Doc Rivers braces for COVID-impacted first season with Philadelphia 76ers

Doc Rivers has yet to coach a game for the Philadelphia 76ers, but that hasn't stopped him from worrying about how the NBA will finish the 2020-21 season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"Man, I tell you I'm very concerned if we can pull this off," Rivers said Tuesday as Philadelphia opened training camp. "Just watching football, in college you have Ohio State missing games, Pittsburgh and Baltimore can't even play a game (in the NFL), they can't get to it, hopefully they play Wednesday now.

"The difference in football is they play once a week. They have 1,000 players, so when you miss three or four players, you can still get away with it. If we miss three or four players, we're in trouble, especially with the amount of games [we play]. We're playing three to four games a week. So if one of our guys, or two of our key guys, get the virus and they miss 10 days to 14 days, that can be eight games. In a 72-game season, that can knock you out of the playoffs.

"That's a concern, our guys' health is a concern, and that's tough. As a coach, you want to go into your chief concerns being more basketball, and I think every coach's concern right now is probably non-basketball."

Teams across the league opened player workouts in their facilities Tuesday, three weeks before opening night. In a sign of how compacted this offseason is, the NBA finished last season inside the bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, on Oct. 11, held the draft less than two weeks ago and started free agency 10 days ago.

All of that -- combined with the restrictions on workouts due to COVID-19 -- is hard enough for any coach to handle. But for one in the position Rivers is in, adjusting to taking over a new team, it becomes all the more difficult to deal with.

"Taking a job during this year of COVID is brutal," Rivers said. "I will just say that. It's brutal. And then making the changes, because we haven't had a chance to be in the gyms with our guys. We can't even put in our stuff, and then you have like a week-and-a-half, and you're in [regular-season] action.

"We're going to simplify things as much as possible. It clearly wouldn't be what I would do if it was normal circumstances. It is what it is. Teams like Boston and Milwaukee and Miami, that are already set, they have an advantage.

"We are fine with that, but we have to make up the deficit, and we probably have to do it through work."

Some of that work will have to be done by Rivers himself -- specifically in trying to figure out how to approach a training camp unlike any he's ever been part of. Not only will the schedule be compacted, but the amount of time that Rivers will be able to be on the court with his full team will be significantly reduced. Even things as typically simple as getting his team into game shape will be harder under the current circumstances, and will be part of a learning curve for Rivers with his new team -- and for his new players with their new coach.

"It's tough because your checklist will be cut in half itself," Rivers said. "Instead of like using a normal training camp, you would already have your checklist, some of it would be checked. Normal training camp, I would come in day one and know who's in shape and who's not. COVID training camp, you really don't now, because right now all we can do is one-on-one stuff. That's not real basketball conditioning, [because] someone can look like they're in shape and not be."

While things may be tough for Rivers, they're going to be far, far tougher for rookies, who will be walking into training camp having not played organized basketball in at least nine months, and who will be starting their NBA careers without the benefit of playing in the Las Vegas Summer League to get even a slight feel for what NBA games will be like.

Rivers joked that the veterans won't know anything about the rookies on the team -- guards Tyrese Maxey and Isaiah Joe and forward Paul Reed -- when they first take the floor.

"It's a hard one with our rookies," Rivers said. "They're all in there now doing individual workouts. You know, it's so separated right now. Just think on the first day of camp, our rookies probably won't know the other players on the team. When you think about it in those terms, that's insane. And I guarantee you they won't know them, you know, the veterans.

"Dwight Howard and Joel (Embiid), they're going to come in, 'Who this guy? And, 'Hey, my name's Maxey.' It's going to be that type of scene. And then as a coaching staff, you don't wait. You get going. So we're going to throw these guys right in the fire. In some ways, that might be good. They don't overthink. And some will struggle. I think for the rookies this year, the mental toughness factor will be gigantic."