PHILADELPHIA — When the time finally came to break up the Boston Celtics, when reality set in and the gears began to turn, Doc Rivers conceived a cheery sequel, a Celtics epilogue bathed in California sun.
Rivers would head West, to coach the Los Angeles Clippers. Kevin Garnett would join him, in a trade that skated on the edge of NBA legality. Paul Pierce would eventually follow them, after gaining his freedom through a contract buyout.
There were never any certainties last June as the Celtics, Clippers and various interested parties began discussing the machinations of a complicated transaction—or rather, a series of them—but there was a unified vision, an ideal.
Rivers would get a roster steeped in young talent, with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the hope of another title run. Garnett and Pierce would come along to aid the transition, to reinforce the coach’s message, to govern the locker room and establish the proper culture.
"He wanted them, absolutely," said a person who knows Rivers well.
The vision was shattered when commissioner David Stern made it clear—publicly, and to the teams—that any attempt to package Garnett and Rivers would be disallowed as a violation of salary-cap rules.
So Rivers set out for L.A. on his own. The rebuilding Celtics sent Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn. Dispersed across the continent, the pillars of the Celtics' last championship are finding life tougher apart, and surely pining for what was lost.
The Nets are lifeless, a 6-14 bust with a bloated payroll, an overwhelmed rookie coach and dispirited stars. Pierce and Garnett look worn, weary.
The Clippers are a comfortable 14-8, despite injuries to Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick, but they have hardly showed the sort of toughness or resiliency associated with a Doc Rivers team.
After a dispiriting loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday—the Clippers’ third defeat in four games—Rivers ripped his players for "pouting" and a lack of maturity, themes he has articulated repeatedly since training camp.
These are the days, one surmises, when a fiery Garnett and a steely Pierce might have shown their worth, injecting some professionalism in a callow locker room.
"It'd have been easier," Rivers said, adding, "When you have guys that have been with you on other teams and you bring them with you to the new team, yeah, that helps."
The truth is, they all could have had the L.A. reunion they envisioned, if only the teams had exercised a little more prudence last spring.
The league was never going to allow a Rivers-Garnett package deal, because players cannot be traded as compensation for allowing a coach to break his contract. But the deal might have passed muster, according to several sources, as two distinct transactions—with Rivers being let out of his Celtics contract as step one, and Garnett moving in an unrelated trade at some later date.
The problem was that the deals were negotiated simultaneously, and constant leaks to the media made it clear they were intertwined, undermining any attempt to make the transactions appear separate and legal.
At that point, NBA officials had no choice but to step in and quash the deal as a cap violation. Any subsequent attempt to trade Garnett to the Clippers would have been viewed with extreme prejudice, making it impossible to revive the deal.
Had the teams been a little more discreet, Garnett—and quite possibly Pierce—might be wearing Clippers blue, setting picks for Chris Paul and barking defensive orders at Blake Griffin.
"It could easily have happened," said the person close to Rivers.
Given the dismal results in Brooklyn, the Nets might have been better off with Pierce and Garnett in L.A., too. The trade for Boston's aging stars cost the Nets three first-round draft picks and tens of millions in luxury-tax payments.
Rivers said he still speaks "all the time" with both Pierce and Garnett, presumably counseling them through what has become the toughest stretch of their careers since they joined forces in Boston six years ago.
Pierce, 36, was shooting .368 from the field and averaging 12.4 points per game before breaking his right hand two weeks ago. Garnett, 37, is averaging a meager 6.4 points while playing a career-low 22.7 minutes per game.
The Nets' problems run much deeper, with Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry all missing significant stretches due to injury, and Jason Kidd struggling to find his identity as a head coach.
Yet across the league, the prevailing view is that the trade is a bust, that Pierce and Garnett have nothing left to contribute, that the Nets made a costly blunder.
"I think that’s just ridiculous," Rivers said, his Celtics pride bursting to the surface. "How does anybody have the right to know that? They haven’t had their team one single game this year. So I don’t know how you would know that. It’s a long season."
As it happens, Rivers recently delivered the same pep talk to one of his former stars.
"One of the things I was telling one of those guys—which, I won’t say—is, 'So what’s the big deal? You’re not playing well right now. You don’t get a trophy right now. You don’t get to play for the trophy right now. Just keep going.' "
Rivers recalled the Celtics enduring the same doubts in 2010.
"They’ve been through stuff like this before," Rivers said. "In 2010, people wanted to break our team up. We were awful. We were struggling down the stretch. And then the next thing you know, we’re in the finals."
Rivers predicted that Pierce will play "another three years," despite his early struggles.
"He can score anywhere," Rivers said. "I think he was more uncomfortable with the short minutes that they were (playing him), like they did with Kevin. And that’s not Paul. Paul doesn’t work under those type of minutes—at least, in my opinion he doesn’t. He’s a guy that needs a rhythm to play. In Kevin’s case, on a 20-minute restriction, of course his numbers are going to be down. So I think at some point, he probably is going to have to play more minutes to improve, so he can get a better rhythm himself."
All these months later, and Rivers is still Pierce and Garnett’s most passionate defender, his respect and affection coming through in every observation.
Now come the awkward reunions, with the Clippers visiting Boston on Wednesday and Brooklyn on Thursday. Rivers initially sounded relieved that Pierce would be missing the game. Then came the news Monday afternoon: Pierce was returning ahead of schedule. The reunion is on, after all.
"It’ll be nice," Rivers said, smiling. "Don’t know if I want it, but it will be nice."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.