Doc Rivers was 46 years old when he coached the Boston Celtics to their 17th NBA championship. Last week, at 62 years old, he replaced Adrian Griffin as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Enough has transpired between those two dates—to say nothing of the eight seasons in Orlando (where he won his only Coach of the Year award in his very first year) and Boston that preceded that 2008 title run—to fill half a dozen résumés.
There have been constant championship expectations, steady success, and a pattern of embarrassing flameouts. Rivers has survived it all without losing his relevance or—in the circles that actually matter—popularity. Now, in Milwaukee, where he becomes the team’s third head coach in less than nine months, there are several different ways to view Rivers this far in his career. Is he exactly what the Bucks needed all along? A last resort? An over-the-hill retread who’s coasting on past achievements? Survey says: quite possibly all of the above. Rivers deserves credit for squeezing all he can from some of his teams and blame for watching others flounder.
NBA coaching can be an unforgiving, cold, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. For Rivers to be on his third job in five years, having not advanced past the second round in a dozen seasons despite consistently coaching All-NBA talent, is as rare as it was predictable.
It’s never great when your losses are more memorable than your wins. Rivers gets the last laugh, though, because he has a whole bunch of wins. Only eight coaches have won more regular-season games, and only three (Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, and Phil Jackson) have won more in the playoffs. He’s also currently 167 games above .500 for his career, which is seventh best of all time in the regular season.
Even if he did have several future Hall of Famers at every stop—Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Joel Embiid, and James Harden—the results are nothing to sneeze at. Here’s where every team Rivers has coached since ’08 ranked in net rating:
Los Angeles Clippers
On top of that, Rivers has had a winning record in 16 straight seasons despite different teams, schemes, coaching staffs, and personnel. Not bad! But barring a title in Milwaukee, the persistent buildup of postseason disappointment will be the second, third, and fourth sentences of his coaching legacy.
Bypassing that infamous Game 5 in 2014, when the Clippers blew a seven-point lead with 49 seconds to go against Oklahoma City in the second round—CP3’s momentary brain fart can’t be his coach’s responsibility—Rivers’s reputation really started to take a turn back in 2015, when Los Angeles suffered a monumental implosion against the Rockets in the conference semifinals. Even though the Clippers were without the home-court advantage, blowing a 3-1 lead is blowing a 3-1 lead. I was there for Game 6 and still remember watching Josh Smith and Corey Brewer drill 3 after 3 (with Harden on the bench) as Houston dropped 40 in the fourth quarter.
The following couple of years, the Clippers were eliminated in the first round, done in by injuries to Paul and Griffin. Then Lob City was disbanded, and the Clippers trod water for two more years before Kawhi and George hopped aboard in 2019. That was the beginning of the end for Doc in L.A. After an impressive regular season, the bubble was a disaster. Up 3-1 against the Nuggets in Round 2, the Clippers lost three straight games by a total of 34 points. There were chemistry issues, shotmaking woes (L.A.’s fourth-quarter offensive rating in that series was a dreadful 99.4), and a bubble-related, real-life strain that’s impossible to quantify. Rivers became the first coach in NBA history to fumble three 3-1 leads in his career. He stepped down less than two weeks after their final loss. (In seven seasons with the Clippers, his playoff record was 27-32.)
What followed was a three-year run in Philadelphia that yielded a .653 winning percentage, a no. 1 seed in the 2021 playoffs, and 54 wins in 2023 (the franchise’s most since Allen Iverson led them to the Finals). But the stint was marred by drama, beginning with an abysmal second-round series from Ben Simmons that ended with Rivers throwing him under the bus (with a truthful answer) after a brutal Game 7 loss at home. Their relationship never recovered. Simmons demanded a trade and was eventually dealt for Harden, who clashed with Rivers the following year—a rift that helped explain Daryl Morey’s decision to fire him last spring.
Doc certainly made decisions that angered Sixers fans. He likes his guys and eschews young talent. But it’s a little unfair to say the degree to which those teams underachieved is his fault. There’s no shame in losing to the top-seeded Heat, as Philly did in 2022, without Embiid for the first two games of that series. Or a stacked Celtics team the following year, which had just reached the Finals and was also able to take advantage of a banged-up Embiid. Milwaukee clearly wasn’t put off by Rivers’s inability to lead the Sixers over the hump.
That’s largely because wherever he goes, Rivers brings with him a certain gravitas. He’s a man who has seen some things, played for Riley, and didn’t blink going toe-to-toe on the bench with Phil. He has dealt with the most complex and extravagant personalities in NBA history, isn’t afraid of pressure, and couldn’t care less if a decision will upset his superstar. There’s real “I am the captain now” energy there. Sometimes that’s necessary: Honesty is endearing and usually appreciated—especially when it’s packaged as a one-liner for the media.
Other times, though, that approach backfires. Rivers’s own ego is enormous. In a profession that requires uninterrupted salesmanship, it’s increasingly difficult to separate his charisma and myriad accomplishments from schematic acumen or a willingness to adapt on the fly. Rivers’s harshest critics would say the line between first-ballot Hall of Famer and confidence man has rarely, if ever, been this thin.
No coach can draw more pathos out of a press conference. At the exact same time, no coach is more opportunistic. He’s an expert in the art of self-preservation. Master of the blame game: Even after admitting, “I’m the coach; I’ll take any blame for it,” about the Clippers’ bubble collapse, he followed that up with, “I just knew conditioning-wise, like, we had guys that just couldn’t play minutes, and that’s hard, you know. I mean, there were two or three times a night where we actually started getting it going, and a guy had to come out. I mean, it is what it is. So no, I was never comfortable. I can tell you that up front. I told our coaches that.”
There’s a lot to unpack any time Rivers is discussed. His legacy is not the most important aspect of Milwaukee’s season, but, as someone who’s become somewhat of a punch line and already had a massive number of bites at the apple, it also may hinge on what transpires over these next couple of years. There are 36 head coaches in NBA history with a ring, and he’s one of them. If he wins a second with a different team, it’d put Rivers’s name beside Phil, Riley, and Alex Hannum as the only coaches to ever do that. (Ty Lue and Nick Nurse—his last two successors—are also attempting to join that club.)
This far out, it’s impossible to say what failure would do for Rivers without actually seeing how Milwaukee came up short. Not reaching the Eastern Conference finals, though, would, in all likelihood, be a devastating development, more fuel on a bonfire for skeptics who can’t comprehend his inextinguishable durability.
Still, there’s only so much any coach can do to influence a win or a loss. Rivers has two compatible All-Star starters at his disposal, an elite offense, and the bones of a great defense that can still, theoretically, rise to a league-average level. The Bucks were not interested in getting back on defense when Griffin told them to. GM Jon Horst is banking on a different outcome under Rivers’s command, where the Bucks must shore up pick-and-roll coverages and lean harder on the same principles that won them a championship.
Players who’ve been in the rotation may see their minutes cut if they don’t fall in line. Lineups may change. Stints could be altered. Zone could be deployed even more than it is now to mask some serious one-on-one shortcomings that didn’t previously exist.
A healthy Khris Middleton will help. A trade that brings in another veteran contributor could too. In the meantime, Rivers may also encourage even more sacrifice and growth from his best player. It’s hard to make more demands of an all-time great like Giannis Antetokounmpo. Doc might be one of the few who can get more out of him.
Antetokounmpo has been vocal about his desire to win at all costs. With a playoff series record of 1-2 since winning a title in 2021, there’s room for improvement. Can Rivers get Giannis to cut early pull-up 2s and every single 3-pointer out of his shot diet? What about becoming a more committed screener for Damian Lillard, so that their pick-and-roll chemistry can reach its full potential? Conversely, what about getting Lillard to set more ball screens for Giannis? Or utilizing more off-ball actions that leverage their combined gravity?
Rivers was brought in to course-correct a very good team—32-14, second in the East—that may not require any extreme on-court changes. What it needs is a more authoritative voice to communicate, motivate, and fortify a two-way identity. Rivers has done that before. You’re lying, though, if you say you know whether he can do it again.