Is Doc Rivers Leveraging Celtics to Keep Pierce, Garnett While Delaying Return

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2013

Like Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony before him, Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers may be holding his team hostage.

Wait, what?

You read that correctly. Determined to keep the Celtics as they are—built around Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—Rivers is exerting his leverage.

He's not the first person to wield his power, and he won't be the last. But a coach? Doing what he's doing? Seriously?

Normally we're reading about the Pauls, Dwightmares and Melodramas. Rarely, if ever, do we bear witness to a head coach implementing a similar course of action. Then again, Rivers isn't most coaches. He's more respected than most players. Certain superstars don't even possess the type of influence he does.

To be sure, this isn't some long-winded soliloquy that culminates in Rivers' voluntary departure. He's going to be back in Boston next season. For the money the Celtics are paying him, he'd be foolish not to. And Rivers is no fool. Beantown wouldn't be paying him $7 million annually to coach the team if he were.

Just because Rivers isn't likely to walk away from $20-plus million over the next three years doesn't mean he can't try to impose his will upon the Celtics, because he can. 

And he is.

Following Boston's first-round elimination, Rivers had yet to declare his intent to return to the Celtics. Speculation swirled. The Brooklyn Nets salivated. Stephen A. Smith tossed in a steaming pile of verbal filth report that had Rivers spurning the Celtics to coach a Paul-, Garnett- and Pierce-led Los Angeles Clippers.

Before Smith could report that hell had finally frozen over, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge put all conjecture to bed.

"Doc has told me he's coming back," he said (via Jackie MacMullan of "I talk to him almost every day about our team and what we are going to do moving forward."

Ainge had spoken. Rivers was coming back. Case closed. 

Or not.

Though the Celtics denied the Nets permission to speak with Rivers and Ainge has publicly said just the opposite, Doc isn't a lock to return. We've yet to hear anything from the coach himself. Instead, we're operating on the assumption Rivers is coming back because Ainge said so. Is that really enough?

According to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald, no, it's not:

According to some folks who have basketball business with the club, there is growing concern that Doc Rivers has yet to make a public declaration he will continue to lead from the bench. He has remained in regular contact with the Celts, discussing the team’s direction for next season and beyond . . . but the definitive word has been yet unheard.

Into this verbal void has come speculation that:

A) Doc wants to take it easy (read: TV job) for a couple of years;

B) He doesn’t want to be soiled by the Celtics rebuilding project;

C) He and Danny Ainge are not on the same page, and

D) all of the above.

Ainge's greatest fear has been keeping the Celtics together for too long, Red Auerbach-style. Failure to break the team up at the trade deadline for the past two years and Garnett's most recent three-year contract from last summer say otherwise, but Ainge knows he can't expect to ride this version of the Celtics much longer. He might even know he should have jumped off the bandwagon already.

Rivers isn't thought to be as open to rebuilding. He's attached to Garnett and Pierce, and he wants to win. Coaching a roster under reconstruction removes winning, Garnett and Pierce from the equation.

"Well, I don't think anyone is looking forward to [rebuilding]," Rivers said in 2011 after signing his new contract (via MacMullan), "but I'm willing to do that. I've had a group that has been very loyal to me, and I think it would have been very easy to just run and go somewhere else and chase something else...I just don't think that's the right thing to do."

Rivers hardly sounds like a guy who will walk out on his team, but he also doesn't seem thrilled about the prospect of rebuilding. And that was two years ago. The Celtics have yet to blow it up. You better believe he had something to do with that.

This is the same coach who lamented over the loss of Ray Allen just a year ago, approaching the departure like it was a cross he had to bear. He didn't want Allen to leave then and doesn't want Pierce or Garnett going anywhere now.

Can you blame him? Especially considering that the Celtics were attempting to acquire players like Paul Millsap at the trade deadline?

Nothing against Millsap, of course. He's more talented on both ends of the floor than most give him credit for. He can stretch defenses, score in the post, rebound and defend players much bigger and stronger than himself. Had he not spent the first six years of his career in Utah, we'd have heard more about him.

Millsap is not, under any circumstance, someone you build your team around. He'd be a nice complementary piece to be used in conjunction with Garnett, Pierce and Rajon Rondo, but he's not a player you want to land at the expense of one of them.

Rivers could know this too. It's one thing to be forced to endure a restoration project. It's another thing entirely to stomach one you can't get on board with.

By creating what could potentially be a false sense of insecurity, Rivers is urging—coercing really—the Celtics to remain intact. And while Ainge may (finally) be prepared to dismantle a core that is now six years deep, is he ready to wave goodbye to one of the best coaches in the league and maybe ever?

Calling Rivers' bluff is easy for us. We could be wrong, and it won't matter. On the other hand, if Ainge assumes Rivers is just biding his time, the downside is potentially disastrous. In the worst case, he would part ways with Pierce and shop Garnett so hard that he either retires or agrees to be traded...only to find out that Rivers wasn't bluffing after all, and the team would have to rebuild without the sense of certainty Rivers provides.

At that point, Ainge will be left to pound that panic button he's been sleeping next to for the past two-plus years. And the Celtics will be forced to concoct a roster around Rondo, with a coach he won't trust, a roster he can't effectively run the break with and still wafer-thin financial flexibility.

This can all be avoided if Ainge just brings Garnett and Pierce back. Garnett is believed to be returning no matter what, and Pierce's status is still up in the air, but we've yet to definitively hear from either of them what happens next. Just like how we haven't heard from Rivers.

Don't think for a minute Rivers wouldn't happily re-enter the fray to coach this duo (and Rondo). Should word hit that they're both going nowhere, Rivers will be the first one at the practice facility, barking orders at will to an empty gymnasium just because he can.

The Celtics can also roll the dice. Ainge can do what he see fits with the current group and remain optimistic that Rivers will be back. In all likelihood, he will. He's loyal. Plus, you know, money.

Such discourse doesn't come without risk. Ainge could be wrong; I could be wrong. Rivers could walk. Standing pat is also a risk in itself. What if Pierce gets injured? Or Garnett? What if the Celtics are horrible next season?

Players won't inevitably flock to the Celtics to play for Ainge. Gone are the days when they would make a beeline to play alongside Garnett and Pierce. And Rondo still doesn't hold that type of clout.

Rivers is the reason Boston is still a potential destination of choice. He's the team's most appealing asset, even more so than Rondo. What he decides to do matters. 

Which is why Boston has become one of the NBA's greatest enigmas, as Rivers and Ainge engage in a franchise-altering and now not-so-subtle game of cat-and-mouse. 

Who will win? We shouldn't care, so long as the Celtics faithful don't lose hope. As for what constitutes a mutual victory (or non-loss), your guess is as good as mine. And Ainge's. And Rivers' too.


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