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Can Doc Rivers return to Celtics now?

Posted by Adam Kaufman  June 16, 2013 09:39 PM

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Give Stephen A. Smith credit. Almost six weeks ago, he reported a version of the Doc Rivers to form Celtics-West rumors that spread like wildfire on Saturday afternoon and now appear to be dead. Of course, never say never – at least until the Clippers hire another coach.

Like most of you, I thought the story was absurd when it first surfaced, and equally unlikely when it picked up steam last week. It felt like a different team from LA swooping in, except this time to take our beloved Green fixtures rather than our headaches. An opportunity to rebuild with a few young chips and a mystery coach was offered, as opposed to a gigantic bank deposit.

Either way, for the time being, it's a non-issue. At issue now: Can Doc Rivers return to Boston for a 10th season? And, should he?

My first instinct was a quick No and No – after further thought, I'm sitting at Yes and Briefly.

As Celtics die-hards and perhaps even casual fans know all too well, Rivers is adored in the Hub. He, along with some key trades, brought stability to an organization that hadn't employed a coach for longer than five seasons since Tommy Heinsohn was roaming the sidelines in the 1970's. Yes, there were championships after Heinsohn, under the guidance of remarkably successful and briefly tenured coaches Bill Fitch and K.C. Jones, but the 1990's introduced a long and painful lull to the NBA's most storied franchise. It wasn't until the charismatic Rivers and Ubuntu – oh, and a New Big Three era – rejuvenated the Garden and rewarded the fans with Banner 17 in 2008.

It shouldn't be ignored, of course, that after Rivers led the Celtics to 45 wins in his first season on the bench in 2004-05 – following a 36-win campaign in Boston while Rivers was busy getting fired for a slow start in Orlando, mind you – he endured two years of 57-107 play that would have cost him his job in most other places. Patience and loyalty from the C's paid off as the likeable Rivers and his new collection of aging superstars found their groove and never looked back, that is until this past season when they limped into the playoffs and were too old, too tired and too overmatched in the first round of the postseason against the Knicks.

After that emotional exit, the man with three years and $21 million left on his contract, as he has done before, asked the media for some time to gather his thoughts; to basically weigh the idea of a return versus a sabbatical. That was May 3. I'll save you the trouble of checking your calendar. Today is June 17.

The message is clear. As has been widely reported, Doc Rivers is ready for a change of scenery. That's fine. It's been nine years, he's had a lot of success, and – despite an annual salary that ranks first among all NBA coaches and tied for fourth across American professional sports – he's not interested in trying to rebuild around a few promising young talents with recent injury or health concerns. The Celtics won't, in all likelihood, be raising another banner anytime soon unless you're including the retirement of Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett's numbers, so it's understandable for him to seek a new challenge elsewhere to get those competitive juices flowing again.

My issue with Rivers is what seems to be his perception of his worth. He's a good coach, heck a very good coach. By today's NBA standards, some may even consider him to be great. One thing he is not is elite.

Phil Jackson could get away with this Will He-Won't He return behavior with the Lakers or any team that's courted his services since then because he's won 11 rings. Lump Pat Riley in there, too, before he settled on building teams rather than leading them. Gregg Popovich has earned the right to choose his destination if he ever contemplates leaving the Spurs. He's won four championships, and a fifth may arrive in a few days.

Rivers has won one ring and his club squandered a 3-2 finals lead in an effort to win a second. Despite a few deep runs, many could argue those five years of Pierce, Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo – even if they weren't all in their prime – should have resulted in more playoff banners and wins than they did. He has a lifetime 587-473 record in the regular season, along with a 64-57 mark in the postseason. Not good enough, but players love him and that fact among others has inflated his status as a coach.

I don't care how nice a guy Rivers is, those credentials don't justify him dragging his feet well into June when he's had more than a few occasions to respond definitively to the media as to his status while, by the way, upper management has beat the drum that he'll return and apparently denied other teams the right to speak with him. The NBA Draft is June 27. Free agency begins shortly thereafter. Other coaches – even if the list is underwhelming – are being hired elsewhere. The Celtics, at least publicly, are going in no clear direction entering the 2013-14 campaign and one question in a sea of several that shouldn't exist at this stage is, "Who's the coach?"

Let's get back to that word "publicly" because it makes all the difference for Rivers going forward. Unlike Dwight Howard, when he couldn't decide whether or not he wanted to leave the Magic, Rivers has not uttered one word about a desire to coach elsewhere, and neither have his bosses. Nothing but "sources," "sources," and more "sources." Should the deal with the Clippers fall through, he can simply pass off all the reports as media drivel and needless speculation and return to the Celtics.

In today's breaking-news-by-the-second Twitter reality, lots of rumors come right out of thin air – haven't you heard??

Sure, he'd have some some explaining to do to his players but, as long as he has his veterans returning with him, he's capable of smoothing over any friction the last several weeks may have have caused.

Fans might be a bit insulted for a moment that the man with the kind eyes, gracious smile, and generally forthcoming nature would be tempted to ask a cuter girl to the dance, but they'd still be ready to applaud when his name's announced at the Garden by the regular season home opener – probably the preseason.

Plus, who else is realistically available that you'd rather have? Phil Jackson? Never gonna happen. Jeff Van Gundy? Don't bet on it. George Karl? Time's running out. Brian Shaw? No thanks. Personally, I wanted Rivers to step away a few years ago for Tom Thibodeau, but that ship sailed when the 2010-11 Coach of the Year left for Chicago, and he's got another three years with the Bulls. Of course, guess the same could be said for Rivers?

The franchise-altering idea of Rivers, Garnett, Pierce, and one of the Celtics' overpriced contracts heading to Hollywood for Eric Bledsoe, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, and a first-round draft pick or two is undoubtedly intriguing, and anyone free of nostalgia – in other words, you level-headed folks – would sign off in a second. The C's can, if not immediately, find another qualified coach to take them to greatness eventually.

But, again, it looks like a crazy weekend of too-bizarre-to-be-true rumors will unfold as such. Rivers will likely return to Boston, but it should only be for one season. It can coincide with the swan songs for Garnett and Pierce before they, respectively, retire and move on. Rivers must come to terms with that decision entering the year so that he's ready to walk away at season's end, whether to the broadcast booth or another team by way of an agreement with the Celtics that actually pans out. It's clearer now than ever, he's no longer fully devoted to a future in Boston.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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