Is Doc Rivers the Right Coach for Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Sixers?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2020

LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers smiles during the second quarter of an NBA basketball gameagainst the Denver Nuggets, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Doc Rivers was never going to be on the market for very long.

As it turned out, 72 hours and 23 minutes passed between ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reporting that Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers would be parting ways and that he had reached an agreement to become the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The situation Rivers is walking into in Philadelphia is not too different from the one he just left in L.A. Both have two All-Stars and on-court expectations that place them firmly in win-now mode. The coaching search Sixers ownership and general manager Elton Brand ran prioritized big names with experience managing superstars. Tyronn Lue and Mike D'Antoni were the two leading candidates before Rivers unexpectedly became available earlier this week.

There won't be a splashier coaching hire made during this cycle. But with questions about the on-court compatibility and off-court chemistry between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and about how the rest of Philly's roster fits around them, is Rivers the right hire?

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense.

The Sixers need someone better equipped than former head coach Brett Brown to connect with multiple stars and manage egos. Rivers' resume is filled with examples of him doing exactly that—Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill with the Orlando Magic, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen with the Boston Celtics, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the first part of his seven-year tenure with the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George this past season.

But Rivers' track record in Los Angeles is also filled with disappointing playoff exits, including two blown 3-1 leads that came in 2015 and last month in the bubble. His stars haven't always gotten along, either. There was tension between Allen and the rest of the Celtics by the end of their run, as well as between Paul and Griffin while they were teammates.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

There's already widespread speculation about the relationship between Embiid and Simmons. The Sixers looked disjointed and disconnected for much of this season before getting swept by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, a series Simmons missed with a knee injury. Rivers will have his work cut out for him striking the balance between managing two stars with strong personalities and putting everyone around them in position to maximize their potential.

The blueprint for how this marriage can succeed is provided by the 2013-14 Clippers, the first and best version of Lob City under Rivers. Despite Paul missing 18 contests in the middle of the season with a shoulder injury, that team won 57 games. With Paul out, Griffin was the Clippers' de facto point guard for much of the season and had the best year of his career, placing third in the MVP voting.

That year, Griffin showed himself to be a gifted passer; he's still not in the same zip code in that regard as Simmons, whose peers as a playmaker in the modern era are LeBron James and Rajon Rondo. Simmons is also a better defender than Griffin ever was. He doesn't shoot, but Griffin didn't shoot well at the time (27.3 percent from three-point range in 2013-14).

Brown talked in recent years about wanting to use Simmons the way Rivers used Griffin; now, the Sixers have hired the coach who unlocked Griffin in the first place.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

That year, Rivers also helped DeAndre Jordan figure out his ideal role at both ends of the floor, and his career took off.

Embiid is a much more talented player than Jordan in just about every way, possessing a much more diverse set of skills. At times, though, he's been reluctant to play to his strengths, content to jack up three-pointers he doesn't make reliably enough (31.9 percent for his career) to take as many as he does (3.6 per game). 

One of Rivers' most important tasks in his new job will be simplifying Embiid's role and getting consistent effort and production out of a player who has struggled to harness his MVP-level talent. But Brand and the rest of the Sixers' front office (which may still be undergoing a shakeup) must make some other moves to put a better roster around their two stars.

A reunion with Rivers should be great for Tobias Harris, who played the best basketball of his career in parts of two seasons with the Clippers from 2018 to 2019. Moving Al Horford and bringing in more shooters to put around Simmons and Embiid should be a priority. It will be hard to judge the task Rivers has until after free agency when we see what he'll have to work with.

Few coaches have built up more goodwill for what they've done for an organization than Rivers has with the Celtics and Clippers. He took over the Clippers in 2013 and helped transform them from the least credible franchise in the league to one that was able to recruit George and Leonard in free agency. 

The Sixers aren't the laughingstock the Clippers were then, but in those same seven years, they've gone from the Process to the Bryan Colangelo era (remember Burnergate?) to whatever this current version is. It's a franchise in need of a stabilizing force, and Rivers has proved throughout his career that he's the right man for that job.

But Rivers also never made it past the second round of the playoffs with the Clippers despite having rosters talented enough to do so. Will he be able to change that in Philly with a team that's almost as talented but much more dysfunctional? 

There's reason to be hopeful—and also reason to be skeptical.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.