He has been down this road before. The last time Doc Rivers accepted a head coaching job in the NBA, he spent his entire tenure trying to coax his team above water with a young, emotional, and occasionally overwhelmed superstar as the centerpiece.
Orlando All-Star Tracy McGrady finally crumbled under the weight of the scrutiny, pressure, and expectations that dogged him daily. His coach was buried amid the rubble of that implosion.
"It was very tough," Rivers admitted. "At the end of the day, Tracy's frustration is probably what did me in."
Rivers is acutely aware he could suffer a similar fate if he's not able to reach Boston's resident superstar, Paul Pierce, who looked remarkably like a young, emotional, and overwhelmed centerpiece himself as he exited stage right from the debacle known as the Celtics' 2004 playoff run.
Unlike the Orlando Magic, who kept waiting for Grant Hill to walk through that door, Pierce knew there was no imminent help in sight for him once former Kansas teammate Raef LaFrentz was relegated to slacks and a shirt following season-ending knee surgery. The future appears pretty bleak to Pierce at the moment, and his new coach, who freely confesses he does not know Pierce, must find a way -- quickly -- to convince Boston's top player that the Celtics' future is a worthwhile investment. You might say Doc's job depends on it.
"No doubt," Rivers agreed yesterday. "Paul Pierce is a terrific player. We have to find a way to get him to be more efficient. We have to take some of the stress off him."
He tried to do the same for McGrady, who was younger and less experienced than Pierce, and who did not have the benefit of playing alongside Antoine Walker and a collection of other savvy veterans. Rivers is astute enough to have taken a step back and studied his own behavior during the final months of his coaching run in Florida, and reexamine how he could have handled things differently with McGrady.
"If I could do something over, it was probably the way I communicated [with him]," Rivers said. "A lot of times, I did it through my assistants. I'd probably do it more directly.
"People don't understand the situation I was in. We went into every season thinking we'd have Grant Hill, but we never did. So it was going to be a struggle, but I still wanted to win. The problem was you don't want to use everything up just to get to the first round and lose.
"It was difficult. I just didn't think it was a good idea to get on Tracy every single day, day after day. I was worried when we actually did finally have a team, he wouldn't be hearing my voice anymore."
Pierce, Rivers contends, has always had more help than McGrady. He's also counting on Pierce's maturity as a rallying point.
"I look at Pierce as the kind of leader that Patrick Ewing was," Rivers said. "Both are intense guys. Both are gym rats, but neither one talks a lot. If Paul Pierce is the hardest-working guy in practice, then everyone else will follow. He has the ability to lead by his work ethic."
The offseason spies in Los Angeles back up Rivers's contention that Pierce is someone you'd have to lock out of a gym before you'd ever have to lock him in one. Yet his teammates found his effort in the final months of this season to be inconsistent. Pierce concedes the pressure and the turmoil of the 2003-04 campaign drained him both physically and mentally, and it showed.
Rivers must contend with his moody captain, along with the mercurial Ricky Davis, whom he correctly labeled "a wild card," the development of Marcus Banks, whom he wanted desperately to draft last June, the possible departure of Mark Blount, and the ongoing recovery of LaFrentz, who could solve a lot of ills if he buys into Doc's strategy of "getting the bigs to run the floor [in transition]. I told them six times out of 10, the big guys guarding them won't run with them."
According to both Rivers and head of basketball operations Danny Ainge, Pierce gave this hiring his blessing. Why not? Doc preaches an uptempo style that should spare Pierce the routine double- and triple-team beating he endures each night. Doc also claims he will compensate for Boston's poor rebounding by emphasizing pressure defense.
"A turnover is often worth the same as an offensive rebound," he said.
Rivers knows what is ahead. Although he dutifully spouted the party line of Celtic tradition and the championship banners, he conceded once the owners had retreated to the back of the room and the players had exited from the front row of his press conference that he had been watching this team closely since January, and "they are a work in progress."
He believes it can be done because he has genuine affection and respect for Ainge, his NBA peer and longtime opponent. They share a number of traits, among them a refreshing directness, reputation as "instigators," and a love of transition basketball.
Ainge left the peaceful and secure life of the broadcast booth to immerse himself into one tempest after another. Rivers is ready to follow suit and share the hot seat with his basketball boss.
"I played in New York," he said. "I want the pressure. I like the pressure. I think you should embrace it."
Before the formal portion of his press conference was complete, Rivers looked directly at Jiri Welsch, Walter McCarty, LaFrentz, and Kendrick Perkins and proclaimed, "You'll find me with no agendas. I just want to win."
Absent were Pierce, Davis, Banks, and Blount, whose agendas cropped up at the worst possible moments in 2003-04.
Doc Rivers knows this already. He'll call them, one by one, and try to see things their way. His job, after all, depends on it.
Jackie MacMullan's e-mail address is email@example.com.