Doc at a crossroads
He helped rebuild a winner in Boston, but now is it time for C's coach to move on?
It wasn't all that long ago -- three years to be precise -- that a lot of Celtics home games had three near-guarantees: the sight of some kid sporting a Greg Oden replica jersey, a loss to a better team, and chants of "Fire, Doc!"
You may have forgotten those troubled times, but Doc Rivers most assuredly has not.
"It was brutal," the Celtics coach said of the very difficult 2006-07 season, in which the Celtics won only 24 games, the second worst mark in team history in an 82-game season. "It's something I would never want to go through again, believe me. But at the same time, I knew Danny [Ainge, the Celtics' general manager] believed in me.
"And there's a lesson to be learned in all of this for all general managers," Rivers went on. "If you think your guy can coach, and there's no talent on the floor, then go out and get the talent and make sure your guy can coach instead of overreacting to the situation."
We all know what happened. Ainge went out and got the talent. Rivers coached that talent to 66 regular-season victories and an NBA championship in 2007-08 and to 62 regular-season victories in 2008-09.
Much of that same talent is still around, albeit older and slower. Nonetheless, big things were predicted for and expected from the 2009-10 Celtics, so a 50-victory, playoff-bound season, especially after a 23-5 start, along with a stunning 17 losses at home, looks underwhelming by comparison. Alas, the playoffs ascend with a chance to make everyone forget those grisly home losses to the Nets, Sixers and Wizards.
This was Rivers' sixth season in Boston. He has coached longer in Boston than Chris Ford, KC Jones and Bill Fitch. No Eastern Conference coach has been with his team longer and only the immovable Jerry Sloan in Utah and the similarly secure Gregg Popovich in San Antonio have been with their teams longer than Rivers has been with the Celtics.
"I don't think that says as much about me as it does about the business we're all in," Rivers said. He's probably half-right.
This also has been Rivers' sixth season in Boston without his family. Initially, he planned to relocate them after a year, but with his kids and wife enjoying the good life in central Florida, the move never came. He has missed a lot over the years, but he has done so with his eyes wide open. He knew the drill.
He's also not the only one who has ever done this. During his many years coaching the Celtics, Red Auerbach famously resided at a Boston hotel while his family remained in Washington, D.C. Larry Brown's family settled in the Philadelphia area when he coached the Sixers. They're still there, even as Brown has moved on to jobs with the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Charlotte Bobcats. Both Minnesota GM David Kahn and coach Kurt Rambis left their families on the West Coast while enduring (a charitable description) their first season together with the Timberwolves.
Only Rivers knows if the gravitational pull from home is so much stronger now that he is seriously considering leaving the Celtics after this season, forfeiting the final year of his contact. There certainly hasn't been any suggestion from higher-ups that this should happen. Unlike most coaching-change rumors, this one is not being driven by wins and losses, ownership upheavals or front-office intrigue.
It's probably safe to say that 2009-10 fell somewhere between 2006-07 and 2007-08 on Rivers' personal satisfaction scale. Where it ends up will, of course, be determined by what happens in the playoffs. A first-round exit would have to rank this season right up there with the inglorious dispatch at the hands of the undermanned Indiana Pacers in the first round in 2005, climaxed by that dreadful 27-point home loss in Game 7.
Think about that team, Rivers' first in Boston, for a second. He had Gary Payton, Ricky Davis, Antoine Walker and an immature Paul Pierce among others. (Remember Pierce's bizarro fake jaw wrap after Game 6 in Indiana?) How on earth could anyone have coached a team with so many, er, strong personalities?
"We actually made the playoffs that year," Rivers said without referencing the disappointing result. "But as tough as that year was, and it was tough, I knew there had to be some good to come out of it. I didn't know then what it was, but I do now. That year helped me a lot because it taught me patience. And it helped me learn to deal with some very interesting personalities. When all is said and done, I think it helped me."
He then added, "But I don't want to go through that again."
The patience served him well this season. While the company line is that the team is healthy, anyone who has watched Kevin Garnett over the past few months knows otherwise. Rivers has watched his team devolve into a bunch of rebound-phobes and turnover-ophiles. The defense, which Rivers stresses, has been there when the spirit moves them. The second edition of the Big Three may be in its final season.
There are many unknowns about next season, so you can add Rivers' status to the list. But consider this: In his first three seasons with the Celtics, Rivers compiled a record of 102-144. Before the start of his fourth season, the Celtics expressed unwavering and unflagging support for him and gave him a contract extension. Thanks to the infusion of talent, the Celtics have gone 178-68 in the past three years and added Banner No. 17.
Rivers said before signing his extension in 2008 that he did not want to go into a season as a lame-duck coach, which is exactly what would happen if he returned for 2010-11 without an extension. My guess is that the only way Rivers does not return voluntarily is if the Celtics somehow find a way to win another championship. No one would begrudge him for taking Cloud Nine Air Lines back to Florida. What else could he do here?
Short of that, there would be around five million reasons, and lots of unfinished business, to make him think long and hard about not coming back.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.