The Doc Rivers drama kicked into overdrive this weekend and left the Celtics and their coach past the point of no return. While we still can’t be sure whether Rivers will spend next season on the bench in LA or inside a TV studio in Atlanta, the likelihood of him coming back for a 10th season with the Celtics appears increasingly non-existent.
Why? It’s nothing against Boston, or the Celtics on the whole. More than anything, it seems that Danny Ainge has a vision for this franchise, and Rivers just isn’t on board. Even if he thinks that Ainge’s plan might be what’s best for the team, Doc doesn’t want to be a part of it. Meanwhile, the Celtics can’t justify bringing back a coach (at $7 million a year, by the way) who doesn’t want to be here. The only other option is for Ainge to tinker with his vision, and if you know Danny Ainge you know that’s not a real option.
So, that leaves the relationship between Rivers and the Celtics at a surprising and (from the outside) sudden breaking point.
How did we get here?
April 30, 2004: “Danny Ainge called and asked me to coach the Boston Celtics. If you like basketball I don't know how you could say no to that."
That was Rivers at the press conference to announce his hiring as the 16th head coach in Celtics history. At the time, he was 42 years old (the same age that Erik Spoelstra is right now), and initially, the partnership between him and Ainge was an unlikely one.
After all, Doc had spent the better part of his career competing against and hating the Celtics, and Ainge was the most hated Celtic of that era. But at this point, they had a lot in common. They were two somewhat-recently retired, insanely-competitive individuals, desperate to find success in the next stage of their basketball lives. And they needed each other to get there.
Danny provided Doc with another opportunity to prove his mettle as a coach, and to do it for one of the most storied franchises in sports.
Doc gave Danny a young coach with something to prove. A leader. A former player who could potentially connect with an increasingly frustrated superstar, and motivate and cultivate a soon-to-be very young core of players. Also, Doc was a guy who was beloved by the media (and everyone else), who could stay upbeat and keep everyone smiling while Ainge methodically dismantled the roster.
“This is the guy that we wanted to be our head coach,” Ainge said. “That's why the search was so fast and short.”
May 12, 2011: “I’m leaning heavily towards coming back. I haven’t made that decision, but I can tell you I probably will. I’ve kind of come to that over the last couple of weeks. I’m a Celtic.”
That was Rivers in a press conference after Boston’s 2011 second round playoff loss to the Heat. He was now five months shy of his 50th birthday, and one of the most successful, respected and powerful coaches in the game. At this point, he’d been through everything — high and low — with the Celtics. Seven long years. And for the previous two, there had been growing speculation that he was ready to walk away.
And you know what? No one would have blamed him. There was nothing left to prove. He didn’t need this anymore. He’d already led the Celtics back to the top, and written another chapter in his own NBA legacy. Meanwhile, his once tight-knit basketball family was being torn apart by urgency over the closing championship window, constant trade rumors and the deal that sent Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder. Rivers was also headed for his second consecutive offseason throat surgery and constantly talked about his fear of burning out, and the idea of taking some time to recharge his battery. And sure, he’d owed the organization a lot, but he’d also more than paid his debt.
But here, in the immediate aftermath of a season ending loss, Rivers did an about face. In retrospect, did he act a little too quickly? Yup. Was he a little too caught up in Boston’s budding rivalry with the Heat? Yup. But his words still spoke volumes: “I am a Celtic.”
The next day, despite this being the one season in which he needed it most, Rivers forewent his annual “take a deep breathe and consider the future” grace period and signed a five-year, $35 million extension.
“Doc wants to be here,” Ainge said at the press conference. “It's not all because he thinks that over the next five years we're going to have the best team in the NBA. He feels like he's part of this franchise, he likes working here, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to help us be successful.”
Rivers was never quite as gung-ho about a potential rebuild: “Well, I don’t think anyone’s looking forward to that,” he said later that week on WEEI, “but I’m willing to do that . . . Who says that we still can’t [reload] with free agency and adding the right pieces? While our Big Three are getting older, we have to add the right supporting cast to them. In that transition, hopefully we can still chase what we want.”
But above all else, the one thing Doc kept preaching was loyalty:
“It would have been easier to do it the other way; I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do. Coaches talk about loyalty and team all the time. I just thought it was time to show it. And that’s what I did.”
Either way, Rivers and Ainge had taken this relationship to the next level. They were no longer two former finals teaming up for their own selfish reasons. There were a team. They were Celtics, in the most classic and traditional sense. And that's typically a lifelong appointment.
June 17, 2013: “…………………………………………”
Today, Doc Rivers still isn’t saying anything. But his silence says it all. He doesn’t want to be here anymore. And if Ainge is truly confident in his plan for the future, he has no choice but to pull the trigger on a deal with the Clippers or (if he’s feeling especially spiteful) let Rivers walk.
The truth is that, broken promises aside, these two don’t need each other anymore. Doc doesn’t need the Celtics. He’s basically a franchise all his own. And Danny doesn’t need Doc. You don’t need to pay a coach $7 million a year to see you through a rebuild when there’s little chance he’ll still be there in the end. Danny needs to find the next Doc.
It’s time to walk away.
Of course, that won’t make the break-up any easier. Assuming this is the end, those quotes about loyalty and being a “Celtic” will haunt Doc for a while. There are going to be a lot of very hurt and angry people in Boston. Around the city and inside the organization. And we’ll talk about how that affects Doc’s legacy (oh and, the fact that Kevin Garnett may soon be playing for the Clippers), once his departure becomes official.
Right now, that seems like just a matter of time.