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Doc Rivers speaks out on how he left the Clippers and arrived at the 76ers

Former Clippers coach Doc Rivers
Former Clippers coach Doc Rivers was introduced as the new Philadelphia 76ers coach on Monday.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

Within hours of learning last week that he would not return for an eighth season with the Clippers, Doc Rivers heard from his agent that three teams wanted to speak with him, that day, about their coaching openings.

“I said, ‘I’m good right now, I need a day,’” Rivers said. “… I love coaching. I absolutely love it. But I was not going to just coach anybody, I can tell you that. I was ready to take a break and it just depended on the team that was available and if I thought that that team in my opinion was ready to win.”

Within days, Rivers found a suitor that fit his criteria.

The 58-year-old coach who ranks 11th on the NBA’s victories list agreed to lead the Philadelphia 76ers, a franchise whose arc this season — star duo, title expectations but a disappointing, early postseason exit that led to a coach’s ouster — mirrored the Clippers’ own.

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The Clippers lost in the second round despite leading the series 3-1 and each of the final three games by double digits, falling two rounds short of their much-discussed championship goal. Following the Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets, which capped the second time a Rivers-led Clippers team blew a 3-1 playoff lead, Rivers said to blame him for the outcome. Throughout the postseason, Rivers was heavily criticized and questioned for being too reactive in making lineup and strategy changes. Two weeks later the franchise’s record-holder for victories, winning percentage and playoff victories was out of a job — but not for long.

He acknowledged reflecting on why the Clippers didn’t match their championship potential.

“Let’s just start with COVID,” Rivers said Monday, a 76ers lapel pin on his suit during a virtual press conference from Philadelphia’s practice facility. “This has been a tough year for everybody. The bubble is not a normal experience but I’m glad it’s an experience that the NBA created. Without it, we wouldn’t be crowning a champion this year. As far as what went wrong, we had a 3-1 lead and didn’t [win].

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“I love that we got up 3-1, it tells us that we were doing something great. What I didn’t like is we didn’t close. And that’s something I do evaluate and look at and is something that will bother me for a long time until we win here.”

The Clippers termed the ouster a mutual decision by Rivers and Steve Ballmer. The owner was displeased that the team’s performance was not keeping pace with upgrades in other departments and wanted a coach innovative enough to get the most out of the roster, from its stars to its young players, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Tyronn Lue, an assistant under Rivers who coached LeBron James and Cleveland to the 2016 NBA title, is a leading contender to land the job but the team is not expected to rush its hire.

“Steve and I had a lot of talks about the direction of the team and finally we decided that me staying there, that it was just time to take a step away,” Rivers said.

Instead of taking a break, Rivers will be on a sideline coaching for a 22nd consecutive season in 2021, following stops in Orlando, a championship tenure in Boston and Los Angeles, where he guided the Clippers through the Donald Sterling scandal in 2014 and helped recruit Kawhi Leonard last summer but never advanced to a conference finals. This spring and summer, he became a leading voice as the NBA grappled with how to help fight racism. Rivers has long spoken to players about voting.

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“Doc will use his voice to have tough conversations to what he can do to change and make a positive impact on society,” Philadelphia general manager Elton Brand said.

After the death of George Floyd, the NBA mulled how it could help steer the conversation on racism. Its international players are playing a part.

Rivers was on a plane to meet with 76ers officials within a day of departing the Clippers because of two names, he said: 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

“This team is loaded with talent,” he said. “We just got to figure out how to make it work the best.”

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That was his mission with the Clippers one year ago, after adding Leonard and Paul George to a roster called by some the NBA’s deepest. Yet constantly in flux because of injuries, the team struggled to maximize its talent. The Clippers were at their healthiest and playing their best in March, only for the pandemic to shut down the season for four months. Once the NBA resumed in its Florida bubble, the Clippers flexed their might in stretches. Leonard took over games to close out Dallas in the playoffs’ first round and the starting lineup produced a 95.6 defensive rating in 13 postseason games — one of the stingiest among any lineup.

Now Rivers’ challenge is finding the best version of the 76ers. Since taking the job late last week, Rivers has spoken with players, been watching film and criss-crossed the country by jet multiple times.

“It’s been a heck of a week,” he said. “I’m looking forward to this weekend, I’ll put it that way.”

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