I’m not sure if this qualifies as irony or coincidence, and I’d rather not spend my Friday morning dealing with emails from militants in either camp, so I’m going to use the word “interesting” to describe the following observation about the Doc Rivers hire. Over the final few months of Brett Brown’s tenure as Sixers head coach, he was often asked to reassert his belief in the potential of his team. On these occasions, he would often point to the same game as evidence of the Sixers' championship ability. It was a game that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid combined for 52 points on 20-of-39 shooting, and Al Horford finished at +10 in 28 minutes, and Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson finished at +24 and +18. The Sixers grabbed an offensive rebound on 20.5% of their missed shots, and held their opponent to a 105.6 offensive rating, and all-in-all looked a lot like the team that Brown and his bosses had claimed it would be.
The ironic, or coincidental, or interesting thing about all of this is that the opponent on that mid-February night was Rivers' Clippers, who had entered the game with a 37-16 record and some of the best championship odds in the NBA. The Sixers' 110-103 win was quickly overshadowed by Simmons' back injury in a blowout loss in Milwaukee and, three weeks later, the NBA’s postponement of its season. But it seems like an important bit of context now that the Sixers have hired Rivers, especially when you consider the endorsement that the former Clippers coach gave to his new roster earlier this week.
“I love the pieces here,” Rivers said. “I love what we have to work with. And I’m looking forward to turning this into a championship team.”
It remains to be seen how much of that was politically correct coach-speak and how much was Rivers' honest opinion of the roster he has inherited. But one thing we can say with reasonable certainty is that the Sixers have hired Rivers to make them a better version of who they already are, rather than to reinvent them. The big question, then, is whether a better version of this team is possible.
While Rivers has been justifiably portrayed as a “safe” hire, that safety poses a risk in and of itself. The fact that the Sixers chose Rivers for the job after seriously considering Mike D’Antoni speaks volumes about their belief in the fundamentals they have in place. In hiring Rivers, they have signaled their belief that the biggest problem with last year’s team was that the players themselves underachieved. The issue wasn’t the composition of the roster, or the ability of its constituent parts. It wasn’t even the tactical capabilities of the head coach. The issue, in their estimation, was one of hearts and mind. The two young stars looked like they had hit a plateau in their development. The veteran newcomers looked frustrated and disconnected. The talk of a lack of accountability clearly resonated.
Under Rivers, the Sixers will enter each season as a strong bet to win 50+ games and earn a top four playoff seed. If Rivers' previous teams are any indication, they will look more cohesive, and play harder, and perform more consistently, and avoid the frequent stretches in which nobody on the court seemed to understand his role.
Those are all important things. A year from now, we might look back and realize that they are the only things that the 2019-20 Sixers were missing. Or, even simpler, the thing that they needed most was a head coach who understood how to get the most out of Embiid and Simmons – to turn them into a duo around whom any collection of players will fit.
Hiring D’Antoni would have laid the groundwork for a radical overhaul of the Sixers roster. It would have created the potential for a future where Simmons was paired with some star other than Embiid, and where the front office could execute the same dramatic personnel pivots that the Rockets executed during D’Antoni’s tenure in Houston. It would have been an admission that, given the structure of their payroll and roster, nothing less than a radical move would get the Sixers into championship contention.
In short, it could have been a disaster. Under Rivers, the Sixers are less likely to look any more dysfunctional than they did in their final season under Brown. But they are also less likely to look like an entirely different team.
“I think you have to be who you are,” Rivers said. “You have to be the best version of you, and not apologize for that. This team has great size, great athleticism, great multi-positional players. I think that is the new way. I think what I do like – again, from afar – is this team has the ability to morph into three or four different lineups that can create problems for other teams. And this is something we will definitely do here.”
In hiring Rivers, the Sixers' front office is mostly betting on itself. It is a bet that Brown really did have the parts to win; that Brand and his associates can mine this year’s free-agent, trade and draft markets for whatever complementary pieces Rivers thinks he needs; that Brown’s biggest flaws were his struggle to develop his young stars and his inability to put players like Horford and Harris in positions that maximized their strengths.
Last season, we saw a handful of games that supported these conclusions. Rivers had a front row seat to one of them. Clearly, he believes he can have one for 82.