Coach Doc Rivers stood on the sidelines at Wells Fargo Center with his arms crossed late Thursday night, his face taut, his Philadelphia 76ers going down in a must-win Game 6 of an Eastern Conference second-round playoff series and his future as the team’s coach soon to become a topic of discussion.
Some minutes after the 76ers had been eliminated from the playoffs by Miami, Rivers sat at a podium doing his postgame interview when a reporter asked about his job security with Philadelphia. “I don’t worry about my job, but I think I do a terrific job, and if you don’t, then you should write it, because I worked my butt off to get this team here.”
Some 14 hours later, Rivers sat at a podium next to Daryl Morey and listened to Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations explain to reporters why Rivers will return next season for his third year with the franchise.
“I just think he’s a great coach,” Morey said during the team’s exit interviews. “I love working with him. I feel like I’m learning from him. I think [general manager] Elton [Brand] and I and him make a great team, and we’re gonna see where this journey takes us.”
What went unsaid Thursday night and Friday afternoon was why Rivers’ job status with the team had ever come into question.
Morey and Rivers heard the rumors for months that if Rivers didn’t at least reach the conference finals he might lose his job, and that Rivers would instantly become a leading candidate to replace Frank Vogel as the Lakers’ next head coach.
Those rumors could have been a distraction this season, but Rivers wouldn’t allow that.
“It’s not whether it’s good for me or bad for me, one way or the other,” Rivers told The Times later on Friday evening. “It’s positive in the fact that that’s what people think about you. But it’s not something you want, honestly. You don’t want the talk, just because you’re coaching a team. You want your players to all understand that you’re in it for the right reasons, and I am. I think that’s been proven.”
When the 76ers acquired James Harden from Brooklyn in a trade for Ben Simmons and others in February, the rumors began to take shape from NBA insiders that Morey would want to partner again with former Houston coach Mike D’Antoni. The two of them, along with Harden, had found a level of success with the Rockets, and the prevailing thought was the three of them wanted to re-create that magic in Philadelphia, along with All-Star center Joel Embiid.
When the Lakers fired Vogel, the rumors intensified, many believing that Rivers was the perfect fit for the team, the one person who could coach and command the respect of L.A.’s three stars, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. The person with the championship pedigree who could get the stumbling franchise back on solid ground.
Rumors are a part of the NBA business and Rivers knows there’s nothing he can do to stop it. Rivers says he’s happy here and his goal is to win a title with the 76ers. Rivers reportedly signed a five-year contract with the 76ers that has three years remaining.
“I kind of ignore most of the talk anyway,” he said. “That’s what I’ve done. I ignore the negative talk, though I wish the fiery side of me wouldn’t fight back sometimes. I just do my job.”
Even a disgruntled 76ers fan seemed aware of the rumors, lashing out when Philadelphia fell behind in the third quarter, directing his ire at Rivers and Harden.
“Doc, you better get your s— together or it’s over for you,” the fan yelled. “Take your ass back to L.A. … Harden, you f— suck. … I hate this f— team…”
Morey essentially put an end to all the talk.
“Naw, that was never an issue there,” Rivers said. “I’m not concerned about that at all. And I don’t even worry about that kind of stuff. I’m in this to win. I love coaching. But for me it’s always got to be team, front office, organization, all of us want to win. And if one of those don’t, you can’t. Like, if the front office, the ownership and the coaches all aren’t on the same page, you ain’t winning. And you got to be there, and we are.”
The Lakers have received permission to speak with Milwaukee assistant coach Darvin Ham, Toronto assistant Adrian Griffin, former Brooklyn and Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson and Milwaukee assistant Charles Lee. They have interviewed former Portland coach Terry Stotts and former Golden State coach and ESPN NBA analyst Mark Jackson about the job. Lakers general manager and vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka said the team hoped to have someone in place by the NBA draft in June.
Yet in a league in which the stars and superstars matter and are the primary reasons why teams win championships, Rivers checks that box more than most.
Rivers has coached Embiid and Harden — and Simmons before he was traded — in Philadelphia, Tracy McGrady in Orlando, the big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston, and Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with the Clippers.
“That’s what I’ve been hired to do,” Rivers said. “My job is to make stars play together and win. That’s been my job.”
How, Rivers was asked, does he make that work?
“It’s hard,” Rivers said. “Winning is hard. Even if you get stars to give up their own to play together, you still don’t guarantee that you are going to win. But I know one thing, if you don’t, you’re not. That’s the whole key is to get guys to play together and to win together. That’s what we should be in this for is to win. If a great player can only be great by themselves, then they can’t be great. Right?
“Magic Johnson and Bill Russell to me — I always use those two as an example — they figured out how to be great themselves and allow everyone else on the team to be great as well. And when that happens, your team wins. … Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq [O’Neal] had their difficulties, but they figured it out. They had to. They needed each other. Pau Gasol and that whole group.… Stars, you can’t win without them, and you have to try to figure out how you can play team basketball with your stars and if you can do that you can be successful.”
Over his 23 seasons as a coach, Rivers has put together an impressive resume.
He is ranked ninth in NBA history for the most regular season wins (1,043) and has the fourth most playoff wins (104), putting him behind the distinguished group of Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich.
Rivers was named one of the top 15 greatest coaches in NBA history when the league celebrated its 75th anniversary season during the 2021-22 campaign.
He won an NBA championship with the Celtics in 2008 by beating the Lakers and then lost in the 2010 Finals to the Lakers.
Rivers remains driven to win championships.
He says making a team work together is a “relentless” pursuit.
“You cannot give up on the hope and the dream,” Rivers said. “You cannot let them give up and you have to continually sell them on its worth it. Every day. Because for some of them it’s a gamble to let go of their comfort zone where they are at. It’s a relentless sell but it’s worth it. And it’s hard, ‘cause you know what happens during the season, there’s some bad [stuff] that’s going to happen. There just is.
“You’re going to go on a losing streak. Someone is going to get injured. Some guy is going to go into a slump and blame you for his slump and then stops buying in and then may start in the locker room, ‘Man, we don’t know if we should do this stuff.’ Like, you got to fight all that. You got to be relentless in your approach to your guys and then eventually they have to see from you: ‘This [coach] has no agenda. He wants to win. That’s it. And he ain’t relenting.’ That’s the other thing: ‘He ain’t changing.’ And that’s important. And that you are partners. The No. 1 thing you have to have is cooperation. That’s it.”