It’s pretty well documented at this point I wasn’t a huge fan of Doc Rivers during his time leading the bench in Boston (Exhibit A and B, for instance). For my money, Bulls coach (for now) and former Rivers assistant Tom Thibodeau was the defensive mastermind behind the Celtics’ run to the title in 2008, and Kevin Garnett was the galvanizing emotional leader that put that team over the top, starting from the moment he went shopping for the rookies in Rome.
However, no one can ever dismiss Rivers’ ability to manage superstar egos, and we’re learning more and more about how difficult that may have been as we get farther removed from Banner 17.
In a recent sit-down with ESPNBoston.com’s Jackie MacMullan, aging Wizards veteran and long-time Celtics captain Paul Pierce was immensely critical of former teammate Ray Allen, and even questioned the motivation of his old pal Rajon Rondo.
Pierce told MacMullan he still enjoys group texts with Rivers, Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby" Davis, but he hasn’t spoken with Allen since the shooting guard critically departed Boston for Miami nearly three years ago. This may surprise some, but Pierce said he and Allen were never particularly close.
"It was a weird relationship,'' Pierce conceded. "We were all good friends on the court, but Ray always did his own thing. That's just the way Ray was. Even when we were playing together, we'd be having a team dinner and Ray wouldn't show up. We'd go to his charity events but Ray wouldn't show up to somebody else's.
"I called him on it. I said, 'Man, Ray, we support all your stuff but when we ask you, you don't come to ours.' I remember when Rondo re-signed with Boston, we had a little dinner at a restaurant and Ray didn't show up.
"I know Ray probably didn't like Rondo that much, but it wasn't a fact of not liking somebody. You don't have to like everybody you play with -- it's a matter of showing support.
"Rondo probably didn't like Ray either, but he came to Ray's functions to show, 'Hey, we're together in this.'
"It's not a bad thing with Ray. We had a great relationship on the court. But even the year we won it, after a game we'd say, 'Let's go have something to eat and have a night with the older guys.' We'd get there and it would be me, Kevin and Sam (Cassell), but no Ray. In a lot of ways, me, Sam and Kevin were our Big Three.
"It just got to the point where it was, 'That's Ray.' No hard feelings. Everyone made such a big deal of us not talking after we left, but there really wasn't much there.''
We’ve heard for years about the in-fighting between Allen and Rondo, and we’re obviously long familiar with the lovers-scorned lack of communication between Pierce, Garnett and their third wheel since Allen left money on the table to join LeBron James in South Beach to chase a championship (which wouldn’t have been possible without his Game 6 heroics). We know all about Rondo’s enigmatic personality, questionable coachability, and the possibility he and his coach once nearly came to blows.
But, far and away, the most damning thing Pierce could have possibly shared with MacMullan was his feeling Boston’s much-publicized (and marketed!) Big Three was actually him, Garnett, and Sam Freakin’ Cassell.
Pierce, Garnett, and Allen played together for five years, from 2007-12. During that time, despite a rash of debilitating injuries to several important players, the Celtics went 261-121 for a .683 winning percentage and twice eclipsed 60 wins in a season. They hoisted one Larry O’Brien trophy and fell a victory short of lifting another two years later.
Cassell was around for five minutes.
The respected veteran and two-time NBA champion signed as a free agent with the Green on March 4, 2008 after being bought out by the Clippers. Cassell debuted for Boston six days later and rang in St. Patrick’s Day with a 17-point performance against Spurs in helping the Celtics back from a 22-point deficit.
Cassell certainly had his moments, but his entire C’s career lasted 38 games – including the playoffs – before the 38-year-old got his third ring and called it quits after his 15th season and went into coaching (where he currently works as an assistant under Rivers in Los Angeles after five years in Washington). The guard averaged 7.6 points and 2.1 assists in 17.6 minutes a night for Boston during the regular season, before adding 4.5 points and 1.2 assists in 12.6 minutes a game in 21 postseason contests.
Would the Celtics have won that latest championship without Cassell? Perhaps not, but you could say the same about fellow late-season acquisition P.J. Brown.
Allen’s now much maligned time in the Hub was immensely productive, lasted more than 400 games, and was filled with dramatic winning or late-game go-ahead shots. Still, he was an internal outcast off the floor. Listening to Pierce, it’s eye-opening to know just how significantly that loner behavior ran.
Apparently there’s good reason why Danny Ainge was so frequently trying to trade him.
As for Rondo, Pierce’s criticism was more of a lesson he’s hoping to pass along to current Wizards teammates and young stars John Wall and Bradley Beal.
"I talk to them a lot about mental preparation and consistency,'' Pierce said. "I keep telling Wall and Beal, 'You've got to make up your mind. Do you want to be good, or do you want to be great? Because if you want to be great, you gotta do it every single night, not just when you feel like it.'
"Both of those guys have the potential to be great. I love them. But sometimes I'm not sure they realize what it takes.
"That was (Rajon) Rondo's problem, too. Some days he did, some days he didn't. I think it's more this generation. A lot of these players have been catered to since the sixth grade. The NBA is changing so much. It's not like when I came up, with that old-school mentality that practice really mattered. You've got these 24, 25 year old guys who sit out of practice now to rest. It's hard for me to understand, but I'm trying.''
Circling back to Rivers, a players’ coach like few others, we’re led to believe he had a real mess on his hands when the new Big Three (as we know them) arrived and, in some ways, a tougher but obviously more talented group than the one that lost 18 straight games only a year prior. Credit to the coach for keeping the band unified for as long as he did. Celtics fans are forever grateful.
Long live Ubuntu.
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