Doc Rivers Needs to Understand that Expectations Do Not Exist Inside a Vacuum

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t get over the quote that Doc Rivers dropped when the Sixers were eliminated from the playoffs in round two for the second straight season.

It’s from the Howard Eskin kerfuffle:

“I don’t worry about my job. I think I do a terrific job. If you don’t, then you should write it. Because I work my butt off to get this team here. When I first got here, no one picked us to be anywhere. Again, this year, same thing. If that’s how anyone feels, write it, and I’m gonna feel secure about it.

Say what you will about Rivers coaching through the Ben Simmons hold out and various Joel Embiid injuries. He did a commendable job of holding the team together and deserves credit for having them perform well during the regular season. I’m just flabbergasted by the bold portion of that quote because it’s absolutely absurd. Nobody picked the Sixers to “be anywhere” in 2021? And again in 2022? What is he talking about?

The second part of that is especially baffling. The Sixers were the #1 seed last year. Simmons hold out or not, this squad was a top-four Eastern Conference contender and among a small group of teams with a shot at the conference finals. To say that no one picked the Sixers to “be anywhere” this season is blatantly false.

If we go back and focus on the first part in bold, Doc seems to harp frequently on the first round bubble exit that preceded Brett Brown’s firing. Yeah, it’s true that when the Sixers went to the second round last year, it was technically an improvement on the bubble sweep, but the bubble sweep is a total outlier. That was a flawed #6 seed playing without the injured Simmons, and so when you talk about expectations for Doc getting this team over the hump, you’re really talking about moving past the second round, which Brett couldn’t do. He plateaued after the Toronto series and then was shown the door.

I tried asking Doc this at the end of last season and he downplayed the idea of inheriting expectations:

Crossing Broad: “Doc I know this was your first season in Philadelphia and it was Daryl’s first season as well, and in a vacuum you would say that #1 seed and a lot of wins, you’re happy with that. But the reality of the situation is that there were a lot of expectations that you inherited, from years before you got here, and I’m just wondering how you weigh all of that and absorb all of that based on what fans expect over the course of…”

Rivers: “See but I don’t know what the expectations were outside. What, did you have an expectation that after losing in the first round that we were gonna win a title the next year? I don’t know what that is. But I had expectations, so I don’t really care about anyone else’s. I wanted to win a title. I put that expectation out there on purpose and on our team. We set the bar high. We knew that, and we knew what we were working from, and that’s fine. Just because you have expectations doesn’t mean you reach them every year. You know? It shouldn’t stop you from going after it. If that wants to be a negative thing, you can turn it into that. I don’t care. As a group, we have lofty goals here. That hasn’t changed. We didn’t reach our goals this year. That doesn’t hurt me to say that. I’m fine with that. We’ll be fine and we’re gonna keep building so we can reach our goals.” 

There’s a bit of disconnect here between what Doc thinks he inherited and what he actually inherited. Or he’s just flip flopping. He seems to view his tenure in a vacuum, which is understandable from his perspective, but it’s not how Sixers fans and media look it. The big takeaway of failing upward into the Doc hire was that he was a Brett upgrade who was supposed to do what Brett could not. When we’re examining this epoch of Sixers basketball, you’re talking Sam Hinkie resignation through current day, which is a half-decade post-Process period that spans the tenures of two coaches and multiple player-personnel executives.

I don’t know if that’s necessarily fair to Doc, the idea that he is part of a linear continuation with a singular objective, but it’s how we view it. The bizarro thing is that he seemed to understand the assignment and talked about it when he gave us this quote at his introductory press conference: 

“I love coaching. I absolutely love it. But I was not going to just coach anybody, I can tell you that. I was ready to take a break. It just depended on the team that was available, and if I thought that team, in my opinion, was ready to win. That excited me. When Elton called, it was an easy (choice) to get on a plane and take a look, for me. When you look at these players, these young players, and their potential, the fact that they’ve had so much success at the ages that they are already, and where I believe they can go, for me it’s a job you just couldn’t turn down. That’s why I’m here. Just really excited about it.”

Doc knew it then and knows it now. This isn’t some shit job he accepted. This isn’t the Sacramento Kings. If this job wasn’t available, maybe he would have taken that break, which I saw as a big red flag. Instead, he got prime Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with Tobias Harris and Daryl Morey calling the shots. There was no reset. There was no dialing back of expectations. The entire point was that Doc was a veteran coach with a ring who would be the guy to pick up the torch where Brett Brown left it and carry it to the promised land. His hiring kept alive the idea that this core could get over the second round hump and into the conference finals, and negated any idea of recalibration.

Doc may get there yet, or he may not. It’s hard! Getting to the conference finals is damn hard, but Doc signed up for this. He knows that’s the task at hand, and instead of being dismissive and condescending like he usually is, perhaps an admission that he understands the series of events that got us to this point would go a long way toward rebuilding some of the goodwill he’s lost. Doc was brought in because he’s been a quality coach for a long time. People respected his resume and universally loved the coaching change, and so the bar was adjusted appropriately. It seems like Doc is always fidgeting with the expectation goal posts, and that’s frustrating.