Change is inevitable in sports, and in Philadelphia, we’ve had plenty of late. The Sixers agreed to a deal on Thursday with veteran head coach Doc Rivers, a whirlwind romance between a team adrift and a man who had just been dumped from a long-term relationship.
Rivers became the third new hire of a head coach/manager for a Philadelphia sports team in the last 18 months. All three have been hires of men with distinguished resumes. A little less than a year ago, the Phillies lured four-time World Series champion Joe Girardi away from the broadcast booth to be their manager. Last April, the Flyers called upon Alain VIgneault, who has taken two different franchises to the Stanley Cup Final in his career. And Rivers is among the most accomplished coaches in the last 15 years, having won 943 regular-season games, a Coach of the Year award, and an NBA title with the Celtics in 2008.
Big acquisitions are an instant paradigm shift for a team, and a city. The expectations change immediately, regardless of what the new boss inherits. Girardi walked into a clubhouse of players that had collapsed in the second half of the last two seasons. Vigneault assumed the leadership role of a team that was barely a playoff contender in recent years, let alone a Stanley Cup contender. Upon their respective hires, the sun shone brighter. Birds sang a happy tune. Optimism reigned.
Vigneault, with a serious amount of help from new signing Kevin Hayes and a star in the making in goal named Carter Hart, paid immediate dividends. The Flyers were among the best teams in the NHL before the season was interrupted by the pandemic, and the team won its first playoff series in eight years.
Upon his hire, Girardi was seen as an instant improvement, simply because he wasn’t Gabe Kapler, the man he replaced. But injuries – and a historically bad bullpen – have a way of taking the steam out of things. The truth is, you can select any one of a number of reasons the Phillies faded in September, and you’d be right. Two straight late-season failures for the Phillies became three.
The truth is these sexy names, while they generate the immediate interest and respect the teams are searching for, are only as good as the players they lead. Doug Collins couldn’t win as Bulls head coach with Michael Jordan; Phil Jackson did. Did Jackson make Jordan a great player, or did Jordan make Jackson a great coach? Pretty sure it’s the latter.
There’s no denying Rivers’ accomplishments. But he has a tall task ahead of him: to take a team that, by most accounts, has underachieved, considering the amount of talent it possesses. He’s taking the helm of a team with two players with multiple All-Star appearances approaching their primes that shrink in the playoffs like a wool sweater in the dryer.
Can he lead JoJo, Ben and Company to where so many of us believe they can go? It remains to be seen. But remember: Brett Brown was fired by the Sixers because he couldn’t lead a team with two stars beyond the second round of the postseason. Doc Rivers was available to be hired by the Sixers ... because he couldn’t lead a team with two stars beyond the second round of the postseason.