- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Are you in or are you out?
For six weeks, the Celtics have given Rivers his typical after-the-season space to detox and ponder his future. Rivers' uneasiness about spearheading Boston's roster overhaul that almost certainly lies ahead ultimately forced Ainge to explore a potential swap with the Los Angeles Clippers that would have shipped the coach and Kevin Garnett out west in exchange for a rebuilding acceleration package headlined by DeAndre Jordan and at least one first-round draft pick.
Those hot-and-cold talks with Los Angeles stalled out again Tuesday and sources indicated the Clippers balked at adding a second first-round draft pick to the package. Now it appears that L.A. will simply eye the free-agent coaching pool (Brian Shaw, Lionel Hollins and Byron Scott are the top available options), while Boston is back at square one in an offseason that was already incredibly murky before this mess.
The meeting between Ainge and Rivers won't be as awkward as some might think. The two have a tremendous working relationship and have been laboring together since Boston's playoff exit by watching pre-draft workouts and strategizing for the offseason.
Ainge, so adamant last month that Rivers would return, has to be somewhat surprised by his coach's desire to explore the Clippers' coaching vacancy. Rivers inked a five-year, $35 million extension two summers ago and pledged to aid the roster overhaul when it came along, but something about that impending process is giving him more pause than seasons past.
Ainge did his due diligence in exploring the Clippers' situation and trying to extract enough future assets to justify allowing Rivers his coaching freedom and saying goodbye to Garnett, who changed the culture of the Celtics' organization with his arrival six years ago. All indications are the Celtics have desired to retain Rivers, this despite all his indecision the past six weeks (and in recent offseasons). Asked after talks broke down with the Clippers on Tuesday if the door was still open for a Rivers return, a team source offered simply, "Of course."
All of which suggests the ball is in Rivers' court (where it's pretty much been this whole time). Is Rivers now willing to immerse himself 100 percent in what lies ahead for Boston? Did this public flirtation with the Clippers leave him past the point of no return? Rivers needs to answer that one simple question: Is he in or is he out?
If he's in, Ainge and his coach can chat about spin control. Rivers has maintained a public silence since Boston's playoff exit, which affords him the ability to downplay his indecision. A master communicator, Rivers can minimize the Los Angeles tease and suggest his loyalty to the Celtics made it impossible to jump ship (even if that might not be the full truth).
Publicly, Rivers will have no problem winning back a fan base left squeamish by the idea of losing its longstanding helmsman (only Red Auerbach has coached more games and for a longer duration than Rivers, who is a mere 11 regular-season wins behind Tommy Heinsohn for second-most in franchise history). Most will forgive and forget.
The question is whether the same can be said for some of the players in the Celtics' locker room. Will some feel alienated by a coach who appeared ready to take his buddy Garnett and ditch the rest of the Ubuntu gang to chase a title out west? How can Rivers preach loyalty and team -- two of the hallmarks he cited when he inked his long-term extension in 2011 -- when he didn't quite exhibit that himself by showing interest in the championship-chasing Clippers gig? Yet again, Rivers is so beloved by his players and such a powerful speaker that it will all likely blow over in time.
So the question ultimately lies with Rivers. After all this deliberation and a near change of coaching address, can he give 100 percent of himself to the task at hand? Can he get past whatever has left him on the fence for the 45 days since Boston's playoff exit? If he simply can't, his talk with Ainge will devolve to an exit strategy.
Some have wondered whether Rivers might simply bide his time, and maybe give himself some additional leverage, by taking a season off (either to broadcast or simply get away), then hope a playoff-caliber suitor would pay Ainge's ransom for his release down the road. His desire to coach might make that impossible, as would the backlash at leaving Boston without a coach and no immediate compensation to ease his departure.
Rivers' decision, assuming we get a firm answer from his confab with Ainge, could merely be the first domino in Boston's summer of uncertainty. With or without him, the team has tough personnel decisions to make. The most noteworthy, of course, are what to do with Garnett after the L.A. trade fizzled, and the future of Paul Pierce, whose contract is only $5 million guaranteed until June 30, when the full $15.3 million becomes fully guaranteed.
There are no easy answers for Boston. Heck, up until this point, there haven't been any answers at all. That could change soon starting with Rivers.
Is he in or is he out?
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann