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Monday, June 10, 2013
What's up with Doc?

By Chris Forsberg

Truth be told, I used to be a little bit jealous of all those basketball writers whose teams didn't make the playoffs. An early April start to summer "vacation" had to have its perks. Then the Boston Celtics got bounced from the first round of the playoffs this season and the past month has been an absolutely dreadful abyss of hoop-less activity in which the dominant headline has been what Doc Rivers hasn't said.

Yup, this stinks. Give me more June basketball. Hopefully Boston sports fans have been able to immerse themselves in the success of the Celtics' TD Garden brethren. Maybe a Stanley Cup run can drown out the noise (or lack thereof) from the local hoopsters.

Alas, there's a growing buzz around the Celtics at the moment and it stems from the lack of a public commitment from Rivers. Now five weeks removed from the end of Boston's 2012-13 season, readers are worried that something is amiss and that he might not return for a 10th season on the Celtics' bench. That's where we start our first dive into your offseason letters, with the "I'm Freaking Out" mailbag:

Rivers' silence could be his way of lobbying to keep Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Boston.

Q: What the hell is going on with Doc Rivers!? Is it time to freak out? -- Art (Tallahassee, Fla.)

A: Clearly, the most popular question in this week's 'bag. Let's start with what we know: 1) Danny Ainge is adamant that Rivers is returning next season; 2) Rivers hasn't publicly commented on his future, only reaffirming what he said after Boston's season ended in, "I'm coming back until I say I'm not." 3) Rivers hasn't squashed speculation by simply saying he's coming back.

So what do we make of this? Is Ainge simply using the power of positive thinking with a coach under contract? Is Rivers truly on the fence about returning? Are we all making way too much about nothing? Probably the latter, but here are three things I think about the situation:

1) Rivers is on record as saying he's committed to a potential rebuilding process, noting after he inked a five-year extension following the 2010-11 season that he wanted to show the loyalty that the organization showed him in the pre-Big Three era. It's hard to imagine him reneging on his word, as he had to know a roster overhaul would occur during that span. That said, the idea of turning this thing over can't be very appealing after the success of the past six seasons (well, the 2012-13 campaign notwithstanding).

2) Rivers has 21 million reasons to return for three more seasons. And while I don't think money is a factor, particularly considering he'd probably be the highest-paid coach whenever he did rejoin the fray, it's still a pretty good reason to hang around.

3) To me, it must come down to leverage. Rivers knows that by keeping the core together, Boston can still be in the mix next season and overhaul on the fly next summer (or, at worst, in-season if the wheels completely fall off). But Ainge has often noted that Boston is not a championship contender as currently constituted and knows the Celtics have limited resources to add to this core. Using the 2013-14 campaign as a bit of a transition year could increase Boston's long-term ability to contend, while maximizing the late-career value of guys like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Something has to give and maybe Rivers could be using this quasi-standoff to encourage Ainge to either keep the band together or overhaul in another way (one theory suggests trading Rajon Rondo and rebuilding the entire core after the veterans depart).

Q: Can you put the Doc stories to rest? He said he is coming back unless he says otherwise. Sounds like a guy who was just sick of the question rather than someone leaving his options open. What say you? -- Bob (East Kingston, N.H.)

A: I do think we get it twisted sometimes. While everyone is worked up about how Rivers hasn't said anything, it would really only be an issue if he did say something, right? But instead of assuming he'll honor his contract, we are waiting for him to confirm that he will do such. Now, Rivers brought some of this on by leaving the window cracked after Boston's playoff exit, but we should know by now that he does this every offseason. You know what's different about this year? We've got an extra month to kill, and everything is under the magnifying glass. If Rivers hadn't been in Boston for pre-draft workouts and offseason planning, I'd be more skeptical. Beyond his silence -- of which he's allowed -- there's seemingly been no other reason to be alarmed.

Q: What's Doc's deal? Holding out for more money? Waiting to see if he should throw in the towel if Pierce/KG are out? -- @scullmoney (via Twitter)

A: Money seems irrelevant when you're pretty much the highest-paid coach in the league. As incredibly loyal as we know Garnett is, it's a two-way street and I do think the idea of not having Pierce and (especially) Garnett to lead his locker room leaves Rivers a bit hesitant. Rondo has the ear of a lot of younger guys in the room and is capable of being a leader, but it's still an incredible security blanket to have Garnett and Pierce to echo that message (regardless of who you assign as the so-called leader of the team). My guess is that Rivers wouldn't bail on Boston regardless of the path the team takes, but this could be his way of lobbying to keep the veterans that have been so influential in his own success here. Might I also suggest reading what our good friend Brian Robb wrote at CelticsHub last month, also subscribing to the leverage theory.

Q: Where do you see the franchise moving with the golden generation of Pierce and KG diminishing in roles, as well as lack of scoring support behind Rondo? The draft and free agency has not been their speciality in the past. -- Kris (Toronto)

A: So I'm on record as preferring the "keep it together" approach. Garnett showed that he has plenty left in the tank this postseason and Pierce did the same in the regular season. I like the idea of scaling back their minutes and finding additional offdays -- a Popovich-like plan to which Rivers would have to be stricter in enforcing -- and hoping that the extra minutes allow a young core to shoulder more of the load. Now, if you can trade Pierce for a player that you believe has potential to be a long-term franchise cornerstone, then the Celtics absolutely must consider it. But finding that without sacrificing a young talent seems unlikely. I think Boston is almost better off at that point riding out next season, then potentially eying an impact player in free agency using the money that comes off the books (Pierce's deal is expiring; Garnett is only partially guaranteed in final year).

Q: What timeline will the C's be on to make a decision about Pierce? Is the June 30 buyout date the real deadline here? -- @GFMorris (via Twitter)

A: Trading Pierce before June 30 makes the most sense because it gives the receiving team the opportunity to waive him (and free cap space) before that point. That said, simply clearing that date doesn't mean Pierce is safe. Boston could still trade him, it's simply a little bit harder to work a deal considering his $15.3 million salary commitment (though as an expiring, he'll have a market before the 2014 summer bonanza). It's getting harder for me to find a scenario in which a team takes Pierce and cuts him for cap relief and stomachs a $5 million hit just to waive him (for the same reasons I don't think the Celtics would do the same).

Q: Why are you having a mailbag when 99 percent of the questions will involve KG, Pierce and Doc possibilities? That's my question. =] -- Jamison (Pittsburgh, Penn.)

A: I'd make a Penguins joke here, but that'd be mean. Let's finish up this offseason 'bag with some questions on other topics.

Q: Should the Celtics take their chances with a surgically repaired Rondo or use him as trade bait? -- @JohnnyBarlow (via Twitter)

A: I'm guessing his trade value is somewhat diminished as he rehabs. He also has such an economical contract that it's hard to fetch equal value in return. Though that's part of what makes moving him intriguing, because Rondo could be paired with one of the mid-level types (Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee, or Jason Terry) to get either an expiring deal or a future building block. Rondo has two more seasons left on his current deal and the Celtics do have to decide soon if he's a long-term fixture. His value is likely higher if he's able to return and prove himself first.

Rajon Rondo
Should the Celtics take their chances with a surgically repaired Rajon Rondo or use him as trade bait?

Q: Should the Celtics begin the rebuilding process this year in hopes of landing some studs in the 2014 draft? -- @KaraokeJack (via Twitter)

A: The draft is no sure thing, regardless of how loaded everyone expects the 2014 event to be. I've always preferred trading for known commodities, but clearly there's a value in picking up additional picks as part of moves (teams like San Antonio have thrived in finding gems that supplement their core, while being low-priced assets in their early NBA days). But the idea that Boston can swap out Pierce, Garnett or Rondo for some collection of high picks and reload solely through the draft is misguided.

Q: What can we expect from Jared Sullinger coming off his back surgery? He seemed to be really coming on strong right before they shut him down. -- Zach (North Jersey, N.J.)

A: If we trust that his back issues have been resolved and knowing the effort he's putting in to rehab, I don't see any reason that he can't get back to being a starter-caliber player. Part of that will depend on how the Celtics' lineup looks (a pure center that can push Garnett back to the 4 could make both Sullinger and Bass reserves). Ultimately, Sullinger has the talent to be an impact player regardless of role because of his rebounding talents alone, and I'm interested to see whether his offensive game blossoms a bit more after surgery.

Q: Given the way he played last year, what is the ceiling for Jeff Green as a player? How much more can he improve? -- Daniel (Honduras)

A: Great question and one I don't really have an answer for. His first four-plus seasons in the NBA suggested that Green didn't have another level and his per-36 minute numbers were staggeringly consistent. But we saw a different Green at the end of the 2012-13 season, one that's capable of being a more consistent offensive force. He's also capable of being an impact defender, but needs to do it more consistently. The question is can he use last season's late surge as a springboard to being a legit star? At age 26, his progression is vital to Boston's success moving forward.

Q: Judging by what you've written, you're obviously a Steven Adams fan. I like the idea of a 7-footer/center to take the load off of KG and shore up Bass and Sullinger. However, this sounds eerily similar to the Fab Melo situation in 2012. Why would Danny draft a project big man when we clearly need a Sullinger-type (not necessarily a 6-9er) who can come in and contribute immediately? -- Homer (Burlington, Vt.)

A: When you're picking 16th, you're at the mercy of the draft board. Maybe someone will slide again (similar to Avery Bradley or Sullinger), but typically with 7-footers, you're getting project (or damaged) big men outside the top 10. Size is just too hard to find for NBA-ready talent to be sitting there that long. I do think Adams is more NBA-ready than Melo at the moment and could be thrown into the fire (and used to either push Melo or make him expendable). Ultimately, the Celtics need to take the best available player because they've got needs all over the roster -- center and point guard just seem to be the most glaring.

Q: If you had the Celtics' draft pick who would be No. 1 on your wish list? -- @ZT_Sports (via Twitter)

A: Beyond Adams, I am intrigued by Germany's Dennis Schroeder. The idea of Rondo tutoring a 19-year-old version of himself (and one with potentially more offensive upside) could give Boston a long-term backup (something they've desperately missed in recent years, especially this past season). Ainge went overseas to get a look at Dario Saric, who would be a nice wing addition (with size and rebounding ability). Depending on how long guys like Rudy Gobert, Mason Plumlee and Gorgui Dieng stay on the board, it will be interesting to see if Boston would consider moving back to get a late-round guy and maybe add another pick (whether it's a second-rounder this year or next). The talent on the board at 16 will dictate that. Like everything else with the Celtics this offseason, it's fluid.