In the spring of 1999, Peter Holt had two options. Keep an unpopular figure who had mixed results in less than two full seasons as an NBA head coach. Or replace him with a broadcaster who hadn't coached before.
Holt — needing both a savior and a new arena — likely wished there had been a Plan C.
But what has happened since says something else, and the 2010 Finals will further define that. When Doc Rivers beats Phil Jackson again, after already upsetting both Cleveland and Orlando, can it be said?
Could Holt have gone wrong in 1999?
Holt wouldn't change a thing. Gregg Popovich has won four titles as both the voice and vision of the franchise. He established a framework that has not only endured, but has also become a model.
The stability is remarkable and still going. While stories suggest both Rivers and Jackson may leave their franchises this summer, there are no such whispers about Popovich.
Besides, Popovich has reached a height that, when others try to measure Rivers, he's a yardstick. For example, when Rivers rested his veterans this season, and he cared less about his win-loss record than he did their health, he was following the Popovich philosophy.
“He's got to be up there with the top five coaches,” Paul Pierce said the other day of Rivers. “You have to say Phil (Jackson), Gregg Popovich ...”
Correction: Rivers is almost right there with them. Only two current coaches in the league have won more than one championship, and they are Jackson and Popovich.
Rivers would admit to everything. He was fired in Orlando, and he'd heard “Fire Doc” chants in Boston before 2008. So he's not about to take himself too seriously.
“You compare me to Phil, we're in trouble,” Rivers said this week. “He's got 10 rings, I've got one. I think, obviously, you go by his record, he's the best coach ever in the game. I told our players you've got to be better than me with Phil, for sure.”
That's Rivers. He's smart and personable, and he will use humor if it helps him. And if saying other coaches are better creates a desired effect, well, that's fine, too.
But Rivers said the same two years ago during the 2008 Finals. “Phil to me is the best coach, at least of my generation — him and Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich are the three best,” Rivers said.
“I'm not in that class and don't deserve to be in that class.”
After Jackson's Lakers blew a 20-point lead in Game 4, the Los Angeles Times had a different opinion. The newspaper nicknamed Jackson the “Master of Disaster,” and USA Today went further.
“Celtics' Rivers outcoaching Lakers' Jackson thus far,” was a headline.
The 131-92 finale confirmed it.
Now Rivers is back, mixing his common-sense toughness with that of Pierce and the other Celtics veterans. It's a coaching manner Popovich recognized years ago.
“It's easy for Doc to garner respect,” Popovich said. “He has a great way about him and how he makes people feel comfortable, but with a firm side.”
That's why Popovich signed Rivers in 1994; he wanted him for his locker room as much as anything. And that's why when Popovich had a problem, such as with Dennis Rodman, Popovich sought the counsel of only two players — Avery Johnson and Rivers.
So wouldn't Rivers have also connected with a young Tim Duncan? Wouldn't he have preached the defense the Celtics now play? And wouldn't he have won a few games in 1999, too?
Holt didn't know exactly how good his options were then.