HOUSTON — Doc Rivers believes NBA coaches are always learning about themselves. At least he hopes so.

“I think when you stop doing that, it’s probably time to hang them up. You know what I mean?” he said.

Rivers doesn’t appear ready to retire anytime soon. In fact, he’s a legitimate candidate for NBA coach of the year for his job with the 76ers.

The Sixers are closing in on their first Eastern Conference regular-season title since the 2000-01 season. Rivers, in his first year in Philly, has turned Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons into a cohesive All-Star pairing, something his predecessor, Brett Brown, never did.

He’s had to deal with coaching new players, being in a different organization, and COVID-19 restrictions.

So, what has Rivers learned about himself in his 22nd season as an NBA head coach?

“So, this year has taken a lot more patience, a lot more flexibility,” he said.

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Part of the flexibility and patience comes from coaching a team in a non-bubble setting during a pandemic. The Sixers and all NBA teams test daily for COVID-19 early every morning.

There are times when their flight arrives in a city in the early-morning hours after playing the night before in another city. Sometimes they take the test upon arrival depending on how late the plane lands. Other times they’ll board buses to the team hotel upon arrival. They’ll check into their rooms, close their eyes for a couple of hours before getting up to take a mandatory morning test.

“I’ve always kind of fashioned myself as being a flexible coach. I think this year I was able to put that into play.”

Doc Rivers

To keep players well rested, Rivers has opted not to practice. He’s had more shootarounds compared to seasons past.

“Literally no practices, and you can get something out of them,” he said. “But the value of a real practice is invaluable. So again, for me, I guess that’s what I would have learned. But flexibility has always kind of been the biggest thing.

The Sixers head into Wednesday night’s game against the Houston Rockets with a 44-21 record. An expected victory over a team with the league’s worst record (16-49) would give the Sixers a two-game cushion over the conference’s second-place Brooklyn Nets with six games left.

The two games would be the equivalent of three because the Sixers hold the tiebreaker over Brooklyn (43-23). The Sixers will be awarded the higher seed if both teams finish with the same record.

This would mark the second time that Rivers finished a season first in the conference standings. His 2007-08 Boston Celtics were the Eastern Conference regular-season champs before winning the NBA title.

Last season, Rivers coached the Los Angeles Clippers to the Western Conference’s second-best record. He led the Clippers to the third-best mark during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.

“I think every season’s gratifying in its own way. If you have a team that’s a one or two seed, no matter what the season is, you’re gratified,” Rivers said.

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He did say it’s extra-special to be in first place after the Sixers weren’t predicted by some to finish in the top five of the conference.

“But, for me, that’s not what I wanted,” Rivers said. “We wanted way more than that. So we have a lot of work to do. As long as we have that as our base, I think we will be OK.”