Doc Rivers has been around the NBA for longer than you realize. As he reminded reporters at his first press conference as head coach of the Sixers, this is a man who coached the likes of Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, and Chris Paul at previous stops, but also played alongside Dominique Wilkins and Patrick Ewing. He knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it in this league.
The enduring lesson from decades of experience, to let Rivers tell it, is to ride the current instead of fighting against it. That’s something that was passed on to him by a longtime Philadelphia foe, and a principle he has held onto in the years since.
“I spent a lot of time with [former Celtics executive] Red Auerbach, who used to tell me and drill it in my head, if they can’t do it, don’t do it. Stay away from it. Do something else,” Rivers said. “Create an action. If you’re not a great shooting team, create more movement. Increase your speed. Play from different spots.”
It’s a simple prescription that may ultimately be a lot harder to execute on the floor.
The Sixers have a roster at odds with itself. They’re built around a post-up center who wants to walk it up the floor and a 6’10” multi-positional talent who needs to run. They have $100+ million invested in a player who is probably best suited to back up the franchise center, another $180 million in a power forward who has been forced to play small forward. Talented though they may be, they faced the reality of their investments last season, with guard play a constant sore spot throughout the year.
If you’re looking for a reason Rivers was chosen as the guy to sort through all of that without the PR spin, it is found within that quote. This isn’t a guy who is coming in and looking to tear things down, whose philosophy is at odds with their best players, or who represents a power play made by one star or another. He is in Philadelphia to make lemonade out of this lemon.
“I think you have to be who you are, ” Rivers said, referencing the Lakers’ decision to go ultra-big this season. “I think the mistake a lot of teams have made is everyone wanted to be Golden State, but no one could shoot like Golden State…you have to be the best version of you, and not apologize for that. This team has great size, great athleticism, great multi-positional players. So I think that is new. I think that is the new way. I think what I do like, again from afar, is this team has the ability to morph in 3 or 4 different lineups that can create problems for other team’s and that’s something we will definitely do here.”
Rivers claimed on Monday that he was on the verge of taking a break from coaching, his first in 20-plus years, had the Sixers opportunity not presented itself. That’s either inspiration for hope in this city or an indictment of his judgment, depending on your view and how optimistic you are about Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid long-term.
One number kept popping up throughout his first press conference in Philadelphia: 65, the percentage of games Embiid and Simmons have won when they’ve suited up together. To Rivers, that says everything about what this duo already is and what they’re one day capable of being. The new head coach answered several questions about Simmons and the ever-present concern over his jumper, but Rivers stressed he is not trying to put Simmons in a box or force him to be someone he’s not.
“If you watch my teams, I rarely say a guy is a one, a two — I don’t get lost in the minutiae,” Rivers said when asked of his plan for Ben Simmons. “I don’t get lost in what position guys play, I look at how many points we score as a team. I don’t care how we score, my teams have always been very good offensively, in the top five overall, and we score points. We score points in a lot of different ways…We just have to figure out how to make it work the best.“
The way forward, Rivers believes, starts with actionable tweaks rather than wholesale changes. The new head coach wants the Sixers to play with more pace, and the most immediate goal is for Philly to re-enter top-10 in offensive efficiency, something they accomplished in 2018-19.
How that’s accomplished is another matter entirely. The team’s slow, gunky offense feels like a product of roster construction rather than a deliberate choice they made last season — Philadelphia ranked near the top of the league in pace every season of Brett Brown’s tenure prior to 2019-20. Rivers is clearly still in the feeling-it-out stage with this group, unwilling to overcommit on rotations and lineups and pairings that have already been debated to death in Philly.
The dreaded Embiid-Horford frontcourt, for example, was spoken of as an inevitability rather than something Rivers would consider abandoning altogether.
“At some point, they’ll absolutely have to play together, but I can’t tell you what my starting lineup is going to be on the first day of my job,” Rivers said Monday. “We’re going to put out whatever unit we think is best to help us win. That’s just not to start the game, that’s through the game, it’s a 48-minute game. There will be a lot of lineups and rotations we’ll put on the floor, and that we’ll keep changing, and we’ll keep working at it until we get the right lineup.”
In fairness to Rivers, his track record suggests he can get more out of combinations that are already close to maxing out, let alone groups that underperformed as badly as the Sixers did. The Clippers were already a top-five offense in the league when Rivers joined the team prior to the 2013-14 season, and his tweaks to their sets and increased emphasis on movement took them to a new level, with L.A. ranking first in offense in back-to-back years to open his Clippers tenure.
A good start would be just getting this Sixers team to compete every night, something they struggled with for most of last season. It’s not an all-encompassing excuse, but it was a huge part of their dramatic home-road discrepancy. Embiid was the worst culprit and meandered through stretches of the season despite vocalizing a desire to compete for big-time hardware before the year. It’s why words like “accountability” were tossed around left and right as soon as the Celtics blew the doors off of them in round one.
That’s where Rivers seems most inclined to shake things up for Philadelphia. Having played with the aforementioned Ewing, Rivers says he doesn’t feel his stars need to be vocal, rah-rah guys to set the tone for the team and the organization. But they do need to come ready to work in whatever form that takes, because if there is buy-in at the very top, everyone else will follow.
“You have to hold [star players] accountable because the more accountable they will be with you and toward you, the more accountable you can hold the rest of the team,” Rivers said. “And I think that’s one of the key things when you’re coaching stars. This misnomer that stars don’t want to be coached, it’s not true. I think stars absolutely want to be coached, they want to be coached, they want to get better. They want to learn as well…they’ve done a lot of winning but we want to be the winner. Winning is great but being the winner is the best, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
From the top-down, the Sixers have been an organization a little too happy with the status quo over the last few years. It allowed a front office structure to remain in place that eventually hurt the team, it kept a coach in charge who completely ran out of answers this season, and it was personified on the floor in a pair of stars who haven’t moved forward offensively. Inertia has been the most powerful force.
Rivers sees plenty to work with here. He referred to rookie Matisse Thybulle as an All-Defense caliber player right this second. He joked that Shake Milton only has to play like he did in his breakout performance against Rivers’ Clippers to avoid ever receiving advice from Rivers again. Players won’t be asked to do things or change who they are for the sake of doing so. That’s one of Rivers’ greatest assets — the ability to recognize and make the most of what he has.
But don’t mistake his adaptability as a sign he won’t rock the boat. Rivers will make demands of these players eventually, and when the pushback inevitably comes, he’s comfortable navigating what comes next.
“Whatever it takes,” Rivers said of the level of conflict he believes is healthy for a team to have. “Conflict happens, and you deal with it. Whatever it takes is worth it, is the answer, to get through it. You have to get through it. You have to meet it head-on. You have to play your way through it, talk your way through it, and be together through it. I’ve never been afraid of that at all.”
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