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April 01, 2022

Doc Rivers absolves bench, says it was more James Harden in Sixers loss

Philadelphia's lack of second-unit production has been a hot topic since the Sixers pulled the trigger on a deal for James Harden, and Thursday's meeting with Detroit was yet another story in that struggle. Outscored 39-8 by the second unit of a 56-loss Pistons team, the battle was not even a little bit close in a disheartening loss for Philly.

But Doc Rivers did not see this as a product of how the bench unit played on Thursday night, chalking it up to the style one of his stars used to attack a switching Pistons defense.

"Well, they didn't struggle, they didn't get a lot of shots, in their defense," Rivers told reporters in Detroit on Thursday. "I think during that stretch it was more James [Harden] than them. So, you know, yeah it's just a tough night."

Their failure to play team-oriented basketball was an obvious sore spot for Rivers coming out of the loss, who skipped past the suggestion that they had fourth-quarter issues to discuss their failures over the course of the full game.

"I thought offensively, we really just stood around, their switching we just played outside and didn’t move the ball as a group," Rivers noted. "At halftime, we were shooting 42 percent I think, and I just thought the fouls bailed us out. We were awful in the first half, too. We played with very little life tonight, didn’t play together tonight at all, that’s something we’ve been doing. It’s just one of those nights, but tough one."

Pieced together, it reads like a relatively direct, if not especially forceful condemnation of Harden's performance against Detroit, a 4-for-15 stinker that put the Sixers on a path toward implosion. And, to be fair to the head coach, there's truth in what he said to the press, and it's not exactly a revelation when you consider Harden's career in full.

It might be overstating things to suggest the Sixers ran a lot of offensive sets against the Pistons. Ostensibly, the Sixers ran a lot of pick-and-rolls involving Harden and a big of his choice (mostly Joel Embiid), but with Detroit switching everything at the point of attack, the opportunity for Embiid to roll through an open lane wasn't there very often. The Sixers earned some favorable matchups, as when Corey Joseph or Cade Cunningham got stuck on Embiid in the lane, but the more important end of the equation was Harden at the point of attack.

If Harden's start to his Sixers career has been defined by being a little too eager to pass the ball and share it with teammates, Thursday's game spotlighted the caricature of Harden that his critics used to downplay his production in Houston. Harden would get the switch he wanted, rock back and forth with his handle, and see nothing except for the rim, even with teammates in positions to attack from other spots on the floor. A late-game possession with Tyrese Maxey waiting at the top of the key is illustrative of how Thursday went:

A star pulling a shot he can make with less than five minutes to go in the game, though, is not why there's cause for concern about Philadelphia's short-term odds to contend. It's the fact that Harden seems unable to consistently beat matchups he should in theory be favored to win, giving teams all the motive in the world to use the switching strategy the Pistons used.

For example, Detroit big man Isaiah Stewart was the guy tasked with holding up on a fair few switches against Harden, moving off of the Embiid assignment to stop the Sixers from getting what they wanted in pick-and-rolls. Putting Harden against a big man in space used to be a one-way ticket to hell for defenses. That's still the case sometimes, but it has frequently led to Harden putting up contested looks from three on possessions where he is the only player touching the ball:

The Sixers, a team with two stars who should be able to manhandle opposing backups, are struggling to draw even with teams if they don't have both Embiid and Harden on the floor. Embiid lineups without Harden are being outscored by roughly 12 points per 100 possessions, and Harden lineups without Embiid are losing by about three points per 100, a less awful but still unacceptable mark.

But before burying Harden as the sole man responsible for all of these issues, let it also be said that the bench stinks, and Rivers is doing little to help Harden (or the team) avoid possessions like these. They're playing a backup center who two separate teams (one of them a terrible Lakers team) decided was unfit to play for them anymore. They're toggling back and forth between groupings, unsure of whether they want Harden to carry a bench unit himself or to maximize his effectiveness by keeping him attached to Embiid. And the players who are getting chances aren't necessarily in positions to succeed at the moment.

Take Shake Milton, for example. Of Philadelphia's bench players, he's among Rivers' most trusted guys and one of the few with any previous success to speak of. He has frequently had a little too much responsibility, but it's clear he's best in a role where he can handle the ball at least some of the time, his spot-up shooting falling off of a cliff the past couple of years. Unfortunately, he's being put in a spot at the moment where most of his minutes are being spent in that spot-up role, filling in the spot that Furkan Korkmaz used to own in this rotation. Milton in a more creative role, sharing some of the offense with a guy like Maxey on the second unit, makes more sense for him individually.

Rivers is sort of damned if he does, damned if he doesn't in this sense — Korkmaz has been bad for a lot of this year, and playing him won't push away criticism for how he's setting up his team. But if the player in that spot is going to spend the majority of their time as a target for Harden to hit, Korkmaz is better suited for that role, with his ability to (occasionally) hit movement threes giving him a bit of added utility for a group that needs, as Rivers noted himself, a bit of movement. The lack of any sort of move to upgrade the bench after securing Harden is a mark against the front office, rather than Rivers, even if the head coach hasn't done much with what's available. 

In any case, the initial reaction to Rivers' comments from the public lays out the battle the head coach has ahead of him. As far as his recent observations go, he's probably more right than he's been on a lot of other issues lately, including his suggestion on Tuesday night that Paul Reed struggled in the previous meeting vs. the Bucks despite not playing a minute in that matchup with the Bucks. But between frustrations carrying over from last season and questionable decisions with his rotation this year, there are a lot of eyes and ears on everything Rivers does right now. The spotlight is only going to get brighter in a few weeks, and whether he feels his bench is to blame or not, it's up to him to come up with solutions to point this team in the right direction.

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