Sleight of Hands With Doc Rivers deftly manipulating the NBA's lowest-paid roster, the Magic is poised to pull a playoff berth out of its hat

April 09, 2000

Orlando Magic point guard Darrell Armstrong got his first
inkling that playing for Doc Rivers would be no ordinary
experience when a Federal Express letter from the team's new
coach was delivered to his door last summer. Armstrong ripped
open the envelope only to find that it contained a simple
typewritten note: Are You Committed? A few weeks later another
succinct missive arrived: We're Going to Be the Best Defensive
Team in the NBA. "It wasn't just the words on the paper that
impressed me," says Armstrong. "It was that Doc only lives about
15 minutes from my house, and still he sent those letters
overnight."

Following Rivers's example, Orlando easily could have mailed it
in this season. Even though the Magic finished tied for the best
record in the Eastern Conference last year, management
dismantled the team over the summer and rather conspicuously
began to retrench. After gladly accepting coach Chuck Daly's
resignation, general manager John Gabriel jettisoned four
starters, including All-Star guard Penny Hardaway and the
franchise's inaugural draft pick, swingman Nick Anderson. As if
shopping for players on Priceline.com, Gabriel then stocked the
roster with bargain-basement vagabonds like center John Amaechi,
fresh from playing for the Sheffield Sharks, a second-division
team in England; sixth-year forward Monty Williams, who logged
all of six minutes before being waived by the Denver Nuggets in
1998-99 and seemed consigned to basketball oblivion; and 5'11"
Chucky Atkins, who spent last season as a reserve for Cibona in
Croatia. By choosing to hoard draft picks and salary-cap space,
the Magic appeared doomed to endure a miserable year while
waiting for the reclamation project to pay dividends next
season. "One magazine even picked us to finish dead last in the
Eastern Conference," says Armstrong. "We were the team every
other team thought they would beat."

Yet--presto, change-o!--Orlando has inexplicably levitated in
the standings and through Sunday stood at 37-36, good for the
eighth playoff spot in the East. With a league-low $17 million
payroll, the Magic is winning with defense, teamwork and
full-bore hustle. "These guys play with so much energy," said
New Jersey coach Don Casey after the Magic beat the Nets 103-97
last Friday for its sixth straight win. "They're a model for
what happens when you have hungry players."

To construct the model, Gabriel has made an astonishing 38
roster moves since last June. But his ultimate sleight of hand
was plucking Rivers from the Turner Sports broadcast booth and
signing him to a four-year, $8 million deal. Though Rivers
recalls that his only previous coaching experience was with the
"St. Something-or-other Tigers," the former youth league team of
his 10-year-old daughter, Callie--"They gossiped too much in the
layup lines," complains Doc--he has demonstrated a masterly feel
for running a professional team. A Dale Carnegie disciple,
Rivers knows the name of every cafeteria employee and
maintenance worker at the team's practice facility. As the son
of a Chicago beat cop, he's also imbued with enough toughness
and intensity to command unflinching respect. "He's such a
people person that I always thought he'd be a general manager,"
says Williams, who was Rivers's teammate with the New York
Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs. "But in a short time he's
shown that he's cut out for being on the bench. When he speaks,
we listen."

As a coach Rivers stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor.
Daly was the league's oldest coach last year at age 68; the
38-year-old Rivers is among the youngest. While the crusty Daly
had little interaction with his players, Rivers has won a wager
from them by throwing down a reverse dunk in practice. Above
all, if Daly was the Prince of Pessimism, Rivers ought to be
called the Ombudsman of Optimism. He concludes the horrifying
story of how arsonists destroyed his San Antonio house three
summers ago by saying, "so in some ways it was a good
experience." As Gabriel puts it: "Doc doesn't see the glass as
half full. He sees it as overflowing."

The coach's Panglossian outlook manifested itself from his first
day on the job. Not for a second did Rivers perceive this as a
throwaway season--"Once you say that, you've told your guys not
to try hard," he says--and he was positively giddy when he saw
how fiercely his stripped-down team competed. "Doc never came in
and said we were going to be great, but he made it clear that we
could succeed if we had the right attitude and took our roles as
teammates seriously," says the 29-year-old Amaechi, in what is
surely the thickest British accent in league history. "To play
for a coach who is so enthusiastic but also so honest, well,
it's been rather splendid."

Rivers's performance this season has been all the more
remarkable given the battery of options each game presents.
Orlando's jerseys may be embroidered with stars, but the team
has fewer than the Sundance Channel. Four of the Magic's five
starters--Armstrong, Amaechi and forwards Bo Outlaw and Ben
Wallace--weren't even drafted out of college. At once the NBA's
deepest and shallowest syndicate, Orlando has 10 players who at
week's end had seen at least 15 minutes of action a game, and
eight who were averaging at least seven points, led by Armstrong
with 16.1. What's more, 32 times this season a reserve has been
the team's leading scorer. "At the beginning of the year we
didn't know who'd score our points besides Darrell, but now we
know that it'll be either Ron [Mercer], Chucky, Pat [Garrity],
Corey [Maggette] or Monty," Rivers says without a trace of
irony. "Sometimes I feel like I have 12 sixth men."

With no pecking order, Rivers often substitutes as frequently as
a hockey coach. In a 94-69 win over the Miami Heat on March 26,
for instance, 10 Orlando players were on the court for at least
20 minutes and none for more than 27. Going entire quarters
without glancing at the game clock, Rivers subs largely on
instinct. "I'm looking for activity," he says. "I keep players
in and take them out based on effort and defense, not on making
or missing shots."

Rivers has culled elements of his coaching style from the
various masters he served during his 13-year career as a guard
for the Hawks, Clippers, Knicks and Spurs. He has tried to meld
Mike Fratello's emphasis on teaching with Pat Riley's will to
win and Larry Brown's attention to detail. Rivers is a
perfectionist who demands that his players rehearse and
re-rehearse drop steps and defensive positioning until they can
execute them automatically. Yet, unlike so many of his
colleagues, he resists the temptation to micromanage once the
game starts. He seldom calls plays from the bench and claims to
concern himself with only one line from the postgame stat sheet:
the opponent's field goal percentage. "Doc's in control, but
he's not a control freak," says coaching consultant Clifford
Ray. "He's not going to get upset as long as the players are
hustling."

That's hardly an issue with this team. Taking their cue from
Armstrong, who injured his right shoulder earlier this season
diving headlong for a ball to avoid a backcourt violation in
practice, Rivers's players compensate for any deficit of talent
with a surfeit of competitive resolve. The team takes charges
with relish, displays a possessive attitude toward loose balls
and at week's end was leading the league in forcing turnovers,
with 18.1 a game. Rivers's defense isn't driven by traps or
complex schemes; instead it relies on Armstrong's quickness to
neutralize opposing playmakers and the brute banging inside of
Outlaw and Wallace, who together average more rebounds than
points. "They show what you can accomplish when you put the team
first," Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said earlier this season.
"If we played as hard as the Magic did every night, we'd be very
good."

If anything, Rivers is concerned that his team plays too hard.
The first time he rewarded his minions with a day off--a Doc
holiday, as it were--Rivers arrived at his office and was
distracted by the thump of a bouncing basketball. When he opened
the shades of his window and peered down at the team's practice
floor, he saw that 11 of his players had shown up to scrimmage.
Furious, he threatened to levy a $100 fine the next time he
caught them disregarding a mandated day of rest. (Unbeknownst to
the coach, the players now congregate at another gym.) "We're an
energy team, and we need to conserve it sometimes," says Rivers,
who lives in Winter Park, Fla., with his wife, Kris, and their
four kids. "On the other hand, how can you not love guys who
have made it to the NBA and are still just a bunch of gym rats?"

All of this bonhomie creates a dilemma for the summer. In
addition to holding the Nuggets' and the Golden State Warriors'
first-round picks--both lottery choices--the Magic could have as
much as $18 million in cap room to lavish on a free agent,
assuming it chooses not to re-sign Mercer. Yes, the future
smells sweet. But will the team's chemistry be destroyed when,
say, 20-year-old Tracy McGrady, who recently built a mansion a
jump shot from the O-Rena, struts into town making more money
than the rest of his teammates combined? Even Rivers, who had a
clause inserted in his contract guaranteeing that the team would
pursue free agents this summer, is ambivalent. "If we don't sign
a single one of those [high-profile free agents], I won't be
upset," he says. "The way I look at it, I already have 12 great
guys."

Gabriel, though, isn't about to depart from the blueprint. As he
sees it, beyond the balmy weather, the Magic's unsurpassed
training facilities and the lack of a state income tax, he has
an additional inducement for luring the likes of McGrady, Tim
Duncan, Grant Hill, Eddie Jones or Maurice Taylor. "Our play
this season only helps us," says Gabriel. "A free agent can say,
'If they're overachieving now, just think what they can do if
I'm there.'" Amaechi, for one, believes that Duncan, San
Antonio's soft-spoken 7-footer, would be the ideal fit. "I
really hope he comes here," he says. "Sure, it would boot me out
the door, but this team deserves him."

Should Doc's troops hang on to their playoff spot, it's tough to
imagine them prevailing against a team with a go-to scorer or
two. Still, that this irrepressible band and its rookie coach
have seen such success--well, it's been rather splendid.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA PHOTOS ARMED FORCES Frontcourt musclemen Outlaw (bottom left) and Wallace (far right) make up for their offensive shortcomings by giving Orlando tough interior defense.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO DOC WORKERS Rivers (in tie) bases his freewheeling substitutions on players' efforts, inspiring Maggette (below) and others to give their all. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [See caption above]

Costly Cuts

While the payroll of active Magic players is a league-low $17
million, 16 of the team's former players have salaries totaling
$17.7 million that still count against Orlando's 1999-2000 cap.
Here are the top five cap-space eaters.

PLAYER
Armen Gilliam

MAGIC RESPONSIBILITY
$3,707,200

WHERE DID HE GO?
Averaging 6.4 points and 4.0 boards at week's end as backup
forward for the Jazz

[PLAYER]
Gerald Wilkins

[MAGIC RESPONSIBILITY]
$3,000,000

[WHERE DID HE GO?]
Waived after '98-99 season; 36-year-old guard didn't sign
elsewhere

[PLAYER]
Terry Davis

[MAGIC RESPONSIBILITY]
$1,925,000

[WHERE DID HE GO?]
Waived in final training camp cuts because of crowded
frontcourt; has not been signed

[PLAYER]
Yinka Dare

[MAGIC RESPONSIBILITY]
$1,893,500

[WHERE DID HE GO?]
7-foot center started this season with CBA's Fort Wayne Fury;
was released on Dec. 27

[PLAYER]
Michael Smith

[MAGIC RESPONSIBILITY]
$1,660,000

[WHERE DID HE GO?]
Started 46 games at power forward for Wizards before tearing
ligament in right elbow

Source: The Charlotte Observer

"At the beginning of the year I didn't know who'd score our
points," Rivers says. "Sometimes I feel like I have 12 sixth
men."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)