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Philly Is Hiring Doc Rivers to Make the Best of a Bad Roster, Not Rebuild It

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are both capable of dazzling on their own. The former Clippers coach is being brought in to make them finally, possibly, hopefully fit together.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sometimes not feeling anything feels just fine. This is my official reaction to the Doc Rivers–to-Philly news, and I feel comfortable enough ascribing it to a lot of Sixers fans and followers. After public flirtations with Clippers assistant Ty Lue and former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, the Sixers reached out to, dined with, and signed Rivers, who is fresh off his experience of coaching the only team that possibly had a worse bubble showing than the Sixers.

In the end, the team went with the safest pair of hands out there. Rivers inked a five-year deal with Philly on Thursday, replacing Brett Brown as the man with the whiteboard. His job will be to figure out what his predecessor could not: how to make this roster fit together, because this is the one he’s got.

Make no mistake: This is a repainting move, not a rebuilding one. Doc is being brought to Philadelphia to throw a new coat on the wall and see if it unlocks the space, not knock down any retaining walls. (I’ve been looking at a lot of home-improvement Instagram. Rock with me.) Had the Sixers gone with Mike D’Antoni, my guess is that would have spelled the end of the Joel Embiid–Ben Simmons experiment in Philly. D’Antoni is adaptable enough as a coach, but his core principles don’t seem to support having multiple floor-clogging bigs on the floor at once. Personally, I found the prospect of Simmons running a D’Antoni-fied Sixers offense tantalizing to consider, but trading Embiid—even if it brought back a pie-in-the-sky return like James Harden—would probably offend the fan base on a level they hadn’t experienced since the Charles Barkley–for–Jeff Hornacek trade.

Yes, Rivers has overseen some on-the-fly roster makeovers in Boston and Los Angeles. And the Clippers dealt Blake Griffin and Chris Paul on his watch, so it’s not like trading franchise players would be a completely foreign concept. But I am almost certain that Rivers’s pitch to the Sixers was, “I can make this work,” and the Sixers pitch to Rivers was, “Please make this work.” Maybe there will be some departures among the Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson tier of the roster, but, and I don’t mean to spoil anything for you, nobody is trading anything significant for those guys. The Vlade window has closed. Maybe there’s an effort to refresh a second unit—Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, Raul Neto, etc.—that was hardly inspiring any bench-mob memes. All that work though, at least on paper, will fall to Sixers general manager Elton Brand. There had been some speculation that Rivers would seek the personnel control in Philly (or wherever his new job landed him) that he had been stripped of in Los Angeles, but it appears that Brand will still nominally be making the roster decisions, and that Rivers was his first choice to lead the team out of the Bubble Darkness.

And that’s OK. At a certain point, as a Sixers fan, you need to be able to draw a line and move forward, and I say that as someone who owns multiple pieces of apparel that feature one or both of Dario Saric and Robert Covington. No franchise in professional sports this decade has had its team building and roster construction and draft picks and front-office shenanigans as closely scrutinized. Former team president Sam Hinkie started the Process because mediocrity just wouldn’t do anymore, so he tore the team down to build something better. Starting with the 2013 draft, he embarked upon a rebuild that caused most NBA followers to look at him like he had a flower pot on his head, racked up premium lottery picks, won some, lost a lot, and eventually left with the Process unfinished. The scariest prospect for those left believing in Hinkie’s doctrine was the mediocre reality of this current team. All of that for this?

The peak version of the post-Hinkie Sixers, at least for me, was the Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid team that seemed to represent a best possible combination of lottery home runs, draft finds, and smart veteran free-agent dealings. Then came the Jimmy Butler trade, the Tobias Harris trade, the Kawhi bounce(s), the Jimmy Butler departure, and the Al Horford signing, followed by the 2019-20 season of false starts, long interruptions, and a bubble performance that saw Simmons go down with a knee injury and the Sixers go down with no fight. Brown’s voice finally got so raspy no one in the locker room was listening, and Brand and ownership made a change.

Many of those moves I outlined (along with the trading of former no. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz) were made to accelerate a timeline and usher the team toward a championship, and that push, anecdotally, felt like restlessness from ownership, a desire to keep up with the superteams emerging in Los Angeles and beyond.

Doc Rivers is coming off of an embarrassing playoff exit in which he oversaw the third 3-1 postseason collapse of his coaching career. It says a lot about how the Sixers finished the season that they would probably look at being up 3-1 in a series at all to be a drastic improvement in their fortunes.

Rivers does not bring a particularly notable tactical style, at least not compared to D’Antoni or Kenny Atkinson (another coach out on the market who notably hasn’t come up in many rumors). Rivers will bring decades of NBA experience, a ring, and a reputation for getting through to players and getting them comfortable in their roles. This team has spent pretty much all it can on the roster, and now that roster is more or less untradeable, so now they are spending on coaching. They get Rivers and his little black book of assistant coaches—Alvin Gentry is already rumored to be in Rivers’s sights—with the hope that they can say just the right thing, make just the right adjustments, and concoct just the right chemistry to get the most of out of Embiid and Simmons together.

This was a franchise that felt like it was going off the road, fast. It was more than possible to imagine a trade demand from one of their two stars on the horizon. Doc Rivers isn’t a statement hire, it’s a hand-brake hire. Maybe he doesn’t inspire anything, but maybe that’s exactly what this team needs.