5 reasons Doc Rivers can keep his head up after being fired by the Sixers

OPINION: Doc Rivers is one of the best coaches in the game, and he's going to rebound from this latest setback just as he has in the past.

Doc Rivers fired, theGrio.com
Former head coach Doc Rivers of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls at Wells Fargo Center on March 20, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Doc Rivers has been in the game a long time, long enough to know that most coaches are escorted out, as opposed to leaving of their own volition. 

There’s no need to hang your head when a team opts to move on, especially when the boss never chooses you in the first place. Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey inherited Rivers and now gets to make his own hire. Sure, he would’ve stuck with Rivers if Philly won the title instead of suffering another second-round playoff exit. But he’ll still give prospective employers a great recommendation for the 61-year-old coach.

“Doc is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, a future Hall of Famer, and someone I respect immensely,” Morey said in a statement after firing Rivers on Tuesday. “We’re grateful for all he did in his three seasons here and thank him for the important impact he made on our franchise. After having the chance to reflect upon our season, we decided that certain changes are necessary to further our goals of competing for a championship.”

There are 30 teams in the NBA and 29 of them end each season with a loss. After his top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were bounced from the first round last month, Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo said “there’s no failure in sports; there’s good days and bad days.” Other observers rejected that notion and equated Ls with Fs. 

But philosophy is unnecessary when it comes to Ws, and Rivers has more than his share. He ranks ninth among all-time NBA coaches and second (to Gregg Popovich) among active coaches. He won a championship with Boston in 2008 and last year was named one of the 15 greatest coaches in NBA history.

“I really enjoyed my time in Philadelphia — what a great city,” Rivers said in a statement. “I want to start by thanking my staff, the players, and the ownership group for their support. We got a lot done in a short amount of time.”

Here are five reasons Doc Rivers can keep his head up after being fired by the Sixers:

1. He has done better at each job.

Rivers has obviously done something right when given the chance. He has led four different teams – just short of a full NBA division – in 24 consecutive seasons, improving at every stop along the way. 

The former All-Star point guard began his coaching career with the Orlando Magic in 1999-2000, where he was named Coach of the Year as a rookie. He posted a .504 winning percentage and reached the playoffs thrice in five seasons. His winning percentage in Boston was .577, and he led the Celtics to two Finals appearances.

Before his arrival in 2013-14, the Los Angeles Clippers were laughingstocks who had missed the postseason 16 times in the previous 20 seasons. Under Rivers, their winning percentage was .631 and they made six playoff appearances in his seven years. In Philly, he enjoyed a .653  winning percentage and helped Joel Embiid ascend to the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. The Sixers improved their win total each year and this season posted their best record (54-28) since advancing to the Finals in 2000-01.

2. He’s in good company.

“No one is safe in our business, and I get that,” Rivers said after Philly’s season-ending loss Sunday. He had two years left on his contract but only two days left in his tenure. Being axed is part of the job, though, even for the most successful practitioners.

Of the last five coaches to win a championship, only Golden State’s Steve Kerr remains in place. Bud Budenholzer (Milwaukee in 2021) and Nick Nurse (Toronto in 2019) were fired last week. Frank Vogel (Los Angeles Lakers in 2020) popped bubbly in the NBA bubble but was canned after two more seasons. Tyronn Lue (Cleveland in 2016) helped LeBron James make the hometown proud but didn’t survive an 0-6 start in 2018-19. 

Doc Rivers fired, theGrio.com
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers, who was fired May 16, celebrates after winning Game 4 in an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, May 7, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Monty Williams didn’t win a title with Phoenix, but he reached the Finals and won Coach of the Year (2022) like Nurse and Budenholzer. Williams still received a pink slip last week. What have you done for us lately? That’s hardly the question anymore. Now it’s what did you do a minute ago?

3. He was saddled with a head case in Ben Simmons.

Far be it from me to make light of mental health issues, real or perceived, especially during Mental Health Week. Too many folks mistakenly expect athletes’ physical prowess to convey matters of the mind. But few of us are routinely required to perform in high-stakes environments while hundreds of thousands of onlookers dissect our every move.

That’s part of the job description for NBA ballers, even more when you’re a No. 1 overall draft pick. Simmons was the clear choice for that designation when Philly selected him in 2016 – four years before Rivers arrived – and he proved it by becoming an All-NBA talent. He averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists in 2020-21 when the Sixers were the East’s top seed.  

But his time in Philly came to a head that season when he passed up the easiest shot in NBA history, dishing to Matisse Thybulle instead of dunking on 6-foot Trae Young in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It epitomized his aversion throughout the series; Simmons didn’t attempt a fourth-quarter shot in five of the seven games, presumably to avoid being fouled and highlighting his dreadful free throws. 

Rivers was honest to a fault afterward, saying “I don’t know” if Simmons is a championship-level point guard. Simmons sat out the next season, partially for mental health reasons. He never played for Philly again, having essentially ruined two of Rivers’ three campaigns there.

4. He makes opponents earn it.

There are two ways to look at Rivers’ postseason record (111-104), particularly in longer series. The generous view is that he doesn’t go down easily. 

Overall, his winning percentage in the playoffs is .516. But once his teams have three victories in a series, they’re 16-33, a win percentage of .326. Prevailing in series that go the distance has been particularly troublesome. He has the most Game 7 losses in NBA history (he’s 6-10), including his last five (2015, 2017, 2020, 2021 and 2023). 

Again, taking the half-full approach, teams need Herculean efforts to end his seasons. In the history of the NBA playoffs, a team has come back from a 3-1 deficit only 13 times. Three of those occasions were against Rivers’ teams.

“It’s easy to use me as an example, but I wish y’all would tell the whole story with me,” Rivers last season. “My Orlando team was the 8 seed. No one gives me credit for getting up against the Pistons who won the title. That was an 8 seed. I want you to go back and look at that roster. I dare you to go back and look at that roster and you wouldn’t say ‘What a hell of a coaching job.’ Really.”

5. He was dependent on James Harden and Embiid.

Most observers thought Harden was cooked last season and his MVP-level play was past its expiration date. Even at the height of his powers, Harden could never be counted on in the playoffs, where one writer summed up The Beard as “producing “highs in low-pressure situations and lows in the high-pressure ones.”

That aptly fit Harden’s 45 points in Game 1 against Boston, and his 42 points in Game 4. But he reverted to his traditional postseason form in Games 6 and 7, shooting a combined 7-of-27 from the floor and 1-of-11 from 3-point range during the losses. He didn’t score in the fourth quarter of either game.

Harden’s ability to leave Philly and his less-than-enthusiastic support of Rivers — “Our relationship is OK,” the player said Sunday — was considered a driving force behind the coaching change. Embiid was more vocal in supporting Rivers, but once again fell victim to injuries and better competition in the playoffs. He’s now 3-6 in elimination games, playing less like an MVP and more like a MOP – Most Ordinary Player.

Both stars caught an earful from ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins after Rivers’ dismissal. 

They’re no longer Rivers’ problem, though, which might be reason No. 6.

Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.

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