SI Vault
 
Sleight of Hands
L. Jon Wertheim
April 10, 2000
With Doc Rivers manipulating the NBA's lowest-paid roster, the Magic is poised to pull a playoff berth out of its hat
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 10, 2000

Sleight Of Hands

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

View CoverRead All Articles

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

MAGIC RESPONSIBILITY

WHERE DID HE GO?

Armen Gilliam

$3,707,200

Averaging 6.4 points and 4.0 boards at week's end as backup forward for the Jazz

Gerald Wilkins

$3,000,000

Waived after '98-99 season; 36-year-old guard didn't sign elsewhere

Terry Davis

$1,925,000

Waived in final training camp cuts because of crowded frontcourt; has not been signed

Yinka Dare

$1,893,500

7-foot center started this season with CBA's Fort Wayne Fury; was released on Dec. 27

Michael Smith

$1,660,000

Started 46 games at power forward for Wizards before tearing ligament in right elbow

Source: The Charlotte Observer

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 Hard-away 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 throw-away 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 man 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 micro-manage 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 play-makers 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."

Continue Story
1 2