Playing one-on-one with Ainge, Rivers
The Danny and Doc partnership is starting to pile up a few miles. It’s Year 8 now, with no outward sign of discord.
“I love Doc as a coach,’’ says Danny Ainge, who carries the title of Celtics president of basketball operations. “I trust him. I trust him as a leader and a winner.’’
“We won’t throw each other under the bus,’’ says coach Doc Rivers. “We’ve both made mistakes. We’re both argumentative. We can debate all day and then go play golf, go to dinner, and then go to war.’’
It turns out that Danny had his eye on Doc for a long time.
“He was such a competitor,’’ Ainge says, referring to Doc’s playing days with Atlanta (where he spent his first eight years in the league), then Los Angeles (Clippers), New York, and San Antonio. “He was clever, cagey, and just a tough guy to play against. And I watched him when I was a TV guy do such a great job in Orlando with no coaching experience.’’
Danny and Doc as players: It’s an interesting comparison. They were good, sometimes very good, NBA players. You can’t talk Hall of Fame, but you can certainly classify each as a fine NBA guard.
Danny got there first, making his debut in the 1981-82 season and going on to log 1,042 regular-season and 193 playoff games for Boston, Sacramento, Portland, and Phoenix. Doc, whose later years were marked by injury, broke in with the Hawks in the ’83-84 season, finishing up as a Spur in 1996 with 864 regular-season and 81 playoff games. Clearly, Danny got the better breaks with regard to health and teammates.
Each was listed at 6 feet 4 inches. Doc was stronger. Danny was quicker. Doc had to make a difficult transition from college off guard to NBA point guard. Danny was never easily categorizable as a player, but you’d have to say he was more a 2 guard who could handle the ball, rather than a point guard who could shoot. Doc had 690 more assists in 178 fewer NBA games.
What Danny had that Doc did not was a great capacity to shoot the 3-pointer. That was his calling card, for sure. Danny finished his career with 1,002 regular-season threes, plus 172 more in the playoffs. Doc’s totals were 361 and 50, respectively.
Strangely, each man participated in one, and only one, All-Star Game - and it was the same one!
Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers were members of the 1988 victorious East team in Chicago. Danny played 19 minutes, going 4 for 11 from the floor - but 3 for 4 on threes - finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. Doc played 16 minutes, shooting 2 for 4, finishing with 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 6 assists. But Doc was 5 for 11 from the foul line! I was there, but I don’t recall anyone shaking the basket when Doc stepped to the line.
Anyway, that was their All-Star résumé.
Danny got two championship rings while playing for the Celtics, and he played in the Finals with both Portland and Phoenix. Doc’s painful team peak came when the Hawks lost the famed Game 7 Larry-Dominique shootout in 1988 (he was an injured member of the ’93-94 Knicks who lost in the Finals to Houston). Lost in the tumult of the Bird-Wilkins duel was the stellar play of Doc Rivers, who had 16 points and 18 assists in a noble losing effort.
But Doc was a very respected player who was always immensely popular with the media. A broadcast career for him was widely foreseen. The same was true of Danny, who was always accessible to the media, and who was greatly missed here when he was traded to Sacramento during the 1988-89 season.
And both men did make a strong impression as TV analysts. If either chose to stop doing what he’s doing today, TV executives would be on the phone within five minutes. They’re naturals on the air.
OK, so who was a better player?
“We were very similar in our roles,’’ submits Doc. “Kind of glue players. I was a better defender. But I give Danny the edge because of his [3-point] shot. Both feisty.’’
“I think Doc was a better player than I was from age 22-30 [approximately],’’ maintains Danny. “We made our only All-Star teams the same year.
“Our games were different. I was fortunate to play on better teams throughout my career. I was able to avoid the injuries he had and was more productive from 30-35.
“When he was at his best, he was special. He was better than some that are in the Hall of Fame from the same era.’’
It seemed cosmically fated that they would come together after their playing careers. There is even a photo of Doc guarding Danny on the wall of the corridor outside the current Celtics locker room.
What matters now, of course, is their working relationship, and it’s as good a GM-coach partnership as there is in the league.
“It’s rare when a coach can do his job with his guard down,’’ Doc says. “I don’t have to worry about other stuff. I just do my job and try not to get in Danny’s way.’’
Doc marvels at Danny’s work ethic.
“During the season, he’s never here,’’ Rivers points out. “I don’t think any other GM goes to as many games, as many practices, or as many tournaments as Danny.’’
“I think players love to play for Doc, and I can certainly see why,’’ Danny says. “I’d love to play for Doc. I think he is fair and tough.’’
Meanwhile, with the vote split at 1-1, I needed someone to break the tie and settle the burning issue: Who was a better player, Danny or Doc? Who better to cast the deciding vote than an ex-Celtic who himself was a combo guard, much like Danny and Doc?
“Danny, by a whisker,’’ declares Paul Westphal, who until yesterday was the Sacramento coach. “Because of the 3-ball.’’
Oh well, he is The Boss. Doc is humble enough to live with the verdict.