ESPN NBA Analyst Doc Rivers answered questions on Friday to preview the 2023-24 season and discuss his new role with ESPN. ESPN’s coverage of the 2023-24 season tips off on Wednesday, October 25. For more on ESPN’s NBA coverage, visit ESPN Press Room.
Q. Just wondering about going back into TV now maybe compared to the first time you did it. Seems like a long time ago, and just maybe working with Doris [Burke] and Mike [Breen] and the relationship you’ve had with them in the past?
DOC RIVERS: Well, it’s really my third time. When I retired, I did three years on TNT. I worked with Verne Lundquist and Kevin Harlan. The young Kevin Harlan was a rookie then if you remember that — I guess a rookie. He was young. He was yelling early. That’s what I remember.
Then I coached the Magic, and then I went to ABC and had a chance to work with Al Michaels, which listen, as a broadcaster if you can work with Verne Lundquist and Al Michaels and Kevin Harlan, you’ve done a lot of good stuff. It makes you look a lot better.
Mike Breen has been one of my best friends for 20 years. We go on vacation together every summer. I’ve known him a long time. We went to Ireland this summer.
Doris is someone from afar that I’ve always liked, I liked listening to. I like how serious she is about basketball. Loves it; it’s her passion.
I actually had a chance to work with Doris one time when I was doing ABC. She had to interview Phil Jackson, which was quite a while ago.
I’m really just looking forward to getting back in, but it’s been a long break, I’ll say that.
Q. I know here in New York there’s been a lot of focus on Ben Simmons and how he’s looked in the preseason so far, healthier, more athletic. I was curious what your thoughts were on his latest comeback attempt and what you think you might bring to the Nets if he’s healthy and playing like he has before.
DOC RIVERS: Yeah, I mean, he looked healthy. That’s the number one thing that Ben had to be. Then the mental health part of it, as well.
Listen, I coached Ben for one year, and he had one of his best years of his career. I still think Ben, when playing right, has a chance to be an All-Star player.
I think every coach that has coached him has their version of what we think for Ben is playing right, and then it’s everybody else, if you know what I’m saying.
For me, the one thing that he has to be able to do is make free throws. I never worried about his jump shot or any of that stuff because I really believe the free throws are the key. It unlocks everything for him. He’s so physical. If he can get to the basket and drive and attack the basket with his passing ability, he can really dominate the game from that position.
He’s so similar, and I hate to put this category on him, to Magic in a lot of ways as far as his passing ability, his size. He has great vision. With that, him being aggressive towards the basket, if he’s healthy, I think he has a chance to restore himself.
Q. One of the challenges in positions like yours is always how to navigate being forthright, honest with the audience while maybe still maintaining an interest obviously in returning to the league. Obviously usually at a certain point when broadcasters make the decision that they want to be broadcasters first and foremost, they can be, at least from my perspective, more critical, a little more honest with the audience. Where do you sit with this in terms of your interest when it comes to potential coaching jobs? Do you think you could navigate that sort of line between honesty and everything else?
DOC RIVERS: I’m going to be honest. Sometimes that can be critical. But as long as it’s honest and coming from the right place, I’ve always been able to live with that.
You learn that in coaching. In coaching, you’re in a leadership position, and the one thing you know in a leadership position is you’re going to say things that sometimes people don’t like. I’m saying your players. You’ve got to live with it if you know it’s the right thing if it’s the right thing for them.
It’s going unpopular at times, but at the end of the day, I really want people to enjoy the game. That’s what I’m in here for, to try to show the audience things that they may not see, to look at it — I used to play, too, so I can look at it from both sides, player’s perspective and coach’s perspective, which I think gives me an advantage.
Other than that, I’m just going to tell the truth and show you or tell you what I think.
Q. I was hoping to get your takes on the title race as it’s developing. The Denver Nuggets haven’t done a ton this summer. Do you still feel like they’re the favorites? When you look at the trades that other contenders made, the [Damian] Lillard trade, the [Jrue] Holiday trade and the [Bradley] Beal trade, which of those do you think is going to have the biggest impact this season?
DOC RIVERS: Good question. I think you have to make Denver the favorite. Winning, and I say this every year, is hard. It just is. When you already have the knowledge of how to win, it gives you an advantage over everyone else.
The Denver Nuggets absolutely figured it out last year. They played the right way. The ball moved. Defensively they made a big improvement. They had all their players in the right place as far as sacrifice.
Now, you can add all the players you want on the basketball team; at the end of the day, the formula to winning has not changed. It really hasn’t. You’ve got to sacrifice, you’ve got to give up yourself to the team, you’ve got to buy in. It’s just so many other intangibles that it takes to win, and the teams that have done that have the advantage over everyone else.
You’ve got to make Denver the favorite.
After that, it’s wide open. The west right now, it’s rough. They have old challengers. They have young challengers.
The trade with Beal is going to be really interesting. The first thing, it reminds me a little but not the same because all three guys are so offensive minded of my 2008 team when you have these three alphas all on the same team, and again, we talk about sacrifice, but if you go look at each one of their shot attempts when they were alone on their own team, that’s not possible for each one of them to have the same amount of shot attempts now because they’re all together.
Usually whoever that third guy is, he’s the guy that ends up having to sacrifice the most. Ray Allen in my case had to sacrifice the most shots, and I thought that was the most difficult thing to do.
But if they can get it right, I think the Aaron Gordon signing is huge for them, and I don’t think people talk about that enough. That makes them really good.
The Milwaukee and the Boston stuff is really interesting because when Boston lost Marcus Smart and they lost Williams, they lost two of their better defensive players or their best defensive players, but then they add maybe the best defensive guard in the league to their team in Holiday. I think that trade for them makes them in my opinion the favorite in the east, and then after that, Milwaukee is right there.
The thing that I do like about Lillard going to Milwaukee is what was the one thing Milwaukee struggled in; it was at the end of games closing games out. In any business, you want a closer. You need a closer. You need a closer to close the deal. Well, they just got one.
If Dame can be healthy, at the end of the games, the pick-and-roll with Dame and Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I don’t know who’s going to deal with that. That’s going to be very difficult, and then they will have their closer.
But again, the Clippers I think are as deep as anybody in the NBA. Nobody talks about them. The Lakers; LeBron [James] is LeBron.
I think Oklahoma, I’m not throwing them in the championship thing, but man, they’re going to be fun to watch. They’re going to be an interesting team.
Golden State with Chris Paul. I do like the Chris Paul acquisition. I know a lot of people don’t. Golden State turns the ball over way too much. They lead the league in assists. They lead the league in turnovers.
One of those things has to keep going up and the other one has to go down. Chris Paul rarely turns the ball over.
I think in the past when Draymond Green missed games, they didn’t have a facilitator. Now they have another facilitator that can get everybody off, and I think Chris Paul with [Jonathan] Kuminga, I think he’ll be very important to Kuminga. I think if this is the year for Kuminga to improve, I think Chris Paul will have a lot to do with it.
Q. Why did you want to return to broadcasting?
DOC RIVERS: Listen, when I took my first coaching job, Kevin Harlan always laughs about this, I said, man, I’ve got to take care of this itch. I’ve always wanted to coach; I’ll see you in five years. Obviously, that was a lie. 24 years later, I’m coming back.
This is something — when I was a player, I studied it. I worked at Turner in the summertimes as an intern. This is something I really enjoy doing.
I love basketball, and I like being around it and I like talking about it, and I want people to enjoy it and learn it, so that would be my reason.
Q. What is your level of interest in terms of returning to the sidelines as a coach?
DOC RIVERS: Don’t know. I really don’t. Listen, this is my first time in a long time that I haven’t been in a training camp. I went to Paris this summer. I went to Ireland this summer. I went to the Vineyard this summer. I went to the Hamptons twice this summer. I played in golf tournaments in New Jersey. I’ve done a lot of things that I’ve never been able to do over the last 20 years, and yeah, I’ve enjoyed it.
Do I miss coaching? I don’t know yet. I think let the season go on, and I’ll find that out. But this is the journey I’m on right now.
Q. Did you make any promises to ESPN in terms of your level of commitment in terms of how long you’ll do it?
DOC RIVERS: No, no promises.
Q. Just wanted to talk to you about your progress and the process of building a championship team. You’ve been on both sides of getting there and falling short with certain teams. With that being said, as it pertains to the Memphis Grizzlies and your experience, how would you describe the internal organizational conversations that are taking place between the coaches, the front office, the players when you can feel the pressure of a fan base wanting more and craving more success for a team?
DOC RIVERS: Well, number one, everybody should feel that pressure. If you want to win, you want to be in it, you want to be in the pressure. That’s just part of it. I keep throwing myself in it, and I enjoyed every second of it. Whether you make it or not, it’s worth the pain.
So that’s number one.
Number two, it’s all about culture. I know you hear it, but you only hear it from the teams that have it, and they tell you how important it is. Miami made it to the Finals last year. Who’s going to say on this that they had the best talent? They have the best culture, and that helped them. Golden State keeps going back. San Antonio for years. It’s not a coincidence. These are stable organizations that have had their same coach over and over.
I look at football and culture – Mike Tomlin with the Steelers – it’s just part of it. That’s the one thing that they clearly have to make sure they create the right culture of winning organizationally, and it can’t be something that fluctuates. It has to be a consistent culture.
Then the players fall into that. Then you can bring in whoever you want to bring in because they’ll come in and understand — when you go to Golden State, when you go to Miami, you know what’s required, and certain players can’t handle that. But you have to create that.
I’ve tried to create that every place I’ve been, and that’s a big step for Memphis if they can create that.
Obviously, they have clutter right now is what I call it with Ja [Morant] being out for a while. That’s going to be so interesting when he returns and where they’re at when he returns. Then can he pick it up.
Q. I wanted to go back to what you said about Ben a couple minutes ago, that you never focused on the jump shot stuff, but from the outside we were always wondering is he working on his game and is he going to add that. Now that he’s been out for a year and a half with back and knee problems, do you wonder if a guy can play the way he did before, or does he have to come back with that kind of thing to be effective now?
DOC RIVERS: Well, if he can’t come back with his athleticism and his speed and power — Ben Simmons going downhill is a problem. It really is. That’s the one thing we did. I had to make the choice — at most of the teams I’ve had it’s been whoever gets the ball breaks the ball up, pushes the ball up. I guess with the Clippers I had Chris Paul and Blake [Griffin], so I wanted either one of them to push it up. But with Philly, I had to change because of Ben and the way he plays, and I decided whoever gets the rebound get the ball to Ben. Just get it to Ben and let him go. Him going downhill and creating actions for us made us a very successful team.
But he has to be healthy. He has to have his burst back. That’s the only thing I wonder is if he can have that. If he can’t have that, then he has to create another way of playing, and that’s going to be hard.
Q. Regarding the Clippers, it’s amazing that it’s year five of the Kawhi [Leonard] and [Paul George] partnership or season five. I’m curious how viable you see them as a championship contender, how open that championship window still is with them. What do you make of the team in this part of their build?
DOC RIVERS: Well, they’ve got to play. It’s not like this is a trick question. They have to play, and if you don’t play all season and think you’re going to get in the Playoffs and play, it’s tough.
As you know, I had them for one year, and the entire year that I had them, they practiced together three times, the entire season. I’m including training camp.
So, it’s really hard to create any chemistry, not only with each other but with your teammates.
Now, it’s a little different. They’ve been together for so long now that they do have chemistry, so the next part of them is being healthy.
The one thing I think Lawrence has done a fantastic job there is I look at the team now and all the additions they have. I think the only two guys, I think it’s four guys that they have left from when I was there, and that’s [Ivica Zubac], who has been absolutely fantastic, and Terance Mann has grown into a terrific just solid role player. But when you look at all the other additions they’ve added on the team, they’re all solid additions.
As far as being deep, I don’t know if anybody is deeper than the LA Clippers.
Now, they’ve needed it because they’ve missed so many games, and so the key for them is health and continuity and chemistry. If they have that, the window is still open.
Q. Do you think their talent is enough to close the gap with the top of the west, or do you think they need to make a trade for a person like James Harden to close that gap?
DOC RIVERS: I don’t think they need that, but it would add talent. Adding talent, like I said at the beginning of our talk, doesn’t always just do it, if you know what I mean.
They do play a style of — they do run a lot of iso stuff with Kawhi and then with PG, so if you look at James and James’ style, it fits in.
But the third guy to stop the guy, would that be good or bad, I’m not sure about that.
Q. My question is about Monty Williams. We know you’re close with him and vocal about his dismissal from Phoenix. What do you think he’s going to bring to this Detroit Pistons team and how do you think he’ll get the most out of guys like Cade Cunningham, Ausar Thompson, Jalen Duren?
DOC RIVERS: I don’t think Detroit could have picked a better person. Obviously, Monty is my best friend, so I’m a little biased. But I really don’t. I just think it goes back to what I was talking about earlier. Monty has been around a lot of coaches: [Gregg Popovich], he was coached by me, and he understands when we were talking about a building of culture.
It’s funny, Monty and I have talked all summer about it, and it takes everyone to buy in. He’s got a young group. I think Monty is fantastic with that type of group. He ain’t easy. Monty is going to push you. He’s going to drive those guys.
We have a saying, never coach a guy to who they are today but who they should be someday, and Monty believes that. Every single player on the Detroit Pistons will be a better player.
The next thing is teaching them how to be a better individual player and being a better team player, and those are two completely different things, and Monty is going to really, really coach that.
Obviously, my son is on that staff, so I have a lot of interest in the Pistons, and I want them to do terrific for a lot of reasons, but mainly because of Monty.
Q. As a follow-up, some insight on what your son will bring as one of the developmental coaches?
DOC RIVERS: Well, he just is — he worked with Tyrese Maxey, worked with James, worked with Joel, so he’s had a lot of good guys and some good — he loves the game. He’s a heck of a teacher. I’m just really happy that — obviously I knew what I could do, but that other people watched and went out and tried to hire him. I’m really happy for Spencer that he’s in with Monty. I don’t know if he could be with a better teacher than Monty.
Q. Wondered if you thought if the Heat’s championship window had closed with their ability to acquire Lillard or Holiday or do you still see a path where this current core could win a title?
DOC RIVERS: Every year the Heat’s championship window has closed. Every single year we say that, and then here they are back.
Listen, their culture beats people, beats teams a lot. Do I think they need another guy to get over the hump? Yeah, I do. I think they have enough to make a run, but do they have enough to win it? I think they need another player, another closer per se.
It doesn’t have to be Lillard. There are other guys available.
But you know, Dame would have been a perfect fit because Dame is serious about basketball and his conditioning. He would have been an easy culture guy to add in to the Heat.
Now, listen, my guess is Pat Riley and Erik [Spoelstra], they’re out looking to see what’s another way that they can improve their team.
The good thing about Miami from what I know, players don’t really complain about going and living in Miami, so that part of it they have. They don’t complain about the taxes in Florida. That part they have, as well.
So, the next part will be can they fit in and can they acquire them because you have to give up something to get something, and that’s the problem right there for them. Tyler Herro has to be huge for them for them to make a run. He has to make that next step. Remember Riley challenged him last year to make the step? Now he has to make a bigger one, and it’s going to be big for them.
Q. Obviously we’ve talked before about the length of time it’s been. It’s been 19 years since you last called a game back at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Game 5 of the Finals. Is there sense at all that this is like riding a bike, or do you think it’ll take you a little while to adjust back into the role?
DOC RIVERS: Not riding a bike. Maybe a tricycle, I don’t know.
But it’s funny, I did a game last week, and it felt natural. I did something that I’ve never done. I didn’t bring a note. Like I usually — I’m a big reader, and I prepare. I like stats. I’m an analytical guy in some ways, as well.
Because I hadn’t done it in so long and I knew even though it was live TV, I knew it still was an exhibition game, and I treated it that way, and I actually showed up — I had read all the stuff but I didn’t have one thing in front of me the entire game, and the only notes that I took all game was the notes that I thought, this is what I need when I’m doing a game.
I’m taking this very seriously. I want to be great at it. Everything I do, I want to be great at.
But yeah, it’s probably going to take a minute.
Q. Obviously you were very acclaimed all those years at Turner and ABC, Doris Burke very acclaimed, as well, but you’re also coming in to replace a very well-established team, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. Is there any sense of those being big shoes to fill or are you not worried about those comparisons?
DOC RIVERS: Well, they should be big shoes. If you’re in the No. 1 spot there always is. It’s almost like coming in to coach a team that has a chance to win the title. Both of those guys, I talk to Mark all the time and Jeff, and they were fantastic. I actually loved listening to both of those guys.
But we don’t want to try to be like them. We just want to be what we are and let that go wherever it goes. The same thing with Mike. For Mike, it’s different. He has a good friend away from broadcasting joining him, but he lost two really good friends, and so that’s a difficult transition for him, as well.
Q. My question is actually about the 2024 Olympics. We’ve seen a lot of players come forward wanting to play for Team USA next year. Most recently one of your former players, Joel, said he wants to play for Team USA next year, and that’s going to be a bit of a headache with all this star talent for head coach Steve Kerr. From your perspective being both a player at international competition because the 1982 FIBA World Cup MVP right here —
DOC RIVERS: I told you I can play basketball. Like no one believes that, but I actually can play.
Q. What approach would you be taking towards building a roster to compete at the Olympics next year, especially given the disappointment of this year’s FIBA World Cup?
DOC RIVERS: Yeah, it’s twofold. Number one, no coach is ever going to complain about having a lot of talent. That’s number one. Then once the coach gets all that talent, he’s going to start complaining about having too much talent. That’s how it works. It just does.
To me, it’s all about fit.
The one thing you do get, it’s interesting, I coached with Flip Saunders and Tom Izzo in international play years ago at the Goodwill Games or whatever they were called back then, and you do get this. Everyone wants to fit. They do. They come in, all that talent, and that becomes problematic because guys stop playing their game.
So, you still want guys to be who they are, and you want that to all fit.
To me, the picking of those players is huge. I think that goes to Spo and Steve and Grant Hill, they’re going to get anybody they want. They have to pick the right 12. That’s going to be a hard job.
The one thing they definitely need is size and rebounding, and Joel will fit that. Joel and I talked about it probably 10 times last year. I made no bones about telling him, you’ve got to play on the USA Olympic team. You knew he would, but he never shows his cards, if you know Joel, but he does. So that was not a surprise, his announcement. And I think he will be on it, obviously.
LeBron, Steph Curry, they have so many guys that they’re going to have to figure out the right 12. Instead of just the most talented 12, figure out the right 12.
Q. I want to take you to the Sixers. With [Joel] Embiid coming off of an MVP season last year and giving the facts of the ongoing issues in Philadelphia, how much do you feel that this will affect Embiid and the overall performance of the Sixers’ organization in the upcoming season?
DOC RIVERS: Well, I think he’s used to it. I hate to say it. I thought I was going to get through this with no Philly questions. Thank you, guys. That’s very nice of all of you.
But really, listen, my first year there, there was really nothing. Then after that, every year there was something. My second year was the Ben Simmons situation. The third year was James Harden coming to his first camp and can that fit in. Now it’s fourth year, I’m done, James Harden and the team.
Joel is pretty much an expert. Think about Joel before I got there. He had the Jimmy Butler situation.
I think Joel is pretty much used to beginning-of-the-year turmoil, and Joel has the ability to kind of tone that out and almost use it as fuel. I think sometimes he wants to show that I’m Joel Embiid, and it doesn’t matter who’s here; my team is going to win. He’s kind of proven that overall, that if Joel Embiid is on the team and healthy and playing well, his team is going to win a lot of games.
The next question for Joel is the playoff. His numbers have to come up in the Playoffs. But the first part about that, he has to be healthy. The three years that I had him, he was never healthy in the Playoffs. When your best player is not healthy, it’s not good.
I want to say even going back past me, I want to say that Toronto series with Kawhi making the shot, if my memory serves me right, I don’t think he was healthy for that one.
At some point he needs to be healthy in the Playoffs and then he needs to perform in the Playoffs. That’s going to be the key. Because if Joel plays well, the Sixers are as big of a threat as anyone else, because when he’s dominant, there’s nobody in the league that can stop him. He’s just not been able to be dominant in the Playoffs yet, and then with me, I always thought I have to try to steal a win without having a dominant Joel, and it obviously changes things a lot. But if Joel is healthy and dominant, and Tyrese Maxey, they’re tough, whether they have James or not.