June 16--The NBA's sense of what can and can't work was reshuffled prior to the
1999-2000 season when Doc Rivers, without a shred of coaching experience, took
over the Orlando Magic.
He had retired from playing in the spring of 1996, but thanks to his highly acclaimed work in television, Rivers maintained a high enough profile to make that rare transition.
Dave Wohl was an assistant on Rivers' first staff and followed him to Boston in 2004. The same qualities apparent in Rivers' rise are what Wohl now sees at play in an even more dramatic move -- the Brooklyn Nets' choice of Jason Kidd as its new coach.
Kidd had barely sent out word of his retirement from playing when the Nets, led by their unconventional owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, made this radical choice with respected candidates such as Pacers assistant Brian Shaw and former Sonics and Blazers coach Nate McMillan still on the market.
"With any organization, you have to think out of the box a little bit," said Wohl, who last worked in the NBA as a member of Kurt Rambis' Minnesota staff. "But what you have to recognize is that the playing experiences of Doc, Jason and Mark Jackson is similar to if you were an assistant coach for a number of years on someone's bench."
In Rivers' case, the standard NBA box was clearly obsolete. Within two seasons he was voted the NBA's Coach of the Year. Before the decade was out he would win his first NBA title -- something he never realized as a player -- with the 2007-08 Celtics.
A byproduct of his current dilemma --deep, internal debate over whether or not to return to the Celtics -- is the way his options have expanded. A number of prime coaching openings, including the Nets' prior to the Kidd appointment, would be his for the taking.
So Orlando's gamble was an absolute success. And Wohl can see where a similar gamble now on the part of Brooklyn will bear fruit.
For starters, Kidd walks through that Barclays Center door with instant credibility. Perhaps a celebrated peer is what Nets star Deron Williams needs to stay happy. There's certainly no sense in disputing Kidd's pedigree.
"I see a lot of similarities between Doc and Jason," said Wohl. "Jason brings a lot of the same qualities. Both played under a lot of different coaches, and were able to borrow from a lot of different influences. Both had tremendous success as players, and that gives you immediate (clout) with other players.
"When Doc walked into that first locker room (as Orlando's coach), he had the respect of every player right away. The other thing was that Doc always had a terrific basketball mind as far as X's and O's are concerned. He was always thinking about the game. And Kidd has obviously always had that ability to see how things develop on the floor. Jason is going to bring that sense for how he can use his players in the best way."
The circumstances are, however, different. Rivers' first Magic team was on the decline, still quaking from Shaquille O'Neal's departure three years earlier.
The team Kidd inherits will be a contender -- one that underperformed this season in the wake of its celebrated move to Brooklyn from the swamps of New Jersey.
He'll need that instant clout. Though Kidd has always been known for his ability to calmly navigate a game, his patience will require an adjustment.
Three-time league MVP Magic Johnson, now an ESPN analyst, once coached his way through 16 rather disastrous games for the Lakers at the end of the 1993-94 season. He was frustrated by an inability to impart his vision to less talented players.
"I stayed up all day and all night going over game plans and watching film, and I couldn't even sleep," Johnson said during a conference call last Wednesday. "I'm thinking about the changes that I want to make, all the different plays I want to run against the different teams, so I gained a lot more respect for coaches than I had before.
"Nick Van Exel was our point guard and I used to holler, 'He's open, he's open, he's open.' So by the third game in, Michael Cooper, my assistant coach, pulled me aside and said, 'Earvin, he can't see like you, so you've got to quit hollering that he's open, because you can see it but he can't see it.' And I kept saying, 'Why? He's open.'
"So I think that he's going to have to understand that guys are not going to be able to play like him, maybe be dedicated like he was or he can't expect everybody to be great like him, and so that will be his biggest challenge."
According to Wohl, that wasn't a problem for Rivers.
"Every coach has to deal with impatience to some degree," said Wohl. "There's inherent frustration built into being a player who becomes a coach. Jerry West used to talk about the same thing. But Doc had the resolve to move on and keep teaching.
"I don't see Jason as being emotional. Neither was Doc. He was a very even-keeled coach when he started out. He didn't let an official's call bother him for the next five minutes.
"Doc probably broke new ground to some degree, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea now. I find it interesting that they are ex-point guards. That's the only position on the floor where you are responsible for other people. Doc had Dominique (Wilkins with the Hawks). Jason has had his guys. They're both used to seeing the greater picture."
MAGIC ENVISIONS NEW NO. 1 IN HIS POWER RANKINGS
Tim Duncan, true to his taciturn self, has crept up on LeBron James' parade with almost no fanfare. Even the Spurs center's coach, Gregg Popovich, has garnered more attention in this NBA Finals series. But should Duncan win his fifth championship ring this month, Magic Johnson plans to move him ahead of a former Celtics great in his personal power forward rankings.
"With a fifth (title)," Johnson said, "he's the best power forward that's ever played in my book because he passes (Kevin) McHale. . . . His legacy will enhance and increase. We've already got him in the Top 10. You can slide him up there anywhere you want to put him, because it's not just how -- it's not just him winning five, but it's how he won five. It's the way he played the game, how he approached the game.
"And you know, I told him the other day, I said, 'You know, you're one of my favorite players of all time because it's always been about winning and about the team,' " Johnson said. "And you know me, I'm the same way, so that's why I love Tim Duncan. With this fifth one, he dominates his generation. He and Kobe (Bryant) would be the greatest winners during this time. And domination wise, he'll be just as dominant as any big man that's ever played, and also be a great winner as well. So it would just increase. He's made his teammates better, too. That's what I like about him. He's in that Bill Russell mold in terms of making their teammates better -- doing all the little things. If you want to compare him, he's like a Bill Russell in terms of just the sense of being so smart."
Johnson is like a lot of NBA fans who yearn for a less self-centered time in the league's history.
"We are all so happy that we have a guy like Tim Duncan, especially in this generation where everything is about me, me, me and about I, and he's about we and he's about the team," he said. "He's not about making sure he gets on 'SportsCenter,' you know. I think that all he does is be a professional. He's first class and he wins. That's all he does is win."
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