So this is how it ends.
Throughout this three-year plan, which became a five-year plan and kinda, sorta stretched into an injury-riddled bonus year, the question always was how long the players would last. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen only had so many miles left when the Celtics acquired them in 2007 to join Paul Pierce, and age was the go-to buzzword for the Celtics every season of the new “Big Three” era.
What almost never occurred to anyone is that the breakup would come when the coach, rather than any of the players, bid farewell.
Yes, Allen was technically the first one to jump ship. Even after his departure, however, there was a feeling that the door was not yet closed on this iteration of the Celtics. Pierce marveled that the reinforced roster was “scary good” in the 2012 preseason, and there was hope for another miracle run until Rajon Rondo tore his anterior cruciate ligament in January. Those hopes are kaput now. The rebuilding phase appears to be underway, and as Rivers leaves town, Pierce and Garnett cannot be far behind.
Looking back on 2012, it seems a little funny in hindsight that Allen was so vilified for skipping town to Miami and that there was so much relief over Garnett signing on for three more years. If anything, Allen’s departure, Garnett’s tough talk about loyalty and Pierce’s early-season boast only served to delay the more contentious breakup to come.
While NBA commissioner David Stern remains adamant the league will not approve a subsequent deal that would send Garnett to Los Angeles, the 37-year-old big man cannot be long for Boston. Pierce is in limbo, primed to be either bought out or traded before June 30, when his $15.3 million contract for 2013-14 becomes fully guaranteed. It will be tough for Garnett or Pierce to bad-mouth the coach they have grown so close to over the years, but don’t be surprised if Garnett loses Rivers’ number, just as he claimed to lose Allen’s last year. No matter how any Celtics fan felt about Allen’s departure, Rivers’ exit is objectively worse. At least Allen was a free agent, having earned the right to sign wherever and with whoever he pleased, and didn’t design his own exit strategy while under contract.
The Celtics finally have “blown it up” in the truest sense. The team that takes the court for training camp in Waltham, Mass., next fall will look completely different — and barring some sort of stunning win-now gambit like hiring Stan Van Gundy, it will not be the remotest of title contenders. Get ready to learn just how far Fab Melo is from being a useful NBA player, and hope that Jeff Green and Avery Bradley worked hard on expanding their games this offseason.
Whatever happens next, it appears the Celtics have doubled down on Rajon Rondo. None of this works without Rondo finding Bradley for backdoor layups or running the break with Green. If you thought Rondo dribbled a lot before, you will need a supercomputer to log the number of times he bounces the ball off the parquet next season. That is not a criticism. It will need to be that way, because Rondo is now the only plus-level ballhandler or playmaker on the roster.
It could be tough to watch — exciting at times, ghastly at others — but it will not be nearly as ugly as this conclusion to an overall golden era. When the Celtics rallied back valiantly in Game 6 against the Knicks last month, it seemed like the closest thing to a storybook ending the aging stars were going to get, barring a championship. The pitch was perfect for Garnett and Pierce to walk away with that near-comeback as fans’ final image, leaving Rivers and Rondo to salvage the leftover parts.
As it turns out, they will be walking off into the sunset, but only because the sun happens to set in the west. Celtics fans joined the rest of the world when they jeered LeBron James three years ago for orchestrating his retreat from Cleveland and the construction of his own personal All-Star team in Miami. When those fans chanted, “Let’s go, Celtics!” in the waning moments of a 19-point loss in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, they did not do so just because they wanted their team to win. They did it because they imagined their guys were different. They never should have been so foolish. As an era ends in Boston, the same way so many eras end everywhere else, the biggest mistake of all may have been thinking it would be different here.