When he was hired by the Orlando Magic in 1999, Doc Rivers told a colleague at Turner Sports that he had to take care of his coaching itch and that he would be back in five years.
It took him a little longer than he predicted to return to broadcasting, but four teams and 25 years later, Rivers is back on the sidelines as a TV analyst — albeit at a different network.
Rivers is set to begin his second stint with ESPN as the network’s NBA analyst, though he doesn’t know how long he will remain in the position.
“Do I miss coaching?” Rivers asked, “let the season go on, and I’ll find that out. But this is the journey I’m on right now,” he said.
For now, Rivers is teaming with Mike Breen and Doris Burke on the network’s top NBA broadcasting crew. It is Rivers’ second stint with ESPN/ABC. He was part of the ESPN’s broadcast team during the 2003-04 season, including the NBA Finals, after he was fired 10 games into the season by the Orlando Magic. Rivers is back after being fired by Philadelphia.
At least one ESPN executive believes Rivers’ won’t be returning to the coaching ranks anytime soon.
“Doc will be a part of our NBA coverage for several years. I can assure you of that,” said David Roberts, ESPN’s Head of Event and Studio Production. “There’s always a chance that someone will reach out and say, ‘Hey, Doc would be a great coach.’ So, we’ll deal with that moment if it happens.”
There is clearly on positive for Rivers being back in TV. Since he was fired by the Sixers Rivers is longer in the middle of the upheaval in Philadelphia amid James Harden’s trade demands and rift with the team’s front office. He did say it’s nothing knew for reigning league MVP Joel Embiid.
“I think Joel is pretty much used to beginning-of-the-year turmoil. He can kind of tone that out and almost use it as fuel,” Rivers said. “At some point, he needs to be healthy, and then he needs to perform in the playoffs. That’s going to be the key. If Joel plays well, the Sixers are as big of a threat as anyone else because when he’s dominant, there’s nobody in the league that can stop him.”
Rivers did acknowledge feeling some pressure about re-joining ESPN and being on the top team. Burke and Rivers replace Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, who were let go as part of the network’s reductions of on-air talent.
“It’s almost like coming in to coach a team that has a chance to win the title. I loved listening to Mark and Jeff,” Rivers said. “We just want to be what we are and let that go wherever it goes.”
Breen and Burke both have longtime friendships with Rivers. Over the summer, Rivers went to Ireland with Breen. Burke has interviewed Rivers numerous times over the years. They worked a couple of games with ABC in 2004 when Rivers was the analyst and Burke was doing sideline reports.
“I think we’ll follow Mike’s lead. He is the driving force behind the telecast,” she said. “Doc brings an honesty to what he’s telling you. And I think it’s probably helpful that he’s done this in the past. I am looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
As for what to expect this season, Rivers has defending champion Denver as the favorite. The three teams he is watching early, though, are Phoenix, Boston and Milwaukee.
Rivers said he wants to see how Bradley Beal meshes with Devin Booker and Kevin Durant on the new-look Suns because it reminds him of his 2007-08 Boston squad with Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant and Ray Allen.
“It’s not possible for each one of them to have the same amount of shot attempts now because they’re all together,” said Rivers, who will work the Boston-New York telecast on Wednesday. “Usually, whoever that third guy is, he’s the guy that has to sacrifice the most. But if they can get it right, that makes them really good.”
Rivers has the Celtics and Bucks at the top of the Eastern Conference after their offseason additions. Boston acquired Jrue Holiday from Portland less than a week after he was traded by Milwaukee as part of a three-team trade when the Bucks got Damian Lillard.
Rivers still has a desire to be competing for another NBA title. His most significant coaching success came in Boston when he led the Celtics to the NBA title in 2008 during his nine-year tenure. There was also seven years with the Los Angeles Clippers and a stint in Philadelphia for three years.
But he said scratching that coaching itch one more time won’t be on his mind when he is broadcasting games — no matter what people may read into his comments.
“Sometimes that can be critical. But as long as it’s honest and coming from the right place, I’ve always been able to live with that,” Rivers said. “It’s going to be unpopular at times, but at the end of the day, I want people to enjoy the game.”
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