More Sports:

February 28, 2023

Blame Doc Rivers for the right things, not everything wrong with the Sixers

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)

When the Sixers hired Doc Rivers in the fall of 2020, a roar went up around the fanbase. Finally, the thought went, Philadelphia was hiring an “accountability guy” to lead the team after Brett Brown’s friendly era had come to a close. It has been clear since that moment that a lot of people were only tangentially aware of who Rivers is and what he has done throughout his coaching career.

Three years later, Rivers is the heart of every problem for a large chunk of the fanbase. They have certainly been given reasons to groan at Rivers over the last few years. All-bench lineups in the playoffs, strange rotation choices, a reluctance to use challenges, leaning on washed-up veterans, over-reliance on zone defense, and the team’s messy public breakup with Ben Simmons are all at least somewhat on his shoulders. But there’s a big gap between assigning proper blame to the head coach of the team and pointing to him as the sole reason anything bad ever happens to the Sixers.

Philadelphia’s on-and-off effort problems, for example, are often treated as a direct reflection of their head coach, precisely one regime after effort and focus problems were pinned on the previous head coach. It is not just a strange view of how the Sixers work, but of how the NBA works. The Miami team who beat Philadelphia on Monday night, boasting the NBA’s most notorious culture and led by one of the most well-respected coaches in the league, were coming off of a horrible loss to the 20-43 Hornets. Hell, the league-leading Celtics team who beat Philly in a high-octane game on Saturday night came out flat against the Knicks on Monday, never climbing out of a hole they dug themselves in the first half at Madison Square Garden.

The point being — coaches certainly play a huge role in establishing the general culture of a team, but they only have so much influence. Joel Embiid will be the first one to tell you this.

The Sixers spent most of Brett Brown’s tenure as a turnover-heavy machine, a fact that was often placed on Brown’s shoulders whether it was right or wrong on any given night. Philadelphia has upgraded their lead playmaker significantly and Embiid has grown by leaps and bounds, and Philadelphia is now top-10 in fewest turnovers per game. Yet they’re still capable of hanging an 18-turnover game against a mediocre Heat team. Asked what happened on Monday night, Embiid didn’t look anywhere but internally.

“It’s on me just being careless. Could have done a better job, and that’s on me,” Embiid said on Monday night.

What about their late-game execution, which led to Philadelphia coming up empty in the final minute of the Heat game?

“I thought the last play was well-ran,” Embiid said. “We followed the game plan and got a great shot. I thought they came and they doubled, and I made the right play, [James Harden] just missed it. He’s going to make the next one.”

And what does the big man think about two close losses in a row against playoff teams, plus a comeback win over the Grizzlies to open the schedule out of the All-Star break?

“48-minute game, just got to be locked in,” Embiid said, “that’s what I see from these last games. Memphis, we had to come back. Boston we had the lead and then we gave it up and we had to come back. Tonight, we had to come back. Like I said, it starts with me, I got to be better.”

“For us to win, we’re going to have to be almost perfect. We can’t have nights like these last couple of games, got to be locked in all game from the start…everyone in this locker room.”

A star player wearing responsibility, even an honest star player like Embiid, is no reason to declare Rivers the Coach of the Year or absolve him of any crimes against basketball. But it should at least serve as a reminder that the coach is not on the floor making bad passes, failing to box players out, or getting run through/around by a more athletic player or team.

It’s easy enough to find places to nitpick. If you want to hang something on Rivers, assign blame to him for Philadelphia’s rigidity with their lineups. Months after declaring they would have three starting lineups, Rivers has played the same group over and over again even as different matchups have posed different problems, and as the defensive effectiveness of the top unit has waned. The bench is a similar story — Georges Niang is an awesome role player for Philly when the shot is on, and basically useless when it isn’t. Rivers tends to live through those cold spells regardless, even when he hasn’t afforded other role players the same patience.

All playoff-centric concerns regarding Rivers are more than fair. Rivers has had some hard luck over the years — Kevin Garnett’s 2009 injury derailed a Celtics team that won 62 games the season after winning a title, and the Clippers dealt with multiple Blake Griffin and Chris Paul injuries at inopportune moments. But Rivers has overseen perhaps the best and biggest collection of star talent in the league over the last 15 years, managing to turn in three of the most dramatic playoff collapses in the process.

You could also make a coherent argument that playoff Rivers is undermined by regular season Rivers, the latter of whom most people (outside of Philly, anyway) think is pretty good. You come undone in the playoffs overplaying somebody like Montrezl Harrell because, well, you overplayed Montrezl Harrell, but also because your team has not put in the time and reps in the regular season to work on alternatives.

P.J. Tucker was probably always going to be Philadelphia’s best “backup center” option, and Paul Reed has not been good for most of his minutes this season, but we’ll never know what the alternative reality looks like where Reed had more leeway early in the season. Now, the Sixers are in a position where Reed has to try to work through young player issues against the wave of contenders and strong playoff teams they’ll face throughout the month of March, having missed many chances to do so against softer competition late in 2022. Apply the same logic to Isaiah Joe — his results lagged behind his rep as a shooter while in Philly, but I could buy that he deserved some more freedom to fail and that Joe might have turned out differently in Philly if he had more confidence he could work through his issues.

That’s sort of the trick of managing a team with high expectations. You don’t always have the luxury of letting guys simply fail their way through repeated opportunities if they’re not aiding winning, but figuring out a way to do so is a big chunk of the gig.

Even then, some of the blame thrown his way lies with roster and contract decisions. Rivers played Harrell far too much to open the season, but Rivers did not give Harrell a player option on his contract, complicating the possibility of cutting him to chase a better/better-fitting player on the buyout market. Rivers did not give Joe many chances before the Sixers cut him last fall (and he wasn’t particularly good when he got them), but the front office opted to move on from him and sell the open roster spot as a path to increased flexibility… only to basically punt on the flexibility, making a sidegrade trade for Jalen McDaniels and signing a washed-up Dewayne Dedmon while getting under the luxury tax threshold.

It would be naive to claim Rivers has no say in these matters, given that he has talked up his role in recruiting certain players, a la Andre Drummond in the summer of 2021. But I can guarantee you the head coach is among the last people fussing over something like the luxury tax, or anything beyond having the most complete roster they can build in order to compete for a title. While he may want the “wrong” things at times, Rivers can’t be the all-powerful Oz when things are going wrong only to be viewed as a hapless bystander if and when they get things right.

Tyrese Maxey might be the best example of this phenomenon. I’d never argue that Rivers deserves outsized credit for Maxey developing into a much better player and shooter over the last few years, given what we know about Maxey’s relentless work ethic. But the recent undercurrent of claims that Rivers has “ruined Maxey” suggests that playing a young player 30+ minutes per game and often closing with him is singlehandedly responsible for any bad game Maxey has. This is a head coach who has empowered and guided Maxey plenty over the years, including when he gave him 29 minutes of PT as a fresh-faced rookie in a do-or-die Game 6 against Atlanta, with Maxey helping to save the Sixers on an off night for Embiid and another broken brain outing for Ben Simmons.

This is a free-flowing sport built that often hinges on split-second, imperfect solutions. Think of how much credit an elite quarterback gets for making just a few impactful pre-snap adjustments to a play call at the line of scrimmage during a 60-minute NFL game, and then consider that is basically the every-possession reality of high-level basketball. That’s not to say that it’s better or harder, but it is certainly different and requires a much different approach to analyzing coaching.

If you were to ask me if I feel in my heart of hearts that Rivers will be the guy who will lead the Sixers to a title, the answer is no. The track record is what it is. Rivers won his lone title when he had an overwhelming talent advantage and even that team had a tougher road than most people remember, needing Game 7 victories over the lowly Hawks and LeBron’s Cavs just to make the conference finals. If he were a true difference-maker, some of these playoff collapses and dark marks on his resume would likely not exist.

But I also don’t think there are many genuine difference-making coaches in the league. Nick Nurse was the next big thing in coaching after winning a title with Kawhi Leonard impersonating Michael Jordan, and now he looks like Canadian Tom Thibodeau, playing his top men insane minutes and watching over an impotent halfcourt offense. Steve Kerr unlocked the Warriors and has won four different titles with the core of that group, and there are constant complaints from diehard Golden State fans about his rotation choices and stubbornness with certain quirks of their system. On the flip side — I think Joe Mazzulla has been awesome in Boston after being thrust into the lead chair in tough circumstances. But the core of the Celtics’ roster has now been wildly successful (either in the regular season, playoffs, or both) under three different head coaches during this time period. Notably, Boston’s “culture” hit a nadir when famously chaotic Kyrie Irving was a key pillar of the franchise. Must have just been a coincidence, I guess.

All of this is to say that there are plenty of things to blame Rivers for. But pretending as if he is the only reason they’re a shaky Finals pick is letting a lot of other people off of the hook. They need Embiid to lead by example, Harden to play hard on defense, Harris to live up to even half of his contract, Melton to defend guards better, Maxey to do more than score, and so on down the line. Yes, they need better, more proactive thinking from Rivers in the coach’s chair, and we might be discussing alternatives in the summer if they don’t get it. But when they no-show a game, a half, or a quarter in late February, put the blame where it belongs: with the players who can’t be bothered to give a shit because it’s the Heat in late February.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports