Doc Rivers was greeted warmly by the crowd at TD Garden. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
Doc Rivers may not have left Boston under the best of circumstances, but the Celtics faithful certainly didn't hold it against him when he returned to TD Garden as head coach of the Clippers on Wednesday. After Rivers' name was announced along with the Clipper starters prior to the game, much of the arena rose to its feet to applaud the man who coached the Celtics for eight seasons and helped bring the franchise its 17th NBA title in 2008. Then, after a video tribute played in the arena prior to the second quarter, Rivers again received an ovation. It was a warm welcome for a coach who, in effect, forced his way out of town for another prime coaching gig.
Over the summer, Rivers was linked to the Clippers while still under contract with the Celtics -- a bit of news that might have undone most any other coach. But Rivers had garnered so much good will with both Celtics fans and the media that he emerged from his courtship of another job more or less unscathed. It helped that Rivers' dilemma was somewhat understandable; he had re-upped with the Celtics on a 2011 extension in order to coach a team led by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo, the former two of which were set to be shipped out while the latter would miss most of the 2013-14 season with injury.
Most reports of Rivers' wandering eye at the time noted the trials of coaching a rebuilding team, which Rivers himself had experienced with the Celtics. It was under Rivers' watch that Boston slipped to a 24-58 record in the 2006-07 season, during which Pierce played in just 47 games. The pick that resulted from that losing season was used to trade for Ray Allen, thus beginning the most recent era of Celtics success.
This upcoming (or now current) Celtic rebuild, though, would not likely be seen through in a season or two. Boston had been putting off a roster refresh for a few seasons as it attempted to stretch out the contending life of its existing core, and in reward for that effort mounted one final run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012. Last season's team fell in the first round with Rondo sidelined, putting Rivers in a difficult place as he mulled his future over the summer.
Ultimately, he opted for the far more attractive opportunity to coach the near-contending Clippers, even at the cost of leaving the Celtics mid-contract. He reflected on that decision this week to 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston:
"I did [walk out on the Celtics] at the end of the day,” Rivers admitted. “You make choices in your life, it happens… It was a very difficult decision for me to make; whether to walk away and sit a couple of years, which was another way I was leaning, or if the right job presented itself to walk away and do that.
“I was afforded a great opportunity here with the Clippers. This is the first time I’ve been able to coach a team and run a team,” Rivers continued. “This may work, it may not work. It’s a far bigger gamble for me than anyone else. So I thought it was the right time to take it.”
That decision was likely for the best of all parties involved -- Boston included. In Rivers' place, the Celtics seem to have found a great fit in Brad Stevens, who is off to a great start as the developmental guide for a much younger Celtics team. He's set to coach Boston for the long haul (Stevens was signed to a six-year contract in the offseason), and immediately has managed to get the most of a limited roster on defense while putting a star-less roster in a position to compete. In addition, the Celtics received an unprotected first round pick from the Clippers in exchange for letting Rivers out of his existing deal -- a coaching "trade" that remains a bit blurry in terms of its by-the-book legality.
That gained asset, Stevens' promising start, and Boston's respectable 10-14 record likely all put Celtics fans in good spirits upon Rivers' return. They were in perfect position to wish him well, and that they did.