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Weekly Countdown: Futures hang in the air after Lakers' title win

Will they reconvene this time next year? That's unlikely, and here's why.

New leadership for Boston? They've known all season that coach DocRivers may not return -- my hunch is he won't be back -- but now comes a potential curveball from Phoenix. Doesn't it make sense for the Suns to make a run at Celtics general manager Danny Ainge? His family was living happily in Phoenix before his 2003 move to Boston, and Ainge has done everything the Celtics could ask while winning a 17th championship and reaching the Finals twice in three years.

With GM Steve Kerr and his lead assistant, David Griffin, announcing this week their decision to leave Phoenix, owner Robert Sarver will be looking for a new administration. People in the league expect Ainge to be at the top of his list now that the Celtics' season is done. Ainge played for the Suns and then coached them for three seasons through 1999, and he would provide the franchise with a successful link to its traditions of winning with up-tempo play. Ainge is one of the top GMs in the league, with a longstanding record of finding talent in the draft, as well as showing no fear in making big trades. He remains under contract with Boston, so if Sarver is interested, he will have to go through the Celtics' ownership group led by Wyc Grousbeck.

As for Rivers, he has been very much aware that these could be his final days with this Celtics team. I'm not saying he has made that decision -- I don't think he knows for certain whether he is coming back for the final year of his contract -- but he has been preparing himself for that possibility.

Last Saturday, on the eve of Game 5, Rivers invited me to his office at the TD Garden in Boston for lunch following the Celtics' practice. For a story in this week's Sports Illustrated, he told me at length about how this highly egocentric team had turned itself into a bickering family that had learned to argue without holding grudges. From my point of view, Rivers had everything to do with holding that locker room together despite the injuries and decline of its three older stars.

At the end of our talk, I mentioned that Ainge has been saying publicly and privately that he believes Rivers will return. "It's funny, when we went to Orlando," Rivers said of the Eastern Conference finals last month, "I set up golf for him. And everybody I know, all my buddies, they said Danny went to each guy individually at different times and they were all talking about it. But I'm not leaning either way. I don't think you can think about that and coach at the same time."

I don't think Rivers focuses on the decision, but in the back of his mind he has to be wondering if this is goodbye. After living away from home for six years to coach Boston, he could spend next season at home in Orlando watching his sons Austin (a senior) and Spencer (a freshman) play for Winter Park High School, and he would be free to travel to the basketball games of son Jeremiah (a senior at Indiana) and volleyball games of daughter Callie (a senior at Florida).

He insisted that winning or losing the championship would have no impact on his future decision. "My issues will be the family. And my other issue will be this family," said Rivers, pointing toward the locker room down the hall. "Because I have got a tremendous family here. I've got players who are amazingly loyal to me, and I'm loyal to them.

"And then, listen, every working relationship in the world would love to have the kind of relationship that Danny and I have. We can argue about stuff, we can disagree. We agree on most things anyway. But when we don't, we go to dinner right after. There are no grudges. We're open. If I feel like I have a beef about anything, I don't have to whisper -- there's no whispering about anything in this office. It's just like, 'That's bull!' You call it, and you argue about it and it's great. I know you can't get that everywhere."

You may never have so strong a relationship with a GM again, I said.

"No," Rivers said. "San Antonio has it with R.C. [Buford, the GM] and Pop [Spurs president and coach Gregg Popovich]. There is a couple in the league like that, but there aren't many."

You would have a hard time telling Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce you're not coming back, I said, especially if they plead with you to return for another year -- which is something I expect they've done already and will continue to do this summer.

"That's very difficult for me," Rivers said, pursing his lips and stiffening in his chair. He was trying hard to not cry. "Because Kevin is ... he's the best. So ... that's very true."

You get choked up just thinking about saying goodbye to him, I said.

"I do, whenever ..." Whenever he thinks about leaving? He left that part unfinished. "He's the best."

You're referring to Garnett's dedication to the team? "Yes," Rivers said, "and it's pure. He is purely about winning. I've never seen anything like that. And sometimes he doesn't play well, sometimes he doesn't handle things well, whatever. But his heart."

And then Rivers changed the subject by pointing to the U.S.-England World Cup match that was playing on his office TV.

After the Game 7 loss, Rivers became choked up again during his press conference. Has he made a final decision? I don't think so. But he does find himself taking account of his relationships with Ainge and his players while wondering if this may be the end.

If Rivers leaves, I'm going to stick with my original suggestion from April that Kevin McHale would be the likely replacement.

Phil Jackson's future. This one is much easier. After winning his 11th championship, Jackson acknowledged Thursday that the Lakers' second title in two years "does improve my chances" of returning to coach Los Angeles next season. After the game, Kobe Bryant said he has made it clear to Jackson that he wants him to return.

The issues of Jackson's salary and potential wage decrease are going to sort themselves out. One reason former assistant Kurt Rambis left the Lakers this season to become head coach of the Timberwolves was his belief that Jackson would stay with Los Angeles as long as the Lakers remain in contention.

Jackson took enormous pride in bringing out the best in Ron Artest, who had produced unhappy endings for other teams before playing his best basketball in Games 6 and 7 of the Finals to help the Lakers recover from a 3-2 deficit. Most of his players are in their peak years alongside Bryant and Derek Fisher. There is no known reason that would compel Jackson to leave (though he has had health issues in recent years and plans to have a series of medical tests soon).

The Lakers' backcourt. Expect Bryant to excuse himself from USA Basketball at the FIBA World Championship this summer in order to deal with his swollen knee and broken right index finger. He promised to address both issues with the goal of achieving full health for next season. Bad news for the rest of the league.

Fisher, 35, is a free agent who must be brought back. The Lakers would not have won this series if not for his fourth-quarter push to win Game 3 at Boston and his enormous three-pointer that tied Game 7 midway through the fourth quarter and liberated his teammates to finally push ahead -- everything became suddenly easier for the Lakers after Fisher made that shot. They cannot replace the calming influence created by Fisher's big plays, as well as his counsel among teammates in the locker room. He knows what to say and how to say it.

The bigger issue is how Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak will fill in at point guard around Fisher. He needs to come up with a potential starter who can defend the quicker point guards like Rajon Rondo and limit Fisher's minutes, enabling him to be fresh for the fourth quarters.

Does that mean replacing free agent Jordan Farmar and/or Shannon Brown, who is expected to opt out? Kupchak made a bolder move last summer when he stopped negotiating with Trevor Ariza -- who had played a surprisingly large role in L.A.'s postseason run to the championship -- in order to gamble on signing Artest, for which Kupchak should be lauded to no end. (Because he surely would have been slammed had Artest not produced a championship this year.) Kupchak's goal will be to find a point guard to provide fresh legs. SteveBlake is one name to consider.

Could another potential Laker be Celtics free-agent guard Tony Allen? He is a poor shooter, which doesn't fit Jackson's usual criteria, but he penetrates off the dribble, he moves very well without the ball and, above all, he defends. And so he could come off the bench to continue the Lakers' transformation to a team that relies on defense.

Ray Allen. After hitting a Finals-record eight threes in Boston's Game 2 win at Los Angeles, Allen was kneed in the thigh by Artest in the opening minutes of Game 3. His thigh was badly swollen and bruised and he was held out of practice for all but 10 minutes for Games 4 and 5. Over the final five games, he was 4-of-28 from the three-point line, and 3-of-14 from the field overall in Game 7, while missing several open shots.

Allen is a free agent who will be 35 next season. During this regular season, he was by far the most reliable star among Boston's Big Three, and Rivers has been pushing publicly for the Celtics to re-sign him. But what if Rivers doesn't return?

If the Knicks fail to sign two elite stars with their cap space this summer, they could fill in by recruiting Allen to a short-term deal that would enable them to open up cap space again in 2011 or '12. The Celtics will have a hard time replacing Allen's production and explosive potential from the three-point line. But they also have to decide when they're going to begin turning over the roster to build a younger team around the 24-year-old Rondo. They approach next week's draft with as many six players under contract -- Pierce (who can opt out), Garnett, Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Rasheed Wallace (see below) -- at an expensive $63.4 million, which means they'll be facing another luxury-tax payment next season. We'll know the plan when we see what they do with Allen.

Rasheed Wallace. After Game 7, Rivers revealed that the 36-year-old Wallace was considering retirement. I took that to mean he would be open to a buyout of the remaining two years and $13.1 million on his contract. That would be good news for the Celtics, who couldn't be looking forward to paying all of that money to a player who was in poor condition throughout the season before reviving himself for the extended playoff run, when he made big contributions off the bench.

Fans may be surprised to hear that Wallace had a good relationship with Rivers. This is because Wallace wants to be a coach someday -- apparently sooner than later. He has told Rivers that he plans to ask for the playbooks of Rivers and Larry Brown because he likes the offenses they run. Wallace has also insisted he will coach at no level above high school.

"He said, 'I don't want to deal with these [NBA] guys,' " Rivers recalled. "Then I jokingly said, 'You mean you don't want to deal with you!' "

Rivers held individual 20-minute meetings with each player in February, which is something he does at least twice during each season. He began the meeting with Wallace by asking if he viewed himself as a good shooter. Wallace answered yes.

Rivers nodded and asked, "If you were a coach, would you let a player shoot threes if he was only making 20 percent of them?" Because, at that time, Wallace was converting at that lowly rate.

"And he started laughing because he knew I had him," Rivers said. "And he said, 'Well, if I thought the guy could really shoot and was just missing shots, then I'd say, Yeah, he can shoot them.'

"Then I said: 'What if the guy never practiced his shooting?' He said, 'I would say if he didn't practice his shooting and he was shooting 20 percent, then he shouldn't be shooting.' So it was easy, I didn't have to say anything more. That's where I give him credit, because from that point on he put the time in. Before and after practice he was shooting."

The story of Wallace's postseason rejuvenation has everything to do with hard work: Through 23 playoff games, he had made 19 threes at 34.5 percent, an increase from his 28.3 percent in the regular season. But the reason Wallace cramped up in Game 7 was because he didn't maintain himself in excellent condition during the season.

I look forward to seeing how coach Wallace deals with high school players who mouth off at the referees. That will be interesting.

How does Tom Izzo's rejection of the Cavs' $30 million offer to coach affect their chances to retain LeBron this summer? With Byron Scott reportedly waiting to see what happens with the Lakers should Phil Jackson decide to not re-sign, it seems Cleveland has no one pining for the job. That can't bode well for their campaign to keep The King.-- Larry, Springfield, Ill.

I think it helps their chances with him, Larry. I can't see how James would have had any interest in playing for a college coach with no NBA experience. I don't know anyone in the NBA who understood the Cavaliers' logic for offering the job to Izzo; if they were unhappy with Mike Brown's coaching, what made them think an NBA rookie could do better? Izzo could be an excellent NBA coach, but it will take him years to learn the league and revise his approach in all areas to adapt to the demands of NBA players. And Cleveland couldn't afford to give him that time to learn on the job.

If it's true that James was OK with the hiring of Izzo, then I view that as a very bad sign for the Cavs. It tells me James didn't care who they hired to coach because he didn't plan to play for him. I just cannot imagine an NBA star who skipped college being convinced a college coach who has never had anything to do with the NBA could lead him to a championship. James isn't going to want to listen to directions from a coach who knows less about the NBA than James himself.

I don't see Izzo's rejection affecting James' decision. Let's give the Cavs some credit for being smart. They came close to botching it this time because owner Dan Gilbert apparently was focused on his alumni ties with Michigan State, but they won't make the same kind of mistake twice. If they can recruit James back to Cleveland, I am certain they'll hire a coach who can make him happy. And the first way to make him happy is to deliver a coach who can help him win a championship.

If James returns then they'll have little problem hiring an excellent coach, that's for sure.

After Steve Kerr's abrupt resignation as the Suns' GM, how do you think that will affect Amar'e Stoudemire's free-agency decision this summer? If he decides to leave, where would he best fit in?-- Adam, Clayton, N.C.

If they offer him a max contract for six years, then he'll stay. Anything less and he may leave. Money should dwarf the other issues. Miami, Chicago and New York would be among the usual suspects recruiting him.

What is it with the counting of titles as a measurement of a player's greatness? Shouldn't it be on how important the player is to his team when it is winning? If the number of titles was the defining factor, wouldn't Robert Horry be the greatest power forward of all time?-- Sam M., Helsinki, Finland

I tend to agree with your second question, Sam. You're right, Robert Horry should not be up there among the greatest ever. But when it comes to separating the players at the top of the list, their ability to make the biggest difference and complete the ultimate championship goal has to be an enormous tiebreaker. The players themselves view it that way.

Is Avery Johnson a good fit for the Nets?-- Katie, Hoboken, N.J.

They need discipline and accountability, and he'll provide that. Johnson has to live with claims that he suffered a meltdown during his Mavericks' 2006 Finals loss to the Heat, but let's be realistic: The Nets are years away from reaching the Finals, and in the meantime, he will create important standards that will help develop his young team. If he ever should return to championship contention, who's to say he won't learn from his experience and be prepared to create a different ending next time?

The Lakers' assistant is (or should be) a leading candidate to become a head coach in the near future. But he isn't necessarily going to take the first job that comes along.

On his readiness to be a head coach. "I feel like I'm ready, but I purposely have not tried to get in the mix this go-round. People know who I am and know what I can do, and those kinds of things work themselves out. It's not like it's in my control anyway; it's not like I can choose -- like I want to be coach of this team and then make it go happen. I have to be chosen. All I can do is continue to learn as much as I can from Phil [Jackson], keep gaining from this experience and every year go as far as we're going in the playoffs and absorbing all of the knowledge that our coaching staff has because those guys have been around for years and years and years. And when the time comes, I'll definitely be ready for it."

On not being a self-promoter. "No, I don't have anybody actively pursuing things or trying to put my name out there. And I don't want to be a guy who, every time there's an opening, you go and interview for this job and the next one. There are some guys who have probably interviewed at four or five places. So it kind of becomes a cattle call. I have the luxury of being in a great situation here with the Lakers, and in a lot of instances, it's better to be an assistant coach here than being a head coach in a bad situation with a bad team where you don't really have a chance."

On being selective. "I look at our front-office guys. Jerry West was the GM for many, many years and Mitch Kupchak was his assistant GM, and I guess understudy, if you want to call it that. I think people around the league have respect for Mitch Kupchak, and there were openings for other GM positions. He didn't run to go be the GM for other teams because the situation in Laker-land is great. So Jerry West exited, it naturally fell to Mitch and now Ronnie Lester is the assistant GM. There are a couple of GM openings, but he's not running out to try to interview at some of the places that have had vacancies. There's a reason for that.

"I don't have an ego and have to feel like I'm the head honcho. I'm in a great situation. We're so visible, we're on national television all the time. I'm coaching one of the best players, arguably, ever to play the game, and I'm with one of the best coaches to ever coach the game, and so I just take that and when the time comes, whatever happens is going to happen.

"You don't need that headache [of coaching a bad franchise]. I played 14 years in the NBA and one year overseas, and I'm not in a money crunch and have to have it where I've got to coach and have a money increase. And so I can afford to do what I'm doing. I'm comfortable, my family is comfortable where we are, I can do it for the love of it and the enjoyment of it and not feel like I have to be pressured to try to elevate myself at this point."

The refereeing. You can't watch a World Cup match without seeing the referee surrounded by players from either team. Like basketball, there is so much gray area and subjectivity to the rules of soccer that no one can ever agree completely on the toughest calls. It's no coincidence that fans of both sports around the world question the competency and integrity of referees in soccer and/or basketball.

The acting. When NBA players are hit hard going to the basketball, they often lay writhing on the floor in hopes of drawing a flagrant foul from the opponent. Now where could they have come up with that idea?

For years I've heard American fans complain about international soccer players who fake injuries in order to compel the referee to award a yellow or red card to the opponent. The player will be carried by stretcher to the sideline, then hop up a minute or two later and soon be sprinting up and down the pitch as if nothing ever happened. Because nothing did happen.

The NBA has created the same dynamic around flagrant fouls. The acting is only going to grow worse.

The Lakers are strong favorites for next season. Not only do they have the talent and coaching (assuming Jackson returns) to win again, but they also have the continuity and togetherness. The Cavaliers and Magic showed how difficult it is to throw talent together and realize instant results. The core of this Lakers team will be spending its fourth year together next season, and if healthy that should be enough to see them through against all comers -- even if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade should team up in Miami. (Which I still doubt will happen.)

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