It’s not as jarring as seeing Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in a Brooklyn Nets uniform, and it won’t have the same emotional resonance as when a fan with a thick Boston accent yelled out “we love you Cooz!” at Bob Cousy’s retirement ceremony 50 years ago, but Doc Rivers’ return to Boston on Wednesday night will tug at the emotions a wee bit. Rivers understandably left the Celtics last spring so as to avoid the rebuilding project he once committed to, and his high-priced Los Angeles Clippers will have their hands full with a young Celtics team that hasn’t laid down for anyone in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season.
Rivers’ departure from Boston was complicated. Both the Celtics and Rivers offered similar stories about wanting to stay together even as C’s general manager Danny Ainge explored ways to prepare for the future in dealing Garnett and Pierce, but both also showed several signs that suggested that either side of the table knew it was best to have an amicable parting. Though Rivers drew much deserved criticism for going back on his promise to see the Celtics through whatever rebuilding phase awaited upon signing a five-year contract back in 2011, it’s completely understandable that Doc would shy away from the second rebuilding turn of his Boston career, and look to secure a second ring with a formidable Clippers squad.
Rivers admitted that he didn’t want to work with a rebuilding team in a conversation with Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski a few months back, and in talking with CBS Boston’s Felger and Massarotti on Tuesday night, Doc copped to walking out on his former Celtics team with three years left on his deal.
(Not that Danny Ainge was throwing himself in front of Rivers’ car as he drove way out west.)
After skipping town for the Clippers last year, some (or most) fans feel that Rivers walked out on the team.
“I did at the end of the day,” Rivers admitted. “You make choices in your life, it happens… It was a very difficult decision for me to make; whether to walk away and sit a couple of years, which was another way I was leaning, or if the right job presented itself to walk away and do that.
“I was afforded a great opportunity here with the Clippers. This is the first time I’ve been able to coach a team and run a team,” Rivers continued. “This may work, it may not work. It’s a far bigger gamble for me than anyone else. So I thought it was the right time to take it.”
It was. Both sides got what they wanted out of this series of transactions, and while we’re allowed to characterize Rivers’ departure with harsh phrases such as “walking out” or “quitting on the Celtics,” that doesn’t mean that two respected NBA professionals both did the right thing for their teams, and for their professional career arcs.
Doc is clearly still uneasy with the way things went down in June and July, reminding reporters on Wednesday that there is no enmity between him and the Boston front office:
"I did wish it could’ve ended better, I guess," Rivers said. "It wasn’t like Danny (Ainge) and I were arguing or anything. It was dragged out. I don’t know if there was any way you couldn’t drag it out.
Rivers is so confident in his choice, and by extension the intelligence and understanding of most Celtics fans, that he told the radio duo that he’d be “surprised” if boo-birds showed up when the former C’s coach took the floor on Wednesday night. In a crowd that goes 20,000-deep, all manner of novelty “fans” could show up; but because of that intelligence and understanding it’s not likely that Boston’s latest corporate Garden iteration will be awash in boos.
Of course, having an exciting and competitive home team in place helps, as well.
The Celtics lost to Pierce, Garnett and the Nets on Tuesday in what almost of a surprise of its own considering Boston’s relatively hot 10-13 start and Brooklyn’s early-season woes. The team is currently atop the Atlantic Division behind rookie coach Brad Stevens, who is acting as most expected in his initial season as an NBA coach – keeping his team informed, engaged, and on edge in a good way.
The former Celtics coach was effusive in his praise of the current one on Wednesday. From Baxter Holmes at the Boston Globe:
"I think Brad is doing a terrific job. They started off slow. They’ve been playing good basketball. I think what he’s done a great job of is letting people know that this is not a rebuild year. There may be rebuilding going on, but he has his team competing every night. I think they’re one of the teams that, they compete every night and they can beat everybody."
Rivers’ recent comments about Brooklyn’s use of his former Celtics players, though, likely has to have the ever-changing Nets coaching staff on edge. In many ways, Doc went against unspoken coaching college orthodoxy by nearly criticizing the work of a fellow coach – in this case rookie Nets coach Jason Kidd – while discussing the early season struggles of Mssrs. Garnett and Pierce. Via Pro Basketball Talk, here are Rivers’ comments from a discussion with Howard Beck at Bleacher Report:
Rivers predicted that Pierce will play “another three years,” despite his early struggles.
“He can score anywhere,” Rivers said. “I think he was more uncomfortable with the short minutes that they were (playing him), like they did with Kevin. And that’s not Paul. Paul doesn’t work under those type of minutes—at least, in my opinion he doesn’t. He’s a guy that needs a rhythm to play. In Kevin’s case, on a 20-minute restriction, of course his numbers are going to be down. So I think at some point, he probably is going to have to play more minutes to improve, so he can get a better rhythm himself.”
As Dan Feldman at PBT pointed out, Rivers could still be smarting from the curt dismissal of former Kidd deputy coach Lawrence Frank, who was recently reassigned for doing exactly what Kidd and the Nets hired him to do over the summer.
Frank spent the 2010-11 season in Boston on Rivers’ staff, and was often seen standing and barking orders to players as if he were a head coach. Doc didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, as was the case when former assistant Tom Thibodeau (who Frank more or less replaced) called out directions prior to taking on a head gig with the Chicago Bulls. That high-profile assistant’s gig with Boston influenced the Detroit Pistons to give Frank a second chance as a head coach following the 2010-11 campaign.
Rivers isn’t wrong in asserting that a player’s per-minute production tends to go up the longer they stay on the court, years worth of data point out that the more assured a player is of playing time his per-minute stats will rise accordingly, but it is rare and surprising to see an opposing coach commenting so directly on another coach’s team.
(Even if it’s barely Kidd’s team at this point.)
What isn’t surprising is that Rivers will be affected by this emotional return, as he talked about during the Clippers’ shootaround in advance of the contest on Wednesday night:
Doc Rivers at pre-game shootaround before his return to Boston. "It's gonna be a hard night." pic.twitter.com/F6awQieJji
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) December 11, 2013
… while offering up what most Celtics fans and many NBA fans believe to be a forgotten part of recent NBA lore, that the 2008-09 Boston Celtics would have repeated as champions had Kevin Garnett stayed healthy the entire season:
Doc Rivers reflecting: "I think if KG had been healthy, we could have won one or two more (titles)." — Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) December 11, 2013
Speculation isn’t all that the Celtics are left with. They’re left with the memories of that 2008 title, an inspiring 2009 run, and the near-miss with Kendrick Perkins sidelined during a seven-game 2010 NBA Finals loss. They’re left with the pride earned by battling the eventual champion Miami Heat within a game of their playoff lives in 2011, and they’re also left with eventual cap space, heaps of draft picks, and a real keeper of a coach in Brad Stevens.
Rivers, meanwhile, gets to coach a potential champion in Los Angeles, leading an organization he once worked for to great acclaim as a player.
This is why Celtics fans should cheer this man on Wednesday night. It seems like everyone got what they wanted, even if it was a little stressful in explaining how everything ended up this way.
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