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June 13, 2023

Doc Rivers weighs in on what Joel Embiid's next step is, difficulty of coaching James Harden

In an interview with Bill Simmons, Doc Rivers speaks about Joel Embiid's ability as a leader and James Harden's postseason play style.

Of all the people in the world who Sixers fans want to hear from right now, former head coach Doc Rivers might be at the bottom of the list. But nobody was closer to the subject (and the failures) of the team over the last three seasons, and in a new podcast appearance, Rivers weighed in on a number of hot topics, featuring the two stars he was tasked with coaching.

During an appearance on The Bill Simmons Podcast recorded after Denver's Game 5 win over Miami, Rivers went long on the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic before eventually discussing his old team. First up was Joel Embiid, who watched Monday as his closest competitor for MVP awards closed out a title run while Embiid spent the last two rounds at home. Rivers was asked by Simmons what Embiid needs to do in order to make the next step to title-winning leader, and the former head coach hit on a familiar theme, acknowledging Embiid's need to grow as a leader.

"I stayed on him daily, he has the ability to make his teammates better. And when he does that, you look at our games this year, when he did that and dominated, hard to go away from Joel Embiid. He's just got to do that on a consistent basis. Not just on the court, but also off the court," Rivers said. "Just be around your guys and spend time with your guys and let them know that you love them because they love you. And so I thought Jo in the three years you could see the growth there. I think we forget how young he is, we also forget his first two years he didn't play, and Bill I'm telling you, that sets a tone. 

"When you miss two years and you're sitting there all of the time and you get used to not playing in games, Ben Simmons went through the same thing, he missed the first year. Fighting that early on when I first got there was huge. 'Jo, you need to play tonight. Jo, you can play tonight.' Now he's up in games, so he's doing it, he's crossed that barrier. The next one will be making his teammates better, when he does that it's going to be hard to stop. And I think he will do it."

While Rivers acknowledged that health was Embiid's first hurdle to clear — "He was never the same once he came back this year," Rivers said during the interview — the ability to lift up his teammates has certainly been the missing ingredient from a playoff perspective. His playmaking through doubles prior to the injury suffered against Brooklyn was enough to push the Sixers to an early-series lead against the Nets, but with his body in bad shape in round two, Embiid struggled with his ability to attack and with making the right reads in traffic against Boston.

Rivers spotlighted their Game 6 loss to Boston as a missed opportunity, hinting at some thoughts about his other star while lamenting they hadn't gotten Embiid enough touches down the stretch.

"Basketball-wise, we got to get the ball to Joel more," Rivers said of their Game 6 loss. "And trust me, we came out and played where it should have gone there, and it just didn't arrive there. So those are big plays. Now listen, Joel was not having a great game, but neither was Tatum and my belief is so what? You still go through your guy and you keep letting him save the day for you, I thought we went away from that."

On its own, a fairly innocuous comment from a coach who wants his best player to get the ball during the biggest games. But Rivers' comments about coaching James Harden seemed to connect all of the dots to explain the why behind that failure.

Rivers had a lot of praise for Harden while considering his talent and resume, but admitted that coaching Harden was a challenge as he battled the player's instincts with what he thought Harden needed to be to win.

"It was challenging, more because we were fighting two things. James is so good at playing one way, and the way I believe you have to play to win in some ways is different, because it's a lot of giving up the ball, moving the ball, coming back to the ball," Rivers said. "I would have loved to have had him younger when that was easier for him because giving up the ball and getting back the ball is hard, it's physical and it's exhausting. It would have been interesting if I would have had him younger and he could have done that more, coming off of dribble handoffs coming down the hill.

"At times to get him to move it and play the way I needed him to play — I thought the first half of the year I thought we were the best team in the game. I thought James was playing perfect basketball, he was the point guard of the team. He was still scoring, but he was doing more playmaking and scoring. And then the second half, he started scoring more, trying to score more, and I thought we got stagnant at times. I thought we changed."

There is a bit of revisionist history happening here on the timing, unless you want to be generous to Rivers and say he means the playoffs as the "second half" of the year. Harden's post-break scoring was actually down compared to the 41 games he played prior to the All-Star break, and his attempts per game were nearly identical, sitting around 14.5 per night. While his attempts and usage rose in the postseason, you could make the argument that was mostly about Embiid's injury and Harden needing to step up in order to try to steal a few games. Not exactly unreasonable.

But what Rivers did get at during the interview, which ties into the aforementioned stagnation, was the downside of Harden's style of play. As he tried to assess why Harden has fallen short in the playoffs despite putting together an elite regular season resume, he noted the difference between a player like Harden and a contemporary like Steph Curry, even bringing in an old Michael Jordan analogy to drive the point home.

"What makes James great is that he's one of the best individual players to ever play the game — ballhandling, handles the ball, dribbles the ball, attacks — but that also allows you to attack, if you know where he's at, you know where the ball is at," Rivers said. "And so in the playoffs, when teams are game-planning against you each game, double teaming and taking the ball out of your hand, making it harder, it's easier to do that to James compared to do that — how do you take Steph [Curry] out of a game? He's running around, he's moving, it's hard. Steve Kerr, we beat Golden State and Steve Kerr used that game, and how we trapped him if you remember in Game 6 and 7, he used that and showed Steph hey, it's too easy in big games down the stretch to stop you. They know where the ball is at. 

"If you remember Chicago, Doug Collins used to let Michaell [Jordan] bring the ball up the floor, and then they got in the playoffs, you knew where the ball and you knew where Michael is at, so then you attacked. Phil [Jackson] comes in and the triangle was moving. Now at the end of the game, Phil Jackson still went to pick-and-roll with Michael Jordan, having said that, it was the movement and the inability to find where you could trap him that made it so hard. I think that's James' kryptonite right now. I don't believe the whole thing that he quits and all of that stuff, I just think teams make him struggle because they know where [he's] at and they know where to find him."

Harden inarguably adapted his game in order to succeed with Embiid, embracing catch-and-shoot jumpers more while changing his pick-and-roll process to account for a jump-shooting big compared to a high flyer. That said, there was a hard limit to what Harden was able or willing to change about his on-court habits. Harden was not a serial re-locator, a threat of movement, or someone who made sweeping fundamental changes after hitting the playoff wall himself many times prior to arriving in Philly. If the partnership stays in place and the stars look internally at what they can do to improve, Harden's first order of business is finding the balance between his isolation gifts and being an off-ball weapon.

In any case, Rivers sounds like a man ready for some time off, as he detailed his plans to do TV and podcasting, sit down with NFL coaches for lessons on process, and (of course) get some golf rounds in during this upcoming year. Where he lands next is anyone's guess, but in his first major media appearance since leaving the Sixers, he gave an honest, relatively inoffensive assessment of the past and future. You can listen to it yourself below.

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