Danny Ainge stunned by Doc leaving

WALTHAM, Mass. -- With talks that were declared dead no fewer than four times in an eight-day span, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Tuesday that he didn't think a deal that would send Doc Rivers to Los Angeles to coach the Clippers would ever get done.

"It still probably hasn't hit me," Ainge said, "because I didn't really think it was going to happen. I have not talked to one coaching candidate at this point. I think [Monday] for the first time really, I thought, 'This is going to happen. This is probably going to happen.' Up until that time, I never really thought it was going to happen."

With clear disappointment in his voice, Ainge gave a detailed timeline of Rivers' departure after nine seasons at the Celtics' helm, discussing the coach's indecisiveness about returning to Boston after its first-round playoff exit in early May. The end result of the very public negotiations with the Clippers saw a 2015 first-round pick go to Boston as compensation.

Rivers formally agreed to a new deal with the Clippers on Tuesday, and the league gave it final approval soon after. Rivers will be introduced as Clippers coach at a news conference at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Rivers offered only lukewarm responses to the media as to whether he would return to Boston after the Knicks ended the Celtics' season on May 3, saying that he was coach until he said he wasn't. True to his word, Rivers went 54 days without a public comment before breaking his silence Tuesday.

Ainge, who initially was adamant that Rivers would return to Boston, said Rivers asked about potential options on May 8 and the two met privately soon after. That's when the Clippers vacancy was discussed for the first time. Rivers expressed interest and the two agreed to examine the possibility so long as it netted Boston enough compensation to allow Rivers to depart.

Ainge dismissed other potential suitors, which included the Nets and Nuggets, but agreed to talk to the Clippers with the understanding that if no deal could be reached, Rivers would return to Boston.

But Boston and L.A. finally agreed to compensation on Sunday. Rivers finalized a three-year, $21 million contract -- the same terms that were remaining on the five-year, $35 million contract he signed with Boston two summers ago -- on Tuesday, ending the saga.

"Doc Rivers is going to be the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers," Ainge said near the start of the team's long-awaited news conference on Tuesday night at its training center. "I would first just like to thank Doc for nine years of friendship, great coaching; he was a great teammate and the Clippers have a really good coach. We don't have a championship without Doc Rivers in 2008. He did an unbelievable job making it to the Finals in 2010 -- a long history of great success with us over the last nine years and we wish him the best in Los Angeles."

But Ainge couldn't mask his disappointment while answering questions on the process. Asked for his initial reaction to Rivers' departure, Ainge referenced past conversations the two had about laying long-term roots here, a rarity in a league in which coaches and general managers play musical chairs annually.

"My feelings are, I planned on Doc being our coach all along," Ainge said. "We had discussions about him being Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, Red Auerbach -- breaking Red Auerbach's all-time win record as a Celtic and being here for a long time. So I never really had thought about this day. And even then, it was so early after the season that I didn't really think it was going to happen until [Monday].

"We were really never close to a deal with the Clippers, despite the reports. So I think that this is part of the business. You don't want to get too emotional. Doc's going to a great situation, a place that he chose to go and a place that he wants to be. It's not a place that I chose for him to go or a place that I wanted him to be. But I wish him well."

Rivers had been the second-longest tenured coach in the league behind Popovich. In signing a long-term extension during the summer of 2011, he even referenced Popovich and Sloan while explaining his decision to return to Boston. Rivers also said he was on board with the rebuilding process that the Celtics face, although Ainge admitted it likely gave Rivers pause while deciding whether to return this season.

"When we signed Doc to the highest-paid coaching contract in the NBA a couple years ago, we talked, we knew the ages of our players," Ainge said. "We knew that we would be here at a phase -- maybe it would have been last year, maybe this year, maybe next year -- but a time to rebuild and restore. We talked about that. At that time, before it hit him, he was all on board and I felt like I did a very good sales job on Doc at that time; maybe he did a sales job on me.

"We knew that this time would come, everybody knew that. I think that coaches are judged by wins and losses ... we're always [graded] on the results and Doc's been around the block, he sort of gets that. He's also been in the rebuilding process, and maybe it hit him. It was really hard those first few years in Boston, that was a real challenge."

Ainge, said the idea of a rebuild, while daunting for a team that's been a contender for much of the past six seasons, is an exciting phase for him.

"I've been geared up for it and I'm ready," Ainge said. "I'm anxious to go through the process. We don't know when that's going to happen, if that's going to happen this summer, or if that's going to happen next summer. We've been ready. We've been gearing up for that possibility."

Rivers stressed to Ainge that, beyond the rebuilding, he simply felt like a change was needed with the Celtics and it started with the coach. Rivers echoed that sentiment to ESPNBoston.com on Tuesday in his first public comments, noting, "It was just time."

Ainge said he has not begun the process of searching for a new head coach and, asked about finding the next version of Rivers, offered bluntly, "I've been around this game long enough to know that we're all replaceable."

Despite his disappointment, Ainge doesn't believe Rivers simply fled the Celtics because of the uncertainty that looms.

"I do not believe that Doc quit on the franchise," Ainge said. "I believe he believed that. He knows the pulse of players better than anyone. I think he believed that a change was needed. Maybe he just felt like he needed a change.

"But Doc gave everything he could for nine years. One of the great things that I've always appreciated about Doc Rivers was his stamina, and I've said that publicly. He gets up and down like every coach does after wins and losses, but [he was in his office] the next morning, watching film three times. … He's got amazing stamina and he's given us every ounce he has for the last nine years. I would never, ever say he quit."

But he did move on.