Three days after he stepped down as the Los Angeles Clippers’ head coach, Doc Rivers agreed Thursday to a five-year deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Rivers brings with him a career 943-681 record with him to Philadelphia, along with the championship ring he won with the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. His experience leading star-studded squads—from the Celtics’ Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to the “Lob City” Clippers with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and this past year’s Kawhi Leonard-Paul George core—was likely one of his biggest selling points for the Sixers.
Between Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford, Rivers is inheriting a talent-laden roster in Philadelphia. But more than his X’s and O’s acumen, his ability to keep Simmons, Embiid and Co. on the same page is what may end up determining whether he can add to his ring collection or continue his recent history of playoff collapses.
During his seven-year tenure with the Clippers, Rivers helped transform the franchise from an afterthought to a perennial playoff contender. The Clippers had made the playoffs only six times prior to Rivers’ arrival, but they earned six postseason trips with him at the helm. He also guided the organization through a tumultuous period in 2014 when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned then-governor Donald Sterling for racist remarks and forced him to sell the team.
No one should doubt Rivers’ credentials. But his ability to handle a potentially volatile locker room remains far more of an open question.
In 2018, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz spoke with a number of former Clippers, all of whom said “they saw a coach who grew frustrated with his inability to manage a complex locker room and who began to act out himself.”
“More than anything, Clippers players saw him as increasingly aloof as the team’s playoff misfortunes mounted,” Arnovitz added. “They saw a coach who was frustrated and disappointed in the emotional makeup of his team and its unwillingness to buy in. He responded by maintaining a greater distance, forgoing necessary conversations and sometimes dispatching assistant coaches to deliver bad news.”
The Lob City Clippers never advanced to the Western Conference Finals, and they infamously coughed up a 3-1 series lead against the Houston Rockets in the 2015 conference semifinals. After breaking up the core of that team—the Clippers traded Paul to the Rockets and Griffin to the Detroit Pistons—they overachieved in 2018-19 before luring Kawhi Leonard in free agency and acquiring Paul George via trade this past summer.
Despite that infusion of star power, the Clippers again blew a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Semifinals, this time to the Denver Nuggets. That caused them to do some offseason soul-searching, according to Jovan Buha of The Athletic, and they determined Rivers was part of the problem.
“The organization ultimately determined that the locker room, as currently constructed, lacked the requisite leadership and mettle to be a true championship team,” Buha wrote. “Players weren’t necessarily put in the best position to unlock a better version of themselves, either, with the team not always making appropriate or timely adjustments, league sources said.”
The Clippers specifically took umbrage with Rivers’ decision to favor Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell over Ivica Zubac against Denver, even though the latter was far more effective, “and, at large, his reluctance to develop or empower the team’s younger talent throughout his tenure.” He got better about that in recent years—he relied heavily on rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last year and made second-year guard a fixture of his rotation this past season—but player development was not among the Clippers’ strengths during Rivers’ tenure.
None of that is to say Rivers is destined to fail in Philly. His experience coaching a non-shooting point guard in Rajon Rondo and a multifaceted big man in Griffin could help him unlock Simmons’ ceiling. His years with Garnett should give him a foundation upon which he can build with Embiid.
Rivers already has experience coaching Harris, who spent portions of two seasons with the Clippers before heading to the Sixers via trade in February 2019. During that 87-game stint, he knocked down a career-high 42.6 percent of his three-point attempts and averaged 20.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. According to Wojnarowski, the Sixers “hope that a reunion with Rivers can be impactful” to Harris “maximizing his play.”
Fixing the clunky-fitting roster will be chief among general manager Elton Brand’s priorities this offseason. Although he doesn’t plan to trade Embiid or Simmons, there’s no guarantee that Harris, Horford or Richardson will be on next year’s squad. Rivers likely won’t be the full extent of the Sixers’ makeover.
Rivers “will not have front-office duties” with the Sixers, according to Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice, so he can’t concern himself with what lies ahead for this roster. Instead, he should focus on establishing a culture of accountability that Richardson said was lacking from this past year’s squad.
If Rivers is able to get Simmons and Embiid to buy into his system and lead by example, the Sixers may live up to the championship aspirations that they fell woefully short of in 2019-20. But if Rivers struggles to maintain a healthy locker room chemistry, the Sixers may be forced to ponder even more drastic changes in the coming months or years.