategy was to surround Pierce with talented vets, be competitive for a couple of years, and bring the kids along slowly. He blew that up last offseason to go with youth, which, so far, isn’t really paying dividends either. And to be fair, the 2005-2006 team isn’t the one Doc signed up to coach. He’s not a player development guy. He doesn’t have the experience. So, to some extent, Danny set Doc up for failure.

Like Doc, there have been successes: the drafts; getting Payton and then Antoine for virtually nothing; the Ricky Davis deal (for which he was initially barbecued). But there have been many more turkeys. Former Celtics Marcus Banks and Ricky Davis combined gave the Timberwolves 35 points and 14 assists last night. Wally Szerbiak gave the Celtics a scorching 10 points and five boards. (I think Dwayne Jones was exhumed at some point too.) The signings of Dickau and Scabs were lousy. He jettisoned Antoine Walker and Gary Payton and got almost nothing in return. But the worst player deal was clearly for Raef LaFrentz, who earned his $11M again last night by going 1-8 with a couple boards. By the end of this season, the team will have shelled out $33M for this stuff over the past three years (and Raef hardly played the year he was traded).

Dealing for or signing mediocre players with crippling contracts has been the hallmark of the Celtics front office for at least a decade now: Travis Knight, Dana Barros, Vin Baker, LaFrentz, Blount, Wally. The list goes on and on… And when Danny refers to Raef as a core player for the team’s future, he sounds disturbingly out of touch.

Danny has put together a more talented team than the one he inherited, but after three years, his vision has yet to play out. A lot will depend on who the next coach is. If he comes back with Rivers next year and the team plays with the inconsistency it has demonstrated for the last two years, then he should follow Doc out the door. If Doc steps down or is fired in the offseason, there needs to be an exhaustive search for the next coach. Handing the reins to Tony Brown would have been acceptable halfway through the season, and he still may be the best man for the job, but now the team needs to demonstrate that to the fans.

Twenty years now since the last banner folks. There was so much optimism when a member of that championship team took control, but now the Celtics seem farther from another Garden party than it did the day Danny Ainge arrived.