WALTHAM — Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge officially announced the departure of his coach of nine years Tuesday, reflecting on the tenure of Doc Rivers and answering questions about the future of the franchise.
“I’d like to thank Doc for nine years of friendship and great coaching,” Ainge said in his opening statement. “He was a great teammate. And the Clippers are getting a really good coach.”
Flanked by team president Rich Gotham, Ainge took questions about the deal that sent the rights to Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a 2015 first-round draft pick. The teams had engaged in on-again, off-again negotiations for Rivers for more than a week. Ainge said that, despite reports, the deal was not a sure thing until it was finalized Tuesday.
“I had planned on Doc being our coach all along,” said Ainge. “We had discussions about him being Gregg Popovich or Jerry Sloan or Red Auerbach, getting the all-time wins record as a Celtic and being here for a long time.”
Ainge first spoke to Rivers about the coach’s future May 8, he said, because he was “curious as to which way he was leaning and why. He was uncertain still at that time but wondered what his options may be.”
According to Ainge, the team sent Rivers a letter May 9 saying they “expected him to be our coach and fulfill his contract . . . That’s what we hoped that he would do.”
When it became clear Rivers was interested in leaving, Ainge said they discussed Rivers trying to get the Clippers job. Other teams expressed interest in Rivers, but were denied permission to speak with him.
“If it wasn’t good for the Celtics — which is what my job is, to do what’s best for the Celtics — if it wasn’t good for him, we just wouldn’t do a deal and he would come back and coach,” said Ainge.
Asked if he truly expected Rivers to come back after negotiations with Los Angeles became public, Ainge said, “I would have welcomed him back.”
During a 30-minute news conference, Ainge spoke highly of Rivers while acknowledging his departure was not his or the team’s first choice.
“I do not believe Doc quit on this franchise,” said Ainge. “I think he believed that a change was needed. Maybe he just felt he needed a change.”
According to Ainge, Rivers knew what he was getting into when the team signed him to a five-year, $35 million contract extension in 2011. The Celtics then were faced with decisions on a 33-year-old Paul Pierce, a 35-year-old Kevin Garnett, and a 35-year-old Ray Allen.
“When we signed Doc to the highest-paid coaching contract in the NBA a couple years ago, we knew the ages of our players,” said Ainge. “We knew that a time for rebuild would be in store. We talked about that.
“I felt like I did do a very good sales job on Doc at that time. Maybe he did a sales job on me.”
Neither Ainge nor Gotham offered up reasons for Rivers leaving other than the coach deciding it was time for a change. Ainge denied that Rivers, who also has been given the title of “senior vice president of basketball operations” in Los Angeles, asked for more organizational power in Boston.
Reports of rifts between Rivers and point guard Rajon Rondo were also unrelated to the coach’s departure, according to Ainge.
“Sometimes you’ve got to let your good people go and pursue what they feel like they need to pursue to make themselves happy,” said Gotham.
On losing the public face of the franchise, Gotham said, “No disrespect to Doc, but I think the fans care a lot more about the team, if the team does well.”
Ainge said he has not yet reached out “to a single coaching candidate,” nor has he made decisions on the futures of Pierce and Garnett.
The NBA draft is Thursday, and the Celtics will field a Summer League team in Orlando starting July 7. Despite the team’s impending offseason obligations, Ainge said he won’t rush his search for Rivers’s replacement. Ainge said he himself is not a candidate.