OK, I have to say it: "What's up, Doc?"
The 2010-11 Boston Celtics might look a bit different from the team that just finished a seven-game series with the Los Angeles Lakers. We already know that assistant coach Tom Thibodeau won't be back. Will the man who brought Thibodeau to Boston, Doc Rivers, also be gone?
Rivers has said he will make up his mind this summer (which technically starts on Monday). He has a year left on his contract. At least two of the Big Three -- Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- are pretty much locks to be back next season, and Rivers did say during the Finals that he hoped to see Ray Allen in Celtic green and white next season, as well. All three have said they want Rivers to be back.
But while Rivers ruminates about what might be next season, he has done nothing to squelch the rumors that he plans to take at least a year off to reconnect with his family, from whom he has lived apart for at least seven months each year dating back to 2004.
Rivers already is the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference (in years with the same team) and trails only Jerry Sloan in Utah and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio among all NBA head coaches. He earns more than $5 million per year, so he theoretically would be losing that sum should he leave a year early. He has talked about wanting to see his kids play high school and college sports, something he rarely could do while he lived in Boston and the family remained in Florida.
I have no idea what Rivers is going to do. Celtics GM Danny Ainge says he thinks Rivers is going to return. I do think Rivers owes the Celtics that last year. The team stuck its neck out for him in 2007 and gave him a four-year extension when he had won 102 games in his first three years -- and had made it to the playoffs only once, losing an embarrassing Game 7 at home to the Indiana Pacers.
What could happen? Well, he returns and tries to wrangle one more playoff run out of this group. Or he doesn't return. In that case, what does he do and, more important, who takes his place?
Option 1: Why he should return
Rivers talks a lot about loyalty, both to his team and to his family. As mentioned earlier, the Celtics organization has to be part of that loyalty pact, as well. Trust me, in the summer of 2007, before the arrivals of Garnett and Allen, the Celtics could have quietly allowed Rivers to walk and it would not have caused a major williwaw.
And now? He's almost Jacksonian in his aura and appeal. But frankly, it's hard to envision anyone else coaching this particular group of Celtics. I felt the same way when Dave Gavitt took over the Celtics in 1990 and reached out to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. The obvious candidate was Chris Ford, a longtime assistant, who knew the players, had played with some of the players and knew the dynamic of the first Big Three better than anyone else available. (Chuck Daly famously said at the time that his trainer knew more about the NBA than a college coach.) Ford eventually got the job.
Here's what Garnett had to say about Rivers during the NBA Finals.
"Doc lets us deal with each other how we deal with each other. He doesn't try to control us. He lets you be who you are, but at the end of the day, he's in control of everybody. If you have an ego or if you think you're better than what you are, or you're not doing well, he does a great job of micromanaging this team," Garnett said. "I don't think you can bring any coach in here and coach this team. Especially when we get riled up and we're a certain kind of way, he does a good job of just consolidating us. I feel like at times when we're too up, he'll give us a second to come down, and when we're too down, he'll definitely jump on your stuff and tell you when to pick it up. I love him."
Larry Bird always felt three years was the shelf life for an NBA coach, which is why he stepped away after three years with Indiana. This was Rivers' third season with this current group (or, as it is known in the Rivers house, Boston 2.0). The first three years? Gary Payton, Ricky Davis, Antoine Walker, an immature Pierce and a team that was borderline irrelevant in Boston.
Rivers also could make it clear that 2010-11 will be, in fact, his last go-round. Normally, coaches don't like to be in the last year of a deal, feeling they can get undermined. But this team is different and wouldn't do that to Rivers. It didn't seem to hurt Phil Jackson that he, too, was in his last year, did it? Then, with a lockout looming for 2010-11, Rivers can walk away and, should he decide to coach again, he'd be a free agent and, presumably, in demand. And the Big Three would be a pleasant memory.
Option 2: He does not return
He feels that he has done all he can in Boston and that there is no point in continuing. He spends the year watching a lot of high school basketball games in Florida, not exactly a punitive way to spend a winter. Then what happens with the Celtics?
I'm with Garnett on this one. I don't know who is out there who understands the inner workings of this particular group and could come in and get the results Rivers got, especially with all the attendant pressure. You hear Kevin McHale's name mentioned, and McHale himself didn't rule out coaching in Boston when asked about it in a conference call before the NBA Finals. He and Ainge are close, which helps. But does McHale really, really want to coach? And would Garnett want this to happen? He threw a couple of barbs at McHale in his first year in Boston. And it was McHale who fired Flip Saunders, whom Garnett still loves. (Alas, Flip is spoken for, coaching the Washington Wizards. Two Ainge faves, Scott Skiles and Paul Westphal, also are unavailable.)
Who else is out there? You'd have to have a veteran coach, not some assistant who has never coached before. That's why I never thought the Celtics were seriously considering Thibodeau. You need a strong voice and an equally strong personality to deal with this group. (Big Baby? Rondo? KG?) And you'd also have to bring in someone with the knowledge that, very soon, there is going to be another, potentially painful, rebuilding program. Would Mike Brown fit that criterion?
One move that surely would lead to Rivers leaving: Ainge leaving, as well. Ainge has given no such indication, and he also is under contract. But Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen raised an interesting possibility: Ainge replacing Steve Kerr with the Phoenix Suns. Although Ainge has ties with the Suns organization, where he played and coached, he was there under the old ownership of Jerry Colangelo. The new guy, Robert Sarver, is a little, shall we say, different. But if that were to happen, Rivers would be on the next plane to Orlando.
Television always beckons with the telegenic and articulate Rivers. But one avenue might have already been closed, with Kerr leaving the Suns, supposedly to replace Doug Collins on TNT. The ABC national crew is intact, unless Mark Jackson or Jeff Van Gundy decides to leave. Rivers is as good as or better than any of them, though, and has the added cred of winning a title and nearly winning another.
As long as the Celtics feel they can be in the championship discussion, it seems to me that Rivers has to be a part of it. And ownership and Ainge have given no hints that it's anything less than full speed ahead for 2010-11.
It will all play out eventually, of course, and life will indeed go on for everyone. One thing we don't know is whether anyone else can do for this group what Rivers has done. Another thing we don't know: Will we ever find out?
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.