The last thing the Celtics needed heading into the playoffs was another distraction about their future, but that’s exactly what they got when a story about Doc Rivers landed in the Boston Herald Wednesday morning. The story noted that the team had approached the coach with the idea of a contract extension and Rivers declined to have the discussion until the summer.
Rivers is signed to coach the team through the 2011 season, but both sides seem to think that having a coach work in the final year of his contract is not exactly an optimal situation, and they’re probably right. According to the Herald story, sources indicated that Rivers is leaning toward leaving after this season.
So, the assembled ladies and gentlemen of the press dutifully gathered outside the Celtics locker room before the final game of a regular season Wednesday night — a game that ceased to have meaning several weeks ago.
Rivers downplayed the story, saying it’s not a big deal.
“I would say that it’s what I’ve said for the last three years: This is old news,” Rivers said before his team played Milwaukee. “It really is. I don’t think about it, to be honest. Every summer I do the same thing. I go home and get away from it for a while and make a decision.”
He has a strong relationship with Danny Ainge and Ainge has stuck with him through thick and thin, so there’s no reason the two can’t work out an agreement if they both want to continue.
Still, Rivers would have reasons to walk away. His kids are in — or are entering — college, and he’s made several trips to watch them play during the season. Rivers has also been here for six seasons, and that’s longer than anyone has coached the Celtics who is not named Red or Tommy.
It’s a hard job, and you won’t find one NBA coach who doesn’t entertain the possibility of stepping away at some point during the season. Larry Brown probably thinks about it in his sleep.
“If you thought about it after every game you would go a different way each game,” Rivers said. “When you win you say, ‘Man, I could do this forever.’ When you lose, ‘Man, I think I’m leaving.’ That’s just human nature. As a family we haven’t talked about it all.”
It has been an odd season for Rivers. His team has underachieved, although perhaps not as much as some would suspect. The over/under on wins and losses for this team was set at around 57 and some analysts, including the universally respected Kevin Pelton at Basketball Prospectus, set it even lower.
That’s a far cry from the 72 wins nonsense that Rasheed Wallace was selling in September, but anyone who didn’t think that this team was going to have a run of injuries at some point was living in fantasyland. The injuries did hit, and they helped take a team that was 23-5 down several notches with them.
The expectation for this team was that it would be able to contend for a championship. Maybe not win it, but that it would be one of the handful of teams with a legitimate chance at grabbing the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Rivers installed an empty banner in the team’s practice facility as a daily reminder that a title was the end goal, indeed the only goal. After an early-season game, Rivers said that the biggest obstacle his team faced was complacency, or in his phrase, “getting bored with the process.”
The message never seemed to get through. The Celtics lost games at home. They lost games to teams they had no business losing against. They surrendered second-half leads and they repeatedly failed to beat anyone who could be objectively be called a contender.
“This year has worn on everyone,” Rivers acknowledged. “This has been a difficult year, but as a coach you’re going to have some of those. It’s been a challenging year, there’s no doubt about that. But that won’t play into it. It really won’t. I love the guys I’m coaching, it’s just been a challenging year. You start the way you start out and then you become an inconsistent team and every night you’re trying to find a button to push, it’s exhausting.”
In the next breath Rivers also offered that, “It’s exhilarating in some sadistic way.”
For the first time in the Big 3 era there was quiet dissension on some of the team’s talking points. Not outright mutiny, not even close, but a public airing of a difference of opinion.
The first instance came when Rajon Rondo volunteered that the Celtics needed a direct change in attitude. That they needed to get back to playing like they had in the championship season and they had best start doing it now. The word that came up was “agendas.”
That night, after a question was directed at Rondo to address his comments, Kevin Garnett jumped in and offered a quasi-statement on unofficial team policy, essentially saying that these things are best kept in-house.
Rondo grinned and said, “Word,” before leaving the press conference. He had said what he needed to say and he didn’t feel the need to defend it, or retract it.
Later in the season, Kendrick Perkins talked openly about being bored with the regular season, which while impolitic, was right on the money. Perkins is probably the most honest guy on the team, sometimes to a fault. Paul Pierce took the opportunity during a rare pre-game chat with reporters to offer his own rebuke saying, “shame on anyone for thinking that way.”
As young buck vs. old head disagreements go, this was all mildly tame by the standards of the NBA. But for the Celtics airtight locker room it was something of a revelation.
Then in late February, questions first began to swirl about whether Rivers had lost the team. This was in reaction to a dreadful loss to the Nets, the first of several that would haunt the Celtics in the final six weeks of the season.
It’s telling that not one player volunteered either on or off the record that this was the case, and it goes without saying that in a majority of professional locker rooms when questions like this arise, players are quick to disassociate themselves from the boss man.
Rivers was asked again if he had trouble getting through to his team.
“We’re still inconsistent whether I’m getting to them or not,” he said. “You know the key guys are great listeners. They’re great followers and that allows you to coach.”
The players backed him up then and now and as the calendar turned to March, Rivers seemed almost buoyant about their chances, as they were finally getting healthy. “I like my team,” he had said over and over again, but it felt stronger then, more assured.
The Celtics were looking at a string of home games against some of the league’s lesser teams and there was a chance to build some momentum heading into the playoffs. Only it didn’t happen. The Celtics had their moments, as in a win over Denver, but there were far too many nights like the 21-point loss to San Antonio and the heartbreakers against Houston and Oklahoma City when they failed to execute properly.
Even what should have been the most galvanizing moment of the season — an Easter Sunday beatdown of the Cavaliers — turned into an unnecessary drama after the Celtics failed to hold a huge lead second-half lead.
Rivers said later that the game became a must-win after his team had blown yet another big lead, which certainly rang true. Lost in that, however, was the notion that his team should beat Cleveland at home if they were serious about contending for a championship, especially when the Cavaliers were without Shaquille O’Neal and chief Celtic antagonist Anderson Varejao. The expectations were that low.
The season had ceased to have any meaning, and that was proven correct when five days later they slept-walked through a loss to the woebegone Wizards that would ultimately cost them a chance at the third seed in the East, something they professed to not care about anyway.
When he was asked for the umpteenth time about focus after the Wizards game, Rivers responded by saying that if his team did well in the playoffs, no one would remember any of this. Even he had given up on the regular season and he was, like his players, doubling down on a playoff run.
That’s true, of course, but you won’t find too many people who would make that bet.
In the midst of all this is a veteran team that still has a few years left on its run, at least in theory. Garnett is signed through the 2012 season. Pierce has a player option for next season, but it seems unlikely the organization would cut the cord with him after everything they have been through together.
Wallace, who figures to be blamed for everything in Boston up to and including Terry Francona’s bullpen usage, is also signed through 2012.
Perkins and Glen Davis are here through at least next season and Rondo is obviously the team’s future.
Ray Allen, of course, is not, but the team’s options may be limited by the constraints of the salary cap. Considering how well he’s played in the second half of the season, and considering how he’s kept himself in shape, would it be the worst thing in the world to bring him back on a lower-salary deal while the inevitable transition takes place?
Ainge has maintained that this team is still capable of playing for a title and he resisted the urge to blow it up at the deadline. He has also been far more critical of his team’s performance than Rivers has, and the whole thing is starting to take on a Last Days of Pompeii air about it.
“Maybe we won’t [make changes],” Rivers said. “We haven’t gone down that road. That hasn’t even been discussed as an organization yet. There’s a lot of assumptions being made that aren’t there yet.”
Rivers was asked if the playoffs were the push that the team needed to break them out of their funk. “We’ll definitely find that out,” he said. “I’ll put it this way: [The regular season] can no longer be the excuse. My players can no longer say after tonight that we’re getting ready for the playoffs. That will be removed and we’ll find out who we really are.”
But who are they?
“I hope I know,” he said. “I think I know, but I don’t know. I don’t think anyone really knows.”
That was about as honest an assessment as he could have been expected to give as was this: “I love coaching and that’s why I’m still here. Absolutely, it’s what I want to be and what I want to keep doing. That’s what I am. I’m a coach.”
Everything else is open for interpretation.