One of the traits of following any team with a reputed deal-maker serving in a lead executive role is that there’s always a new rumor to blow up your various news feeds. That is no different with Daryl Morey, and the mysterious, almost-gaslighting way in which he operates.
“Yes”, Morey responded without a millisecond of hesitation when asked at his exit interview if head coach Doc Rivers would return to the Sixers’ sideline next season. Although, you can’t help but take his word with a grain of salt. After all, Morey made a pair of radio appearances before this past season’s trade deadline, re-asserting in both that he planned to hold onto disgruntled star Ben Simmons until a suitable trade package came his way.
“You’re going to think I’m kidding. I’m not. This can be four years,” Morey claimed of how long he was willing to wait out Simmons’ market in one interview in October.
Meanwhile, James Harden quietly grew disgruntled with the drama surrounding the Nets. And then suddenly, one week before the trade deadline, the rumor bubble burst. Shams Charania reported that the Sixers and Nets were expected to talk about a trade surrounding Harden. Less than 2 hours before the deadline, the sides consummated a blockbuster deal to rid Philadelphia of its Simmons problem and reunite Morey and Harden.
Are you going to buy that Morey, one week out, thought to himself, “Gee whiz, they say James is upset. I wonder if Brooklyn would be interested in Ben. Golly, let’s make a call!”? Or, are you going to buy that Morey worked quietly over a long period of time to create leverage and steam towards a deal?
Morey’s job isn’t to tell anyone outside of his organization the truth. So, I can’t say I blame him for not living up to every last word that departs his mouth. But, I do wonder if you still believe in the Tooth Fairy if you choose to take his words for truth.
“I just think he’s a great coach, I love working with him. I feel like I’m learning from him. Elton and I and him make a great team. We’re going to see where this journey takes us,” was the company line Morey delivered at his exit interview. Smoke has permeated the NBA landscape ever since then — and, really, before, too.
First, there was a since-deleted tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski reporting a meeting between Philadelphia’s brass and Rivers would take place with the intention of discussing his future with the franchise. Chris Haynes followed with a check-mate shortly thereafter:
Yahoo Sources: The Philadelphia 76ers do not plan to meet with Doc Rivers to discuss his future and maintains the franchise is committed to the head coach and will work with him to improve the roster.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) May 14, 2022
The rumor mill quieted down until the pre-draft workouts began in Chicago. First, there was Gery Woelfel’s nugget early Friday afternoon:
There are always rumors galore at NBA pre-draft camps and this year isn't any different. Two long-running rumors that are gaining increased traction here in Chicago:— Gery Woelfel (@GeryWoelfel) May 20, 2022
1. Doc Rivers to the Lakers (draft pick/picks as compensation).
2. Mike D'Antoni to replace Rivers in Philly.
20 minutes later, the insider perhaps most connected to Klutch Sports threw water on the “Rivers to LA” fire.
Sources: Finalists for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job: Bucks assistant Darvin Ham, Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson and former Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts. Next stage of interviews are expected to take place in-person in Los Angeles.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) May 20, 2022
So, it’s possible. And then it seems like it’s not possible. A couple reporters say one thing. And then another set of reporters say another. Translation: someone is trying to forge a path for the coach to get to Los Angeles. The volume of conflicting reports means someone is jockeying for position.
Rivers likes to spend his free time on the picturesque golf courses and dining in the opulent restaurants of Southern California. Perhaps it’s the Lakers, who might be looking to rebuild some of their image by hiring a sought-after assistant coach that has made a name elsewhere or picking up one of the well-known veteran generals out there.
It could also be the Sixers. You can take the fact that Morey tried to lure Rivers to Houston before the coach chose the Sixers as all the evidence you need that he backs his chief. That doesn’t mean he envisioned Rivers as the commander in Philly. Different situations yield different visions. Rivers was also hired to be the coach before Morey was hired to be the President of Basketball Operations. There are a variety of scenarios in which you could talk yourself into believing that Morey would secretly like to part ways with Rivers. All we have to go off is the public knowledge. That says that the two are aligned in beliefs.
Still, I have doubts. Morey likes to lean into small ball. Rivers trotted out DeAndre Jordan until it was clear he couldn’t play. Overcoming his own stubbornness, Rivers turned to under-sized Paul Reed to back Joel Embiid in the playoffs.
I also have doubts that Rivers is aligned to Morey when it comes to analytics. In the Heat series, Rivers had one particularly funny exchange with a reporter following one of Philadelphia’s home victories. Faced with the term “negative variance” as it related to Miami’s shooting struggles, Rivers joked that he wasn’t familiar with that language and rhetorically asked if he was in Chemistry class. The reporter then explained it as deviation from the average. Rivers remained unsure of what was being asked. But, he finally laughed and answered when the phrasing was simplified to something along the lines of “the Heat struggled to make shots”.
Perhaps Rivers was joking the whole time, knowing what was meant but in a cheerful mood in the aftermath of victory. Or, perhaps that’s an example that speaks to Rivers’ more traditional basketball practices differing from Morey’s analytical background.
Whatever the case, there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism when it comes to Rivers. The optimistic side is pretty clear. Joel Embiid has elevated to the MVP conversation in both years Rivers has been in Philly. Tyrese Maxey saw an astronomical jump in his production from year 1 to year 2. Granted, he barely played as a rookie to begin with. Rivers also helped guide the Sixers to the 1-seed in the East in 2021. But, that ultimately meant nothing as they lost in 7 games to the Hawks in the second round. Although, you can blame Ben Simmons for that, first and foremost. Rivers then held the team together up to the trade deadline while the Simmons situation loomed over the franchise.
On the other hand, his offense has been mostly unimpressive through 2 years. He also cost the Sixers regular-season games this season, leaning towards Jordan in games that hung in the balance as the third quarter transitioned to the final frame. In this writer’s observation, most of the frustration lies with Rivers’ attitude towards the media and public. He will tell you right to your face that you don’t know as much about basketball as he and his staff do. Then, when his back is against the wall, he’ll do the thing about which you questioned him.
I ultimately don’t charge him for the Sixers’ offense turning to garbage against the Heat in the second round. We can talk about shifting to heavy isolation play instead of spamming pick-and-rolls. But, we must also discuss that Miami switches ball screens to oblivion. Switching ultimately takes away driving lanes. That inhibits your ball-handler’s ability to get downhill. You can claim that Harden is “washed” or injured. But, you cannot also say that he was perfectly able to navigate pick-and-rolls if only Rivers used them more often. Harden struggled so much that the Heat even stopped switching. Instead, they opted to disgrace him to the point of going under ball screens and daring him to shoot.
There also needs to be an understanding that the Sixers were essentially done when Embiid took Siakam’s elbow to the face. His choice was to roll with over-exposing Paul Reed, throw Charles Bassey into the playoff fire after not playing games for weeks, or pick between 2 backups in Jordan and Paul Millsap who are no longer NBA players. He was tasked with picking the lesser of 2 evils for the first 2 games of the series. That holds especially true when you weigh the options relative to what he had in Embiid.
You could even go back to Game 6 against Toronto and criticize him for leaving Embiid in too long. But, Rivers isn’t wrong in his defense that winning coaches leave their starters in until the losing coach waves the flag. There were 4 blowouts surrounding the Sixers’ Game-6 victory in Toronto. By my count, all 4 followed what Rivers preached in his own defense.
Sources close to the team told The Painted Lines that rumors about a potential Rivers departure are inaccurate. He will be working closely with Morey and Brand to strengthen the roster this summer. Sources have re-affirmed that position since season’s end.
Rivers has his faults, but a changing of the guard pardons issues elsewhere that need to be addressed. And no new coach is fixing them.