In his first lengthy and candid interview on the circumstances since Allen spurned a two-year, $12 million offer to sign with the Celtics in July, Rivers told Yahoo! Sports that his decisions to relegate Allen to a sixth-man role and give point guard Rajon Rondo complete freedom with the ball and leadership were ultimately what helped lead Allen to leave Boston.
Allen, a future Hall of Fame guard, left the Celtics full of acrimony and disillusionment, ending a spectacular five-year run with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce as Boston's Big Three. Allen signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Heat.
"People can use all the Rondo stuff – and it was there, no doubt about that – but it was me more than Rondo," said Rivers, who is working as an NBC analyst during the Olympics. "I'm the guy who gave Rondo the ball. I'm the guy who decided that Rondo needed to be more of the leader of the team. That doesn't mean guys liked that – and Ray did not love that – because Rondo now had the ball all the time.
"Think about everything [Allen] said when he left, 'I want to be more of a part of the offense.' Everything was back at Rondo. And I look at that, and say, 'That's not Rondo's fault.' That's what I wanted Rondo to do, and that's what Rondo should've done. Because that's Rondo's ability. He's the best passer in the league. He has the best feel in the league. He's not a great shooter, so he needs the ball in his hands to be effective. And that bothered Ray.
"And not starting [games] bothered Ray. I did examine it, and the conclusion I came back to was this: By doing the right things, we may have lost Ray. If I hadn't done that, I would've been a hypocrite. In the opening speech I make every year, I tell the team: 'Every decision I make is going to be what's good for the team, and it may not be what's good for the individual.'"
Rivers said he had mediated issues between Allen and Rondo for most of the five years that they played together, but that it became a dramatically worse issue in the 2010-11 season. Beyond the issues on the floor, Allen and Rondo had developed a deep disdain for each other, multiple sources told Yahoo! Sports. Allen had problems with how he was compensated and the fact that his name was constantly included in trade talks, sources told Yahoo! Sports.
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Ultimately, Allen struggled with Rivers's decision to make him a sixth man after he returned from an ankle injury. Rivers said he determined in the preseason that Boston's best chance to be a great team would be to bring Allen's scoring off the bench, but he couldn't do that until young guard Avery Bradley was prepared to move into the starting lineup.
After the Celtics were eliminated from the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games, Rivers says Allen – who had always returned his text messages and calls immediately – became more sporadic and infrequent in his responses. "I thought, 'Uh-oh, we're in trouble,'" Rivers said. "And I just knew that Ray feeling like he had lost his voice in the locker room was a big obstacle, too."
Now, Rivers wonders this: Does Allen have a bigger or better role with the Heat?
"Ray's got to do what's best for Ray," Rivers said, "but having said that, he's not going to start in Miami. And I doubt he gets the ball more. But I do think, for a guy like Ray and Paul and Kevin and Kobe [Bryant], it's easier to go somewhere and do that than have it taken from you where you're at.
"As a coach, you've got to do what's best for the team. If guys don't like it, they're going to leave. If they stay and don't like it, well, your team's going to suck anyway. Even if this happens, you still have to do it. You can't coach worrying about any individual. You've got to coach worrying about your entire team: whether that gets you a championship or whether that gets you fired.
"I think it allows you to coach free. You're coaching with freedom because you know you're doing what you think is right. I always tell my guys: If I'm wrong, hopefully I'm smart enough, or my staff, or one of you guys – because I do listen to you – will tell me that I'm wrong. But not one player ever told me, 'Hey, I don't think you should start Avery.'"
Whatever issues the public had with Allen leaving for a rival, Rivers says those never entered into his frustration. "I was pissed at him," Rivers said. "I was pissed at him for his reasons for leaving. But what people don't get: I wasn't pissed at him for leaving for Miami. I could care less he went there. And that's a fact. With the fans, I know it was: How could he go to Miami? But once he decided he didn't want to stay with us, he has the right to go wherever he wants."
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Rivers has come to realize that Allen's leaving was inevitable and his return would've only exacerbated the issues and made for an untenable situation in Boston. Shooting guards Jason Terry and Courtney Lee were signed in free agency, and they'll replace Allen.
"For a week or two, I was really disappointed, pissed, because I thought it was for all the wrong reasons," Rivers said. "It was more about himself, his team. And then I realized: Well, it should be about himself. It was free agency. I wasn't thinking right.
"If Ray came back, it had to be because he was thinking, 'We're going to work this [stuff] out, and we're going to win.' And if he didn't come back, it was because he thought he couldn't work it out here. What they're asking him to do in Miami, he just couldn't do in Boston.
"But here's what wasn't going to change: The ball's not going to be in Ray's hands more, the ball's going to be in Rondo's hands. That's not going to change. Now that you've voiced you should have the ball more, or you want to start, or you want more freedom in the offense, that's not going to go away. It's going to be the same stuff. If he comes back, it's going to be because he's figured it out. If he leaves, it's going to be because he didn't get over it. Whatever he decided, his decision was right."
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