Why Doc Rivers, and not Mike D’Antoni, was the right choice to be the 76ers next head coach

Only time will tell if Doc Rivers was the right hire for the Philadelphia 76ers, but on paper he appears to be. Brett Brown coached the Sixers for seven seasons, and during his tenure with the team he took them from the basement to contention, but ultimately he couldn’t get them over the top. Getting swept by the rival Boston Celtics in the first round of the postseason was the final nail in the coffin for Brown’s tenure in Philadelphia. 

Given the expectations that will be facing the team, the Sixers brass wanted a big-name coach with ample postseason experience to be Brown’s successor. They got that in Rivers, who ultimately beat out former Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni for the gig. Over the course of his coaching career, Rivers has won 943 regular season games, and another 91 in the postseason. Those numbers put him 11th all-time in regular season wins, and seventh all-time in playoff wins. He led the Boston Celtics to an NBA title in 2008, and took them back to the Finals in 2010 where they lost to the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers. 

In short, Rivers has learned what it takes to win at the highest level, and that experience is obviously very intriguing to the Sixers. D’Antoni, on the other hand, has never advanced past the conference finals, despite coaching some of the most prolific regular season squads in league history. Steve Nash and James Harden were both able to win MVP awards while being coached by D’Antoni, but neither has a ring to show for it. 

Then there’s the matter of fit. Given the current construction of the Sixers roster, it seems like D’Antoni would have been a poor choice. D’Antoni is well known for employing an extremely fast-paced offense that puts an emphasis on transition play, and the three-point shot. He was the pioneer of the vaunted “seven seconds or less” offense that his Phoenix Suns used during the mid-2000s, and his Rockets didn’t even employ a traditional center for a bulk of the past postseason in an effort to maximize their ability to run and space the floor. It doesn’t seem like such a style would mesh well with Sixers All-Star center Joel Embiid — who is one of the league’s premier post players — or the Sixers as a whole, as they’re short on shooters. Sure, trades could have been made, but to build a roster that would have fit D’Antoni’s vision would have likely taken a near-complete overhaul. The Sixers will be looking to their next coach to lead them somewhere they haven’t been since 2001 — the NBA Finals. Given that D’Antoni has never been able to lead a team there despite ample regular-season success, and the fact that his system doesn’t seem like it would be a great fit for Philly’s top player, they were probably wise to go in a different direction.    

While D’Antoni is married to a single style, Rivers has proved to be more flexible in his approach. He has incorporated post play into his game plans, and he is known to emphasize defense, while D’Antoni focuses almost solely on offense. Considering the fact that Philadelphia’s two best players, Embiid and Ben Simmons, are defensive dynamos, having a coach that can tap into that side of their game seems smart. 

Plus, Philly’s front office is hoping that Rivers will be able to unleash forward Tobias Harris, who still has four years remaining on the monster contract that the signed with the Sixers last summer. Harris played for Rivers on the Clippers last season before he was traded to Philadelphia, and he put up career-best numbers during that time as he averaged 20.9 points on 50% shooting from the field and 43% from long range. 

Rivers aptly steered the Clippers through the Donald Sterling controversy, so he clearly has experience in dealing with organizational dysfunction — experience that will likely come in handy in Philadelphia. He is also well-versed when it comes to coaching top-tier talent. He has coached a plethora of Hall-of-Famers and future Hall-of-Famers — like Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Chris Paul, and most recently Kawhi Leonard, over the course of his career, and he demonstrated that he could successfully manage multiple egos when he coached the Celtics to the title in ’08. 

Philadelphia’s front office is clearly hoping that he will be able to have similar success with Embiid and Simmons, and in turn lead them farther than Brown was able to. Rivers is well-respected by players across the league’s landscape, and that respect could translate to increased accountability up and down Philadelphia’s roster — a step in the right direction for a team that has lacked accountability in the past. 

Embiid, for what it’s worth, seems psyched about the selection. “Welcome to the city of Brotherly Love Coach [Doc Rivers] !!!!,” Embiid wrote on Twitter. “Excited for the future and what we’re building here #PhillyForever.” After having played only for Brown since he was drafted, it makes sense that Embiid would be amped about the opportunity to play for a coach with Rivers’ resume. 

Rivers was the most qualified candidate on the market, and his hire is a solid step for Philadelphia. However, the changes shouldn’t stop there. Some changes need to be made to better balance the roster, and the same thing could be said about the front office. During a press conference following Brown’s dismissal, Brand said that he would be evaluating the front office over the offseason and that he would be looking to strengthen the team’s brain trust.  

“I’ll also be conducting an evaluation of the front office and that infrastructure,” Brand said “… I feel like we need to strengthen our organization from top to bottom. That starts with the front office also, balancing out our strengths with analytics and strategy with more basketball minds.”  

Given the recent failures of the front office, the job security of those involved in the personnel decisions for the team should be called into question. Brand is safe, as he remains well-respected by his peers across the league’s landscape, but what about those directly under him? Executive vice president of basketball operations Alex Rucker and assistant general manager Ned Cohen are holdovers from the Bryan Colangelo era, and at this point it’s fair to wonder if either should remain with the franchise moving forward.   

Despite his previous front office experience — he served as the senior vice president of basketball operations for a time in Los Angeles — RIvers will serve strictly in a coaching capacity in Philadelphia, a team source confirmed to CBS Sports. This doesn’t mean that Rivers won’t have any input into personnel decisions though. Brand will likely consult with him about major moves, as he did with Brown.

If there’s any concern that the Sixers should have about Rivers it would be an inability to adjust during the postseason. Rivers’ Clippers just blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, despite the fact that the Clippers were arguably the more talented team. With the loss, Rivers became the first coach to blow three 3-1 leads in postseason history. When it comes to his resume that’s certainly a big blemish, but not big enough to stop the Sixers from signing him for the next half-decade. 

Rivers may not be a perfect coach, but he’s an undeniably good one. Given his experience, and the lack of other available options, it seems like the Sixers made a sound selection in picking Rivers to follow to Brett Brown. 

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