The conversation will eventually hit the wayback machine to 2007, but for now, the 76ers’ coach is pondering the time when he stopped calling this building home in 2013 and the journeys both he and the Celtics have taken to the present.
Rivers chose to take a cross-country trip to the Clippers when Danny Ainge exploded an aging core that had made it to two Finals and won one. Doc got a bag of money, a top-loaded roster and ultimate power in Los Angeles, and he wasn’t high on the idea of starting from less than scratch in Boston.
Since then, the Celtics have made it to the conference finals four times and the NBA Finals once. In seven years with the Clippers and two in Philadelphia, Rivers has yet to get past the second round.
Doc’s not saying he bet on the wrong horse (see: money, bag of, etc.) but he’s impressed with the Celtics’ speedy rise from the ashes.
“You knew Danny would,” Rivers told Heavy Sports. “You just didn’t know he would do it that quick. Like, I believed that he would, because he’s so f***ing good.
“He’s doing it again. No one’s really noticing, but he’s doing it again. Yeah, you can see him doing it again. They’ve got a thousand draft picks already. He may be doing it even quicker when you think about it, with all the picks they’ve got.”
Differences Between 2008 Celtics and This Year’s Sixers
Back in 2007, three seasons into Rivers’ nine-year Boston residency and coming off a 24-58 campaign, Ainge added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Paul Pierce. Doc got the three together before the season and took them on a duck boat ride around Boston, tracing the path the club would take if they earned a championship parade. It worked.
So does he see any similarities between that group and the Joel Embiid-James Harden-led crew with title aspirations he now coaches?
“The bench,” Rivers said. “The starters here haven’t changed too much, just really adding Tuck (P.J. Tucker), but the bench is very similar. Tough guys, vets, guys that speak up, and guys who speak up and tell the stars the truth. Very few teams have those kind of guys. We haven’t had it since I’ve been here, and it’s great to have. We’ll see how it works, but I do like it. There are definitely parallels, for sure.”
Critical for the Celtics that hung the 2008 banner in the Garden rafters was getting stars to sacrifice pieces of their game for the greater good of the whole. There could be some of that now with Embiid and Harden.
“I would say the difference was that our three guys with the Celtics, their MVP years were over by then,” said Rivers, himself a one-time All-Star in a 13-year career. “They were done with chasing that. They were more ready to win. Joel is still an MVP candidate every time he steps on the floor. James maybe not — or maybe. We’ll see.
“But I do think the key is if they’re all ready to win. I THINK they are. But, you know, I didn’t know before that year with Boston. You felt it, but you didn’t know it. You didn’t KNOW it. I mean, through (training) camp, I think things here have been very similar. They all are locked in through camp.”
Rivers: ‘Things Don’t Always Work Out’
That, of course, doesn’t guarantee you’ll still be playing in late May or June. But Rivers has a real team now, as he did in Boston and seemingly again with the Clippers of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
“But things don’t always work out,” Rivers said. “And, you know, I don’t know if we had a real team with the Clippers. We had a bunch of individuals, but we never had a bench with the Clippers. That bench wasn’t very good. So I would say this is more of a real team.”
Then again, “real” can be fleeting. One trade demand by one prominent player can send the enterprise reeling. Doc just turned a young 61, but one wonders if he’s had any Danny Glover “I’m too old for this s—” moments.
“No,” he said. “No. I mean, it’s different, no doubt. Guys are voicing their opinions. It’s more like college where guys are transferring all over the place. It’s similar right now in our league sometimes. But I haven’t gotten to that point. I love it. I still love it. I think as long as you have a group that you feel like wants to win and wants to do it together, that makes me want to coach.
“When you don’t have a group like that — and I’ve had some of those groups — it makes coaching really hard. You know, you have all this talent, but you know deep down they don’t really want to win. And from the outside it still looks like you’re trying to win, and I guess on some level you are. But those are hard, because you know you’re not GOING to win.
“At the end of the day, the talented teams that come together as a team always win. And the talented teams that don’t never win. And that will never change in basketball for sure.”
With that, Rivers boarded the bus and headed out into the Boston daylight. As much as wading through the city traffic can be a pain in the posterior, he’ll gladly take it.
“My nine years here were unbelievable,” Rivers said. “I drove the city yesterday and you look around… this city is unreal. It really is — in a lot of ways, not just sports. Just in general. So those days will be my best. No matter what happens, it’s going to be hard to ever beat that.”