The Los Angeles Clippers fired Doc Rivers in early October. He had been their head coach for seven seasons. Less than a week passed before the Philadelphia 76ers hired him as their head coach. Rivers would later call it the quickest fire/hire he had ever heard of in the NBA. Some wondered what the rush was for Doc to jump right back into the demanding yet elite coaching profession. What Doc saw was a fantastic opportunity.
“I like their size, their versatility,” Rivers said at his introductory press conference. “What is Ben? Exactly no one can tell you. Tobias is a three and a four. Joel; his skill set is that of a five and a four and a three. They have a lot of guys that I call ballers and don’t necessarily have a position. I love position-less basketball. There were a lot of good factors including I wanted it and they wanted me.”
The Sixers were coming off a disappointing 43-30 season where they were swept by the Celtics in the first round of the “bubble” playoffs. Ben Simmons did not play in that series due to injury, but the fan base was growing restless. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons had risen to all-star status but had yet to deliver good post-season overall performances.
Fast forward to the arrival of Doc Rivers. Rivers, who does have an NBA championship on his resume, was asked to change the culture. One of the initial moves he made to fulfill that request was to invite Embiid and Simmons into his office and tell them this is their team. Still, how was that going to be different than the previous three seasons? What would Doc do differently? What would the two cornerstones do differently?
“You can have a lot of talent, and it [still might] not work,” Simmons said of the difference between this year’s first-place team and that of seasons past. “I think this is the best chemistry we have had. I think this is the best year Joel has come in, mentally, and the same for me. My mental has been great, and we know where we want to be. Doc is holding everybody accountable.”
Holding everyone accountable is step one; playing to his team’s strengths is part two.
“If I am playing bad in some games, I know myself, but it is always good to have someone remind you,” Embiid said. “’Joel, you got to get back to you,’ Coach will say. If I am taking a bunch of jumpers, especially depending on how the defense is guarding me, he will tell me to, ‘Keep attacking, you have to get to the basket.’ It is no different than what Coach Brown did in the past, but there is an emphasis on going at it all the time. If we have a play that works, let’s say posting me up, and it works, we keep going back to that until they stop it. I think that is the most significant adjustment.”
That offensive mindset has led to Embiid being a front-runner for this year’s MVP award. With two games remaining before the NBA All-Star break, Embiid is averaging 30 points and 11.3 rebounds, shooting 52 percent from the floor, 41.5 percent from the three-point range, and 86 percent at the foul line.
As for Simmons, he shows growth offensively by taking more shots and having a desire to get to the foul line.
“I am trying to make my teammates better, and . . . be the best point guard I can be, and also lead this team the best way defensively,” Simmons said. “I do feel like I am the best defensive player in this league. I can guard one through five.
“As for the free throws, I am taking my time and getting in a rhythm. If I do miss, knowing why I missed, that was big to learn. I love getting those free throws and having the confidence to knock them down, especially if I am going to shoot 10-12 in a game.”
Simmons’ learning curve spiked from January to February when he went from averaging 13.4 points and shooting 65 percent at the foul line to 21 points and 70 percent.
It’s the Embiid and Simmons team. Remember Doc said as much. He identified what existed before his arrival and saw an avenue to take two young stars to greater heights.
“They bring such a different skill set to the table,” Rivers said. “Joel’s is easier to notice because it is so right in front of you because of scoring, rebounding, and size and a go-to guy.
“Ben, you have to watch the game to see how many times you miss him on both ends. How many times did we get the ball off a rebound? Someone pushes the ball up the floor, gets to the paint, and kicks it out for a three? We couldn’t get to the paint tonight offensively. That’s what Ben does. Ben leads us to take threes. He doesn’t take them, but he creates them. He leads the league in assisted three-pointers. Also, Ben’s ability defensively, not only on the ball but off the ball, is—and again, there are no numbers for it.”
Half a season into his reign, Rivers is left speechless at times to describe the depths of his stars’ games. Still, he finds the right words daily to share with his team: preparation, process, parade. Yes, it is a mantra, but also a goal they strive to fulfill.