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The Daryl Morey-Doc Rivers arranged marriage is still an awkward fit

Apparently the Sixers need another year of Joel Embiid’s prime to figure out what’s been pretty clear for some time now

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Sources have maintained to Liberty Ballers that the current Sixers regime of Daryl Morey, Elton Brand, and Doc Rivers are fully aligned and focused on this suddenly vital offseason. Talk to those around the team and you’ll hear nothing but the same message, this leadership group is genuinely excited for the challenges that lie ahead.

So Philadelphia will head into year three of the Morey-Rivers partnership, and they’ll collaborate on draft, free agency, trades, all before tackling another year’s worth of game-planning together. But if that idea doesn’t excite you, you’re not alone. And if you’re wondering how the Morey-Rivers duo secretly feel about each other, you’re not alone there either. There’s skepticism around the NBA.

Either the Sixers are expecting major and abrupt changes in the working dynamic between front office and coaching staff, or they need another year of Joel Embiid’s prime to figure out what was already pretty clear: the Morey-Rivers duo simply isn’t all that symbiotic.

“But we are two worlds apart” - Backstreet Boys

Philadelphia 76ers Introduce James Harden

It’s reductive but maybe also fair to label this a team #analytics vs. team #watchthedanggames thing.

It’s occasionally highlighted that Rivers and Morey worked together in Boston, perhaps as evidence they’re aligned today. Morey, was on the data side with the Celtics and Rivers became head coach beginning in 2004 so there was some overlap, before Morey was Houston bound.

Rights to Ricky’s Spike Eskin has noted he “heard it was not particularly harmonious between [Morey and Rivers] in Boston.”

Derek Bodner of The Daily Six has separately brought up the same rumor at times, noting he “heard that they weren’t super close when they were in Boston together.”

Maybe those rumors are true, maybe not. Who cares either way, it’s a million years go.

Slightly more noteworthy is that Adrian Wojnarowski once reported that then Celtics Prez Danny Ainge wanted Rivers to use analytics more and privately, Rivers winced over the idea and there was tension over the theme.

By 2015, then with the Clippers, according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, there still seemed to be a problematic lack of buy-in from Rivers regarding Steve Ballmer’s new data department.

By 2020, Jovan Buha, via The Athletic, highlighted what can now safely be referred to as a trend spanning Rivers’ leadership, an alarming reluctance to heed dire warnings from math geeks:

Rivers is one of the winningest coaches in history. But he isn’t a huge advanced stat nerd, so it becomes especially troublesome then when his eye-test lags a few months behind the fanbase’s.

At the very least, it seems like more of an issue for Morey in Philly than it was for him more recently in Houston.

Morey’s rep in Houston is on the other end of the advanced stats spectrum. He was the poster boy of the stats revolution, a frenetic tinkerer, blah blah blah, you get it.

Different paradigms.

Arranged Marriage

Philadelphia 76ers Introduce Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Kyle O’Quinn, and Raul Neto Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Last month, a bunch of the top reporters weighed in on the now debunked Rivers-Lakers rumors. But one key takeaway from that news cycle was many mentioned the Sixers ongoing financial obligation to Rivers as a key factor in the calculus to retain his services.

“It’s also a $24M [over the next three seasons] question....I don’t think that’s a $24M pill [ownership] are so willing to swallow,” was Jake Fischer’s read last month. Woj and Ramona Shelburne have separately noted there’s “certainly a lot left on his contract” as well.

Would it make sense to maybe not seek out exorbitant new costs (paying Rivers to leave, then paying a successor on top of James Harden’s pending extension) if you’re reasonably comfortable with your status quo as you pursue other major business ventures?

If I had all of those balls in the air as an owner, perhaps a new CBA, maybe a recession coming, I might be content to ask “is our coach a problem? Not really? OK, next.” Rather than the more tricky “what are the percentages that we could upgrade at coach if we tried, what will the blowback be, what will that all run me, and what do we do if we’re wrong?”

In trying to understand the dynamic here, let’s revisit the way this partnership came about in the first place. Time hop 2020.

Weeks before tapping Brett Brown’s replacement, GM Elton Brand said:

As Matt Moore wrote: “That’s pretty clearly code for moving away from an analytically minded approach to more of an old school one.”

But next came the dude commonly referred to as basketball’s Billy Beane.

As Derek Bodner and Rich Hofmann wrote, following Morey’s hire: “It’s strange to hire a basketball executive with the kind of reputation, experience and status around the league as Morey has without giving him the opportunity to hire his own staff.”

Uh oh, two wildly different world views and the top boss didn’t get to hire the coach?

But when the team acquired James Harden last Feb., ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne hopped on local radio offering details that almost makes it sound like Doc and Daryl were two star-crossed souls getting that rare second-chance to unite:

“Doc Rivers gets fired from LA and there’s a sense that he’s going to work for ESPN or Turner. He gets a phone call, the first call he gets, it’s from James Harden. He wants him to coach him in Houston. Mike D’Antoni just got fired. The second call he gets is from Daryl Morey saying, ‘We want you to come coach in Houston.’”

So what does it matter if their order of ops was unique? Well....

“There was obviously speculation around the league since the Freedom for HongKong Tweet [in 2019] that Daryl Morey was gonna [leave HOU],” ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reminded us, after a 14 year tenure came to an end.

This Twitter incident, it’s been noted by folks like MacMahon, as well as The Athletic’s Kelly Iko and Sam Amick, obviously weighed tremendously on Morey. Maybe it still does.

There was also the b-ball stuff that may have precipitated the big change. Per Fischer “by the end of that bubble season, the word was that basically that Mike D’Antoni, [James] Harden, and Russ [Westbrook] all didn’t wanna go back.”

MacMahon and Woj provided a couple more noteworthy details which contrast our local narrative:

“In the aftermath of Houston’s elimination from the NBA’s restart in Orlando, Florida, Morey approached owner [Tilman] Fertitta with the idea of leaving the job, and the sides quietly worked through an exit agreement….”

Per Iko and Amick, Morey himself says he made clear he wouldn’t be part of any Rockets’ plan:

“Daryl Morey said his mind had been made up for a month….

“Yea it’s been great, it’s been collaborative,” Morey said. “We’ve been up front with all the candidates that this was coming and they’ve been respectful to not have it get out early. It’s been baked in.”

We learned Morey would be leaving Houston on Oct. 15, 2020.

That means that the call Shelburne says Morey placed to Rivers following Doc’s late Sep. mutual parting of ways with the Clippers, Morey had already begun hashing out details of his Rockets’ departure, and apparently sharing that critical detail with candidates.

Hey Doc, listen sorry about the bubble ours was rough too...yeah I’m leaving... yeah I do think James is leaving, but Tilman thinks you and maybe John Wall might... hello? Doc?

So yes, he may have technically tried to hire Rivers in Houston, but it was for Fertitta and current GM Rafael Stone. Actually working together there (let alone contending) was clearly never part of either man’s plan. Yet you’ve probably heard that anecdote without any of the context repeated to you over and over on print, TV and pod as evidence of alignment.

As Fox Sports’ Yaron Weitzman, would report, Morey had hoped for either the Sixers or the Mavericks Presidency. But he wasn’t too optimistic he’d land either so close to that 2020 draft. He wanted a contender in need of an exec, and he needed one willing to take a chance on him, and all that his name might bring.

Per Weitzman:

“Morey’s name was never brought up in Rivers’ discussions with the team.... Brand, when asked by Harris, reiterated that he was on board but also believed the group needed to hear Rivers’ thoughts.

Rivers, according to multiple sources, was both surprised and skeptical.

He’d taken the job because he believed in the talent of Simmons and Embiid — and because he’d clicked with Brand. He respected Morey, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was jumping to work for him. Rivers’ longtime chief of staff, Annemarie Loflin, would later tell people that Rivers never had any intention of taking the Rockets’ coaching job, despite his speaking to Morey about the vacancy, and that Rivers had to sign off on the Morey hiring.”

Rivers was also concerned that Brand was being layered against his will.

“How do you feel about it?” he asked Brand.

“The more firepower the better,” Brand replied.

With Rivers on board, the Sixers shifted into recruiting mode.”

Rivers gives Brand his due credit for his willingness to recruit those above and below himself on the totem pole. Props to Elton:

A Liberty Ballers’ source has confirmed Rivers was indeed on board with Morey’s addition.

Now let’s speculate.

You’re Doc. Josh Harris, David Blitzer, and Brand are nearing the one-yard line about to sign Mike D’Antoni when you suddenly became available, they 180 to roll out the carpet, you come to terms, you settle in, then Morey’s surprise hiring weeks later could in theory represent a threat to your newfound power or job security, right? What President doesn’t want to handpick his own coach?

Elton made it sound like we’d collaborate on all the key decisions, and he needed more ‘basketball minds.’ Will I lose any roster control? What if Daryl wants to bring on his own team? Will he make me use analytics? I would have at least considered that Rockets job or broadcasting had I known everything might be different just three weeks later! OK look, just prove to me there’s no bait and switch, and I’m all in.

That’s what I’d want to say at least.

With Rivers on board Morey and the Sixers agreed on a five-year $50M deal. So perhaps we can infer Doc received key assurances from ownership (and maybe even Morey himself) that the original terms of his gig remained completely unchanged, even with “Dork Elvis” now in town.

If Loflin’s comments are accurate, and Doc “had to sign off” on Morey’s signing, (and knew that even if he were fired he could net his Sixers salary plus what the Lakers, Jazz or ESPN might offer), you might not worry much, even after your team limped to the finish line in the playoffs:

OK, now you’re Morey.

Eager to put behind you a brutal ordeal of seismic geopolitical proportions, thrilled to begin another half-decade in basketball, happy to avoid a lengthy rebuild or NBA hiatus, giddy with the idea of contending for a title, all near to family on the east coast, you might feel tremendous loyalty and gratitude to everyone within the Sixers org. who recruited you and were willing to forgo power to sign-off on your hiring. You recently wondered if you’d “ever work in the NBA again,” and now you’ve got Joel MVbiid entering his prime? If it were me, I might consider building ownership, Brand and Doc a statue each just for helping to make it happen.

So what are you gonna do, show them the same love by pulling rank? Risk embarrassing them by saying the dream team exec-coach duo they just backed up the brinks for (mid-pandemic with all its swirling economic uncertainty) stinks just two years into a five year deal!? Then try to bring the band back together with D’Antoni?!

If Morey even has that authority, I can’t imagine what Charles Barkley could do with that one. The Twitter scandal stats dork ousting a Hall of Fame champion coach to bring on Harden’s discipline-lacking no rings enabler....yeah that ought to help you lure Zach LaVine.

Please pay Doc to leave, pay MDA to join, pay Harden $175M, pay Jo’s supermax, hopefully pay Bradley Beal and one day Tyrese Maxey, pay luxury taxes and repeater fees. And if that doesn’t work out, what? My bad?

As Bodner said on the “Out of Sight” podcast with our Adio Royster last winter, “I’m not gonna speculate too much ‘cause Daryl, even if he wanted to [make a coaching change] he would lie his ass off to me, and that’s what he should do....you could certainly speculate that Daryl would be open to bringing in his own coach that would embrace his own style as well.” And Bodner said that before DeAndre Jordan and the turr-ble, as Chuck would say, last two games vs. Miami.

So I’m not saying Morey definitely wants another coach. I’m just saying if he secretly did, there are perhaps hundreds of millions of reasons he may not push for that outcome this offseason, and if that’s the case, things would sound pretty much like they do today. Like Bodner suggests, he’d be wise to “lie his ass off” until everyone involved in that decision was ready to make the move.

What if Morey could have sat on the other end of that table and asked three different candidates “how excited do you get at the idea of using EPM when designing a rotation?” Or “hypothetically, if I were trying to trade a key player and asking for three firsts, three swaps, and CJ McCollum, would you go on TV that week to rag on our player and compare his camp to election denying Trump supporters or would you simply say whatever helped our cause?”

Hey Elton, I’m on the other line with Sean Marks talking 2027 pick protections, could you ask Doc maybe not to publicly hint Ben can’t handle the truth,‘ least ‘til the 10th, thanks.

‘Seriously, how’s it goink?’

All elite front offices are going to require conversations and compromise and that should involve the coaching staff. But that doesn’t mean every team has the right voices or the right balance. The pre-Morey collaborative front office taught us this.

Morey, who would finish the 2019-2020 season with 6-5 P.J. Tucker at center, once said “you don’t [need a ‘Dwight Howard type’ of big] and you may get to where you don’t even have a five at all, probably just get to where you put your best guys out.”

Hilariously, not long after that, Dwight himself would admit Doc Rivers was the only coach who called to recruit him when he became a free agent.

Morey would later say: “there’s a chance to play like really unique, uptempo, sort of spacing, shooting lineups, but I also like adding a [backup big] just so Doc has all of the sort of tools....” But on the court, those ideas didn’t manifest enough.

Instead, a team Prez who commissioned a friggin’ musical titled “Small Ball” now oversees a team as committed to old-school backup bigs as any team in the sport.

Maybe it’s just ten minutes in a game, but it’s cost the Sixers. And it limits their chances to ramp up young guys or get a star guard whose struggling going with a spread floor.

Morey has in the past said “our goal has always been to be the best team and… and that means trying things.”

So why did the team only switch to playing Paul Reed as Embiid’s primary backup two days after a report Rivers’ “tenure in Philadelphia has also come into question of late” and a couple days before the playoffs?

Why do we hear Morey say things like “the reality is threes need to be nerfed, they’re just way too valuable,” when meanwhile the Sixers rank 27th and 25th in attempts per game through two seasons?

Morey says things like “what we [in Houston] found is we played the best small…we can’t match up big with the Sixers or the Lakers…so we’re gonna make them try to match up with us….”

While Rivers says things like “I’m gonna say it slow so we can all pick it up….when there’s a big five, we play bigger with [DeAndre Jordan].” Proactive vs. reactive.

Morey says “teams should be doing radical things constantly,” and then the Sixers tap an ice cold Paul Millsap to check Giannis in a game with massive MVP and playoff seeding implications. Radical.

Doc has a championship and Morey does not. And that should count for a lot. But I do worry that ring from 2008, or the way this whole unit was assembled, is leading this duo to put their heads together and come up with solutions that fail both the analytics and the eye test.

When Morey made the “mistake” of signing Tyson Chandler in Houston in 2019, his head coach quickly sussed out he was washed and never used him. Here, these perhaps small problems explode. “Two for you, two for me” bench spots all geared to one backup big. A draft coming with questions to ask like “should we trade the pick if coach would never use him?” It’s a clunky fit. Maybe they can start to win us over. But we’re going to need to see some radical change. And maybe less compromise from the front office.