Doc Rivers is the real 76ers MVP.
They’ve had talent for years. They just needed the right leader. When he fell in their lap, little did everyone know that the puzzle was nearly complete.
Seven months later, the Sixers are the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed for just the third time in 44 seasons.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have gone from a perceived toxic pairing to a dominant duo, Tobias Harris from being vilified for not playing up to his lucrative salary to being praised for clutch performances.
So what was Rivers’ No. 1 goal when he accepted the Sixers’ job on Oct. 1?
“Really to get them focused on winning,” Rivers said, “and not on all the other bullcrap. Tobias not making his money or whatever. That has nothing to do with winning. That has to do with whatever the narrative is, and you change it by winning. And Joel and Ben can’t play together, focus on winning. Focus on doing all the things that will help us win and sacrificing.
“Whatever I need you to do, to do that.”
In Embiid’s case, that involved being in better shape and a better post passer. It also involved Simmons’ being in better shape, playing at a better speed, putting the ball back in his hand most of the time. He also wanted Simmons to be better at setting picks.
“All of the things I thought would help winning,” Rivers said. “I told them to erase all of the other stuff: Ben being a three-point shooter. Tobias being this. Joel being that.
“None of that matters if your team comes together, and you start winning. That was my focus in my individual talks with my individual guys.”
Rivers and his coaching staff had to put the rest together.
They knew what Matisse Thybulle could do defensively. They just didn’t know the level. They had to move him around on offense.
They had to ask themselves whether Seth Curry could be a starter. What does Danny Green have left? Can Dwight Howard fit in?
“Those are the parts that we didn’t know,” Rivers said. “But we left like we could get everybody to buy in.”
As a result, Rivers has taken the Sixers from an organization that couldn’t stay out of its own way to a legitimate NBA championship contender.
Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Washington Wizards is set for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid is a finalist for league MVP, but Rivers has proven to be invaluable as well.
The Sixers are actually fortunate to get a coach of his caliber. Mike D’Antoni was the leading candidate for the Sixers job before Rivers was fired by the Los Angeles Clippers in September. Rivers interviewed two days later and accepted the job.
“I was expecting he was going to change some stuff,” Furkan Korkmaz said. “But also I didn’t know what kind of stuff, because as a team we had talent. We had everything. We just couldn’t push through last year.
“But this year, he started changing players’ mentality like before the game and after the game. Everybody was more focused on team things instead of individually. That was the first point that he made. Second thing, he made it clear for everybody what are our roles, what was the expectation of the players.”
Players didn’t know their roles under former coach Brett Brown nor were they held accountable.
Not only do the Sixers now know their roles, they thrived while sticking to them during the regular season.
Rivers knows most players want to win. It’s just a matter of getting them out of wanting to win only if they get to do what they want.
“If you want to win big, you have to be able to give up something,” he said. “You have to do different stuff and you have to give something to the team.”
His Sixers passed the first test. Now, they’ll have to do it, again, by giving up even more.
“Some guys aren’t going to play as many minutes,” Rivers said. “Can they do that, and still be ready? It will be interesting. But I think they’re ready.”
Rivers, 59, had a 13-year playing career. He played in the Eastern Conference finals with the New York Knicks in 1993. Two seasons later, Rivers advanced to the Western Conference finals with the San Antonio Spurs.
Following his playing career, Rivers was the NBA coach of the year in 2000 with the Orlando Magic. Eight years later, he led the Boston Celtics to the NBA title. Rivers is widely respected around the league and had a hand in changing the culture of the Clippers.
He’s 10th all-time in career regular-season coaching wins with 992. And he will make his 17th postseason appearance in 22 seasons as a head coach.
The coach’s voice
While he has a great coaching staff, Rivers has been more hands-on than he was with the Clippers.
This comes after he was the fall guy and let go by the Clippers after they failed to live up to last season’s lofty expectations.
The Clippers were favored to reach the Western Conference finals after the offseason acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Clippers lost to the Denver Nuggets in the second round after holding a 3-1 lead in the best-of-the-seven series.
“I was eager,” Rivers said, “because the way last year ended was no fun for anybody who was involved in that.”
Rivers would have been eager to take on whatever new coaching job he accepted. But he believes that the Sixers have a chance to be special for a long time. That’s what attracted him to coaching them.
“But I really believe coming onto this team it had to be a hands-on approach,” he said. “It couldn’t be, allow them to do what they want ...
“So I really believe coming into this job that this was going to be one of those hear my voice, hands-on starts. And at some point, you hope, they start using your voice.”
He has told Simmons and Embiid he wants the Sixers to have one of the league’s best defenses. And they’ve accomplished that.
He also changed the Sixers’ culture. And the changes haven’t gone unnoticed.
Players are getting along on and off the court. They have a unity that was missing in recent seasons.
“It’s kind of his ability to hold guys accountable,” Thybulle said. “Doc Rivers is also a known name, a household name when it comes to being a winner and having team that has a very strong culture.
“He’s coached many great players and that reflects on his ability to handle some of the stars that we have. Even me as a role player. He does a great job of coaching across the board.”
So when he speaks, franchise players Embiid and Simmons listen, fully aware that Rivers’ instructions benefited Hall of Famers Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul.
The biggest knock on Embiid before this season was his supbar conditioning. One of the first things Rivers did was challenge the four-time All-Star. He asked Embiid, “Have you ever seen an out-of-shape MVP?”
Embiid bought in, and came into this season in the best shape of his career.
“Listen, none of us are successful unless we buy into each other,” Rivers said. “I think the number one thing in sports and team sports is cooperation. I’ve always thought that. Cooperation from the coach, the players and then communication, or I would say honest communication.
“And in that case, that was a very honest statement that Joel could have taken the wrong way and not [gotten in shape]. But he did it the right way ... because he wants to be the best and he wants to be a champion, and he wants to be an MVP.”
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Rivers thinks Embiid is going to obtain all three.
Rivers also has Harris playing his best basketball, and Simmons being multifaceted.
Under Rivers, the Sixers are playing through Embiid and getting him the ball in the right spots. He’s making sure Harris is getting his share of shots, while instructing Simmons to do a little bit of everything.
Embiid, Harris, and Simmons have all accepted their roles, and the Sixers have thrived because of it.
It’s evident that Rivers’ challenging players has led to the winning culture.
It also helped that the Sixers brought in Green and Howard, both members of last season’s NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Green also won NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs (2014) and Toronto Raptors (2019).
Howard and Green have been great role models for their young teammates. And Green is having a better season that last year, averaging 9.5 points and shooting 40.7% on threes. He averaged 8.0 and shot 36.7% last season.
Like most, he attributes the team’s success to Rivers, saying he changed players’ habits.
“Some of the guys had bad habits before he got here,” Green said. “So just cleaning up some of those things. Obviously, we still have some ways to go. The sky is the limit for this team. The potential is unreal with our superstars. We have our big three [Embiid, Simmons and Harris].
“But the things that he came in and tried to implement, change, adapt, and adjust to has helped us a ton.”