ORLANDO, Fla. — As a throng of reporters surrounded Georges Niang the morning of his Dec. 26 return from health and safety protocols, coach Doc Rivers playfully hollered that the 76ers forward had just completed an in-season vacation.
Rivers did not go as far as describing his six-day, two-game absence from his team in the same manner Wednesday, when he rejoined the Sixers in time to coach a 116-106 victory over the Magic. But he did jokingly say that he had been “coaching from [his] living room” since testing positive for the COVID-19 last Thursday, a routine that involved regular communication with acting coach Dan Burke while wanting him to feel empowered to be the leadership voice in his absence.
“Oh, I didn’t coach,” Rivers said. “Dan and I talked every day, as we do anyway. The only difference was I wasn’t there. Even at halftime [of games], we just communicated.”
There has been a similar approach across the NBA in recent weeks. More than a third of the league’s 30 head coaches have entered health and safety protocols at some point this season, including Mike Budenholzer of the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks earlier Wednesday.
Some assistants who have stepped in as acting coach, such as Indiana’s Lloyd Pierce, the Lakers’ David Fizdale, and the Clippers’ Brian Shaw, are former head coaches used to the position’s responsibilities. Others, such as Denver’s David Adelman, Sacramento’s Doug Christie, and former Sixers assistant Kevin Young, are considered some of the league’s up-and-comers. The Nuggets had to go even further down their bench when Adelman also tested positive during his stint, promoting Popeye Jones to the temporary role.
Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, one of the first head coaches to enter health and safety protocols this season, said he stayed in touch with his staff and offered insights through Zoom meetings. But a particular direction to those assistants was uttered separately by him and Phoenix’s Monty Williams: Go with your gut.
“[Young] had a lot thrown on his plate, just like that,” Williams told reporters ahead of the Suns’ game in New Orleans Tuesday night, “and the last thing I wanted to do was be an armchair quarterback. … I just told Kev [to] go with his gut, make every decision he felt necessary. We talk a lot. I stayed in touch with all the players from time to time without being too overbearing, just to be an encourager.”
Added Carlisle: “They needed to follow their gut instincts and they needed to coach the game as they felt it should be coached. Because I know how it is in this league. If you don’t do it like that, it can be so difficult. There are thousands of events that happen in an NBA game, and you’ve got to constantly process everything that’s’ going on to make the right decisions.”
Rivers was not the only Sixers staffer impacted by the virus during the past week, as assistants Sam Cassell and Brian Adams remained in protocols Wednesday. Dave Joerger is also still away from the team while undergoing cancer treatment.
“I’m looking at Dan [while watching a game and realized], ‘Wait a minute, he’s the only bench coach left,’” Rivers said. “A lot of staffs are like that.”
While isolating, Rivers and players kept tabs on each other because “sometimes it’s not just about basketball. We had to check him out if he’s doing all right, how he feels,” reserve guard Furkan Korkmaz said. Rivers also talked regularly with other coaches in the same predicament. Some, Rivers said, “were actually feeling poorly.” But the ones who were asymptomatic were “frustrated that they couldn’t get out there.”
“But it’s for our protection [and] it’s for everybody’s protection,” Rivers said. “That’s one thing with this virus: It’s not just about us. It’s about everybody.”
Carlisle, who has known Burke for nearly 30 years, said he hoped this stint in the top chair illustrated that Burke deserves to be a candidate for future NBA head-coach openings. Rivers said Burke and the rest of the shorthanded staff did a “phenomenal” job during the Sixers’ two wins at Brooklyn and against Houston, and with the preparation work between those games.
Their readiness allowed Rivers to spend nearly a week pseudo-coaching from his living room, before stepping back onto the sideline for the Sixers’ fifth consecutive win.
“It wasn’t hard [to watch from afar],” Rivers said, “because I wasn’t there.”