Rivers has 'never been afraid' of conflict, and Sixers might need more of it


Once the Celtics had polished off their first-round sweep of the Sixers and the team’s disheartening season was officially over, Josh Richardson laid out much of what he thought the Sixers were lacking.

His comment about the Sixers not having enough accountability under head coach Brett Brown was ear-catching, but it wasn’t his only illuminating remark. Richardson on Aug. 23 also went into detail about the Sixers’ communication.

“I think we had good communication here,” he said. “I think we all had good intentions. I think on the court, we did a better job of listening. But there’s gotta be some conflict. I think that’s our next step, is being able to have some conflict on the bench, like you saw in one of our first (seeding) games. I think that was good for us. 

“I think we’ve gotta be comfortable in uncomfortable times — in times of conflict, in times where if I’m not doing my job, I want somebody to cuss me out. That’s just what I grew up in, that’s what I came from.”

Joel Embiid and Shake Milton had a sideline confrontation during the Sixers’ first game after the NBA’s hiatus, an exchange Brown called “healthy.” 

It was natural to think of Richardson’s end-of-season words on Monday when Doc Rivers was introduced as Brown’s replacement. Rivers sees nothing inherently wrong with conflict. 


“Whatever it takes,” he said. “There’s no smooth sailings. People assume in 2008 we just glided through. That didn’t happen. Conflict happens and you deal with it. Whatever it takes, it’s 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.”

As Rivers said, he’s familiar with locker room disputes and discomfort. He had the challenge of integrating two stars this past season in Paul George, who began the year sidelined as he recovered from shoulder surgery, and Kawhi Leonard, who adhered to an individualized load management protocol. Some teammates “struggled with the organization’s preferential treatment” of the new stars, according to a January piece in The Athletic by Jovan Buha and Sam Amick.

Rivers coached nine All-Stars before Leonard, and his thinking hasn’t always been aligned with all of them. Ray Allen and Chris Paul are two that exited Rivers’ teams on tense terms.

What’s he learned from his immense experience coaching stars? The question posed to Rivers wasn’t specifically about accountability, but he highlighted that buzzword.

“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “They’re all different. Every single one of them is different. They do have several traits that are similar. Work ethic is one. But you have to hold them accountable. Because the more accountable they will be with you and toward you, the more accountable you can hold the rest of the team.

"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 get better. They want to learn, as well. 

“We have two young ones here in Philadelphia that have already had success. So my job is to add to that and try to take them to a place that they’ve not been. 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.”

And what if a coach’s stars aren’t inclined toward frank discussion whenever a mistake is made or a concern rises? Leonard isn’t known as a vocal leader, and Embiid and Ben Simmons don’t have the reputation of regularly reaming out their teammates. 

“You’ve gotta be who you are,” Rivers said. “Leadership doesn’t have to be vocal. It has to be by example. … A player I played with, Patrick Ewing … wasn’t a big talker, but he was a phenomenal leader and he led by example. So I want everyone to lead in that way. 


“Not just Jo and Ben; I want everyone to lead as far as their example, as far as work. We’ll find out who the vocal leaders are. We’ll find out. If the best player is not that, yeah, you do have to support them. Sometimes the coach has to get involved in that. Sometimes there’s another voice. But we just want all voices to be credible and that’s what we’re going to work on.”