- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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The obituaries for the Big Four continue to be written in earnest, triggering predictions of lean years ahead for the Boston Celtics.
While it's true the core of this basketball team will not survive the summer -- if you really think Ray Allen is returning, then you haven't been paying attention -- the Celtics still possess a valuable asset that seems to have been forgotten amid the static of a demoralizing Game 7 Eastern Conference finals loss.
Doc Rivers is coming back, and that matters. During a tumultuous lockout season pocked by significant health issues (Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox and Avery Bradley) and injuries that affected the play of Paul Pierce, Allen, Mickael Pietrus and Greg Stiemsma, Rivers somehow kept his thin roster on point and came within one game of advancing to the NBA Finals.
His peers took note. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, the gold standard of NBA coaching, argues that Rivers belonged among the league's elite even before the remarkable 2011-12 season. Although Rivers has won just one championship, using that as a measuring stick, Popovich said, is "complete baloney."
"Circumstances and personnel have so much to do with who is winning championships," Popovich said. "The best coaches are the ones who can develop relationships with players, who can demand things and have players respond and listen.
"Some coaches don't dare do that because they're intimidated by their ownership or their contract situation. Doc isn't intimidated by anything."
With the credibility he accrued from his team and his front office, Rivers made a number of tough decisions that directly affected his veterans.
Rivers informed Allen he'd be coming off the bench so Bradley could be inserted into the starting lineup, even though, by Doc's admission, Allen was "really unhappy about that." He told Kevin Garnett that he would be playing the 5, a move that KG publicly declared he abhorred. Rivers juggled the clashing egos of Allen and headstrong point guard Rajon Rondo by imploring them to trust each other. He chastised Paul Pierce, mostly in private, to resist the temptation to play "hero ball," a mentality Pierce was occasionally guilty of adopting.
What other coach could have accomplished that with minimal backlash?
"They say there are two kinds of coaches," said Grant Hill, who played for Rivers in Orlando. "You have a 'players' coach' because they are friends with the guys and they don't discipline them. Then there's the 'hard-line coach,' who is all about discipline. Guys don't necessarily like them, but they respect their knowledge of the game.
"And then you have Doc. He has the principles of a hard-line coach but the personality of the players' coach that guys love. You don't mind Doc getting on you or holding you accountable because you like him so much."
Rivers stunned some of his closest friends, including Popovich, when he signed a five-year extension with the Celtics in May 2011. They expected him to retreat to be a television analyst for a year before returning to name his price -- and his destination.
He said he gave that scenario serious consideration last year, and the year before that. He is an emotional coach who was reduced to tears Saturday when he removed each member of the Big Four and shared an embrace with them at the tail end of Game 7. Those emotions, he concedes, take their toll.
When he considered stepping down from the Celtics, he ultimately couldn't envision doing it. He had preached loyalty to his core players for five years. How could he be the first to walk?
"It wasn't about me leaving to coach somewhere else," Rivers said. "There were a lot of opportunities. But it was about me taking a break. My wife, Kris, kept saying, 'Well, if you take a break, you can't come back to Boston.' It was a simple statement, but it was true."
Before the Eastern Conference finals began, Rivers acknowledged the Big Four would be broken up "very soon. It's coming to an end. We all know that."
The coach will make a major push to retain Garnett, who was the architect of Boston's Renaissance period. KG has told friends for the past two seasons that he would retire when his contract was up. The injury to his knee robbed him of some of his lift, and he often left the arena in considerable pain after games.
But that was before the lockout, before the union decertified, and a disconsolate Garnett, convinced the season was lost, did something he had never done before: He put down the basketball.
"Kevin never stops," Rivers said, "but he thought the season was over. So he came into camp in shape, but not KG shape.
"I honestly think the lockout saved his season. He got some unexpected rest, and his knee got a chance to be healthy."
Garnett's trusted friend Sam Cassell said KG was still talking about retiring as recently as 10 days ago, but Cassell was trying to persuade him otherwise. Cassel's advice: Play as long as you can.
"KG is a loyal guy," Cassell said. "I can't see him playing for anyone else except Doc at this point."
Allen's situation is markedly different. He disagreed with the decision to have Bradley supplant him in the starting lineup. His shot opportunities dropped markedly, and his soured relationship with Rondo was evident. Allen was also stung by Boston's attempt to deal him to Memphis for O.J. Mayo.
There will be no hometown discount taken by the NBA's all-time 3-point king. All indications are the time has come for Allen and the Celtics to part ways.
Rondo, meanwhile, isn't going anywhere. Rivers earns most of his hefty salary by serving as his point guard's disciplinarian, psychiatrist, ego booster and conscience.
When Rondo was snubbed during this season's All-Star selections, then later added as an injury replacement, his initial reaction was to skip the game out of spite. It was Rivers who convinced him that was counterproductive. After Rondo was suspended for throwing a ball at referee Sean Wright and was being badgered by his veteran teammates to make a public apology, he retreated to his coach's office for advice. Rivers advised him to express his regrets about the incident later in the season, when it would seem less disingenuous.
Rondo is the key to Boston's future. His chemistry with Bradley was undeniable. Both are at their best when they are in transition.
And Bradley's upside has been apparent to his teammates for two seasons. He routinely dominated practices during the 2010-11 season, Pierce said.
"He was knocking down shots, dunking on people, and we were like, 'We've got a player here,'" said Pierce. "He was the only guy who could stay in front of Rondo. But then he got into the games and you didn't see any of those things."
Rivers took the blame for mismanaging Bradley.
"We drafted Avery as a point guard, and both Danny [Ainge] and I saw him that way," he said. "Even when we had our meeting just before the lockout, I still had him at the point. I just wasn't seeing it right."
Bradley's defensive pressure and the offensive energy he generates with his backdoor cuts and his spot-up shooting qualify him as the most intriguing player on the Celtics roster. Although he does not handle the ball well enough to play the point, he takes pressure off Rondo because he can guard the opposing point guard.
Rivers absorbed some criticism for not giving Bradley quality minutes sooner, but the coach said even with the benefit of hindsight, he wouldn't do it differently.
"You can't hand it to them," Rivers said. "I look at the Washington [Wizards] model, where they played Andray Blatche and those guys, and what did it teach them? That they're going to play them anyway?"
A number of Celtics players whose contracts are up, including Green, Wilcox, Pietrus and Brandon Bass (if, as expected, he opts out of his player option), have expressed hopes of returning to Boston.
Bass said Rivers has "gotten the most out of me," mostly because of his incessant demand that Bass remain accountable down to the smallest of details, whether it's protecting a rebound above his head or shading an inch to the right on his defensive rotations.
In the Atlanta series, when Bass failed to close out on a Josh Smith 3-pointer late in the third quarter, Rivers yanked him from the game. Bass thought he was done for the night, but two minutes later, Rivers gave him a shot at defensive redemption.
"They say Doc is a players' coach, and he is," Bass said with a grin. "A players' coach who will kick your ass."
Rivers is a coach who consistently remains above the fray, exhibiting that rare quality even in the wake of Game 7. While two of his proudest, most stubborn and ornery stars (KG and Rondo) left the court without acknowledging the Heat, Rivers shook hands with the players who eliminated his team and even announced he was proud of the Celtics' primary nemesis, LeBron James, in his postgame news conference.
"He's street savvy," said Sixers coach Doug Collins. "Doc can walk into a corporate function and speak to those people as effectively as he speaks to his team and the media. In today's NBA, that stuff matters.
"And nobody -- nobody -- does all those things better than Doc."
Rivers is sticking around to see how it plays out in Boston. Is he a big enough draw to lure quality free agents? Hill said Rivers was one of the primary reasons he chose Orlando. Spurs center Tim Duncan said he respected Rivers so much that during his dip into free agency it was "a 50-50 proposition" whether he'd bolt to Orlando or remain in San Antonio.
In the end, Duncan chose the Spurs. Popovich, not Rivers, reaped the benefits of that decision in the form of championship rings.
Rivers has won a ring of his own since then, but the next one, he concedes, will be infinitely harder.