There was no mincing words as Daryl Morey, donning his signature light navy blazer, sat before reporters on Wednesday afternoon, about 24 hours after the Sixers announced that they were parting ways with now-former head coach Doc Rivers.
It was his decision to go in a new direction.
“My job is to evaluate everything. We felt like that was the best move for helping us get to our goals going forward. It was carefully thought out. I recommended it to ownership, and they accepted it,” the President of Basketball Operations said of the decision to fire Rivers after delivering an opening statement in which he lauded the former head coach.
That was the first move, but an inevitable one, following the Sixers’ dismissal from the playoffs at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I don’t like to totally talk in theoreticals. I wasn’t here when Doc came in, but I know the goal was to get to the Conference finals or farther. Really, to win the championship. But, that’s also the goal given to me. So, yeah, one more win is something that would obviously have been a very positive thing. Hopefully, it would’ve been nine more wins, if I can do the math,” Morey said.
The task was simple, although Morey and Rivers would tell you that winning at the highest level is far easier talked about than achieved. Philadelphia wanted a championship. But, Philadelphia needed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs for there to be a feeling that things could continue as they were.
Even if the writing was on the wall, that doesn’t mean everyone was on board with the firing.
“[Rivers and Joel Embiid] had a strong relationship. I have to make tough calls all the time with trades Joel was disappointed in. Some of it was he didn’t know the player we were getting in the trade who ended up helping us. But, he was disappointed in the players that went out,” Morey said regarding the newly-minted league MVP’s stance on the change at the helm.
“I think it’s natural to be very close with the people in the locker room. He was very close with Coach Rivers. He was shocked about the change. It’s my job to help convince him that the new coach is someone that he’ll have a great relationship with as well.”
As for Rivers’ relationship with Harden, who gave an uninspiring “OK” when asked how things were between them following the Sixers’ Game 7 loss in Boston, Morey rejected the notion that things were less than peachy.
“Obviously, that’s the business we’re in. Players and coaches have to give these instant answers. I get the benefit of a couple days between the toughest situation that the players have faced in a long time and giving answers to you today. People make too much of those snap answers right after a loss like that,” he said.
“I think Doc had a great relationship with his players. We wouldn’t have had the success we had without it. His relationship with both Joel and James was very strong. I think people saw that chemistry on the court, between the three of them. That was something that was not an issue.”
Now, the Sixers have some time before the offseason roster-shifting period begins. In that time, they will look for a new head coach. But, Philadelphia’s brass also must wrestle with whether or not their future includes James Harden. According to Chris Haynes, the 33-year-old floor general will opt for free agency this summer.
Morey made it clear that the Sixers can neither have conversations with free agents at this time, nor go into details about the level of commitment they’d be willing to offer potential players on the open market. But, Morey also made it clear that the Sixers have interest in keeping Harden in Philadelphia.
Regardless of Harden’s relationship with the Sixers going forward, Morey was adamant that the search for the next head coach will be careful and comprehensive. But, above all else, it will be deaf to the voices of the personnel on the roster.
“We’re taking a careful process with the coach, we do not think it will move quickly. We’re going to look at all the candidates, we’re already very encouraged by the candidates that reached out, we have an MVP player, a great roster that lots of players want to play with, lots of coaches want to be with,” he said.
“We will look at that carefully. The players will not have a direct input in the coach. Obviously, you want to look for a coach that is a fit with how we want to play and the players we have. But, the players won’t have an input in that.”
Removing player input from the decision is the correct approach. On one hand, Embiid and Harden haven’t brought home the hardware to give themselves the equity to influence a coaching hire. As good as the Sixers’ high-profile duo was in the regular season, that has no bearing on counting accomplishments in May and June. On the other hand, the Sixers’ core is at a stage where both winning now and looking even just a year or two down the road are important considerations.
To Embiid and Harden’s credits, Morey claimed that they took responsibility for their respective shortcomings in the Sixers not bringing home that hardware.
“I’ve had discussions with all our key players since the season ended. Those are hard discussions. Like I said, it’s a business, but they get a mic in front of them right after the loss. It’s still very hard for them to process things right after, even a day or two later. But, one-hundred percent. They had a mirror out,” Morey said.
“They weren’t blaming anyone, but how they could be better. Specifically, multiple players were like, ‘Hey, I need to work on this and that in our game’. So, it was a very positive mental approach. I thought that everyone was taking ownership in what they need to do better.”
As for weighing what is important in determining who the next head coach will be, Morey and company want to cast a wide net.
“I think when you get into requirements, you miss opportunities. I would say that we have a roster ready to win, obviously we’ve been very successful. Just came up short of our goals. We have an MVP-level player. I do think, if you look at the history of the NBA, it’s challenging to walk into that as a first-time NBA head coach. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked. For every rule, there are solid counter-examples. So, we’re not going to go in with a prescription or proscription. But, we’re looking for someone who brings leadership and accountability. Someone who is good at tactics, someone who has great relationships with his star players, someone who is good at recruiting star players and players want to play for. Someone who builds a great organization,” Morey said of whether prior head-coaching experience is a requirement for the next top chair on the sideline.
“I one-hundred percent believe we had that with Coach Rivers, I want to be very clear. But, those are the kinds of criteria we looked at. Those are the kinds of criteria that led to hiring Doc. We’re going to work hard to find someone who hits all those marks again.”
There’s a canyon between the prospect of a first-time head coach and the prospect of bringing in someone who has the cachet that comes with rings. Morey insisted that the right answer lies somewhere in the middle.
“It’s a mix. The available coaches is very strong. That’s why we’re encouraged by the ones that have reached out to us already. Recent championships is a factor. Definitely not a litmus test,” he said.
“But, all else equal, I do think that can lend a lot of credibility with players that, ‘Hey, I just did this’. I think that matters. That’s why adding like a PJ Tucker last year is also a positive. ‘Hey, when I just did this with Milwaukee, these were some of the key elements.’ I know that gave him a lot of voice in the locker room.”
Morey doesn’t see the head-coaching change as a need to find a missing ingredient that Rivers couldn’t offer. Rather, it’s about fit. The goal is to align the candidate’s mix of strengths with the mix of strengths the players have.
Rivers had the championship equity. He was the “culture and accountability” guy. You might argue it’s time for an Xs-and-Os wizard, and perhaps that will be the route the Sixers go. Morey claims he doesn’t involve himself with tactics, leaving that to the coach. He also doesn’t seem to believe that the tactician is the end-all candidate.
“I actually think people put too much importance on that. Like, it ends up being a much smaller part of the game than people expect, relative to working with your star players, recruiting star players. Things like that. It is an important element. But, it tends to get overvalued,” the President of Basketball Operations opined.
“It tends to get overvalued by people like me, frankly, because it’s an area that I just naturally have an interest in and I think a lot of people do. But, it can only be one part of the puzzle. I promise you, it’s just one part of the picture.”
Only time will tell what is to come of the hunt for a new head coach. A conversation with a team official suggested that the future remains unknown for Rivers’ staff in the wake of his dismissal. Perhaps the new leader will bring in his own staff, perhaps he’ll be content with what Rivers left behind. Perhaps, as reports indicate, the next head coach will be a promotion from within.
Regardless, the Sixers have work cut out for themselves beyond the sidelines. If Harden leaves, things get much more complicated, especially when you consider where they would stand relative to their ultimate goal.
“We have to plan for every scenario. For sure, [Harden] has the option to be a free agent. So, we have to plan for all scenarios. We feel like that’s a scenario we can continue to move forward. We have to remember there’s like 26 teams that would rather have our roster. Look who we’re starting with, the MVP of the league. So, the draft lottery yesterday was hoping to get a top pick to hope that player becomes as good as the MVP of the league. So, we start in a great spot,” Morey said.
“We have a lot of free agents, so we’re going to lose some free agents. There’s some key ones we’d like to bring back. But, we feel good about the alternate scenarios, as well. Scenario A would be to bring James back. Scenario B, if he’s not back, will be we’ll have to get creative and we feel good about the tools available to us if that happens.”
The tricky part as of now, it appears, is that the Sixers aren’t entirely sure where they need to improve for next season.
“Besides the coaching search, we go through a pretty careful process with the front office on what needs to be done. We haven’t gone through that yet. So, we will figure that out going forward. I think last year was a little more straightforward, especially the ‘two-way player’ part. The ‘toughness’ part I thought was real. But, sometimes that’s used just if you win or lose. I think ‘two-way players’ is a little more clear, and I think we did address a lot of that. We still have a lot of things to improve, though,” Morey said.
“We do have some normal improvements that are coming this year. Maxey we think has a real shot to be one of the top players in the league. He is absolutely committed to putting the work in, as we know. So, that’s an area that’s pretty exciting. And then Joel Embiid, like, as you’ve seen, I wouldn’t bet against him improving again. He’s done it every year since I’ve been here. He’s done it, I believe, every year before I got here. His health is improving and his game is improving. Again, a lot of the conversation with Joel was just him immediately like, ‘Hey, I can do more, I can work on this. I’m watching the playoffs, I’m looking at this guy, I can add that to my game’. I wouldn’t bet against him.”
Internal improvements are certainly possible, if not probable. But, there is no hiding that the Sixers will have to get creative, regardless of whether or not Harden comes back, to make inspiring upgrades to the personnel on the court. That much is especially true when you consider the backdrop that is the league’s new collective bargaining agreement.
“I think the details of that new CBA haven’t been totally finalized. But, a lot of them don’t kick in until later. So, look, I do think that’s something that, speaking of strengths and weaknesses, our front office is very good at. Finding areas to take advantage of the new set of guidelines we work under and being creative and finding solutions to make the team better,” Morey said.
It’s another offseason of questions for the Sixers. But, for the first time in this era, you can feel the seconds ticking off the Sixers’ clock. And once that clock runs out, it’ll be time to shift the franchise away from the pillars that currently hold it up.
“I tell ownership winning is hard, we have made progress. Frankly, I feel like I’m the best guy to lead the 76ers,” Morey said. “Ownership believes that. If we don’t advance, I understand if something happens from there.”