Pep Guardiola & Doc Rivers: the coaching mirage

Imagine walking through the middle of a desert in 110+ degree weather and off in the distance, you see what appears to be a body of water where you can cool yourself off and, potentially, save your life if you are dehydrated. As you get closer to that body of water, it begins fading away. With every step, that “water” fades completely away and you are still stuck in the desert with nothing to replenish your body. 

This is the same feeling many players have felt when they’ve been taken under the wing of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers. 

Here’s the coaching history of two iconic figures that have used loaded rosters as the veil to the fact that they may not be as good as you once thought. 

Both men were highly regarded during their times as players in the 1990s, which led to them earning high-profile roles as head coaches soon after their retirements. 

Guardiola landed the role of FC Barcelona’s manager in the 2008-09 and, unsurprisingly, went on to dominate with a club that consisted of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Yaya Toure, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol. I mean, just get a look at this starting XI from the 2009 UEFA Champions League Final. Safe to say Guardiola didn’t need to do much managing to walk away with a league title and European club title. 

In the states, Rivers was brought on to the Orlando Magic in the post-Shaq era for the Florida franchise. 

One has to give Rivers a little bit of break in his first year as Orlando dealt with a string of injuries and had to shake up the lineup a handful of times, but the roster still consisted of Darrell Armstrong, who led the team in points per game at a 16.2 clip and defensive wizards in Bo Outlaw and Ben Wallace. 

Orlando was on a brink of a playoff run after a seven-game winning streak late in the season, but dropped five of their last eight games, which included losing two to the Milwaukee Bucks, who earned a playoff berth by one game over the Magic. This will become a trend later in Rivers’ coaching career when it comes to closing deals. 

Back overseas, Guardiola’s run with the Barcelona dynasty ended during the 2012 campaign in what can only be seen as a pure letdown in the semifinal round of Champions League as Barcelona was about to enter halftime with a 2-0 match lead and 2-1 aggregate lead at Camp Nou. However, just before the whistle, Ramires sent shockwaves through Spain as he netted the goal to put Chelsea back on top in the aggregate. 

The shock was too much for Barcelona to overcome and they weren’t able to muster much in the second half as they went scoreless and the great Spainard Fernando Torres added insult to injury with a goal in the closing minutes to send Chelsea to the Final where they won after penalty kicks against Bayern Munich. 

Guardiola stepped down and went on to Germany’s top dog in Bayern at the start of the 2013-14 season. 

With another over-the-top lineup at Bayern, expectations were high for the German club to take the Champions League title with Guardiola at the helm. 

The first run was unsuccessful as Bayern was demolished by Real Madrid in the 2014 UCL semifinals 5-0 on aggregate. 

With three of the best strikers in the world in Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben, not to mention, many core pieces from the 2014 German World Cup-winning nation such as Jerome Boateng, Bastian Schweinsteiger, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and the man who clinched the Cup for Germany in Mario Gotze. 

Well, this club folded five goals to Guardiola’s former club in Barcelona in the semifinals of UCL, another letdown for the manager. 

2016 was probably the toughest pill to swallow for Guardiola as his Bayern club fell once again to a Spanish club, this time, at the hands of one gut-wrenching road goal to Antoine Griezmann to send Atletico Madrid to the final. 

Guardiola left after his contract expired and went on to Manchester City…

Back to Rivers. 

With one of the best offenses in the league consistently with Tracy McGrady, Mike Miller and Armstrong, Orlando was able to find their way into the postseason, but it didn’t last long as the Magic couldn’t find their way out of the first round, losing to Milwaukee, the Charlotte Hornets and blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Detroit Pistons to close out Doc’s run in Orlando, another trend that will rear its ugly head later in Rivers’ coaching career. 

Outside of Hall of Famer Paul Pierce, Rivers didn’t have much to work with in Boston and the results showed as he only made one playoff run with the Celtics where they lost in a hard fought, seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers in 2005. 

However, after missing the playoffs for two-straight seasons and a dreadful 24-58 season in 2007, Boston acquired legends in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to kick off the “Big Three” trend. To no one’s surprise, Boston wound up winning the title and made Rivers look like a genius. 

As the Big Three got older, the cracks in Rivers’ coaching began to unravel as Boston could never win another title and the closest they came was a seven-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers in which Kobe Bryant put on a one-man show and Metta World Peace, along with Sasha Vujacic had clutch moments in Game 7 to get the Lakers their revenge. 

The epitome of Rivers’ run in Boston came in 2012 where the Miami Heat overcame a 3-2 series deficit to advance to the Finals after blowing a seven-point lead in the second half of Game 7. 

The next year, Carmelo Anthony ran over the grizzly-old Celtics in the first round. 

Rivers was out and onto his most infamous head-coaching run with the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Domestic and league trebles aside, every elite European club has one goal in mind, winning the Champions League. 

Guardiola hadn’t reached the top of European club football since 2011 with Barcelona. His tenure with Man City needed to show results, but only familiar occurrences went down. 

In the 2017 Champions League, Man City won one of the craziest first legs in UCL history with a 5-3 home win over Monaco. While surrendering three road goals is never ideal, a two-goal buffer should’ve been enough to send City to the quarterfinals….Nope. 

Monaco went on to win 3-1 and win the absurd 6-6 aggregate on the road-goal tiebreaker. 

2018 didn’t fare much better as Guardiola fell 5-1 to Liverpool in the quarterfinals, but the next year was definitely Man City’s year. 

2019 was filled with success as Man City pulled off the domestic treble and looked to be a favorite to win Champions League. However, Tottenham thwarted Man City’s UCL run in the quarterfinals after an insane final leg in which five goals were exchanged in the first 21 minutes. A Llorente elbow goal broke the hearts of City fans and Guardiola, once again, couldn’t get the job done with an elite club. 

The next year almost appears to be the mere footnote in Guardiola’s Man City tenure with the COVID-19 outbreak putting a wrench into every season. Yet, the club and the manager found a way to disappoint as Lyon and Moussa Dembele throttled Man City in the second half to send them home in, you guessed it, the quarterfinals. 

Man City seemed to have it all in 2021. Nothing was stopping them from finally overcoming the hurdle of never winning Champions League and the criticisms of Guardiola would turn into laudations. 

After blitzing their way to the Final, all they had to do was beat their Premier League peers in Chelsea, whose contendership in 2022’s Champions League was still unknown and the club went through turmoil early on with Frank Lampard not getting the job done. Chelsea brought on Thomas Tuchel to right the ship, and right the ship he did. 

Chelsea found their way into the final, but there was just no way the North London club could knock off the incredible run Man City had through UCL. 

Insert N’Golo Kante. Kante pulled off one of the great individual performances in Champions League history and instead of Guardiola forcing Chelsea to adjust to their superior talent, it was Guardiola failing to adjust to the steady play of Kante and a Chelsea club that wasn’t going to fold. Chelsea held off Man City 1-0 to take the UCL title. 

What separates the legendary coaches from the good ones are those that can make adjustments and see a dramatic shift in play when facing adversity. This is still a task that Rivers and Guardiola have yet to accomplish in their long head-coaching careers. 

We all know Rivers’ run as Clippers head coach. Even with the “point god” in Chris Paul, one of NBA’s finest young products in Blake Griffin and a whole slew of veterans that cycled in and out of LA annually, Rivers could never lead the Clippers to the conference finals. They blew a 3-1 series in 2015 to the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets went on to do the same five years later in the Orlando bubble, the city where it all started for Doc. 

One year later, the Clippers made the conference finals in Tyronn Lue’s first year as head coach and with Kawhi Leonard out with injury. 

2021 has left no doubt that Rivers isn’t the man to head coach a team to a title unless they have three bonafide Hall of Famers already. So far, little has been mentioned of Rivers not adjusting to Nate McMillan, who was recently fired by the Pacers, and an extremely young Atlanta Hawks team that has overachieved, to say the least, this season. 

Instead, the memes of “The Process” being dead will take the narrative and Ben Simmons is the face of the scapegoat in Philly with his timidness to shoot the basketball. 

With all of the legends and elite squads Guardiola and Rivers have coached in their careers, they’ve only managed to climb to the peak of their respective sports three times combined, and in those wins, they needed one of the great starting XI’s ever and Allen, Garnett and Pierce to get the job done. 

They may not know it, but each time Guardiola and Rivers look into the mirror, they are looking at each other. Their players will take the fall, while the two will continue to be lauded for their consistent playoff appearances and domestic league titles, leading them to future roles. 

When players are walking through the wasteland of these two’s coaching careers, the mirage of championship hardware will appear in the distance, but when they close in, that hardware fades and reality becomes disappointing.

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