Commentary

Why Doc can't just walk away

In an era of NBA coaching musical chairs, the Celtics' loyalty to Rivers is special

Updated: June 13, 2013, 4:16 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

There is virtually no loyalty in coaching. This season alone, six NBA coaches who led their respective teams to the playoffs have been jettisoned, including Coach of the Year George Karl after a 57-win season in Denver and Lionel Hollins after guiding Memphis to a 56-win campaign and the franchise's first trip to the Western Conference finals.

Now imagine you're Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers. For reasons he has kept private, the 51-year-old Rivers is on the fence about returning for a 10th season on the Boston bench. After pondering walking away at times in recent years, Rivers' indecision suggests that the allure of something different is pulling at him stronger than before.

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers
Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesDanny Ainge has stuck by Doc Rivers through good and bad times -- and there have been plenty of both.

But Rivers is one of the few coaches remaining in the NBA who has been afforded rather unconditional loyalty by his employer. Even as the Celtics navigated the rocky rebuilding roads early in his Boston tenure -- losing a franchise-record 18 consecutive games during the 2006-07 season when fans routinely chanted "Fire Doc!" -- Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and ownership stuck with Rivers and were rewarded when the Big Three were assembled before the 2007-08 campaign and immediately delivered Banner 17.

Despite the tug of his Orlando-based family, Rivers cited that loyalty as the primary reason he signed an eyebrow-raising five-year, $35 million extension with the Celtics after the 2010-11 season. Re-reading his words in the aftermath of agreeing to that contract make it seem unfathomable that he could just walk away from the Celtics this summer (italicized quotes below are from an interview with Boston sports radio WEEI on May 16, 2011). Yes, in a league with virtually no loyalty, Rivers and the Celtics have a chance to be a rare outlier.

"Coaches talk about loyalty and team all the time, and I just thought it was time to show it. And that's what I did."

Everyone goes through phases in which we ponder changes of scenery. Rivers hasn't just been here a decade, he has immersed himself in his job each year, something that he says makes him "pretty much unlivable," and then needs a typical detox period to rekindle that coaching spirit. The difference this year is that a rare early Boston playoff exit has afforded him additional time to ponder his future and he has used five weeks now to mull his options. Yet, it's hard to imagine that Rivers would turn a blind eye toward that loyalty.

"I've had a group that has been very loyal to me, and I think it would have been very easy for me to just run, and go somewhere else and chase something else. "

Given Rivers' lack of public comment since the Celtics were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Knicks in early May, we've been left to speculate that -- faced with the prospects of enduring another potential rebuilding process -- he might be enticed by other opportunities (plenty of Western Conference playoff-caliber teams still need coaches; or other opportunities might exist after a season in the broadcast booth). Having flipped Boston from a doormat to a champion, Rivers might not desire to go through that rebuilding process again. But, as even he noted in 2011, wouldn't that be too easy? Heck, even he admitted at the time that, "I don't think anyone's looking forward to [rebuilding], but I'm willing to do that."

"I look at the Utah situation and Jerry Sloan and I look at the situation in San Antonio [with Gregg Popovich], and Danny and I were talking, those are the two most stable franchises, because they've had the same coach and the same GM and the same ownership, and they've been able to draft well, scout well, pick the right players for the system, because they've known the system. And when we talked about it, that's what we want to do."

It's a players league, and reported conflicts with his talent might have spelled Sloan's demise. It all goes back to loyalty, as sometimes ownership is more likely to bend to its stars than the coach. That's not the case in Boston, where Rivers and Ainge -- along with an ownership group helmed by Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca -- often operate in lockstep. Maybe Rivers simply needs this detox period to recall what makes his situation so unique.

"This is a special place and I've said that before. You can't get a lot of these jobs where you coach teams like the Celtics, or the Red Sox, or the Yankees, and I have one of them. I work with a great [general manager] in Danny Ainge and I have good ownership, so why change?"

Good question. That's why eyebrows shot skyward when ESPN cited a source Wednesday that said Rivers believed it "may be time for a change." Even before Rivers signed his extension with Boston in 2011, rumors swirled about other vacancies that might interest him, including the rival Los Angeles Lakers. Rivers downplayed it then, will he soon downplay this latest chatter?

"I don't know where the 'going somewhere else' came from. That was all over, especially of late. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to do this. I hear the rumors just like you guys with all these different teams. My thing is, I have a special team and I have a special group of players, and why change?"

Unless there's something more than what's on the surface here, there seems little reason to change now. While turning over the Boston roster can't be an ideal or appealing process, Rivers should operate knowing that an ability to restore Boston to a title contender again would only further cement his legacy.

Take a step back and marvel at what Rivers has done here. Last season he leapfrogged Tommy Heinsohn and has now coached 721 regular-season games in Boston (second only to Red Auerbach at 1,192). Rivers is 11 wins shy of catching Heinsohn for second-most regular-season wins in franchise history (though he has joked that he has no interest in trying to catch Auerbach's record 910 triumphs).

Rivers is the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference, with a four-year head start over his next closest helmsman (Miami's Erik Spoelstra). When you consider the coaching musical chairs played annually in the NBA, you marvel at what Rivers has been able to do in Boston.

There has been a lot of loyalty shown by both sides over the past decade. That's rare in this league. But it should be the reason that Rivers is back on the bench in Boston next season.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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