Six years ago, Doc Rivers tripped the tanking alarms of the hoops punditry when he benched his entire starting lineup in the fourth quarter of a meaningless March game against the Bobcats. The Celtics, 20-47 at the time, were outscored 30-13 in the final period and lost the game. Rivers, before a championship had earned him the benefit of the doubt with the media, defended the sketchy substitution patterns thusly:
Honestly, I got to the point early in the fourth quarter (where) I turned to my coaches and said, ‘We’re going to win or lose with this group … I got to the point (where) I thought, ‘What do we get if we win this game, if we put Paul and Al (Jefferson) back in? What do we get out of this game?’ . . . At some point, those other guys have to be able to play a little bit.
You look at the Phil Jacksons. They’re able to do that all year because they know they’re playing for a title, and they can teach lessons to their bench. And they’ve lost games that way. All of those other coaches who don’t have championship teams, we never have the opportunity to actually do that . . . where you just leave them in anyway. Tonight I just said, ‘Screw it.’”
For Rivers, trotting out a Sebastian Telfair-Allan Ray-Gerald Green-Ryan Gomes-Leon Powe lineup in the fourth quarter had more to do with giving Experience Points to his younger players than collecting ping pong balls for Boston executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Or so he said.
A week after the Bobcats benching fiasco, Rivers played Paul Pierce for 53 minutes in a double-overtime victory over the Magic. In the prior game – a win over the Raptors – the banged up star logged 37 minutes. Perhaps the spike in playing time was Rivers’ reaction to the tanking allegations. Or maybe, as was suggested in the aftermath of the Bobcats loss, the coach was never throwing games in the first place. This is not to say that Rivers was an anti-tanker: he just wasn’t willing to let the youngsters run free, like the Wizards did with Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. As long as Doc was on the sidelines, he was going to coach. And as long as Pierce was available – he missed 24 games earlier in the season with elbow and foot injuries and the Celtics went 2-22 in that stretch – he was going to get some run.
Or maybe not. After the 53-minute marathon, Pierce hinted that his season was finished and the Celtics shut down their star for the final 11 games of the season. Rivers’ squad responded predictably: it went 2-9 to close the year and finished with the NBA’s second worst record. And while the Celtics didn’t win the lottery, they landed the fifth overall pick, which was enough to pry Ray Allen free from Seattle and…well, you know the rest of the story.
Ping Pong balls, the team seemingly decided, are indisputably more valuable than pride.
In the postgame press conference following the 100-92 win over Milwaukee, Doug Collins said he had no intention of tanking.
You know me, right? I’ve never quit before I got to the finish line. We’re not going to start that now, and our team doesn’t have that personality. We’re not going to do that. This city and this organization means too much to me and these players. They’re young guys. They’re trying to build a nucleus here. They know what they have going into next year and what has to be done to make this right.”
This, in some ways, is a sensible sentiment. Collins is 61 years old and in the penultimate year of his contract. For the coach, the return on these meaningless regular season victories may actually exceed the value of additional ping pong balls. (Rumor has it, Team USA evaluates assistant coaching candidates by looking at their regular season records.) Rational or not, Collins is focused on the now.
When the season 2006-07 season was winding down and the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant lottery loomed, Rivers and Ainge were pulling in the same direction. Maybe Doc didn’t want to tank, but that was irrelevant: the decision wasn’t his to make. When the orders came down the chain of command, the coach followed them. “Doc is a team player. He does what’s best for the franchise. A lot of coaches don’t see the big picture,” Ainge told the Boston Globe after the season. “I don’t want Doc to see too much of the big picture, but he does understand it and it’s for me to communicate with Doc.”
It’s understandable – if not necessarily defensible – that Collins would blanch at the notion of coaching to lose. He’s a deeply competitive man. But the real problem with the Sixers isn’t the coach’s philosophical opposition to tanking. It’s that there’s nobody questioning the coach’s philosophical opposition to tanking. Not team president Rod Thorn. Not general manager Tony DiLeo. Not CEO Adam Aron. In the Sixers organization, Collins is Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge. He is both coach and executive director of basketball operations. Not by name, but it’s widely believed that Collins has the final say on personnel decisions. He has the final say on the tanking decision, too. Perhaps it’s time to take that away.