Doc Rivers had been telling friends for years that if he ever did choose to leave the Celtics, then he wouldn't coach another franchise the following season. His plan was to sit out for at least one year, out of respect for the Celtics franchise and the large role it has played in the NBA and in his own life.
But this was an unusual case. After expressing doubts that he would want to participate in Boston's plan to rebuild, Rivers told the Celtics that he was committed to returning as their coach next season. Then he was "traded,'' essentially, to the Clippers, in exchange for a future first-round pick, based on an agreement reached in principle between Boston and Los Angeles on Sunday.
Rivers' initial intention to return to the Celtics absolves him of the perception that he was forcing himself out. Instead, he was the property of the Celtics and was moved by them in return for the draft pick.
Regardless of the timing, it does not appear as if ultimatums were issued so much as all sides recognized the common interests that would be fulfilled if Rivers were exchanged for compensation from Los Angeles. The Celtics participated in, and profited from, the departure of their coach.
After many well-publicized starts and stops in recent days, the agreement was finalized Sunday. A more complicated proposal -- by which Kevin Garnett would have also been packaged to the Clippers in exchange for DeAndre Jordan -- was viewed as untenable last week by commissioner David Stern.
A subsequent trade of Garnett to the Clippers appears to be a non-starter according to NBA rules that ban salary-cap trades that are linked to coaching hires. The bottom line for the Celtics is that Rivers has turned out to be their most valuable asset -- not only did he net them a draft pick, but his departure will also save them millions in coaching salary annually.
The Clippers were planning to pay Rivers per the terms he had remaining in Boston -- three years for a total of $21 million.
Rivers, Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle are the only active coaches in the NBA with a championship ring. Rivers' presence is expected to keep Chris Paul from leaving the Clippers as a free agent next month.
Rivers had been telling friends that it might be time for him to leave the Celtics after nine years, that he was in danger of growing "too comfortable.'' It was known that Rivers didn't want to go through years of losing and was thinking about taking a year off from coaching in order to work in television. His assistant coach in charge of defense, Mike Longabardi, took a job with the Suns after being told Friday it was unlikely that Rivers would be returning to coach in Boston next season.
The Celtics are expected to rebuild around Rajon Rondo, who led Boston to a 20-23 record in his first year as the acknowledged leader of the franchise. The team went 21-17 after Rondo was diagnosed with a torn ACL. Rondo was not seen on the team bench during the Celtics' season-ending playoff loss at home against the Knicks on May 3; he was seen the following night in Las Vegas, however, sitting ringside for the Floyd Mayweather prizefight.
Rivers had been expected to leave the Celtics two years ago when his contract expired. Instead, he negotiated a five-year deal worth $7 million annually. It was a huge investment for the Celtics, but in little time they viewed the commitment as a bargain.
"Can you imagine if Doc were a free-agent coach right now? He'd break the bank,'' Ainge told me 13 months ago, when the Lakers, Knicks, Magic and Heat (who had not yet won a championship with Spoelstra) might have created a bidding war for Rivers. By re-signing with Boston in 2011, Rivers provided an assurance of continuity that kept the core of the team intact, enabling the Celtics to come within one game of returning to the 2012 NBA Finals.
Rivers' move to Los Angeles to lead the Clippers next season is going to be a hard sell to his fans in Boston, whose natural response will be to feel betrayed by their coach. The acrimony should be offset by the understanding that the Celtics have profited from his departure.
One reason why Rivers has been able to rationalize nine years in Boston away from his family is because his daily working environment with the Celtics is rare in the NBA. He has often said that he may never again experience a working relationship as enjoyable and constructive as he has had in Boston with team president Danny Ainge and communications director Jeff Twiss, among many others.
The relationship was good for both parties. The Celtics were able to renew their championship tradition, and Rivers, by devoting himself to their tradition, was able to define himself. Neither the Celtics nor Rivers would have been so successful without each other, and their time together -- the last six years in particular, beginning with the 2007-08 championship -- stands on its own as a time to be cherished.
The ending for NBA coaches is rarely neat and clean. In this case, the Celtics and Rivers will always have their championship and those inspiring years thereafter, and few such partnerships in the NBA can claim to have done so well.