Morey: Rivers will be back; Hope Harden too

CAMDEN, NJ — 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 in Friday’s exit talks after the Sixers were knocked out the night before on their home turf 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 me and him are a great team, and we’ll see where this journey takes us.

“But we feel very good where it will take us, and that will be where we have a very good chance of winning the title.”

That’s been the goal each of the last two seasons in Philadelphia since Morey arrived from the Houston Rockets and the Rivers from the LA Clippers: to bring this team to a 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.

Morey reiterated that goal when he traded Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks for James Harden as part of this season’s blockbuster deal at the trade deadline.

On Friday, Morey repeatedly said the 76ers are looking forward to spending the offseason finding ways to “unlock” Harden, who was disappointing in the playoffs (18.6 points, 8.6 assists), and clean up the game. fit alongside superstar Joel Embiid.

When asked several times directly if this meant Harden had more levels to achieve or if fans should lower their expectations for the former NBA MVP, Morey shrewdly danced around the question without answering it.

Instead, Morey said he looked forward to Rivers and his team finding ways to use Harden.

“Listen. He’s an incredibly talented player,” Morey said. “Just like Joel, just like Tobias [Harris]. And I’m thrilled that Doc and his team have a whole offseason to work with the players and come up with the best plan for the roster that we’ll have. … Having it all come together in February makes it very difficult to try to figure out how to … “unlock” all of the different player skills and how they can work together.

“We all know he’s a very talented player, and we’ll figure out how to use him.”

Morey also followed Harden’s statement that as he considers what to do with his player option this summer, he will be back in Philadelphia next season.

“That’s the plan, is to get him back,” Morey said. “That’s been the plan since the trade. Obviously we have to work with his representation and it will be between us to figure out how it works.”

Overall, though, the mood was melancholy — as you’d expect for a team that rebounded from the playoffs the way they did, with back-to-back losses to the Heat.

“Well, we’re sick,” Morey said. “We’re here because we have big aspirations. I know our fans do too. … That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re doing this. So it’s hard to be here right now. Always emotional.

“[But] look, we’re excited about what we can build from here. We think about a lot of things we can improve and that’s me, that’s for sure [Brand], it’s on Coach Rivers. We will understand this. But we feel like there’s a lot to build on.”

Although Philadelphia has a solid foundation to build on, simply because of Embiid’s presence, there is still a lot of work to be done. Miami star Jimmy Butler has been able to get what he wants against the 76ers defensively in this series, and perimeter defense has been a constant problem all season. Depth was also an issue.

Morey said defense was going to be a priority, while Rivers echoed statements from Embiid that the team needs more toughness going forward.

“Well, I think that’s something our players can develop,” Morey said of the lack of mental toughness that’s a common theme in exit interviews with players. “I mean, going through losses and how you react to that and how you look at it as your own looking in the mirror. I think we all have to look in the mirror and say, ‘How can we each be better? … And that goes for me too.”

Ultimately, though, what the 76ers have done the past two seasons is no better than what they’ve done the previous three in terms of playoff progression. But advancing through the playoffs is no easy task, Rivers said, and requires a learning curve 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 move on. It’s difficult. We are not the only organization. It’s hard to move on. We had an opportunity last year, we did not materialize it. This year has been difficult. I mean, obviously, with all the injuries and everything, so the answers are easy. It’s difficult. We are right there. We put ourselves in the argument. And that’s all you can do. And then you come back and keep working until you get over the mountain.

“Milwaukee, you look at them, it took two or three years to get over the mountain. That’s how it works. Nobody’s guaranteed that.”

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