Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey got right to it Friday afternoon.
As head coach Doc Rivers settled into the seat next to him, Morey kicked off their season-ending joint press conference at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey.
“Well, we’re sick we’re here,” he said.
The day after the Sixers’ fourth second-round exit in five years was clearly a painful one for Morey and Rivers, a duo that has won 100 out of 154 regular-season games during its two seasons in Philadelphia. The Sixers have disappointed in Round 2, though, and so many of the questions Rivers and Morey faced were unpleasant.
Here are five takeaways on their press conference:
Morey short and sweet on Rivers
With a word, Morey conveyed that he did not find Rivers’ job status among the testing topics Friday.
Will Rivers be back as the Sixers’ head coach next season?
He later expanded on that answer.
“He’s a great coach,” Morey said. “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. We’re going to see where this journey takes us, but we feel very good about where it’s going to take us. It’s going to be where we have a very good chance to win the title.”
Of course, the joint press conference format itself strongly suggested how Morey would approach that question. And Rivers had said Thursday night he felt “secure” and “very good” about the job he did this year.
Asked if he still planned to exercise his $47.4 million player option for next season, Harden on Thursday said, “I’ll be here, yeah. Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better — and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level.”
Morey was aligned in stating that Harden is set to return but being disinclined to discuss specifics.
“That’s the plan,” Morey said, “is to have him back. 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.”
Harden played just 21 regular-season games following the February trade that sent him to the Sixers and brought Ben Simmons to the Nets. In the postseason, he posted 18.6 points per contest (his lowest playoff average in a decade), 8.6 assists and 5.7 rebounds.
The 32-year-old expects to benefit from a healthy summer after back-to-back seasons with significant hamstring problems.
“We’re excited about what he can bring,” Morey said. “Obviously … a lot of this came together pretty late. A full offseason, a full training camp, a full time where everyone can learn to unlock how good everyone can be together … that said, I don’t want to minimize that there was a lot of good. Joel (Embiid) and James, Tobias (Harris), (Tyrese Maxey), that group played very well together. We can play even better. So we’re excited about what that can look like in the future.”
Even before Harden’s Sixers debut, concerns about his health and game declining were eminently reasonable. While it’s fair for Morey to note there were indeed positive takeaways from Harden’s first portion of a Sixers season, those issues haven’t dissipated at all.
What will defensive improvement look like?
Like “accountability” in 2020, “toughness” has been a popular word since the Sixers’ elimination.
Depth and defense are also undoubtedly on the Sixers’ radar, though Morey likes to keep all options open.
“Defensively — very important,” he said. “I guess the reason I’m pausing … is I often feel like if you go into the offseason with, ‘We need to fix X,’ you end up closing off potential opportunities and avenues. And it’s also the day after, so I just think I need to meet with Doc and his staff and our staff, and just really get a full picture on what they’re seeing before I give an answer like that (on areas to improve the roster).”
The Sixers traded away last season’s Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in Simmons. Morey called it “critical” to keep Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle in the deal, saying Thybulle could “easily be Defensive Player of the Year.”
While the 25-year-old wing’s play was promising at times next to Harden, his season took a sharp and late negative turn. Thybulle was ineligible to play in Toronto because he’s not fully vaccinated and Danny Green assumed the starting job again.
“Losing the rhythm of the Toronto series was a huge blow to my confidence and everything on the court,” Thybulle said Sunday.
Ultimately, an All-Defensive Second Team selection last year got just 15.2 minutes per game over nine playoff outings. He shot 4 for 14 from three-point range and drew minimal respect from the Raptors and Heat’s defenses.
“I think with everyone on the roster, quite a few guys wanted to play more, but you can only play so many,” Morey said. “I think Matisse is someone who’s got an elite defensive component. And I think he’s looking at himself and saying, ‘How can I improve and contribute in other ways?’
“And in the playoffs — and Doc and I were talking about this this morning — the players who are sort of extreme one-way type of players, it’s challenging in the playoffs. It’s challenging for the coaches, it’s challenging for the players. I think for Matisse, his mission, which he knows, is how can he improve in ways that make him someone that can make more of an impact in the playoffs. And I think he will in the future.”
Unprompted, Rivers also shared his perspective on Thybulle.
“And he’s working on it, I can tell you that,” Rivers said. “It is difficult. One-way players are better in the regular season than in the playoffs. I think we all know that. Matisse is putting in the time. We hired the right resources as far as staffing — shooting coaches and everybody. And more importantly, the right resources with Matisse and his work ethic. He’s putting in the work. It’s gradual. It’s called being patient, and we are.
“But I think it makes us more patient because he works at it. We would be less patient if we didn’t think he was working at it. And the fact that he’s working at … there were improvements. He became a better cutter this year. He ran the floor better this year. And the next step is to improve his shot, which we’re working on every day. And that’s going to be his marching orders this summer.”
The Sixers in October picked up Thybulle’s fourth-year option. He’s eligible for a contract extension this offseason. If he stays in Philadelphia for the long term and makes the offensive progress required for heavier playoff minutes, the Sixers’ defensive potential would rise. But those “ifs” appear significant.
The luck factor
Morey generally describes his approach as identifying and executing the moves that maximize his team’s championship odds.
While the Sixers aren’t throwing dice, they’re like all teams in hoping important variables like health break their way.
Over the last two postseasons, their MVP runner-up center has suffered a torn meniscus, torn thumb ligament, orbital fracture and concussion. Green on Friday was diagnosed with a torn ACL and LCL, injuries he sustained on a first-quarter collision with Embiid in Game 6 against Miami.
“Joel, you feel awful for him, honestly,” Rivers said. “Last year in the series in Washington, he comes down wrong, and he was never really the same after that. Right when the thumb (injury) happened … listen I’m a realist. You knew that that was going to be a struggle — your right hand, your thumb has literally nothing to keep it in place. It literally flips back if you try to pass the ball. And then getting hit in the face on top of that.
“Sometimes (it’s) a lot of skill, but you also have to have good fortune to win. You also have to have good health to win. And for your best player two years in a row to have to go and play in the playoffs not being right is difficult. It really is. And that’s where, obviously, we need to make sure we support him and keep giving him more help so when those things happen, we can still steady the fort.”
Meaningful late-night call
For quite a while, the best reason for optimism on the Sixers was Embiid’s presence.
That’s still the case, but Tyrese Maxey sure is surging. In his second season, Maxey stepped into the starting lineup, made 42.7 percent of his threes, and kept plugging away at his “one percent better every day” mantra.
Rivers became emotional when talking about Maxey.
“Tyrese, in my opinion, has a chance to be a special kid,” he said. “I’m sitting at home last night at 1 in the morning, the phone rings, and it’s him.”
Like everyone in the Sixers organization, he’s been struck by the 21-year-old’s joy and work ethic.
“I love players who love the game and are committed to just winning,” Rivers said. “You know, it’s funny, he works to be a better player, but what Tyrese really wants at the end of the day is to win. And you have an emotional attachment to players like that, and I always will. I coach that way to our guys, and I try to get that out of them — to be emotional about winning, and to sell out about winning. That’s been my secret, in a lot of ways, to success.
“With him, you don’t have to do it. Last night he was just hurting. And for me, that was really cool — second-year player. In my second year, I don’t know if I even felt anything. I was too dumb to know it. So it was really a cool conversation.”