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March 30, 2022

Eytan Shander: Doc Rivers is not playoff ready

Sixers NBA
Sixers-Pistons-Doc-Rivers-3_012821_Kate_Frese98.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 28: Head Coach Doc Rivers of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during the game against the Detroit Pistons on October 28, 2021 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (Photo by Kate Frese/PhillyVoice)

The Sixers have a coaching problem. It should come as little coincidence that we see the opposite as Jay Wright continues to prove why coaches matter. In the case of the Sixers, fresh off a brutal last-second loss to the Bucks, more questions remain about how prepared the team is for the playoffs.

Mainly, their coach. Yes, players make shots and turn the ball over. Players are on the floor in the crucial deciding moments of any game, but we are fast to absolve the coach – especially in the NBA – as a pawn. That’s just not the case, and while Doc Rivers may impact the game on a different level than Wright, there are strong similarities in the job description.

Rivers seems to lack a general feel of game flow, trouble identifying when to adjust his rotations, and is just awful out of a timeout. Wright has full control of a game – from understanding the pacing to knowing when to call timeouts. It’s as simple as stopping a run or knowing when to turn up the pressure. But it’s also having a fundamental understanding of who your players are, and how to use them.

Joel Embiid called Rivers out for sitting the star center in the third, while the Bucks did whatever they wanted. That’s just not being playoff ready, and nothing in the next week is going to fix it. It’s become so problematic and exposed against good teams.

The key difference between coaching the NBA and NCAA basketball is less on the floor than it is the business element – and true lack of power the coach has in the pro league. That doesn’t mean he can’t influence the game, for better or worse. Not having your best player on the floor while the other team’s best player is doing whatever he wants is a perfect description of “worse."

A major similarity between the two jobs is dealing with basketball circumstances, something that we should have even less faith with Doc. Look at Villanova; down Justin Moore and essentially playing six players, Wright could be on the verge of his most masterful performance as a head coach. He has to adjust, maneuver around roadblocks, and put out a game plan that allows his kids to make plays and get stops.

Take that last sentence, “He has to adjust, maneuver around roadblocks, and put out a game plan that allows his kids to make plays and get stops.” Now apply it to Rivers. Your confidence level would be jumping in the Schuylkill River. Rivers has no real depth, a huge hole at the backup 5-spot, and inconsistent stars. Yet it seems like every time they blow a big lead against good teams, we find ourselves asking why the coach didn’t make any adjustments.

This should not be the case for a guy with a championship to his name who was an “upgrade” from Brett Brown. Yet, here we are, the same issues with rotations, the same questions about lack of adjustments, the same scratching of our heads after any play following a timeout.

Another key factor in impacting the game from the bench is what you call after a time out or stoppage. I’m not sure what Doc is calling, but it ain’t working. Meanwhile, Wright continues to be one of the best coaches in college basketball after any stoppage. Why? Because his plays work.

Rivers is being exposed again as someone having trouble working with what’s in front of him. It’s not all his fault, especially the build of this team – lack of depth, etc. The problem is that Rivers can’t seem to adjust around the circumstances, and it’s even more frustrating when you have two legit superstars on the team. Rivers is also at the mercy of not getting all four of his impact players on the same page – against a good team for most of the game. Embiid, James Harden, Tobias Harris, and Tyrese Maxey don’t all have to have the games of their lives at the same time, but it can’t be 1.5 players disappearing either.

It's not ideal but the Sixers are most likely going to need the first round of the playoffs to fine-tune anything extra for a deep run. It’s also evident that Rivers is going into a similar situation that Brown faced in the Toronto playoff series in 2019 – an absolutely exhausted Embiid. They should be looking at managing minutes for Embiid down this regular season ending, but he is locked in an MVP race and the team is still fighting for the top seed.

It's an unfortunate situation brewing where the team will die out from exhaustion as they did everything they could to – rightfully – secure the MVP for Embiid and take one last shot at the top seed in the East.

So, yes, some things are out of Rivers’ control, but it’s always been about how confident you are in his ability to adjust. He can learn a lot from Wright when it comes to that alone.

You will have to test your confidence in the Sixers' core to fix or improve their main weaknesses ahead of the playoffs. Maybe you see it differently than I do, but the one person I’m most confident in not being able to change is the coach.

Reactionary? Yep. Recency bias following a bad loss? You bet. Necessary ahead of the playoff run? 100 percent. It’s important to highlight some main concerns about the four key players on the team to illustrate how fast or easy a change can be, as opposed to the problems seen on the bench.

Embiid needs to be more aware of open teammates. He has an uncanny ability as a dominant big who can also shoot to create his own spacing. Nikola Jokic has mastered this as a passer. Embiid can get there; he just needs to drastically improve. If he even moderately improves this over the next two weeks, the Sixers stand a greater chance of making a deeper run.

Harden is wildly inconsistent as a scorer. He’s also *big inhale* a better passer than Ben Simmons, a smart rebounder on longer shots, able to slow the game down to a halt by getting to the FT line, a master of creating spacing and a much better defender than advertised. The funny thing is that if the Sixers get four or five straight games of 30-plus points for Harden, there’s nothing really wrong at all with him.

Maxey just hasn’t done it before on this big of a stage. True. But he’s got playoff experience and took over when Simmons went into his shell. Maxey has immediately turned into a three-point threat and shooter since Harden’s arrival, on top of his own ability to get to the basket. He needs to be more consistent, but that comes with playing more games with Harden. Last night was just the third time since the trade that Maxey failed to hit at least two three-pointers. He will be fine.

Harris is also too inconsistent. We saw Doc unlock something in Harris out in LA and are hoping for this big step in the playoffs. We have seen the glimpses of it, but for whatever reason, Harris can’t seem to stay dominant in a game that also allows others to breathe. It seems like he’s disappearing or taking advantage of another star being down, far more often than the four main players gelling.

And then there’s Doc.

Follow Eytan on Twitter: @shandershow

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