CAMDEN, N.J. — Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said coach Doc Rivers will return next season for a third year with the franchise.
“I just think he’s a great coach,” Morey said during Friday’s exit interviews after the Sixers were eliminated the previous night on their home court by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. “I love working with him. I feel like I’m learning from him. I think [general manager] Elton [Brand] and I and him make a great team, and we’re gonna see where this journey takes us.
“But we feel very good about where it’s gonna take us, and it’s gonna be where we have a very good chance to win the title.”
That has been the goal each of the past two seasons in Philadelphia, since Morey arrived from the Houston Rockets and Rivers from the LA Clippers: to take this team to level it hasn’t reached in a generation. The 76ers haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs — where they’ve now lost four times in five years — since reaching the NBA Finals in 2001.
The 76ers haven’t won an NBA championship since 1983.
On Friday, Morey repeatedly said the 76ers are looking forward to spending the offseason finding ways to “unlock” Harden, who was underwhelming in the playoffs (18.6 points, 8.6 assists), and to clean up the fit alongside superstar center Joel Embiid.
When asked several times directly if that meant Harden has more levels to reach or if fans should come to lower their expectations for the former NBA MVP moving forward, Morey artfully danced around the question without answering it.
Instead, Morey said he is looking forward to Rivers and his staff finding ways to use Harden.
“Look. He’s an incredibly talented player,” Morey said. “Just like Joel, just like Tobias [Harris]. And I’m excited for Doc and his staff to have a whole offseason to work with the players and come up with the best plan for the roster we’ll have. … Having it all come together in February makes it very difficult to try and figure out how to … ‘unlock’ all the different skills of the players and how they can work together.
“We all know he’s a very skilled player, and we’ll figure out how to use him.”
Morey also followed up on Harden’s declaration that, as he weighs what to do with his player option this summer, he will be back in Philadelphia next season.
“That’s the plan, is to have him back,” Morey said. “That’s been the plan since the trade. Obviously, we have to work with his representation and that’ll be between us to figure out how that works.”
Overall, though, it was a melancholy mood — as one would expect for a team that bounced out of the playoffs in the manner that it did, with two straight ugly losses to the Heat.
“Well, we’re sick,” Morey said. “We’re here because we have big aspirations. I know our fans do as well. … That’s why we’re here. That’s why we do this. So it’s tough to be here right now. Still emotional.
“[But] look, we’re excited about what we can build from here. We think a lot of things that we can improve on and that’s myself, that’s on [Brand], that’s on Coach Rivers. We’re going to figure this out. But we feel like there’s a lot to build on.”
While Philadelphia has a strong foundation to build upon, simply thanks to Embiid’s presence, there still is plenty of work to be done. Miami star Jimmy Butler was able to get what he wanted against the 76ers defensively in this series, and perimeter defense was a constant problem all season. Depth also was an issue.
Morey said defense was going to be a focus, while Rivers echoed Embiid’s statements that the team needs more toughness moving forward.
“Well, I think it’s something that our players can grow,” Morey said about a lack of mental toughness being a common theme in exit interviews with players. “I mean, going through losses and how you respond to that and how you take it as your own look in the mirror. I think we all need to look in the mirror and say, ‘How can we each be better?’ … And that goes for myself as well.”
Ultimately, though, what the 76ers have done the past two seasons is no better than what they did the prior three in terms of how far they’ve managed to advance in the postseason. But advancing in the playoffs is no easy feat, Rivers said, and requires a learning curve from up and down an organization to do so.
“Because winning is hard,” Rivers said. “You just don’t show up and you just say, ‘OK, guys. We’re moving on.’ It’s hard. We’re not the only organization. It’s hard to move on. We had an opportunity last year, didn’t get it done. This year was tough. I mean, obviously, with all the injuries and stuff, so the answers are easy. It’s hard. We’re right there. We put ourselves in the argument. And that’s all you can do. And then you come back and keep…