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The conversations have been swirling for the past three off-seasons about a possible exit for six-year Celtics’ head coach Doc Rivers, but it seems as though more factors are aligned this year. As the consummate family man, Rivers has three seniors (two college and one high school) that he wants to commit a significant amount of his attention to. His son Jeremiah will be a senior on Indiana’s basketball team. His daughter, Callie, is a standout volleyball player at the University of Florida. His son Austin is entering into his senior year of high school and is already an elite basketball prospect. So, with the prospect of Doc leaving, what is GM Danny Ainge to do if he wants to maintain this Celtics revival he masterminded back in 2007?
I think he should look a little closer to home and lock up Associate Head Coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau has paid his dues and has the pedigree, experience AND results. So what gives?
As a New England native Thibodeau began his coaching career at his alma mater Salem State and after three years as an assistant he moved about 20 miles south to become head coach at Harvard, where he stayed for four years. Eventually, he got the call-up to the NBA when he broke into the league with the expansion Timberwolves in 1989.
Over a 17-year career (impressive in its own right), Thibodeau has logged in time with the Supersonics, Spurs, 76ers, Knicks, and Rockets. The majority of his time was spent in New York and Houston under head coach Jeff Van Gundy, where it’s widely believed Thibodeau was the brains behind those stifling defenses. During his 17 seasons in the NBA, Thibodeau has helped his teams finish in the NBA’s Top 10 in team defense 14 times. Despite this impressive resume, he’s still yet to get an offer to break into the rank of head coach. Why?
He’s definitely getting the interviews. This year alone he’s in the conversations for openings at Philadelphia, L.A. (Clippers), and New Orleans. Last summer, he was a finalist for the Sacramento Kings job, but ended up losing to former Suns coach Paul Westphal. Within the smaller circle of NBA brass, the common knock on Thibodeau is that he’s too intense…which, to me, seems a little absurd, but if you take a look at the (sad) current state of the NBA it shouldn’t come as any surprise. The majority of the players in the NBA are overgrown, overpaid cry-babies. Just watch any game (Celtics included), and you’ll see them complaining to the refs.
I think its indicative of the whole culture. Its widely believed that NBA coaches are more babysitters than anything – having to act as peace keeper in locker rooms where huge egos loom. Look at Flip Saunders, head coach of the Washington Wizards. He’s a pretty distinguished coach (been to the playoffs 11 times in 13 seasons where he’s been the head coach the entire season) and instead of game-planning for the upcoming games he’s had to worry about his players bringing in guns to the locker room in a ridiculously overblown pissing contest. Obviously it’s an isolated incident, but it does speak volumes about the extra curricular activities NBA coaches (for the most part) have to deal with.
Sure, Phil Jackson takes the ‘Zen’ approach to managing egos and it seems to be working out for him (for what its worth he’s also coached two of the best players of all time, so which came first: the chick or egg?). But what about Greg Popovich or Pat Riley…or even the brothers Van Gundy for that matter? I wouldn’t call either one of those dudes ‘laid back’ and they have a history of winning.
Also, as a side note, Doc’s coaching style might be the best ‘prep school’ for grooming assistants to be head coaches. All of the game-planning is completely delegated. So, for example, all of the coaches (Doc included) get an even number of teams they have to scout, watch game film, and ultimately game-plan for. Thibodeau is responsible for offensive and defensive adjustments both in preparation and during the game. Obviously, Doc puts in the final tweaks into any scheme, but how great is a system like this for developing well-rounded assistant coaches?
As I stated above, the idea of not hiring a head coach because he’s too intense is mind boggling, especially in the Celtics case because with aging superstars, they’re clearly going to have a number of young guys on the team to compliment them. If you’re trying to (cough) rebuild a franchise with some young talent, what better way than with a philosophy of high-energy, defense-oriented coaching?
Its no secret Thibodeau is looking for a head coaching gig. The Hornets have already reached out to Ainge for permission to pursue his candidacy. It’s believed he’s a finalist in New Orleans with Mark Jackson and Avery Johnson. So what gives Danny? Your coach might be on the way out and you’ve got a guy that knows your system, has routinely proven himself as one of the best defensive coaches in the game, has been in the league for almost 20 years, and has ties to the area for good measure. Seems like a slam dunk to me.