Commentary

Could Game 5 be Doc's swan song?

It's not hard to envision coach walking into sunset when Celtics' season ends

Updated: May 10, 2011, 8:56 PM ET
By Peter May | ESPNBoston.com

Yes, we have all been there before. Last year, to be exact. Doc Rivers' future with the Boston Celtics was very much in the air in the spring of 2010, even as the team made its wholly unexpected run to the NBA Finals.

Following the disappointing conclusion to the series against the Los Angeles Lakers, and after hours of reflection and family meetings in Florida, Rivers decided to return to coach the 2010-11 Celtics. That team is now one game away from elimination at the hands of the Miami Heat and, once again, Rivers' future with the Celtics is very much on the front burner.

But there are two big differences in 2011, differences that make it very easy to envision Rivers leaving the Celtics:

• First, he does not have a contract going forward; he had one year left on his deal at this time last year. The Celtics have offered him an extension and he has chosen not to accept it, thinking it would be unfair if his heart and head were not totally committed to the process. So he will be a free agent at the end of the season and we are already hearing his name mentioned to real (Lakers) and imagined (Miami) vacancies.

• Just as critical is the looming -- some might say inevitable -- lockout, which could threaten some, much or even all of the 2011-12 season. That will arrive on July 1. Once that hits, there will be no summer league or free agency, and golf courses will be flooded with NBA coaches.

The confluence of those two seemingly unrelated events might make it an easy decision for Rivers: Take some much-needed time off, recharge the batteries, and see what happens when the lockout ends. That's what Phil Jackson did at the end of the 1997-98 season, with a lockout on the horizon and the Chicago Bulls having registered a second three-peat. He took a year off and came back to coach the Lakers.

Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations, and Rivers have had talks throughout the season, but Ainge said he doesn't know which way Rivers is leaning. He's not sure if Rivers even knows. But Ainge did say recently that he does not expect Rivers to leave the Celtics and accept another job for the upcoming season, assuming there is one.

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers & Rajon Rondo
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAs the years go on, the Celtics figure to become more and more Rajon Rondo's team. The question is, will Doc Rivers be around for that transition?

"My guess is that he'll either coach here next season or take some time off,'' Ainge said.

But who knows if there will be a next season? Rivers turns 50 in October and he has had a wonderful run in Boston after a less than propitious start. He had to deal with the likes of Gary Payton, Ricky Davis, Antoine Walker and a still resistant Paul Pierce in that first season. He then oversaw the development of such youngsters as Rajon Rondo, Al Jefferson, Delonte West and even Gerald Green, getting them to the point that they were deemed to be valuable pieces in trades or potential trades for established stars. Those guys didn't just improve on their own.

But as he surveys the years ahead with a new and different Celtics team, the view might not be so promising. He has developed a strong attachment to this current group -- and that included Kendrick Perkins. It took him a while to get his head around that trade. This group has maybe another year together. Both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have contracts that expire after the 2011-12 season.

So does Rivers really want to spend his time coaching another 40-45 win team -- or worse -- as the Celtics go into rebuilding mode? Once you get accustomed to taking teams deep into the playoffs -- and Rivers had never done that until the 2007-08 Celtics -- it makes it harder to go back and coach a team that's just trying to make the playoffs.

That hypothetical team, at least as it stands now, would likely be "led" by Pierce for a season, possibly, and then turned over to Rondo. That also might factor into Rivers' decision. As good as Rondo is, there is an undeniable headstrong quality to the kid.

He was almost uncoachable as a rookie. He then paid attention when Garnett and Allen arrived and saw how things should be done, turning himself into the valuable player he now is. But, don't forget, there were reports -- which the Celtics have denied but that others swear are true -- that the team was talking about dealing Rondo two years ago. When Garnett, Allen and Pierce are gone, what happens when Rondo becomes the top dog? Rivers knows the kid as well as anyone.

There's the tug of family as well. The Rivers clan never did move to the Boston area after he took the job in April 2004. His wife and children stayed behind in Florida, and he saw them when he could. All four of his kids were home back then. Now two are graduating from college this spring and a third, Austin, is going to play basketball at Duke next season, possibly for only a single season.

A fourth child, Spencer, is in high school, and Rivers said that that might weigh into his decision to take some time off. He missed many high school games of his first three children.

Whatever he chooses to do, he has had a remarkable run. He won one NBA title and came excruciatingly close to another. Two of his teams didn't make the playoffs and a third was bounced in a humiliating Game 7 loss at home (97-70 to Indiana in 2005).

He presided over the team that lost the most consecutive games in franchise history (18 by the 2006-07 team) and the team that won the most consecutive games in team history (19 by the 2008-09 team). He presided over the second biggest home playoff win in franchise history (131-92 in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals) and the single worst playoff loss in franchise history (124-95 to the Cavaliers in the 2010 conference semifinals).

Now, it would seem, his time is coming to an end. Whether that happens Wednesday night in Miami or further down the road, Rivers doesn't have to apologize to anyone for what he has done in Boston. He's earned the right to say goodbye on his own terms.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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