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Doc Rivers: The Statesman the Sixers Needed

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There were so many options ... and it would seem the Sixers picked the right one in this moment.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Sacramento Kings Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

“I’d hate to be the team that got the coach that lost in the fashion the Los Angeles Clippers did last year.” – Sean Kennedy

“Who was it that got that coach? Oh, right!” – Adio Royster

This is a slightly paraphrased transcription of a conversation I had with Sean Kennedy this week. It started as a joke, but then I thought: “Damn. The Philadelphia 76ers really lucked out getting Doc Rivers.”

(Editor’s note from Sean — My comment was very much tongue-in-cheek, for the record.)

Before Rivers was hired, there was some debate about who should be the next Sixers head coach. Daryl Morey was hired as the general manager, so there was some speculation the team would turn to Mike D’Antoni, who Morey had hired to be head coach of his former employer, the Houston Rockets.

Would the Sixers (*gulp*) hire one of Jeff or Stan Van Gundy?

(Looks at the current state of the Detroit Pistons)

Thank God that bullet was dodged.

There was even some (swift) conversation about the Sixers reaching out to Philadelphia legend Dawn Staley. This one was a little far-fetched considering Staley’s stature in the women’s college basketball landscape at the University of South Carolina.

As it turns out, Rivers was the perfect man for this job. The Sixers are currently first in the Eastern Conference at 28-12. Joel Embiid started in yet another All-Star Game and is very much in the conversation for NBA MVP. Ben Simmons, a consecutive All-Star in his own right, is playing the best basketball of his career.

The gravy on this beautiful plate of steak and potatoes is the resurgence of Tobias Harris. Harris played for Rivers back when they were both employed by the Clippers. Tobi seems to have reverted to the player the Sixers were hoping they were getting when they originally traded for him two years ago.

(It should be noted that some of that has to do with Morey as well, since he did a lot of the legwork in getting Rivers a more balanced lineup.)

Whatever the team construction, it’s Rivers that has been the leader on the bench the Sixers needed this season. That’s not to say that former head coach Brett Brown wasn’t, but it was becoming clearer the team needed someone different to get them to the next level.

Enter Doc Rivers.

Leadership on and off the floor is something that is in Rivers’s blood. On the floor, Rivers is a former point guard, so he’s the kind of person that has a knack for seeing things (or at least trying to see) multiple steps ahead. Was he a “Steve Nash”-level point guard in terms of assists? No, but he was a solid leader in his early years with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.

Rivers got his first taste of head coaching with the Orlando Magic the year after the team was sans-Anfernee Hardaway and years removed from the exodus of Shaquille O’Neal. The Magic did go 33-17 the previous year under Chuck Daly, but Daly retired prior to the 1999-2000 season.

The new Magic coach went 41-41 in his first season, but made it to the playoffs each of the next three seasons with an older Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, and a young fire-balling rookie named Mike Miller. (One of the funniest “what ifs” will always be “What if Tim Duncan went to Orlando after he led the San Antonio Spurs to the title?”)

Rivers was fired after starting 1-10 in the 2003-04 season, but was hired by the Boston Celtics. Rivers was okay there. He was a solid coach that led the Celtics to their first NBA Title in decades and had another trip to the Finals two years later where he lost to the “Kobe Lakers”.

His stint with the Clippers was like the month of March — in like a lion, out like a lamb. Rivers started with “Lob City” (Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan), but those Clippers kept meeting up with the Spurs and Warriors. Last season, Rivers had Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. You know what happened in that bubble. He and those Clippers were bounced by the Denver Nuggets.

With Morey at the helm of the front office, it became “championship or bust”. Either Van Gundy would have been a terrible idea, and there was a fear that D’Antoni would try to employ a system that wouldn’t work with the team as constructed.

The Sixers needed a “win now” coach, and Rivers was right there. Why not? He’s been there (or close to there) with the Celtics and Clippers.

Embiid is playing at an MVP level. Simmons is playing the best ball we’ve ever seen him. He’s a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’s the “Tobi Whisperer”. On the court, I’d say that Rivers has worked.

Off the court, Rivers is as much of a leader. There is a new social climate we live in. There is so much debate and noise regarding the social justice movement that originated in the WNBA, but has made its way to the NBA with just as much fervor.

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor influenced the league in a transcendent way. I won’t say it’s more or less than say Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics or Muhammad Ali’s famous feelings about the Vietnam War. I’d say they’re in the same tier, at least. “Black Lives Matter” was in bold print on the NBA floor inside the bubble. That should say something.

Rivers was extremely passionate and outspoken with his opinions regarding the leaders in power at the top, and never minced words. He said this in August last year after the shooting of Jacob Blake:

It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad.

It’s one thing when Steve Kerr or Gregg Popovich says something like that. Their allyship to the cause should not go unnoticed, but when it comes from an African-American head coach in a league that is overwhelmingly populated by African-American players, it hits a little harder.

This is pain from a man that has seen it and lived it. In the 1980s, Rivers was in an interracial relationship with Kris Campion, who later became her wife. From slurs to slashed tires and everything in-between, Rivers has seen it all.

The climate hasn’t changed too much since the bubble concluded. The capitol riots on January 6 are a prime example of that, but there was Doc Rivers.

It basically proves a point about a privileged life in a lot of ways. I’ll say it because I don’t think a lot of people want to: Could you imagine today if those were all Black people storming the Capitol, and what would’ve happened?

I don’t want to think about that, Doc. I really don’t, but thank you for saying what many — including Tobias Harris (the Sixer who is possibly the most active in terms of social justice).

That’s where Rivers can come in and express himself in and for a league and its players who live in a place where Laura Ingraham-types tell Lebron James to “shut up and dribble”. (First amendment, guys. Read it, again. Just saying.)

At a stage in the organization of the Philadelphia 76ers, Doc Rivers was the perfect choice.

In a time that we live in, Doc Rivers was the perfect choice.