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For the longest time, there's been a belief that Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers planned to stay on the job until the Big Three had grown too old, until this champion run completed. He would return to his Florida home, reboot a season with a TV job and thrust himself onto the market as the NBA's most desirable coaching candidate. Rivers could pick his contender, name his price.
And that could've come with the Miami Heat, with a team president, Pat Riley, whom sources say has Rivers at the top of his list should he ever choose to replace young coach Erik Spoelstra. In the final season of a contract that'll pay him $6.5 million this season, Rivers came to the preseason with something else on his mind: Why would he ever want to leave general manager Danny Ainge, who gives him so much trust and talent, and an ownership that's gone so deep into the luxury tax in this championship arms race?
Rivers doesn't want to discuss a contract extension, doesn't want to think much about tomorrow with so much on the line now. And yet, the prospect of staying a career Celtics coach has never resonated so strongly with him.
"Two years ago, I didn't have that thought," Rivers told Yahoo! Sports. "But clearly this summer, I had that thought a lot. It's because of the organization. Even after [the Big Three] leave, I still have that relationship and it's going to allow us to be good again. If I'm going to stay in it without taking a break, it would be tough for me to go anywhere else. We've talked about [an extension], but I just want to wait. But to be a career Celtics coach is something I think about. I've learned: You don't have what we have here somewhere else."
So much can happen over a long season, so much can change, but the Celtics mystique has seeped into Rivers. All the history, all the connection to yesteryear's greatness, has washed over and coated him now. When he took the job, he saw his boss, Ainge, as a Celtic. Now, he sees himself as one, too.
"I think we do have something special, and I think it would be in everybody's best interest to try to work something out and keep something long-term for Doc," Ainge said.
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The NBA is a league of GMs and coaches fighting for power, authority and credit. They fight to see who will stay, and who will go. Less and less does it seem they fight together. Rivers remembers well his dysfunctional final days in Orlando, hears the grumbles of his peers, and it keeps coming back to the fact that maybe he'll never have it better than he does now.
When everyone else wanted to fire Rivers before the trades for Ray Allen(notes) and Kevin Garnett(notes), including factions of Celtics ownership, Ainge never wavered. He told Rivers he had to get him better players, backed him in private and public.
"He protects my culture," Rivers said. "He knows there's certain things I can't have – that I won't have – and he'll protect that for me. I learned in Orlando: You've got to have a great relationship with your GM. It doesn't have to be adversarial."
Funny, but Rivers was so leery of Ainge when he accepted the job six years ago. He heard the stories of Ainge meddling with coaches, feared that he ultimately would want to coach the Celtics himself. He didn't want to be undermined. He didn't want confusion on his coaching staff, his roster.
"What I learned about Danny is that he's a contrarian, and he wants to debate all the time. But when I first got here, I didn't know what that was. I heard from guys that he will be out on the floor, working with your players in the middle of practice," Rivers said. "And I told him, as long as you know what I'm doing, and you're on the same page as me, fine.
"Now, he'll say to me, 'Hey, I'm going to have a talk with [Glen] Davis. Anything I need to know, or shouldn't say? What are your thoughts?' That allows me to not have to be in the meeting. I don't need to be around. But I think a lot of guys in the league can be threatened by that, and it gets back to the same thing: We trust each other."
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Eventually, the Celtics have to move past Paul Pierce(notes), Garnett and Allen, and start over. Yet, Rajon Rondo(notes) has emerged as the Celtics' best player, and Ainge has done a terrific job balancing the needs of win-now with still gathering some young talent. Rivers watches the way Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor and coach Jerry Sloan work together, watches the way the GM understands precisely the players to pick for the coach. Rivers insists, "I'm tied to Danny," and has come to believe that, together, they can regenerate the Celtics past this run and eventually cycle into contention again.
"They always make good draft picks, and will pass on a guy a lot of people might have taken to get a guy to fit their system," Rivers said. "That's happening here. One of the things when I signed … our goal was to make it easier for free agents to want to come here. We had that long stretch where free agents didn't want to come here. Now, we've changed that."
For now, Rivers is resolved to push past the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference, to get back to the NBA Finals again and perhaps hang one more banner in the Boston Garden. The Celtics are healthy and deep again, and this is the best, final chance he may ever have to win another title here. There are no assurances, but in the wake of that Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals, in the ache that lingered throughout the summer, a truth did come over Doc Rivers: Maybe, just maybe, he'll never have it better than to be the coach of the Boston Celtics.