The world would run out of sterling silver if the NBA handed out Larry O’Brien trophies based on coaches’ preseason opinions of their teams. So take it for what it’s worth when 76ers coach Doc Rivers uses the word “special” in reference to his team’s potential. At the same time, Rivers has taken more than a few jaunts around the block, and he surely knows that the implications of such an adjective extend far beyond the usual platitudes. That he chose to invoke it on Tuesday after the Sixers wrapped up their final practice ahead of Wednesday’s opener against the Wizards is something that is worth noting.
“I think we have to believe it,” Rivers said, “and I think you have to feel special to be special. I don’t think I need to make a forecast or anything like that. I do believe that, though. … We have Ben Simmons on our basketball team, and we have Joel Embiid on our basketball team. And right now, teams that have two NBA All-Stars and two all-defensive players tend to fare well. And so I think we are special in that regard.”
In that regard, they have come full circle in barely more than two calendar years. Of all of the questions that this team must answer, the defining one is the same as it was in the beginning. How good can the Sixers’ two young stars be?
There’s a chance you find that exhausting, particularly if you’ve made up your mind about one or the other, or about both, or about the combination of them together. Personally, I find it refreshing. Part of that might be due to the fact that Rivers is good at what he is paid to do, and part of what he is paid to do is to give his team a reason to believe in itself. And, by extension, to give the rest of us a reason to believe in it. But, as Rivers himself noted, belief is a part of the formula. Kool-Aid has some performance-enhancing qualities when administered in the proper dosage.
In coaching, there’s a thin line between instilling confidence in your team and becoming an unserious hype man. Of all the characteristics that differentiate Rivers from his predecessor, this is the one that is most immediately evident. It wasn’t just in press conferences where Brett Brown’s personality and communication style tended toward the latter. The bell-ringing, the field trips, the guest speakers, the team dinners — there is a place for these sorts of things, especially on a team like the one the Sixers were throughout much of his tenure. At the end of the day, though, players want to win, and they want to improve at their craft, and if they start to get the sense that a coach is not helping them achieve those objectives, then all of the other “coachy” things that he does start to feel like hot air.
That the Sixers had arrived at this point under Brown should have been evident to anybody who listened to guys like Embiid and Simmons speak, if it wasn’t already evident by watching them play. After his dismissal, their comments sentenced him to the classic fate of, “Good guy, but …” And there’s no shame in that. Most coaches don’t even warrant a qualifier.
Nevertheless, the friend zone is no place for a leader of men to be. It’s one of those incontrovertible rules of organizational dynamics. An NBA locker room is like any workplace in the balance that must be struck between individual self-interest and collective achievement. The harder that a leader tries to be liked by each individual in the room, the harder he will find it to operate in the best interest of the group as a whole. It isn’t a zero-sum environment, but it also isn’t win-win. The aggregate supply of individual comfort is a lot like that of minutes of playing time. There is a finite amount. Giving to one often means taking from another.
Players understand this. All that most of them ask is that a coach put them in the best possible position to succeed, and help them succeed in that position, and evaluate them based on that success. Trust is a critical element in this formula. In Rivers, the Sixers have a coach whose best quality might be the benefit of the doubt. He has assembled a coaching staff that dwarfs the volume and variety of experience that existed on the previous bench. Chances are, a lot of the things he says will be similar to what the previous regime said. The big difference is who is saying it.
Therein lies a reason to think that the cycle might play out differently this time around for the two young stars around whom this roster is built. For the first time since the start of the 2018-19 season, the Sixers’ fate belongs exclusively to Simmons and Embiid. There is no Jimmy Butler. There is no Al Horford or Josh Richardson. In Rivers, they have a coach who seems to have the communication style and political capital to earn the buy-in that Brown never appeared to fully earn.
There’s a chance that it might not be enough. The first half of this season might confirm that the Sixers’ problem wasn’t coaching as much as it was a fundamental incompatibility between their two young stars. If that turns out to be the case, they have positioned themselves to adjust. In the meantime, it’s on Simmons and Embiid to show how special they can be.