Doc Rivers will try to cure what ails the talented 76ers
It was 30 degrees and snowing in Philadelphia when Doc Rivers answered the phone on a Tuesday evening. The forecast had called for a snowstorm to blanket the East Coast by the end of the week, with the temperatures dropping to 14 degrees.
When Rivers was told it was 75 degrees with blue skies in Los Angeles, he laughed and laughed.
“Damn!” Rivers said. “A few days ago, it was 67 here and I thought, ‘It’s not so bad here in Philly.’ Hell, I was wrong about that.”
His life had significantly changed in a matter of months and, truthfully, in a matter of a few days.
Rivers had been the coach of a talented Clippers team with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two of the best two-way players in the NBA, and was expected to contend for the NBA championship. Rivers had been living in Malibu, his house having picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean, his life next to perfect.
Now he is the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers after having been fired by the Clippers following a historic collapse in the playoffs, a twist of fate Rivers with which he must live.
Aside from the inclement conditions in Philadelphia, having young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as his centerpieces to contend with in the uber-competitive Eastern Conference means life is not so bad for Rivers after all.
“I got two studs, man, and they are very open to coaching,” said Rivers, who guided Boston to the 2008 NBA title and back to the Finals in 2010. “It’s funny. I guess what they would say with the Clippers is they haven’t won, and it’s the same with Philly. They haven’t won yet with these young guys. When you’re young, the ‘yet’ word is important because it can still get done, and I believe that. I think they are about ready to win and being winners.”
Over the course of his seven seasons with the Clippers, Rivers delivered them to the playoffs six times. Yet none of his teams made it past the second round of the playoffs and two of them blew 3-1 series leads, the falling apart against the Denver Nuggets in September too much to prevent his termination.
Though Rivers had a 356-208 regular-season record with the Clippers, he and owner Steve Ballmer agreed to part ways.
Rivers landed in Philadelphia soon after departing the Clippers on a Monday by securing his new job with the 76ers on a Thursday of the same week.
“I had heard through the grapevine even before this [firing], they had reached out. They had a lot of interest and if I would leave the Clippers, which I wouldn’t have done,” Rivers said. “So, it was tough because it was just so quick, like you get three days. I was fired and hired in four days. It has to be a record, you know? But because it was this team, it wasn’t as difficult. There were some other jobs that obviously [were] available, but I just wouldn’t even go take an interview. I was like, I’d wait for a good one.”
The analysis on how Rivers and the Clippers failed was swift.
There was George going on a podcast criticizing Rivers, saying he didn’t use him properly in the offense, that the team didn’t make the proper adjustments against the Nuggets and that the Clippers weren’t adequately prepared because of so little practice time.
“I told someone the other day, I said, ‘Listen, everybody doesn’t love playing for me, and I’m fine with that.’ That doesn’t make them bad guys or good guys or whatever. I do my best, and if they like it ... ” Rivers said. “And I joked and said, ‘Paul loved playing for me until the playoffs.’ If you look at his numbers, he got more pick and rolls than he had ever gotten in his entire career and he had his highest percentage in pick and rolls than he ever had when he was with me. Paul struggled in the playoffs. He struggled in the Dallas series. He needed somebody to blame, and I’m fine with that. Blame me. [Expletive], I can handle it.”
A team-by-team preview of the Eastern Conference heading into the 2020-21 NBA season.
Still, it pains Rivers to know the Clippers had a 3-1 lead against the Nuggets and led by double digits in each of the final three games and still lost that series.
His team just didn’t handle playing in the bubble on the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla., leading to his demise.
“Last [season], that is the one that hurts, because we were up 3-1 and I thought we were the better team,” he said. “This last series, all of them were home games or road games. I don’t know what the hell the bubble was. But I left that series thinking we were the better team, and we didn’t perform. We had a lot of [stuff] going on. Pat Beverley couldn’t play more than three-minute stretches because of an injury. Trez [Montrezl Harrell] was never in shape, and all that stuff. And I really believe, in my heart, if there is no bubble, we would have at least played the Lakers” in the Western Conference finals.
There is no pity in the NBA, and Rivers knows he has to guide a 76ers squad with unrelenting fans that lost in the first round last season.
And it won’t be easy in the Eastern Conference, the top half of which features several contenders.
“Let me tell you, man, the East is tough and it’s deep,” Rivers said. “When you look at the West right now, for the most part, it’s the Clippers and the Lakers. I guess Denver you have to put in there. But is there another team?
“But the East, man, from Miami to Milwaukee to us to Boston to Toronto to Brooklyn … damn! I guess Milwaukee would be the clear-cut favorite, but after that, we are all right there. And it’s going to come down to the teams that are able to deal with stuff and handle this season. This is another extraordinarily different season.”
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