Doc Rivers has created a little bit of a mess for himself. Just two years after signing a five-year contract extension in the summer of 2011, he’s being accused of abandoning ship after a publicized flirtation with the Los Angeles Clippers. Rivers has rightly taken some heat in the media (as he should) as this doesn’t look good for him as far as his loyalty and word is concerned.
If you look a bit deeper into the story, there is much more at play than a high-profile coach who wants to avoid a rebuild and skip town. Several underlying factors, encompassing the past several years are involved. Before you accuse me of getting Rivers a free pass, I’ll note we haven’t been afraid to criticize Rivers in the past here at CelticsHub for anything from a stale predictable offense to questionable rotation decisions.
This Clippers flirtation, however, is a situation in which I’m prepared to defend Doc Rivers, not attack him. There is plenty of blame to be passed around for the handling of the situation.
Rivers should not be absolved from it entirely, but if you are looking for a person deserving of the lion’s share of the blame for how this ordeal has played out, look no further than the president of basketball operations.
The blame deserves to lie with Danny Ainge.
THE CONTRACT EXTENSION
Let’s start from the top here and head back to the summer of 2011. After a disappointing five-game series loss to the Miami Heat in the second round of the postseason, Ainge signed Rivers long-term with a five-year extension. In hindsight, this is probably one of the smartest things Ainge has done in the past couple seasons.
This new contract came in sharp contrast to the year-to-year decision-making Rivers had been doing for the 2009 and 2010 offseasons in regards to coming back as head coach. With the batteries recharged, a roster he liked, as well as a trust Ainge could help the team reload, rather than rebuild on the fly, Rivers signed on. The allure and security of 35 million dollars over five years probably helped too. I challenge anyone to say that would have turned that down on the off chance they would walk away from it years later.
At the time he signed it, I believe Rivers had the full intention of finishing it out. People’s minds change over the course of a couple years, for many reasons. We’ll get to those reasons later.
In return for making Rivers one of the highest paid coaches in the league, Ainge and C’s ownership stopped having to worry about the prospect of his coach leaving every offseason. Yes, Doc could take time off, but he couldn’t go anywhere else without Danny getting one of his favorite things in the world: compensation. Doc was now an asset and couldn’t just skip town at the start of a rebuild. That gave Danny leverage.
Fast forward to 2012. The Celtics, thanks to injuries around the Eastern Conference, fall just one quarter short of returning to the 2012 NBA Finals. People can talk all they want about all the breaks the Celtics received (and they were numerous) but they overcame a lot of adversity themselves. There were injuries (Avery Bradley’s shoulder, Pierce’s knee, Ray Allen’s ankle, Green and Wilcox heart surgeries), along with a underwhelming bench featuring a D-League big man, a reverend, and the artist formerly known as Mickael Pietrus.
Seeing two magical postseason runs by the veteran core over the past three seasons was enough to keep Ainge from hitting the rebuild in the summer of 2012. Once Kevin Garnett agreed to come back for multiple years, the decision was officially made. The priority was no longer reloading primarily for the future. Instead, creating the best supporting cast necessary for KG, Pierce, and Rondo took precedence.
Role players like Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, and Brandon Bass were signed to mid-level money deals for multiple seasons, closing the door on any cap room for at least the next two summers. Jeff Green was given a sizable three-year deal as well. Fliers were taken on veteran big men like Chris Wilcox and Darko Milicic. Ainge went further all-in by granting Garnett a no-trade clause. Terry was given a trade kicker in his deal as well. All things considered, a statement had been made. As long as KG was under contract, the Celtics were committed to contending or attempting to. There was (seemingly) no turning back, given all of the obstacles (contracts) in place that would make it extremely challenging to reverse course.
There’s no need to rehash last season fully. The team didn’t mesh well from the start. Countless injuries popped up. Rivers threatened to send some of the new guys packing halfway through the season. Ainge missed on helpful in-season free agent additions (Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen) and instead turned to questionable character guys (Terrence Williams, Jordan Crawford) that Doc never ended up trusting in the postseason.
Eventually, Doc was left playing six guys he trusted for the postseason, and that overreliance (particularly on a Paul Pierce running on fumes) led to the first opening road exit of Doc’s tenure.
Over the course of the season though, Garnett and Pierce carried the Celtics to the postseason itself, helping the team recover from a sub .500 mark after Rondo went down. It was the surrounding pieces, an underperforming (and injured) Terry, an up-and-down Green, an inconsistent Lee, a hopeless Wilcox that let Doc down time and time again. As always, KG and Pierce were the guys that Doc trusted, even if it was ultimately a rundown Pierce that failed to deliver against the Knicks. Those two did their job and earned they money.
Now, we are left to this offseason. When judging Rivers’ motives this offseason, it’s important to keep a few things in mind
1) He wants to stay in Boston with KG and Pierce.
2) He wants to have a chance to win.
Those are not unreasonable demands given the events of last offseason. At this point, it’s very fair to say that Ainge is at odds with those requests. Ainge has admitted he no longer believes this team is a championship contender on WEEI back in may.
Instead, with this mindset, Ainge has created a bit of a toxic environment. He’s shopped Hall-of-Fame pieces and franchise legends year-after-year to the point where they only agree to stay in town with a no-trade clause. Sometimes even that isn’t enough to keep them around (Allen).
Now, just one year after re-committing to contending, Ainge wants to hit the reset button after an injury-plagued season for his roster. He wants to get rid of the guys who continue to deliver for this franchise year after year (Pierce, KG, Doc) instead of getting rid of the mistakes he signed for.
Wanting to trade Pierce and KG is reasonable. Wanting to trade them when the only return you are going to get is an overpaid athletic center with a hefty trade kicker who can’t shoot and a promising guard who is probably going to be too expensive to keep after next season? That’s foolish. Dealing for late 1st round picks in place of Bledsoe doesn’t solve the issue either.
Garnett and Pierce are still playing close to an All-Star level. They shouldn’t be given away. There is no reason why they can’t finish their careers here, as supporting players (playing under a potential hometown discount in the future) if Ainge can’t get proper value for them.
There is a very realistic option here of running it back, with some fine-tuning to the roster. That would allow Pierce and Garnett to be shopped again at the trade deadline, if the team comes out flat again. It would give Ainge options.
Instead, turning the franchise upside down at the benefit of bringing in some borderline starters and freeing long-term salary has appeared to overrule that reasonable scenario.
THE BLAME GAME
If I’m looking at this situation from an ownership perspective, I have to wonder who created this mess. Is it Rivers who wants to stay the course, and use the only leverage he has to force Ainge to keep Pierce (and in turn, a chance to remain competitive in the East) by threatening to walk away without his veterans?
Or is it the guy in charge? The guy who has been seemingly involved with more trade rumors in the past few years short of any team with Dwight Howard on it?
The guy who has wasted draft picks on JaJuan Johnson and Fab Melo (and yes I feel comfortable stating he’s a bust already) in the past couple seasons. The guy who has spent mid-level money on Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal since 2011.
Ainge has had plenty of hits in his career, but in the last few seasons, those hits are outnumbered by his misses on both the free agency and trade markets.
When you change the identity of the franchise, you better have a good reason to do it. Moving to start rebuilding a year early isn’t a good enough reason, when you aren’t getting ample value for your assets. It’s fair to wonder whether Ainge is even the right guy to lead the Celtics into a rebuild at this point, given his recent track record.
I’ll always maintain it’s better to be a long shot rather than irrelevant. If Ainge blows it up, Boston will be heading for the latter. And I don’t blame Doc for not wanting to stick around for a scenario (reload, blowup, rebuild) he didn’t sign up for. Doc is sticking to his stance of wanting to be here with KG and Pierce and a chance to compete or walking away from the table. He shouldn’t be faulted for sticking to his guns in that scenario.
Instead, I blame the guy who created it.