If Doc Rivers had been in the news a lot lately, it’s because the National Basketball Association All-Star Weekend invariably shone the spotlight on the designated head coaches. As the East mentor, he needed to fulfill media duties and, subsequently, respond to queries on a variety of issues. Needless to say, his assumption of the hot seat with the Bucks — precisely the reason he was at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in the first place — became the subject most discussed during his pressers. And, certainly, it didn’t help that he had gone a mere three and seven heading into the break.

Rivers was, to be sure, a beneficiary of circumstance. He got the call from Bucks general manager Jon Horst by virtue of his sterling resume as bench tactician, and, for all his protestations, in large measure due to his familiarity with the work of Adrian Griffin as the latter’s informal consultant. He was then tapped to be on the bench for the East because the Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla — having already done the same last year — was ineligible, and because he inherited a robust 32-14 slate. He knew this, of course, and thus told all and sundry his All-Star emoluments would go to his predecessor.

That said, Rivers likewise made sure to try and insulate himself from criticism — at least as much he could given his status. After being pilloried for his slow three-and-seven start, he duly pointed out that he came in from the cold just as the Bucks were beginning a challenging five-outing road trip. He added that he would have wanted to begin his new role after the All-Star festivities. And, as clincher, he disclosed that he had asked top management why they were making a coaching change at all. He promptly sang Griffin’s praises; “I just know him as a human, and he’s a terrific dude.”

The bottom line remains, however. Rivers was hired for one reason alone: to lead the Bucks to the championship. The front office became concerned enough with the danger signs — the defensive swoon, the increasing frustration with in-game decisions, the misuse of talent, the decreasing buy-in — to absorb the salary of a third shot-caller. And so he has to understand that, his protestations notwithstanding, the high expectations cannot be tempered. Only success can silence his critics.

Rivers may well be right. He does need time to institute the changes he wants. On the other hand, he chose to cast his lot with the Bucks — purportedly after rejecting offers from at least six other suitors in the offseason — because, he said, they already have the requisite culture in place. It also helps that their regular rotation is composed of veterans, exactly what he prefers. And so he cannot — should not — be excused if he flubs his assignment for one reason or another, especially since he deems himself a great judge of character. Notably, he sought to take credit for James Harden’s transfer to the Clippers; he said he advised them to trade for the beleaguered marquee name.

In the final analysis, Rivers will sink or swim with the Bucks. Having already had significant stops with other supposedly ready contenders, he can no longer use his 2008 title as proof of his readiness. It’s the Larry O’Brien Trophy or bust — and he knows it.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.