SAN ANTONIO — The indecisiveness of coach Doc Rivers has forced the Celtics to pursue other options for their short-term and long-term future.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge realized he would not field the same club in 2013-14 as the club that lost to the Knicks in the first round. Paul Pierce is no longer a No. 1 option and the Celtics need a legitimate shooting guard and center.
Ainge knew this going into the offseason, but thought he would have Rivers by his side to help build next season’s team.
Rivers loves Boston. He feels like part of the community. He enjoys living here. But he is not sure he wants to go back to the bad old days of rebuilding with Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, and Gerald Green as the centerpieces.
Rivers also was frustrated by the players’ lack of execution and wonders if his voice is still resonating with his players.
So Rivers is grappling with two potential scenarios: Coaching a team that could be a legitimate contender in the Clippers, which could be a refreshing start, or once again bringing one of the most storied franchises in NBA history back to prosperity.
The Celtics desperately want Rivers to remain in Boston. Ainge doesn’t want to drastically change the culture of the franchise with a new coach.
He has developed a nearly flawless working relationship with Rivers. Ainge handles the transactions and the two collaborate on major moves. There is a healthy respect and there has been so much recent change — Ray Allen signing with the Heat and the loss of assistant general manager Ryan McDonough — that Ainge wants to keep the rest of the family intact.
And this may be the primary reason Ainge asked the Clippers for so much in return for Rivers and Kevin Garnett. With Rivers committed to the Celtics for three more seasons and his attachment to the franchise, it may not be a difficult sell to get him to stay. He would just have to withstand leading a mediocre team until 2015, when the club has only the contracts of Courtney Lee and Jeff Green on the books and could be major free agent players.
So Ainge entered the talks with the Clippers in a favorable position. Rivers is not demanding to leave Boston, he has just been thinking about the possibility because last season took a toll. But the most important thing Ainge and Rivers have in common is neither want to completely rebuild.
An NBA executive told me it will be difficult for teams such as the Lakers and Celtics to completely rebuild without hitting rock bottom. The Celtics will have to be nearly flawless with their free agent signings — including beefing up their scouting in an effort to attract players from overseas — and they will have to draft well.
The Celtics can’t count on the lottery. They were burned by that game plan in 1997 and 2008 and while the 2014 draft could be fruitful, the Celtics are unlikely to acquire a lottery pick in a trade.
So if Rivers does return, and indications are strong he will, he and Ainge will have to formulate a plan to ensure the Celtics remain competitive so they attract players in the future. Rivers is a major drawing card for the Celtics, but the team hasn’t had enough salary cap space to delve into signing a superstar for the past decade.
That will change in two years, when the complete rebuilding will begin and the Celtics can establish a new identity. Rivers’s fondness for the Celtics is obvious. He’s been attending pre-draft workouts, talking with Ainge several times a week, and preparing for the next season, not exactly the actions of a coach who has checked out.
Rivers has the right to take his time to determine his future, but what has surprised fans was he has yet to publicly acknowledge he is staying in Boston. We have yet to hear those words, but his actions show he is committed. There is much work to be done for Ainge and Rivers, but as long as the coach is mentally engaged, the franchise should be sound in the long run.