Mercifully, it’s over. The Doc Rivers era ended Sunday afternoon in rather disturbing fashion, with the Celtics negotiating a trade of their coach to the Clippers for a 2015 first-round pick that is likely to be a reserve at best.
It shouldn’t have ended this way, and Rivers likely will be booed mercilessly when the Clippers come to TD Garden next season, his legacy stained by his refusal to participate in the team’s rebuilding plan, even though he signed a five-year contract knowing that the third year and beyond would be moving forward from the Big Three era.
The Celtics have squeezed all the life out of the Big Three era that they could. If they ran the same team out there next season with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo coming off ACL surgery, and a decent supporting cast, they probably would claim the fifth seed and get knocked out by the Heat in the second round.
And Garnett again would leave Game 6 and hug Rivers vigorously and then it would be the end. But the end happened when it was meant to. Rivers’s silence after this season’s playoff elimination by the New York Knicks was deafening, regardless of how much president of basketball operations Danny Ainge tried to pin him down about coming back next season.
The lure of going to Los Angeles, competing with a downtrodden Lakers franchise that is turning into a laughingstock and coaching Chris Paul in his prime, was too irresistible for Rivers. That’s rather sad, because if Rivers had been able to rebuild the Celtics into another title contender, he would have been revered here — not on the level of Red Auerbach, but on the level of K.C. Jones and Tom Heinsohn. But now his legacy is tainted.
Rivers attended pre-draft meetings, participated in evaluation, and gave the organization an early indication he would return, but mentally he was conflicted.
Paul wanted to play for Rivers. Los Angeles has more golfing opportunities. And the Clippers offered a quicker route back to glory than the Celtics. The possibility of lifting the Clippers over the Lakers encouraged the thrill-seeking Rivers to contemplate bolting Boston. Here, the prospects are meager. The team is aging, Rondo remains mercurial, and the younger players are not something to be excited about.
Workhorse forward Jared Sullinger is coming off back surgery and Fab Melo is so much an afterthought the Celtics were vigorously pursuing another center. Things probably are going to get bad before they return to pleasant, and apparently Rivers didn’t want to endure the process. As much as we applauded Rivers for weathering that mid-2000s storm before the Big Three was put together, it is disappointing that he didn’t want stick around for the second resurrection.
So now Ainge will have to find another coach, and there are plenty of capable candidates who will embrace the challenge of Boston but may not have the affable personality of Rivers. Former Celtic Brian Shaw is available and ready for his first head coaching job. It’s been more than 20 years since Shaw was helping out the original Celtics Big Three by averaging 13.8 points in his second season, but he may be the type of coach who is prepared and eager for a rebuilding plan.
The next most viable candidate is Nate McMillan, who has been out of the NBA the past year-plus but is ready for a return and would immediately command the respect of the roster. McMillan is also a defensive-minded coach who would add discipline to the team’s system.
The Celtics didn’t want a coaching search. They didn’t want to sift through the handful of candidates to find the next leader of their franchise, but they are forced to because as much as they wanted Rivers to remain their leader, his heart was no longer in it.
The prospect of coaching a club headed by Rondo and a bunch of other guys was hardly attractive. If Rivers, realizing this day was coming, perhaps had resigned at season’s end and explained his stance, the departure would have been more easily digested, but now his tenure concludes with a blemish.
While the Celtics will find a capable coach and move forward, they won’t find another Doc. They won’t find a coach that most of the league wants to play for, they won’t find a coach who gains friends and colleagues with his winning smile, and they won’t find a coach who could manage egos as well as he did.
But they will have to try, and perhaps Shaw or another coach can establish his own identity, carve his own niche, and lead this rebuilding with vigor and passion. Doc Rivers wasn’t capable of that task anymore.