Want more basketball in your inbox? .
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: What impact will Doc Rivers’ latest playoff debacle have on his reputation as a top coach? — David Machlowitz (Westfield, N.J.)
Stein: Rivers was unemployed for three days after he was ousted by the Los Angeles Clippers on Sept. 28. There’s your answer. The Philadelphia 76ers had essentially decided to hire Mike D’Antoni and pivoted to Rivers as soon as he was available.
Rivers’s playoff record is undeniably spotty since winning a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and taking a 3-2 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 N.B.A. finals before the Celtics lost in seven games. He ranks as the only coach to have lost three separate series after his teams took a 3-1 lead.
None of that, though, changes that Rivers is as respected by players as it gets in the coaching business — and I think we made it clear last month how much a coach’s ability to inspire buy-in matters. Rivers, remember, was sought out by Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union, to speak to the players as they decided whether to continue playing after the Milwaukee Bucks walked out of an Aug. 26 game to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
It’s true that Rivers could not get the current group of Clippers players to come together like he did with the Celtics, and that is a failing that can’t be overlooked. He helped the Kevin Garnett-era Celtics build championship chemistry. Rivers’s Clippers teams never did, whether they orbited around Paul and Blake Griffin or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. But the swiftness with which Philadelphia moved to hire him, after all that, should tell you how much respect Rivers still commands.
History will remember him as one of the enduring voices of the N.B.A. bubble for speaking out against systemic racism and social injustices, and his arrival in Philadelphia brings instant credibility to a franchise that badly needs it.
The bigger question here is why Rivers was in such a rush to take this job. He could have taken a year off to recharge — playing golf, doing television and collecting the two years and roughly $20 million still left on his Clippers contract. He has instead chosen to take on a Sixers team replete with ill-fitting pieces and virtually no financial flexibility to fix the roster.
I don’t see Philadelphia and these Sixers as fertile ground to show the Clippers how wrong they were. This looks like Rivers’s toughest job yet.
Q: I compare Pat Riley to Alex Ferguson. Is there anyone else in basketball who has adapted and changed with their sport over so many years like Riley? The sports are obviously different, and I am no Manchester United fan, but my admiration for Sir Alex and his success in soccer overcomes my usual allegiances. — Bill Ireland
Stein: While passing along the usual thanks for a fresh question that makes me consider where the N.B.A. and soccer intersect, I also have to politely reject the premise.
The N.B.A.’s answer to Fergie, as I wrote in January 2019, is San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. It’s not just the uncommon longevity that Popovich, who just completed his 24th season as the Spurs’ head coach, shares with Ferguson, who managed United for 27 seasons. It’s the way that both men became synonymous with their clubs, which is typically the domain of fabled players rather than coaches — at least in professional sports.
I’m not sure Riley’s story has a parallel in world soccer or any other sport. He won four championships with the glamorous Showtime Lakers. He became the Knicks’ most successful coach not named Red Holzman by going away from the run-and-gun game and embracing physicality. Then he stunningly walked away when the Knicks refused to grant him control over personnel matters.
In Miami, after securing personnel power and an ownership stake, Riley helped build multiple superteams that won championships. There was the group starring Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, with a number of edgy, hungry veterans forming a rugged supporting cast around them, and then the Heatles of James, Wade and Chris Bosh.
And now, in 2020, Riley has returned to the N.B.A. finals with his first-ever gritty group of overachievers. The Heat certainly won’t admit it, but they didn’t expect to make this sort of playoff run until after the 2021 off-season, when they will have the chance to pursue another free agent on Jimmy Butler’s level.
All those Riley incarnations, on top of all the success across so many decades, are why I put him in his own category.
Q: How will home and away statistics from these playoffs be viewed in a historical context? — @kjartansson4 from Twitter
Stein: A “home” team and an “away” team are listed for every game in the bubble. Statistics from those games will be recorded as usual.
The word “viewed,” however, is more subjective.
Will some people question, for example, whether the Denver Nuggets could have overcome a 3-1 deficit in each of the first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs if travel had been required this postseason? Will some historians say that the Miami Heat reached the N.B.A. finals as the East’s No. 5 seed because the playoffs were contested at a neutral site? Of course.
The Lakers’ Frank Vogel, with one more victory, would become the seventh active N.B.A. head coach to have won at least one championship. The others: Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Toronto’s Nick Nurse. The group would grow to eight if Tyronn Lue, an assistant coach this season on Rivers’s staff with the Los Angeles Clippers, lands a head coaching job.
Bam Adebayo’s seven games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in these playoffs are second in Miami history for a single postseason. LeBron James had 10 such games during the 2011-12 playoffs, according to Stathead. Adebayo, though, has scarcely played in these finals, missing the past two games after straining his neck in the Lakers’ Game 1 rout.
This is the first N.B.A. finals in which both teams failed to make the playoffs the previous season. The Lakers and the Heat finished 10th in their conferences in 2018-19.
The league office disclosed last week that it has credentialed 92 player guests, across both teams, to watch N.B.A. finals games in seats adjacent to the court at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Monday marked the 90th day on the N.B.A.’s Walt Disney World campus for the Lakers and the Heat.