The man in front of the camera knew how the game was played in places like this. Winning the press conference doesn’t mean winning the war. Listen intently, answer respectfully, and tell no lies. But don’t give them anything that they can use to haunt you. And all of it can haunt you.
Doc Rivers’s first public appearance as Sixers head coach ended much as it began. You knew who Rivers was. You knew what he had accomplished. You knew that he believed in the potential of the roster he’d inherited. You just weren’t really sure how all of that would result in a new and improved Sixers team.
That’s not a criticism. More often than not, the coach who says too little is wiser than the coach who says too much. The Sixers did not give Rivers a five-year contract to sell himself to the local press. They hired him to mold their component parts into a fully functioning basketball team. This is something that Rivers has done throughout his 20-year career as a head coach, in a variety of situations, with a variety of rosters. If you are approaching the process with the correct mentality, the end result won’t be something that you can identify on your first day of work. It is contingent on the realities on the ground. The first step in building a team is getting to know the raw materials. The closest Rivers came to offering a concrete vision for the Sixers came in his recounting of a piece of advice that Red Auerbach gave to him.
“If they can’t do it,” the legendary Celtics coach said, “don’t do it.”
Rivers did not -- Could not? Would not? -- offer any explicit thoughts on the things that he feels will fall into that category as he attempts to lead the Sixers off the plateau they currently inhabit. By the end of last season, the list was broad and all-encompassing and featured many of the things that the NBA’s best teams are increasingly doing. The Sixers had one of the most talented and impactful big men in the league, but they could not score consistently in the pick-and-roll. They had an All-Star at point guard but struggled to generate quality scoring opportunities in half-court sets. They had one of the most physically imposing teams in the league but a defense that too rarely reflected such an advantage.
Most significantly, the Sixers had two young centerpiece stars, the exact sort of players that NBA theoreticians claim are the secret sauce to championship teams. Yet they did not have a championship, and they did not appear much closer to one than they’d been when they first paired Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the court. This is the conundrum that the Sixers hired Rivers to solve. Along the way, he’ll try to help Tobias Harris return to the level of production the small forward provided during the 87 games he played for Rivers in Los Angeles. And he’ll try to figure out a way to get more out of Al Horford than Brett Brown managed to do. But Rivers surely knows that his success as Sixers head coach is almost entirely contingent on his ability to turn Embiid and Simmons into the type of superstars who can anchor a championship team.
“You have to hold them accountable," Rivers said of his experience coaching stars. “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 are coaching stars. This misnomer that stars don’t want to be coached is not true. I think they 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. My job is to add to that and try to get them and take them to a place that they’ve not been. They’ve done a lot of winning, but we want to be the winner.”
Left unsaid were any concrete details of what that will take. Rivers, like Brown before him, downplayed the urgency of incorporating a consistent jump shot into Simmons' game.
“I’m not that concerned by it like everyone else is,” Rivers said. “I really am not. I’m concerned about figuring out the best way to win. If it takes doing all that, then we’re gonna figure that out. ... Listen, he’s young, and I’m sure there are things that we’re going to work on and get him better at, and get him better at attacking. But I can’t tell you yet how I’m going to do that. I’m just confident that I can get this team better at winning and being a winner.”
Really, this is Media Relations 101 for any coach who is interested in building an optimal working relationship with star players such as these. There is little to be gained in letting the public in on your opinions on the improvements that players like Simmons and Embiid need to make. The worst thing a coach in Rivers’ situation can do is say something to make either one wary.
For now, the word on the hire is the same as it was when the news first broke. A lot can change with the Sixers' roster between now and whenever the 2021 season begins. But all of that is secondary. What matters most is that Rivers is an accomplished coach and universally respected leader who has the professional capital to connect with the Sixers' two young stars.