It has not been a good year for Doc Rivers or Danny Ainge.
Coming off a 21-point home loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Boston Celtics are 47-26, 10 ½ games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, and in a dogfight with the Atlanta Hawks for the three seed. Where once there was talk of a championship, now there is concern about even advancing out of the first round.
The players themselves and injuries have certainly been a factor. But if we are doling out blame, the head coach in Rivers and the director of basketball operates in Ainge deserve their fair share.
This is not to say either one should be fired. The Celtics are better off with each. But that doesn’t absolve them of having to shoulder some, if not a great deal, of the responsibility for what has transpired thus far for the ’09-10 Celtics.
Ainge took over the Celtics at the end of the 2003 season and his stated goal from day one was to stockpile talent to be in a position to make a move for a star when the right time comes in order to compete for a title.
It worked perfectly, as we all saw in 2008.
Since then, not so much.
After watching Paul Pierce and Ray Allen essentially have to play every minute in last year’s playoffs because the team had no reliable backup on the bench, Ainge realized something needed to be done and brought in Marquis Daniels. Coming off a career year in Indiana, Daniels’ scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks and minutes are all considerably down this year in Boston.
With nine games to go in the season, it is still unclear what Daniels is capable of or even how he fits in. That is not all Ainge’s fault, but regardless, it is clear, the Daniels signing has not worked out.
Daniels is averaging just 5.8 points and 2.0 rebounds. Orlando during the offseason signed Matt Barnes, for slightly less money than Boston is paying Daniels. Barnes is averaging 9.0 points and 5.6 rebounds, helping Orlando to the second-best record in the East. Could Ainge have signed Barnes? I do not know, but it is obvious there were better options out there for the Celtics.
Ainge also let the oh-so popular Leon Powe walk away to Cleveland at the end of last year. Powe had suffered another major knee injury, and Ainge thought he would not be able to make it back this year. Powe, however, has proven him wrong, returning to the court by the end of February. His numbers are not impressive, 4.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, but due to the depth of Cleveland, his minutes are down from his last season in Boston.
No one is saying Leon is a star or that his presence would have put the Celtics back on the path we all thought they would be on. Nevertheless, for a Celtics team that desperately needs offensive rebounds and a spark off the bench from a hustling player, Powe’s qualities are sorely missed this year.
At the trade deadline, the Celtics had glaring needs and roughly $30 million in expiring contracts to use to address those needs. Ainge, however, failed to make an impact move, swapping Eddie House for Nate Robinson, a move that has had zero impact on the team.
In the Robinson for House trade, Boston also sent Bill Walker to New York, where he averaged 11.0 points on 55-percent shooting from the floor through March.
Rivers, despite saying publicly he needed to give Walker a shot in order to reduce the burden on Ray Allen, only played Walker in eight games this season, with a single-game high of nine minutes. Walker’s New York numbers on a bad team might not have translated here in Boston, but I refuse to believe that a player with four 20-point games in a little over a month for the Knicks couldn’t have helped the Celtics.
Rivers’ failure with Walker symbolizes his worst quality as a coach – he is hesitant, at best, to play young players. And if he does, he immediately is looking for any excuse to take them out of the game.
In his first few years in Boston, Rivers kept players like Delonte West and Ryan Gomes glued to the bench, until injuries forced his hand. Both players immediately contributed.
Rivers was slow to take the reigns off of Al Jefferson. He didn’t really turn the keys of the offense over to Rajon Rondo until late in the 2007 season, despite it being clear from early on that the ’07 team would be a rebuilding year.
Even now, Rivers still treats Kendrick Perkins like he is a rookie – yanking his minutes up and down.
Rivers talks about developing young players, but he is slow to give them a chance and quick to point out their flaws. He exaggerates any of their mistakes and uses the slightest error as proof that the player should remain on the bench.
Additionally, Rivers is once again failing to establish any sort of rotation. Recently, I have read several articles discussing how Boston needs to establish some this important facet of the game before the playoffs.
Well I have a hunch that anyone waiting for a set rotation is going to be disappointed. If 2005-2007 is any indication Rivers won’t be able to do it.
In 2008, everything was established – Rivers had his starting five and he had his two key bench guys in James Posey and House. Come playoff time, there was P.J. Brown to help out at back-up center. Rivers’ rotation decisions that year were limited.
Now, there are too many options and Rivers cannot make a decision. (And in Rivers defense, it doesn’t make things easy when no one on the bench has consistently played well to show they deserve more minutes than any one else). Should Rivers go with Michael Finley or Tony Allen? What about Daniels? Where does he fit in? Is Nate Robinson better on the point or at the off-guard position?
What about Rasheed Wallace? You had to know I would get to him.
Want to know the main reason both Ainge and Rivers are having a bad year – look no further than Wallace.
Ainge put the full-court press on to sign Wallace. So, Danny, would you like to try that one over?
It has to be uplifting for Ainge to hear about national broadcasters, 70 games into the season, saying things like this about his prize free agent signing, “When Wallace gets into game shape…,” or “He just needs to get into game shape….”
Ric Bucher wrote in the recent ESPN the Magazine that Wallace has the worst second half field goal percentage, 33 percent, of all players with at least 200 minutes. Bucher attributed Wallace’s poor play after halftime to his being out of shape.
Unfortunately though, Wallace has not been much better in the first half.
Wallace’s numbers this year: 22.7 minutes per game, 9.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 40.1 percent from the floor, 27.8 percent from three (on four attempts per game), and 16 technical fouls.
Twenty-nine times this season, Wallace has grabbed three or fewer rebounds. Only seven times has he had eight or more, with just two double-digit rebound games. Last Friday night, in 24 minutes against Sacramento, Wallace had all of one rebound.
Throughout Wallace’s poor play, which has really been since game one, Rivers keeps playing him. There has been no benching, no reduction in minutes. Nothing.
Despite Wallace’s laundry list of flaws, Rivers has taken no action against him, which stands in stark contrast to how he has treated other players this season. During the game against Sacramento, Glen Davis picked up a technical foul near the end of the third quarter with the Celtics ahead by 18.
Rivers was outraged. He benched Davis for the remainder of the game, and felt it necessary to lash out at Davis in the press afterwards.
Rivers clear preferential treatment of Wallace has to have a negative impact on the other players. Kendrick Perkins is an improved player, but his minutes are down from a year ago because Rivers feels the need to accommodate Wallace. Davis has been playing well lately, but gets benched after picking up his second technical of the year and then has to read about his coach badmouthing him to the media.
Rivers can’t try to hold players like Davis and Perkins accountable, while doing nothing with Wallace, and expect the team not to notice.
These young players see the same thing I do when they watch Wallace play. And they have to be wondering why does Doc allow Wallace to get away with whatever he wants, while they are spending more and more time on the bench? What has Wallace done for Boston? Perkins and Davis, at the very least, play hard, and they both helped the Celtics win a title.
Ainge made a monumental error in signing Wallace. To three years. Rivers compounds that mistake every night he trots Wallace out there, and allows Wallace to play his 20-25 minutes regardless of effort.
Ainge failed to make proper player evaluations, and since winning the title, he has not added one player who has significantly improved the team. Rivers, after riding a hot streak as a coach in 2008, has returned to his pre-title form of not being able to set a rotation, unwillingness to trust and develop young players, and an unwillingness to properly deal with an underperforming veteran, which has had a snowball effect on the rest of the team.
If Boston’s season ends in disappointing fashion, the players should be held accountable. But so too should Rivers and Ainge.