Doc Rivers alone should not be expected to save the Sixers.
It’s obvious, though, why the Sixers pounced once the Clippers parted ways with their head coach and agreed on Thursday to a deal with Rivers. Remember Brett Brown’s comment, back when he was serving as interim general manager, about “star hunting?” Rivers has a reputation as a star head coach, or at least the name recognition of one.
His credentials explain the Sixers’ swift interest. The 58-year-old is 11th in NBA history with 943 victories, has a .581 winning percentage, 16 playoff appearances and a championship with the 2008 Boston Celtics. It’s not typical for coaches with such résumés to be free agents.
So, why was Rivers on the open market? When your team blows a 3-1 playoff advantage (the third time that’s happened in Rivers’ career), coughs up double-digits leads and appears somewhere between apathetic and helpless on the verge of a conference finals berth, that’s troubling.
Rivers is often lauded for his leadership, but the Clippers never seemed to successfully integrate their two new stars, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, or find much of an identity other than “We’re very talented and therefore will be the superior team in important games.” They weren’t, and so Rivers never got past the second round during his seven-year run in Los Angeles.
This job will be packed with unique challenges, even for someone who played in 13 NBA seasons and has coached in 21. The organization Rivers joins is far from a well-oiled machine, and the team’s history since Sam Hinkie’s departure under managing partner Josh Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer provides little reason for optimism. General manager Elton Brand, who led this coaching search, said on Aug. 24 that the “collaboration days didn’t work” and he’d be doing a “thorough assessment” of the team’s front office. Rivers’ hire happened before any front office changes.
Rivers can’t magically transform the 2019-20 roster into a top-five offense or snap his fingers and make the Joel Embiid-Al Horford pairing work. His hiring shouldn’t be used to justify neglect of festering problems.
He does have a realistic shot to help in a few areas. Tobias Harris will be reuniting with the coach who helped him play the best basketball of his career. In 87 games as a Clipper, Harris averaged 20.3 points and 7.2 rebounds, shooting 42.6 percent from three-point range.
Rivers glowed about Harris’ character and work ethic when the Clippers visited Philadelphia on Feb. 11, and he portrayed his skill set as one that could improve any team.
“He was great for us,” he said. “We got him rebounding, as well, a little bit more with us. We got him off the dribble a little bit. He just fits. He’s one of those guys who could probably fit anybody’s offense — he knows how to fit in. And he did great for us.”
We might see Rivers use Harris in more pick-and-rolls. In 55 games with the Clippers in 2018-19, Harris produced 0.99 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler on 5.1 possessions per game. With the Sixers this past season, those same statistics dropped to 0.85 points and 3.3 possessions.
Another aspect of Rivers’ appeal is that he’s coached stars ranging from jovial to reserved, point guard to big man, youngster to veteran. And he’s on the record as an admirer of Embiid and Ben Simmons, the core duo the Sixers need to be great. Rivers was asked about the two All-Stars before that February matchup against the Sixers.
“When Simmons has the ball,” he said, “he’s more like Magic (Johnson) — Magic and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), I guess in some ways — where Magic had the ball and he was creating, getting everybody involved. And then you give the ball to Kareem and he scored. It’s tough, because (Embiid) can do both. Stretch fives are very difficult. He’s a post five that can stretch five. Those guys are tough.”
While this past year may have diminished memories of their shared success, Simmons and Embiid can be excellent together. The Sixers sported a net rating of plus-15.5 with the two on the court in 2017-18, plus-7.9 in 2018-19. It can be a fruitful pairing when the supporting cast isn’t deficient in rather fundamental parts of the game like willingness to shoot threes and driving ability.
For Rivers, perhaps there’s a Chris Paul-Blake Griffin action or two that will translate, or maybe there’s a trick from his playing days that will come in handy. His relationships with the Sixers’ stars will matter, and Brand is surely hoping that his distinctive, raspy “new voice” commands respect.
Rivers has a chance to make the Sixers better. His chances of leading them to a championship, however, won’t be very high unless the Sixers intelligently address their issues that continue to linger.