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NBA

Doc Rivers Should Make A Triumphant Return To The Booth

Doc Rivers and Al Michaels calling Game 1 of the 2004 NBA Finals
Screenshot: YouTube

Doc Rivers is out of a job, and that’s a bummer for a few reasons. He stewarded the Los Angeles Clippers through all kinds of institutional upheaval, and he coached well on both proverbial “ends.” The personality management part of the job came naturally to him, crucial when the personalities in question have at some point included Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Pat Beverley, J.J. Redick, or Lou Williams.

Rivers also drew up some of the finest after-timeout plays in basketball. Thanks to his steady hand, the 2018-19 Clippers were a rude, fun, and absurdly confident team that punched above their weight. But Rivers couldn’t overcome being dealt a bad alchemical hand this year: the deeply alienating effects of the NBA’s bubble, a new star clearly rattled by those effects, another inscrutable new star, and a roster bummed out and thrown off by it all.

Though the Clippers are now in a dire and unpleasant situation, plum and enticing coaching opportunities await Rivers. Would he like to solve the riddle of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philly? Ask Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta why his paycheck bounced? Build a nouveau Lob City in New Orleans? Doc Rivers should take a good, careful look at these options and then consider doing none of the above. Instead, he should take a gap year, as he has once before, and bide some time as an analyst.

The first time Rivers blew a 3-1 lead was in the first round of the 2003 playoffs as coach of the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic (annoying pests!), whom Tracy McGrady towed until he could no longer withstand the top-seeded Detroit Pistons (mighty and feared!). Rivers, fired 11 games into the following season, joined ESPN’s broadcast team as a color commentator and covered the 2004 Finals alongside Al Michaels on ABC. As a disgusting Pistons fan who has watched the 2003-04 postseason games no fewer than eight times each, I still find myself struck by new revelations when I revisit them. The existence of “Devean George” is one. That Rivers is an engaged, funny, and perceptive broadcaster is another.

The standards of color commentary have been lowered, perhaps irreparably, by ESPN’s grumblers-in-residence Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. To be an improvement upon them now only requires mild enjoyment of basketball, a willingness to take some delight or curiosity in the game being played and the knowhow to pepper in Basketball Mind Insights where suitable. If Rivers’s work in 2004 is any indication, he can do precisely this.

Take for instance Rivers marveling rightfully at Reggie Miller (slow has-been!) being chased down and blocked to hell by Tayshaun Prince (speedy and cool!) in the Eastern Conference Finals, which, let me be clear, the Pistons go on to win. In this clip, Rivers enjoys basketball (“Oh! What a block!”); appears to be watching the game (digs out some stats about Rip Hamilton and Miller); and shares insights (draws circles and annotates the screen to stress coolness of the block).

Are you not hyped? Are you not hooting and hollering in your home? Can’t you see that better things than Meff Van Jundy are possible?

In the games I rewatched last night, for research, Rivers proved himself to be a pretty charming guy capable of building a rapport with a broadcast partner he hadn’t worked with for very long. “He looks a little bit like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs,” Al Michaels says early in Game 1 of the 2004 NBA Finals, referring to the masked Rip Hamilton. “Yes, he does,” says Rivers. “And you can make a case that he’s been eating up his opponents.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to bring this joy and mild corn back, if only just for a bit? For the next four games, Rivers dissected the Pistons’ defense in detail, broke down the challenges of certain matchups with care and numbers, and explained to viewers the Los Angeles Lakers’ many, many deficiencies. Less encouragingly, toward the end of Game 5, he predicted the Pistons had a future star in Darko Milicic.

By the end of April 2004, Rivers had his job as Boston Celtics head coach lined up for the next year. He might consider job hunting along that timeline again, joining America’s trendiest teens in deferring admission for a bit and taking up low-stress, palate-cleansing work still stimulating enough to keep him sharp before a return to his primary focus. You might wonder whether Doc’s signature rasp is ill-suited for a job in television. The answer is who cares and not really. Coaching has left Rivers’s voice in worse shape than it was in 2004, but a few months of talking into a microphone at a slightly lower volume may actually be the ideal laryngeal balm.

The solution is obvious: Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson must switch jobs. Let Jackson plunge the Clippers (chaotic and joyless!) into further dysfunction, a move sure to entertain millions and perturb, at most, six. Let Rivers take his rightful place as commentator next year, witnessing firsthand the improbable rise of Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, and Christian Wood (cherished legends!) as they return championship glory to Detroit.