Doc Rivers was on the bench in Houston when the final seconds of Game 7 of the NBA Finals ticked off the clock at The Summit. It was the closest he would come to winning a championship as a player and a memory that haunted him -- perhaps even motivated him -- for the next 14 years, until he bathed in a shower of confetti at TD Garden in Boston.
On both ocassions he was wearing a suit. In '94, it wasn't by choice. Rivers was a key piece of the Knicks' 92-93 team, which posted the best regular season (60-22) since the championship era but then lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. One unforgettable image from that series (aside from John Starks' "The Dunk") is Rivers standing by the scorer's table with a stunned look on his face after Charles Smith was stopped four times for a potential game-winning layup in that pivotal Game 5 loss at the Garden.
Rivers blew out his knee early in the 93-94 season, which motivated the Knicks to make the trade for another veteran point guard, Derek Harper. Rivers spent the season trying desperately to get back to full health, but really didn't make it back until the following December.
During last year's Finals, Rivers admitted the '94 Finals was a "bitter memory" and those close to him said that though the time in New York was relatively brief, he loved playing at the Garden.
And with so much uncertainty around Mike D'Antoni's future, Rivers could have considered taking on a new challenge here, coaching another set of stars in Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, and perhaps erasing that bitter memory by guiding this franchise to finally winning that elusive championship. Multiple sources with connections to both the Knicks and Rivers said the topic had been broached -- preliminarily -- in private conversations.
But one confidant said Rivers' relationship with Danny Ainge -- the two are extremely close friends -- would make a move to the Knicks difficult. "It would have to be OK with Danny," the person said. "[Doc] wouldn't do it if it hurt Danny."
All of this is extremely sensitive on many levels for both sides, most especially because D'Antoni is still under contract for another season. But Rivers would be considered an option in 2012, when D'Antoni's contract expired. If the team failed to show improvement under D'Antoni, then the door would open for a replacement.
There was talk that Rivers, whose contract expires after this season, planned to take a year off from the game, perhaps to reconnect with his family and watch his son, Austin, play at Duke. But that ended last night when, following elimination to the Miami Heat, Rivers announced he was "leaning toward" returning next season.
Then he called himself "a Celtic," which, you would think, clinched it.
"Listen, there’s been a contract for basically three months there. Danny (Ainge) and [Celtics owner] Wyc Grousbeck have been on the other side of patient," he said after the Game 5 loss in Miami. "It gave us a long time to talk about it as a family. I haven’t signed anything or done anything but it’s there and I probably will sign it."
For him to go that far and not sign would be out of character for Rivers, who is one of the most stand-up, genuine and honest guys you'll ever meet in this league. And you can't overlook how much respect Rivers showed D'Antoni during the first-round series. Rivers, well-aware of the criticism surrounding his counterpart, regularly gave credit to D'Antoni's coaching acumen.
So if Rivers is out of play and the Knicks have reason to be in the market for a new coach next spring, what other candidates are out there? Step right up, Mark Jackson. He was the runner-up in 2008 and seemed to be on the verge of landing the job before D'Antoni became available.
If Rick Adelman, who was fired by the Rockets, takes a year off, he'd also be on the list. Adelman is and old school coach known for getting the most out of his players -- his Kings team's regularly challegend the Lakers' and Spurs' dynasty teams and he never had a fully healthy team in Houston for an extended period of time -- and yet he's still chasing a championship, too.
Meanwhile, Marc Berman has been speculating at the Post about the potential of Phil Jackson reconsidering retirement in the future to, perhaps, come to New York and coach the Knicks, where his playing career started over four decades ago under his mentor, Red Holzman. Jackson, who will be 67 in 2012, might only come if the roster is loaded, which leaves a lot of work to do between now and then.
And then there's John Calipari. Don't laugh. There is a strong alliance growing between Creative Artists Agency (Calipari is another high-profile client) and the Garden and if Donnie Walsh ever decides to retire, there would be a strong push to have Calipari slide right in to give the NBA another shot (and shake free from the NCAA bloodhounds). By the way, Cal recently helped organize an NFL-style "pro day" at Kentucky for his draft-eligible players, Brandon Wright and DeAndre Liggins. It was a big hit and could become a new trend in college basketball. Oh and yes, sources at the event confirmed that the Knicks were represented.
Of course as we exhaust ourselves through all of this, the most overlooked option might be the best one: Mike D'Antoni. Give the man a full season, with training camp, a healthy team and a roster that doesn't have overwhelming deficiencies at key spots (like center), and see what he can do. D'Antoni should give in a little here and bring in an assistant coach with a defensive background (for instance, Michael Malone, who was with Mike Brown in Cleveland and is now the lead assistant under Monty Williams in New Orleans or Raptors assistant Marc Iavaorni, who was in charge of defense when he was on D'Antoni's staff in Phoenix or Ron Adams, who brought a defensive focus to the Thunder) to handle that side of the ball.
For D'Antoni, that may going against his principles, but if it means job security -- and getting the media and fans off his back -- he should strongly consider it. Yes, a lot of the Knicks' issues on defense have to do with personnel -- and the lack of a legitimate presence in the paint at center -- but preparation is also a major part of being a good defensive team, especially at the elite level.
That brings us back to Doc, who recognized the importance of defense enough to hire Tom Thibodeau as his top assistant and defensive coordinator. In practice, Thibodeau would take over when it was time to go over defense. It was his show and his responsibility. When Thibodeau left to coach the Chicago Bulls, Rivers brought in former Nets coach Lawrence Frank to take over the defense.
It's not a sign of surrender, it's recognition that defense is that important to winning. D'Antoni's dynamic offense -- with the right pieces in place (read: need a three-point shooter at the two and a mobile center) -- should still be this team's greatest weapon (no one wants to go back to the grinding, ugly basketball of the 1990s) but they have to have a defensive identity, as well, if they are going to seriously contend for a championship . . . and if D'Antoni is going to hold off the Jackson (Phil or Mark) Homecoming Campaign.