BOSTON -- In what appears to be a standoff to prevent a drastic roster overhaul, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers seemingly has pushed all of his chips to the center of the table and challenged president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to call his bluff.
What happens next could leave the Celtics looking radically different moving forward.
For much of the past five weeks, Boston fans have been able to dismiss the idea of Rivers walking away as overhyped speculation. His indecision easily could be chalked up to a coach who has readily admitted to being "pretty much unlivable" during the season and annually needs an offseason detox to rekindle his desire.
But six words hits like a sledgehammer on Wednesday.
May be time for a change.
That's what a source told ESPN that Rivers believes as he remains publicly noncommittal about spending a 10th season on the Boston bench.
Are the Celtics and Rivers breaking up? If Ainge holds firm to a desire to reshape a team that he strongly suggested is not championship caliber (and seemingly has little flexibility to become so this offseason), then a divorce that would have far-ranging collateral damage could loom.
Without Rivers, there is no Kevin Garnett. Without Garnett, there is no Paul Pierce. Without a veteran core, there'd be reason to explore trading Rajon Rondo, particularly if management determined that he's not a building block for the future. In essence, the Celtics could be completely stripped in order to be rebuilt.
New coach, new core, new start.
Because Rivers hasn't publicly discussed his future or the reasons for his indecision, we've been left to speculate that his hesitation stems from some sort of philosophical difference about the future of the franchise. Rivers is unwaveringly loyal to his veterans, particularly Garnett, and the idea of dispatching Pierce, who has been with Rivers for his entire Boston tenure, and Garnett to facilitate a turnover process might leave Rivers ill at ease.
Rivers suggested two years ago that he was open to aiding a rebuilding process when he inked a five-year, $35 million contract after the 2011-12 season, but we're left to wonder if he's reconsidering because he doesn't believe that makeover necessarily has to begin this offseason.
The Celtics could easily put last season's roster back together -- or at least the bulk of it -- and hope that improved health would be enough to contend, all while setting the team up for more of an on-the-fly overhaul after the 2013-14 season, when Pierce's contract will come off the books and Garnett will enter a nonguaranteed final year with an increased potential for retirement.
There's a line of thought that suggests Rivers may be using this indecision as a bit of leverage to encourage Ainge to keep Boston's veteran core intact for another season rather than utilize next season as a transition year to start the rebuilding process.
But at this point, little good can come out of this situation, even if it all blows over. As the issue lingers, Rivers' assistants (whose contracts expire on June 30) are left dangling in the wind and the pool of potential replacement head coaches gets drier and drier with the league well into its game of musical chairs. On a team waiting for some sort of domino to fall, something has to give.
On some level, this has a bit of a Bill Parcells-Robert Kraft feel to it. While Ainge and Rivers typically have been on the same page in terms of roster construction, one wonders if there have been more than the usual differences of opinion lately. Maybe Rivers, already among the highest-paid coaches in sports, is daydreaming about having a bit more control over the shopping list before he cooks the dinner.
Last season, Kenyon Martin not-so-subtly suggested that Rivers and Boston's veteran players were on board with his potential addition. The Celtics, in need of big man help, instead signed the likes of Shavlik Randolph and DJ White out of the Chinese Basketball Association and neither had a postseason impact. Meanwhile, Martin aided the Knicks in dispatching Boston in the opening round.
Or this whole standoff could be much simpler. Owning a championship ring after helping get the Celtics up off the mat and emerging as a key personnel recruiter, Rivers has cemented himself among the league's coaching elite. If he does not desire to endure another rebuilding process, he doesn't have to. Rivers can walk away -- something he has obviously considered before -- and knows he'll have his pick of jobs when he's ready to rejoin the coaching fray.
To leave now, Rivers would have to backtrack on his word that he'd help Boston's rebuilding process. After promising to show the loyalty that the Celtics showed him during his lean years, Rivers would be looking out only for himself.
That's a bit hard to fathom, but things change. The Celtics could find that out soon.