There’s a certain clarity present only in the moments while waiting for a press conference that may never come. In a few hours or a few days (I have one eye on my car keys just in case), a group of Celtics reporters will speed off to Waltham to hear the team explain why Doc Rivers leaving to coach the Clippers is best for everyone involved. It will be explained to us that it was a mutual decision, that the Celtics even went to Rivers and suggested it, and that the coach, affable as always, said something along the lines of, “Whatever I can do to help.”
Everyone, of course, will be of his or her own mind to determine how much of the narrative to absorb, but there’s also something fun about being in this pre-spin limbo. And when I get right down to it, I keep going back to something Jeff Clark of Celtics Blog tweeted last week:
“This couldn’t have been Plan A.”
Whether you’re on Team Doc or Team Danny or tired of the whole thing, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the way this thing played out over the last week was Danny Ainge’s primary plan heading into the offseason. Ainge spent most of the last week haggling over the departure of his coach while the futures of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were put on hold. With Rajon Rondo coming off knee surgery, the Celtics still don’t have a point guard. The NBA draft is Thursday, there’s a situation with Terrence Williams, and we haven’t even mentioned poor Chris Wilcox yet (he’s the team’s only free agent).
Immediately following a 4-1 series loss to the Heat two years ago, Rivers sat down at the podium in Miami and announced, unprompted, that he was coming back. I was on deadline, tasked with wrapping up the season, and the consensus among the people covering the team had been that Doc would take his time making a decision. The announcement made our No. 1 story of the offseason a moot point in a matter of minutes. “I’m a Celtic,” he said that night, and he sounded like a man who meant it.
It’s not a reporter’s place to call out Rivers for his change of heart, though fans have every right to do so. Ray Allen got plenty of grief for going to Miami. You can judge Rivers or give him a free pass, but what’s clear about all this is that he wanted to stay then and he doesn’t want to now.
Ainge worked feverishly to get Rivers to Los Angeles. He did well to get compensation. That doesn’t mean all is now well and good.
Rivers wanting to leave is bad for everyone who stays behind. It’s bad for Jeff Green, who was just starting to get his confidence under his head coach. It’s bad for Avery Bradley, who clearly lost his down the last stretch of the season. It’s especially bad for Rondo, who looks like someone Rivers, unfairly or not, wanted to get away from.
Ainge is trying to rebuild the team, and acquiring assets is what it’s all about. A first-round draft pick in exchange for a coach is a good place to start, and there’s likely more compensation coming for the services of Pierce and Garnett. Rondo may be Ainge’s biggest chip, if he truly wants to start from scratch.
Rivers’s desire to leave doesn’t make him a bad guy. He was great with the media. We liked him, which in turn is a part of the reason fans liked him, which is part of the reason he’s getting a relative free pass for the events of the last two weeks. Rivers was easy to get along with. (I’ll especially miss his “you know, ‘Doc’ is just a nickname” stance on injuries.)
Being a nice guy and putting the franchise in a bad spot are not mutually exclusive. By agreeing to go along for a ride while Ainge held out for a draft pick, Rivers helped the process. But something happened between that night in Miami two years ago, the signing of a five-year contract a few weeks later, and this offseason that made Rivers want to leave.
The Celtics have spent the bulk of their offseason trying to facilitate his departure, and they now face the daunting task of overhauling the franchise without their coach of the last nine seasons. Whatever happens from here, this could not have been the plan all along.