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December 03, 2020

How telling are Clippers' recent chemistry issues for Doc Rivers' Sixers future?

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Fresh off of a disappointing 2019-20 season, the Sixers made it abundantly clear what they thought they needed in the head coach's chair. Buzzwords like "accountability" were all the rage, and when Doc Rivers became available toward the tail end of their coaching search, the Sixers pounced, hiring him inside a week of Rivers parting ways with the Clippers.

The details that have poured in since have not exactly painted the job he did last season in the most favorable light, and there was an avalanche of news that dropped Wednesday worth examining through a Sixers lens.

The most extensive reporting came courtesy of an article from Jovan Buha with The Athletic, detailing the amount of control Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had over the team in L.A. last season. Buha reports that the star duo was given control over the team's practice schedule, had a degree of control over their playing time in games, passed postgame media responsibility off to teammates, and delayed team flights due to Leonard's chosen home (the Clippers wing reportedly lives in San Diego rather than L.A.).

These perks added up to a toxic mix for L.A., and Rivers' best efforts apparently fell on deaf ears (bold emphasis below is mine):

The special treatment might have gone over better in the locker room had Leonard’s and George’s teammates felt they had a stronger relationship or bond with their superstar colleagues. Several members of the locker room felt that injuries should have allowed Leonard and George ample time to establish a better rapport with their teammates, but that never happened.

...

Recognizing this, some players and coaches tried to improve the situation. After a rough stretch in early January, including Harrell’s eyebrow-raising comments to the media about the state of the team’s locker room, Leonard organized a series of players-only film sessions. He also worked out with Beverley and George during the hiatus after the league shut down because of the coronavirus. 

But there wasn’t consistency behind his actions with teammates, multiple league sources said. He didn’t talk up his teammates publicly the way other stars do, or even behind the scenes. Leonard’s leadership progressed throughout the season, but it never reached the level it needed to foster a championship culture. 

Rivers would frequently step in, at practices and in the locker room during games, initiating difficult conversations from which the group often refrained. But his voice stopped carrying the same weight, eventually. Overall, he wasn’t able to fully hold his players or coaching staff accountable, multiple league sources said. [The Athletic]

This is a far cry from the guy some people in Philadelphia seem to believe they're getting in Rivers. With each quote he has dropped about holding players accountable since being hired, fans have rejoiced, seeing him as a tougher customer than departed coach Brett Brown. He certainly is that, but the rhetoric on "accountability" doesn't match the reality of his most recent coaching job.

It also doesn't match what Rivers has said himself about how he runs a team. During his first training camp interview with reporters in Philadelphia this week, Rivers wouldn't commit to a solid identity for his new team because it's not his choice to make that call.

"It’s a great question, and I have my own thoughts that I will not share yet because I want to make sure we get in the gym," Rivers said. "I call it the lab. You have to get in there first. And the identity has to be what they believe it is, not what I want it to be."

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To be clear, Rivers is absolutely correct. Contending teams take on the identity their best players allow them to. It's exactly why banking on him to change who his star players are is a tough sell. 

Rivers coached a group of hard asses in Boston, talented but petulant players during the CP3-Griffin era for the Clippers, and a pair of aloof stars during his last year in L.A., and his teams reflected those traits each time. The same goes for the in-between years when a grinder in Pat Beverley and a respected vet like Lou Williams helped L.A. overachieve relative to their overall talent.

What is the identity of Philly's top duo? That's the tricky thing, they don't necessarily have one. Embiid and Simmons keep close circles, and while they haven't dictated the terms of the organization the way you see the Clippers stars did, neither has emerged as the no-doubt alpha the rest of the team follows. Tobias Harris has made an effort to better connect the team away from the floor, but those efforts have not always been embraced by the parties who really matter. And because it's obligatory to bring his name up anytime we have a discussion like this, Jimmy Butler's style may have been taxing for some, but Embiid (and most of the rest of the team) fell in line behind him when it counted.

If your argument is that putting a better-fitting roster on the floor with a better, moderately more demanding coach is all these two need to make the leap, I think you have a decent but perhaps not ironclad case. I would caution anyone against thinking he's going to fundamentally change who Simmons and Embiid are, and thus, how the leadership core of this team carries itself. Kevin Garnett is not walking through that door.

The spicier news from Wednesday stems from an interview Paul George did with the "All The Smoke" podcast with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, with Showtime dropping a clip from the unreleased pod yesterday. Here's the full clip for you to watch and judge for yourselves:

A few choice quotes from George in under five minutes of audio:

  1. "The way I was being used, Doc was trying to play me as like a Ray Allen, a JJ Redick, all pin-downs. I can do it, but that ain't my game, I need some flow, I need some mixes of pick-and-rolls, I need some post-ups, just different touches."
  2. “It was tough because we was confident. We went up 3-1, we felt like, we’re going to win the next one. We lost. We was like, ‘Cool, we’re up 3-2, we're gonna win the next one.’ We lost. But during that whole process, we never worked on adjustments. We never worked on what to do differently. We just literally having the same shit happen over and over again. It started to play a trick on you like, man, what’s going on?”
  3. “We talking amongst each other like the conversation is like, ‘we going to be all right.’ The conversation should have been like, ‘Nah, we need to change this, we need to switch this up.’ At the end of the day, I don’t think we deserved it. We wasn't prepared enough going into it. We didn’t put the work into it. Just us making adjustments standpoint, we wasn't prepared, we didn't put the work into it."

These accusations on the record are more damaging than sourced reports because they come from the mouth of one of Rivers' former stars. Lack of adjustments and misuse of personnel, again, are two things many Sixers fans believe they're getting away from after the coaching change. Rivers' inflexibility in big moments has been a long-standing criticism of his work.

Here's where I will stump for Rivers. George's comments about his usage in L.A. are just a straight-up fabrication. Around a third of his plays last season were pick-and-rolls, a career-high for George that represented a core part of the Clippers' offense. Did Rivers use him in other ways, including as a movement shooter? Of course, but it would be a disservice to George and the rest of the team not to use a versatile offensive player like, well, a versatile offensive player.

There are a lot of criticisms to make of Rivers as a coach, but he certainly has a general understanding of what his guys do well on offense. That's a major reason for optimism in Philly. Rivers is known for being clear in what he asks of each player on the roster, and it's more likely than not he'll have Simmons, Embiid, and the rest of the roster in actions tailored to their strengths (in this case, a whole lot of stuff around the rim). Even if you don't believe in his ability to adapt, his baseline structure will be superior to anything they've had in the Embiid/Simmons era to date.

Frankly, I think the concept of "accountability" is overrated as a reason for teams failing and is used as a vague stand-in for the more real, more specific failures that actually derail them. Of course, accountability matters like it does in any field, but the word has become a crutch to lean on when people underdeliver. It allows people to skate by for holes in their game, holes in their coaching style, and holes in managerial moves. 

The proof of that is Philadelphia banging the drum of "accountability" in late August only to hire the coach who had the most noteworthy trouble with it at his last job. The Clippers did not choke away a 3-1 lead in a bubble they were set up in for two months because Rivers tolerated Kawhi showing up late to team flights. They may have lost it because Rivers refused to sit Montrezl Harrell and Reggie Jackson as they bled points every time they stepped on the floor.

This is a player-driven league. Watching Embiid break down in tears after their 2019 Game 7 defeat to Toronto, everyone (this writer included) thought the big man would return with a renewed passion last season. Instead, his disappointment with their roster moves hung over the season like a black cloud, and his inconsistency was a huge factor in their up-and-down season. 

Maybe that's proof that Embiid needed a stronger voice in the locker room to get him prepared for a real run at a title. Maybe Rivers, one of the best-liked coaches in the NBA, is the exact guy to make that happen. 

But Rivers will tell you himself he will not be the first, second, or third reason the Sixers contend for a title or not. The people who can make that happen have been here all along, and if they're as ready to make excuses for failure as Paul George is, the new coach's contributions will only mean so much in the end.

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