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May 16, 2022

The Sixers have assured everyone Doc Rivers will return, but should he?

The Sixers, as seen on in the court and spoken in their interviews, laid down when things got tough in the must-have games to end round two. It's the sort of thing that inspires people to question the leadership of the team at all levels, but especially in the coach's chair, at least in Philadelphia. Doc Rivers is not especially well-loved in this city at this point, which made it easy to look at their collective failure as a reflection of poor coaching.

Daryl Morey, tasked with leading the change to get the Sixers where they need to go this summer, was unfazed when asked whether Rivers would be back.

"Yes," Morey said when asked if Rivers would be back. No misinterpreting that.

"We didn't win the championship. So that's the goal and we didn't meet it. Grading is up to you guys, you guys can grade us however you want."

Reports have tumbled out in the hours since Philadelphia's Game 6 defeat billing Rivers' return as conditional, based on meetings the team might have with him and the priorities of all involved. Sources who spoke to PhillyVoice have asserted there is no such plan on the organization's part. The Sixers see Rivers as their coach moving forward, and there has been little debate about whether or not to keep him, as Morey's press conference answer further drove home on Friday afternoon.

But how does one grade the Sixers, and specifically Rivers for this two-year run? Rivers, ever-defiant in front of the microphone, stood loud and proud after the Sixers' Game 6 defeat to Miami, comfortable with his job security and the work he has done leading Philadelphia over the last two seasons.

"I don't worry about my job, I think I do a terrific job, and if you don't you should write it, because I work my butt off to get this team here," Rivers said Thursday. "When I first got here, no one picked us to be anywhere, and again this year, the same thing...I know what I did this year, and I feel very good about that."

For the Sixers, there was a lot to be proud of this season. A public battle with their second-best player could have taken their focus away from basketball and derailed a season. Instead, the Sixers brought Embiid back from a COVID-induced layoff and threatened to take the top seed in the East — it should be noted they fell just two games short of the Heat in the final season standings. Some of Philadelphia's best performances, including thrilling wins against the Grizzlies and Heat, came with their stars unavailable, Rivers riding bench players and Tyrese Maxey to surprise victories.

Embiid was their drumbeat, and a combination of his own development and a better understanding of his gifts has helped him take off over the last two seasons. When Embiid has had something working, the Sixers have continued rolling with it and forcing teams to prove they can stop it. Riding the hot hand is something that was a noticeable departure from the pre-Rivers days, when Embiid's sub patterns were more definitive, sometimes to his and the team's detriment during a heater.

Rivers is right that most people probably would not have predicted a No. 1 seed finish for the Sixers in 2020-21, or even the season they had this year, forced to play with a huge hole in their lineup for most of the season. But Rivers' quest to rewrite history, a constant throughout his career, overstates both the degree to which people doubted his team and the achievements they've had during his two years. 

Fresh off of his own flameout in L.A., Rivers was brought in precisely because Philadelphia's talent lagged behind their on-court results, expected to accomplish more than they had up to the moment of his arrival. He described the situation himself during his first day on the job, summing up a young duo who needed to make the next step.

"They’ve done a lot of winning, but we want to be the winner," Rivers said at his first presser. "Winning is great, but being the winner is the best, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

In terms of tangible results, the Sixers have not moved any closer to being "the winner." Second-round exits are still the peak of success for Philadelphia since 2001. They're the peak of success, for that matter, for Rivers over the last decade, in spite of having the opportunity to coach Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Joel Embiid, and James Harden during that time period.

If Rivers is going to get his share of the credit for Embiid moving toward the top of the league hierarchy, giving them a better chance to advance deeper in the playoffs, he certainly owns his share of responsibility for Ben Simmons not just regressing but turning his back on the organization. After Rivers' comments following their Game 7 loss to Atlanta last year, Rivers and Simmons were not on speaking terms for a lengthy period of time, two core pieces of the organization totally disconnected. A big piece of the sales pitch for Rivers coming here was an increase in "accountability," despite that being an issue for Rivers during the end of his own tenure in L.A. Rivers' season-long shielding of Simmons during his first season only made the end-of-year noncommittal more noteworthy.

(To be clear — Simmons' stalled development and failure to perform falls primarily on Simmons, and any failure to bring him forward further was an organizational one, not a one-man issue. But you can't pick and choose which highs and lows the coach is responsible for, giving him partial credit for MVP-level campaigns while totally ignoring the deterioration of the second most important player the organization had on board.)

Charges related to his handling (or mishandling) of their depth strike one as overblown when you consider the roster Rivers had to work with. Their best perimeter defender was often unplayable due to his horrid shooting, one of the team's bench shooters had what was essentially a season-long funk, their most-reliable shooter off the bench was a traffic cone on defense and a terrible rebounder, and Danny Green — the stabilizing force who had finally found his groove before his horrid Game 6 injury — spent most of the year shuttling in and out of the lineup, one issue or another holding him back. Within those parameters, Rivers did reasonably well to simply construct a playable rotation each night.

Rivers can't be divorced from whatever they lacked on the roster, though, if he wants to take credit when his voice and importance in transactional matters are publicized after a victory. The head coach was happy to mention his role in helping lure Andre Drummond to Philly, with Drummond having a strong run as the backup to Embiid. Georges Niang has said himself how critical Rivers' phone call was in his decision to come to Philadelphia. By contrast, I would imagine Rivers is not going to be leading a victory tour for the Jordan signing, the only transaction of consequence they made post-Harden trade, even though his fingerprints are all over that one.

Rivers' standoffishness in a small handful of press conferences doesn't ultimately mean anything, though it does follow those overarching themes of his coaching tenure — he is a man with a solid and reasonable Plan A who grows defensive and occasionally cartoonish when challenged. It created several strange moments where he'd say one thing and then do another.

The prime example is a recent one. Upon being asked whether he had any regrets about how much he had been able to play and develop Paul Reed, Rivers went on a condescending diatribe about how he and his staff knew better about who to play, and that Reed would play against smaller bigs, DeAndre Jordan against bigger fives. In the Heat series, Rivers proceeded to start Jordan (without question Philadelphia's worst player in the playoffs) against the 6'9" Bam Adebayo, bringing Reed off the bench against a Heat team boasting Dewayne Dedmon (6'11.5" with a 7'4" wingspan) on the second unit. There's the question of whether Jordan should have played at all, and then there's the matter of Rivers not even sticking to the conditions under which he claimed said players would succeed.

Then there's the matter of how their season ended, with numerous Sixers players openly admitting to the fact that effort and toughness were a struggle for them in the biggest moments of their season.

"Obviously, Miami took the fight to us and we didn't respond. It was almost like a boxing match where someone's throwing haymakers, and you're struggling to get a punch off," Niang said after exit interviews. "I'm not saying that we quit, but I think a lack of focus at certain times. When you dig yourself into a hole, you have to be really mentally strong to get up and fight back out of that. I think there were points in both Games 5 and 6 where we didn't have that."

"That's truly the disappointing factor," Tobias Harris said Thursday. "I could see if we came out and just gave it 100 percent effort, gave it the greatest effort we could, and just lost. But that wasn't the case in this series."

The franchise's best player was quick to offer a semi-defense of the coaching staff, noting (correctly) it's not on coaches to make sure a group of well-paid, professional athletes is motivated to play for the biggest games of their season. But it is on the coaching staff to develop counters, search for answers on the fly, and adjust to what the moment demands, whether it means changing lineups, changing your style, or demanding less of a player whose face is broken and thumb is torn. 

A lot of that work is done in the regular season, in games with lower stakes, and rarely has it been Rivers' choice (in Philadelphia or elsewhere) to make many changes during the year, opting for simplicity and stability more often than not. He has his guys, and he will fight for them and protect them, for better or for worse. 

That strategy is not without its merits, and it allowed the Sixers to develop an identity around Embiid during a strange year. But in the end, the Sixers lacked both the discipline to execute their best-laid plans and the adaptability to work around that problem. The head coach can't simply walk away from that problem unscathed, blameless for the aimlessness of his group in big moments.

At exit interviews, Rivers and Morey talked at length about the need to make upgrades anywhere and everywhere if they're there to be had, with Morey making an interesting comment while answering a question about their most pressing needs.

"I often feel like if you go into the offseason with like, we need to fix X, you end up closing off potential opportunities and avenues," Morey said. "It's also the day after, so I just think I need to meet with Doc and his staff and our staff and just really get a full picture on what they're seeing before I get into something like that."

What if the most important avenue you close off is one at head coach, your commitment to the current guy blinding you to an upgrade that might change your team's trajectory? I'd posit that's less likely than roster upgrades and natural development pushing you forward, but if you sat down and evaluated every coach around the league, Rivers would fall into a fairly sizable bucket of coaches who are average-to-good without being true difference makers.

Given their constraints — low on draft capital, up against salary constraints, and hoping an aging star can rediscover his form and fitness — you could make a compelling case they should be pushing much harder for coaching upside. Even if you believe Rivers falls at the high end of the aforementioned average-to-good scale, that has clearly not been enough to get the best out of two very different Sixers teams when the stakes were highest. To boot, the Sixers have now watched three separate coaches since 2016 leave their bench from assistant roles (Mike D’Antoni, Monty Williams, and Ime Udoka) and make a conference finals within two years of taking the lead gig elsewhere. If nothing else, that should drive home their failure to capitalize during a run where they’ve had the high-end talent to compete. 

For now, that doesn't appear to be the thought process in Philadelphia. Morey and others within the organization have backed Rivers, showing no signs of trying to push him out the door. It'll be easy enough to tell whether they're making the right call — they didn't offer him $8 million a year to remain in second-round stasis.

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