Doc Rivers sounded more shook than ever on Wednesday defending his history of coaching teams who have flamed out after taking resounding leads in past playoffs series’. His voice typically cracks, but in defending himself from criticism of his numerous shortcomings, he sounded more like a First Take guest debater screeching about “choking” and “clutch genes” than a calm, composed coach up 3-2 over the Toronto Raptors in a first-round series.
While Rivers writhed over painful memories like a boyfriend reminded of all the times he forgot anniversaries, the scornful eyes of 76ers fans should begin wandering. Rivers is a fine coach, the same way Alex Smith was a fine quarterback or Mark Jackson was a fine coach.
After the clock hits postseason time, Doc has been Doctor Death when his teams face adversity. His teams disintegrate. Of the 13 teams who’ve blown 3-1 leads, Rivers has coached three of them. He vociferously defended his 8-seed Orlando Magic losing a 3-1 lead, but his worst self-inflicted wound was Rivers not closing the deal on Tim Duncan by refusing to allow family on the team plane. His 2015 Clippers squad was suplexed by Josh Smith in Game 6, then blown out in Games 5 and 7. The 2020 Clippers seemed disinterested after taking a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets. If his team slips on another banana peel and cracks its skull, Rivers can’t be back on that sideline.
Last week, Jay Wright resigned from Villanova after 21 years at the helm, beckoning a new age for college hoops. The keyword is college hoops. Wright talked about lacking the same fire he once had to lead Villanova at his retirement press conference. Wright, who I presume follows the 76ers, disclosed that he’s keeping his eyes and ears open for any overtures.
During an appearance on ESPN’s Keyshawn, JWill & Max show, Wright admitted that the next level is in his sights. “I’d be lying” if he said he hadn’t thought about coaching in the NBA. “Not right now. That was something I always thought about,” Wright said of his NBA ambitions. “My experience with the Olympics kind of scratched that itch. ... I kind of feel like I did it a little bit. And I loved coaching those guys.”
Jay Wright has been a candidate for every Philadelphia opening since he interviewed for the job in 2009. Jay Wright is the 76ers sneaky link. He’s always lingering in the background. Not in a creepy manner, but it’s a small world and they keep bumping into each other. The 76ers have been in the gym, got their teeth fixed and spent a decade building their brand. Wright would be crazy not to give them another look or at least send a smoke signal to the current 76ers ownership.
From the sound of it, he still has hoops in his bone marrow. Obviously taking a chance on a college coach is a risk. Aside from their shared love for pinstriped suits, Wright isn’t a John Calipari archetype who relies on rah-rah college enthusiasm and recruiting to excel. He’s got twice as many national championships as Calipari while developing a slew of fringe draft prospects and the occasional mid-first rounder.
In 2014, Billy Donovan made the leap from Florida to Oklahoma City and now has his wagon hitched to the Chicago Bulls. Wright is already down the street. Villanova is only 28 minutes from the Wells Fargo Center. Wright is from Pennsylvania, he played at Bucknell, joined Villanova as an assistant two years after their storied title run, then followed Rollie Massimino to UNLV, and spent seven years running Hofstra’s program before returning to Nova.
Most importantly, the 76ers might need him to come in and give the 76ers the oomph they’re currently lacking. Psychologically, he is a Zen master for a team that always seems on edge and weighed down by expectations instead of having fun on the floor. Offensively, Wright could fix the broken rotations and bring fresher wrinkles to the offense than the vanilla sets Doc Rivers runs for Embiid and Harden. Wright’s Nova teams were the college facsimile to the Kerr-era Warriors teams, while Rivers is still riding the coattails of success from an era that feels like a millennium ago.
After all those raised expectations the Harden trade brought to Philly’s season, a first or second-round loss nearly a decade into The Process wouldn’t suffice. That would be akin to Rivers serving a dead roach to the health inspector thus far. The whole operation would be shut down, and that reality’s pressure is obviously affecting Rivers.
Of course, much of this is akin to starting an autopsy on some drunk who just fell asleep on a slab. Maybe Doc will find his team’s pulse. In the long Process saga, maybe this is the point where the Philadelphia 76ers veer off their path as a dark comedy and triumphantly make a run. However, that type of positive blind faith isn’t what Philadelphia is known for. In addition to being one of the winningest coaches, Wright is arguably the most emotionally intelligent coach in basketball. The Sixers and the fan base could use that sort of an emotional lift. Until then, they’ll have to grind out another painful postseason.