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If anyone can coax the best out of Simmons and Embiid, it's Doc Rivers

Vincent Goodwill
·5-min read

Doc Rivers didn’t bring the ultimate success to the Los Angeles Clippers, but he at least stopped them from being the ultimate clown show.

The 76ers looked like a different type of clown show not too long ago, which means Rivers, who reportedly agreed to a five-year deal to replace Brett Brown as Philadelphia’s head coach, will only have to corral the franchise’s two young studs — a task that could make turning Donald Sterling’s outfit into a respectable one minute in comparison.

Seeing the tantalizing talents of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons was apparently too much for Rivers to sit at a TV studio for a year to gather himself and wait on a better job. But massaging those egos seems like a massive undertaking, as their games and approaches seem in desperate need for maturation and accountability.

He once compared the duo to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, certainly a high order of flattery and the standard many young point guard/center combos say they’d like to be, almost reflexively considering it’s been decades since anyone can actually claim to have seen Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar at their zenith.

But the beauty of those two was partially organic and mostly by the distance in their ages—Abdul-Jabbar being the MVP when Johnson was a rookie so there was a natural pecking order between the two, even though it always felt like Magic’s team.

When Abdul-Jabbar started fading, Johnson started ascending, so a passing of the torch wasn’t so contentious. They helped each other thrive despite their individual weak spots, thus gained an appreciation for the bigger picture.

But having two young stars battling for their place in the league, let alone their own team, causes friction.

It’s a turf war.

And one will likely have to cede real estate for this to work, by admitting the other is better and taking on the responsibility of making job No. 1 to enhance the value of his teammate. Putting petty grievances aside along with individual growth for the sake of the team is almost impossible to predict, considering we’ve hardly seen that before.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 05: Doc Rivers of the LA Clippers during the first quarter against the Denver Nuggets in Game Two of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 05, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Doc Rivers will have his hands full with trying to get the most out of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. (Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Usually, a trade is made before someone can admit their similarly-aged teammate is better.

From this seat, it’s hard to envision either doing that willingly or swallowing humble pie publicly.

In a league where status means so much and the perception of being the top dog means everything, that’s what Rivers is walking into and must manage.

Embiid and Simmons aren’t a lost cause just yet, and if anyone can coax the best out of the two, it’s probably Rivers. There appeared to be a sliding scale of accountability and standards from the Brett Brown days, stemming from the ill-fated “Process” that had so many players on 76er rosters who didn’t belong in the league.

Once Embiid got there, who was around to set the example? Same for Simmons.

Rivers can give them a structure and press the reset button because of his championship credentials and his willingness to speak out publicly.

Whether it’s about the plight of Black Americans or protecting his players, Rivers is the first to say “put it on me” as opposed to shifting blame, even when it’s obvious where the spotlight should go.

His reputation belied the way the Clippers went about this season, with very little harmony and the emphasis on the long game more than developing a team culture with the roster that was put together in a whirlwind summer.

It was easy to look at Rivers and conclude he’d come up short during his time and was in need for a new challenge, along with the Clippers needing a new voice for a team that needs to win, yesterday.

All the 76ers have is memories of decades past, when Allen Iverson carried undermanned teams in the East, including a run to the Finals in 2001. This incarnation is proof that a commitment from ownership is there, evidenced by the big contracts handed to Al Horford and Tobias Harris in addition to the two cornerstones, but one can easily question the direction of the resources as well as how the organization has empowered both young players through the years.

It takes a lot of work to refuse to get better, which appears to be the case with Simmons, and it sets a bad tone with other players if they don’t see a max player putting in the extra effort.

He’s too talented, too gifted to have plateaued in just three years. He appears to be the same player he was when he entered the league — dynamic, gifted and dominating, at times, but with such a huge weakness that it can’t be ignored.

Brown couldn’t get through to Simmons and it felt like his undoing as a coach, along with the natural clock of his time running out there.

Does Rivers have enough cache and command enough respect to make Simmons do the unthinkable? The 76ers seem committed to keeping these two in place for the foreseeable future, which means Rivers had to sell them on being able to develop them both, keep them happy and reverse the franchise’s underachieving ways.

Joel Embiid #21 and Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers celebrate in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets
Does Doc Rivers have enough cache and command enough respect to make Ben Simmons do the unthinkable? (Elsa/Getty Images)

The Clippers won just three playoff series in Rivers’ time there, the same amount Heat czar Pat Riley won during his first seven seasons. And although it’s easy to scoff at Rivers’ lack of playoff success with the Clippers or hanging onto the Celtics’ title run in 2008, the 76ers are more anemic.

They’ve won a total of four series since the 2001 Finals run, and just two in the last three seasons — 50-win campaigns in the last two full regular seasons. The 76ers have been on the tip of everybody’s tongue for years now — team Can’t Get Right that would be so dynamic and fun and damned dangerous if they ever could get it right.

And for whatever reason, Rivers decided he would like to be on the sidelines for one of the roughest franchises in the league, leaving a team that needs a shrink for one that needs a lobotomy.

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