Late on the evening of May 3, after the Celtics’ season had just ended in a playoff loss to the Knicks, Doc Rivers told reporters that he’d take some time to decompress before making a decision about whether to return for his 10th season as the team’s head coach.
“I’m coming back until I say I’m not,” he reiterated to a small group of media in the bowels of TD Garden.
But more than a month later, the Celtics and their fans are still waiting for him to make up his mind, and league sources tell the Globe that Rivers, 51, has seriously considered walking away from his contract, which has three years and $21 million remaining on it.
As recently as a few weeks ago, the league sources indicated that it would be shocking if Rivers did not return; however, in the last week or so, those sources have said his return is not a sure bet.
One of the main issues, they said, is that Rivers is uneasy about the prospects of coaching a team in rebuilding mode.
“It’s a fact that Doc isn’t sure if he wants to go all-in on a team that doesn’t have much of a chance to win,” one league source said.
If Rivers were to decide that he’d rather coach elsewhere in the NBA next season, there would be hurdles to clear. Under the terms of the five-year extension he signed in 2011, he cannot coach any other NBA team during the contract’s duration unless the Celtics give permission.
Though the Celtics and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge are loyal to Rivers, it’s considered very doubtful that the team would allow him to coach elsewhere without significant compensation. Such compensation could include players, draft picks, cash, or a combination of all three. In exchange for one of the league’s most coveted coaches, the Celtics’ asking price no doubt would be steep.
It’s unclear whether Rivers could simply buy himself out of the deal to coach elsewhere next season. If that were the case, the buyout price also would surely be steep, and, again, the Celtics would almost certainly demand further compensation, such as players and/or draft picks, from the team he’d be leaving to coach.
Already this offseason, the Celtics have denied the Brooklyn Nets permission to speak to Rivers about a coaching opening.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the Clippers would consider Rivers the No. 1 option to fill their coaching vacancy if he no longer wants to coach the Celtics, though they have not been actively pursuing him.
A league source also told the Times that the Celtics might ask the Clippers for two first-round draft picks over a three- or four-year period in exchange for Rivers. But it’s reasonable to believe the Celtics would want multiple players as well as draft picks, too.
The idea that Rivers would walk away from the Celtics and $21 million might have seemed far-fetched weeks ago, but one league source said Rivers has “made a lot of smart investments” and isn’t exactly in need of the money.
If Rivers were to walk away from coaching, he could possibly make a smooth transition back to the broadcast booth, though the salary wouldn’t be near the $7 million-a-year deal he has with the Celtics, which is believed to be the richest coaching contract in the NBA.
Rivers already has been through a rebuilding period in Boston. The Celtics hired him in 2004, and in his first season, the team advanced to the first round of the playoffs, where it lost in a seven-game series to Indiana.
The Celtics did not advance to the playoffs for the next two seasons — and the 2006-07 team lost a franchise-record 18 games in a row.
But then Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to the Celtics in 2007, joining Paul Pierce as the new Big Three. And that team won the franchise’s 17th NBA title in 2008.
However, there are serious questions about whether Pierce and Garnett will be with the Celtics next season.
Whether he is traded or bought out for $5 million by June 30, the 35-year-old Pierce is a strong candidate not to be with the Celtics next season, the league sources said.
And if Pierce is out, the same could be true for the 37-year-old Garnett, who indicated at the end of the series against the Knicks that his decision to return would be based, in part, on whether the team retains his good friend, Pierce.
That Rivers would be coaching a rebuilding team at this point — if not earlier — isn’t something that came out of the blue. In fact, when he signed his extension in 2011, he said he would be committed to the idea of a rebuild.
“Well, I don’t think anyone’s looking forward to that, but I’m willing to do that,” he said then. “I had a group that has been very loyal to me. I think it would have been very easy for me to just run and go somewhere else and chase something else.
“I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do. Coaches talk about loyalty and team, and I just thought it was time to show it.”
If Rivers were interested in more control of a franchise, he had that option when the Orlando Magic offered him the position as team president last season, a league source said.
However, by all accounts, Rivers does not seem ready to hang it up as a coach.
Earlier this week, in a text-message exchange with the Globe, Rivers gave no indication that he would return to the Celtics, even though Ainge told the Globe last month that Rivers planned to return.
When asked if he is still in the decision-making process, Rivers told the Globe “I’d rather not say.”
Rivers has been present for predraft workouts at the team’s practice facility in Waltham and has discussed the future of the season on several occasions with Ainge.
With the June 27 draft looming and the decision on the contract of Pierce necessary by June 30, Rivers is expected to make his decision soon.Baxter Holmes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story mistakenly said that the Celtics won their 18th championship in 2008. It was their 17th.