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December 07, 2022

Mailbag: Are the Sixers stuck?

Plus: What's Doc Rivers' job security like?

There are only so many ways a fanbase can ask, "When are they going to fire the coach?" but I can promise you guys have hit every one so far. The Sixers are under fire for poor play, and you're ready for heads to roll.

Let's get to this week's mailbag.

This question, or a version of this question, is by far the most common thing getting asked about the Sixers right now. The natural progression of thinking, "The Sixers are broken" is to wonder how they can fix it. 

As I tried to lay out in my article earlier this week, I don't think there's a simple assignment of blame or an easy solution to be had. Rivers has not been good enough, but neither has James Harden, Joel Embiid, P.J. Tucker, Matisse Thybulle, Danuel House Jr., or Montrezl Harrell and so on. Some guys haven't been consistent enough, some guys have looked too old, some have been scatterbrained, and some have been too selfish or too unselfish. There are old habits dying hard that have existed long before Doc Rivers showed up, and some traits of the team that look an awful lot like traits of other Rivers teams that couldn't get it done. There's not going to be much protesting, here or elsewhere, if they decide a coaching change is a card they must play.

But I think the Rob Thomson arc with the Phillies has poisoned people's brains to think that a midseason coaching change is all it takes to change a talented team into a contender. Most of the coaching changes that resulted in leaps to championships in recent years have come between seasons. Two notable exceptions I can think of are Tyronn Lue, who took over a 2016 Cavs team that had already been to the Finals the previous year, and Pat Riley, who booted Stan Van Gundy 21 games into Miami's 2006 championship season. 

The rest have been offseason changes, which allow a new coach to build a new system, spend a year testing new ideas, and hope that it all comes together in the playoffs. If you are under the impression a coaching change is going to make it so that Embiid and Harden are suddenly 06 Shaq and Wade, or 31-year-old LeBron James and 23-year-old Kyrie Irving, I think you are in absolute dreamland. You have to be reasonable about what the path forward likely is, which is to say that they're more likely to remove a coach and end up an afterthought in history than they are to fire Rivers and vault to true contender status.

Nearly every title-winner in modern NBA history was powered by one or perhaps more than one inner-circle NBA great. Go down the list of champions and it's mostly a list of guys who are on a one-name basis with the world. Steph. Giannis. LeBron. Kobe. Michael. Shaq. Duncan. Hakeem. Magic. Bird. Between 1980 and the day I am writing this, that group of 10 players owns 36 of the last 42 championships. Harden is going into the Hall of Fame the moment he's eligible, and Embiid will probably clear the threshold for enshrinement sooner than later, but they are not at the level of guys like that, not in the playoffs at least. In my heart of hearts, I think Embiid has the talent to find himself among those guys, but it necessitates a level of all-encompassing buy-in he hasn't offered as much as he needs to as the leader of this organization. 

That above list is filled with maniacal workers and culture setters, even when that culture bordered on psychosis (see: Jordan, Michael, and Bryant, Kobe). Shaq is an exception, though it's fair to note his "playing into shape" seasons in L.A. and bouts of apathy didn't begin in earnest until after the Lakers won a damn title. That is what's so vexing about where this team is at under Embiid and Harden's leadership. They deserve respect for their individual accomplishments and are not accountable for any/all failures of their organizations over the years, but these are two guys who have not come that close to reaching the mountaintop. In spite of that, we walk into the arena every night and have little to no idea what we're getting from them. You can blame Rivers for not being the master motivator, but I can guarantee you Rivers wasn't going to James Harden at the end of their loss to the Rockets and telling him to try to score in isolation 15 straight times. 

There are cards this team can play, certainly. Try more three-guard looks with Harden/Tyrese Maxey/De'Anthony Melton when you're healthy and relegate P.J. Tucker to a smaller role. Hammer right side DHOs with Harden handling, which worked well last year. Get it through to Harden that taking catch-and-shoot threes out of Embiid post-ups is a necessity, not an option. Commit as many bodies as you can to the defensive glass. Continue to sharpen your zone, because you're going to need it in the playoffs. They have already made adjustments that have helped, like their change to switching 1-4 instead of 1-5, and they can continue moving things around to find the right mix.

(An option no one has talked about quite yet — quietly dangle Melton, who is young, productive, and on a great contract, and see if you can get the wheels turning on a bigger move.)

12-12 is not dead in the water. Health has not been on their side. But this group needs to begin building championship habits, and that starts with a relentless, single-minded approach from the dudes at the top of the roster. It can't be sometimes, it can't be conditional, and it can't be reliant on the coach.

I think Doc Rivers has more security than people on social media want him to have, but sure, I think there's a realistic chance he could be let go. This is a team that came into the year with championship expectations, a group Rivers said is the most talented team he has had here, a team that Joel Embiid believed could be the No. 1 defense and also happens to have James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. That same team is 12-12 through 24 games. The idea that the coaching leader of said team is untouchable is crazy.

That being said, I've tried to tell everyone the last few weeks that the general vibe seems to be, "We're all in this together." Nobody has tried to play shadow games playing up Rivers' role in the tough start, everyone (mostly) taking responsibility for their part in where they are. It doesn't mean he has unlimited leeway or patience, but there would need to be a real shift in thinking, and that would require a more dramatic spiral than what they've shown so far.

I think this was a fair criticism prior to this year, and members of the front office would probably admit it to you themselves (never publicly). It's a lot harder to make that point for this season, when their biggest offseason signing was a guy Embiid sat and raved about during his final postgame presser of last year. 

P.J. Tucker is the name most people will jump to, and I think for now it's hard to argue for anyone else. For example, Danuel House Jr. was signed using the bi-annual exception. Here's the list of guys who have been signed using that over the last few seasons.

2018: Brook Lopez (Milwaukee), Elfrid Payton (New Orleans), Allonzo Trier (New York), Dante Cunningham (San Antonio)

2019: Boban Marjanovic (Dallas), Markieff Morris (Detroit), Marko Guduric (Memphis), Stanley Johnson (Toronto)

2020: Facundo Campazzo (Denver), Wesley Matthews (Los Angeles), Bobby Portis (Milwaukee)

2021: Tristan Thompson (Chicago), Sterling Brown (Dallas)

The Bucks came out way, way ahead on the two listed signings here, but they're exceptions rather than the rule. Even Wes Matthews, who is on the high end of these moves, has been more reputation than impact guy over the last few years. His last year above average from three was the year before L.A. signed him to that deal.

Frankly, a list of mid-level signings in recent years wouldn't be a whole lot better, but I think the fanbase had much higher expectations for Tucker, who is on a pretty sizable contract and has been in a bad run of form for a month-plus. In any case, Tucker struggling as he has in a starter-sized role is much more significant than House being spotty or Montrezl Harrell being a non-factor or worse.

I'm just going to throw out "modern" fours who are basically wings sliding up a spot, as I don't think that's much fun.

If it's best hypothetical lineup, and I can just detach myself from the rest of the Sixers already in place, am I crazy for thinking it's Larry Bird? I know he spent more of his career as a small forward, but Kevin McHale didn't full-time start until the 85-86 season. I also know there are lots of doubters regarding his ability to defend and succeed at the same level in today's NBA, but I'll take his game at face value for sake of argument.

Here's my case — Bird is basically the perfect sort of offensive player to have next to Embiid. He was an ahead-of-his-time shooter who would have been insane by simply taking better advantage of the three-point line in a modern offense, and he was also one of the greatest connective players ever, perhaps the most unique off-ball threat of his era. Bird was not just a threat to splash one in your face coming off of a screen, he came off of a screen ready to whip passes to any spot on the floor with the defense scrambling to contest him. Even when he did not get the ball, if you watch old Celtics games, you can see off-ball movement from Bird opening up post-up and isolation opportunities on the other side of the floor for Boston's other bigs, primarily Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. And as an added bonus, his experience playing with those guys ensure Bird would know how to hit Embiid with a damn entry pass.

I think the beauty of an Embiid/Bird frontcourt is that Bird did not need constant touches in order to transform a game, and I think by pairing Embiid with an offensive star of that nature, you mask some of the issues of an Embiid-centric offense. And after watching stagnant isolation ball recently, more movement would be a godsend.

"Elden Ring" is Game of the Year no question (though I concede I haven't played much of the new "God of War" yet).

I'm sure many reading this column would, but I have to watch the Sixers regardless of how things go, so I would personally prefer not to watch a year of disjointed, mediocre basketball if I had my choice. No hard feelings that everyone else disagrees.

I can't speak to the entirety of his job, as it serves the team to keep things vague on the responsibility front, but I do know Elton Brand is an accomplice of Daryl Morey's who pitches in on a variety of things. For example, as the Sixers make exploratory calls in advance of the December 15 trade aggregation date, Brand was responsible for having those chats with one group of teams while Morey handled another group. He is involved in high-level activity and conversations, whether that's with agents, other teams, or as someone to keep the pulse of the guys they already have in-house.

Put it this way — I think there's a reason he continues to be well-liked in the organization in spite of how the front office has changed since he was the face of the team. He's a smart, even-keeled guy.

Depends on the pair of shoes, IMO. Most everyday type shoes (sneakers or otherwise) I would just toss in loose, and then you can use the shoeboxes for little knick-knacks and things that are annoying to keep track of during a move. But keep nice shoes in the boxes and take care of those things.

While we're on the subject...

Never try to wear a new pair of dress shoes for the first time on the day of the wedding. I got a pair of beautiful velvet dress shoes to wear with my tux, and they looked great, but I did not break them in whatsoever and they absolutely destroyed my heels until I switched to sneakers for most of the reception. You're going to be on your feet all damn day, so make sure you're comfortable.

Here's the other one — don't second guess yourself. I spent a lot of the week leading into the wedding thinking about choices we made regarding food, vendors, location, and so forth, and then woke up the day after the wedding thinking I wouldn't have changed a single thing. The wife owns most of the credit there, and I think the vendors make a big difference one way or another. We were fortunate to find people who we got along with (a huge deal with how much time you spend discussing and executing) and who actively helped us create the day we wanted.

Somebody from Fanatics or the NBA will probably put me in cement shoes and toss me in the Delaware River for this, but sports gear for kids is bad as a general concept. They grow out of most stuff insanely quickly, so buying a jersey for a kid at a young age is basically just committing to buying them repeatedly in the future. Only hats can avoid this trap, but they come with a slew of other problems, namely that some people look dumb in hats, and kids are prone to taking them off and throwing them, which exposes you to the risk of both grime and loss. No good.

I know it's expensive to take a family to games so you have to pick your spots, but kids will remember experiences a lot more than they're going to remember which Sixers shirt you got for them for Christmas when they were kids.

(If this question is about older kids, just buy them a cool hoodie and be done with it.)

Combination of factors. I don't think Embiid is an exceptional rebounder, which is a bad place to start from if you're building a team around a center. Too often, you see him waiting for the ball to come to him rather than the other way around, and his willingness to box out on a given possession comes and goes.

That said, a lot of issues with the surrounding personnel, too. Ben Simmons was an asset as a rebounder, whereas now the supporting cast is filled with lots of guys who are either small, slow, or not particularly good rebounders themselves. I understand the desire to try to boost their pace, but they could also stand to keep more guys back until they actually secure rebounds. Finish the job and then worry about transition offense.

I don't think there's a pathway mostly because it would take a large-scale, coordinated effort, and that'd be a tremendously unique thing in American sports. 

One thing I admire about the culture of European soccer is how they can straddle rooting for the team while trying to uproot the things they don't like. It takes cognitive dissonance to make signs and sing songs hoping for somebody to sell their favorite team, only to give money to said owners through ticket revenue, but you cannot deny that grievances are heard. Fans effectively stopped the richest clubs in the world from forming a European Super League — Liverpool fans yelled and protested so forcefully that the club created a Supporters Board that now has the power to veto future Super League plans, a power bestowed to them in a rewritten articles of association at the club. Can you imagine such a thing happening here? Of course not.

There's always the "hit them in the wallets" approach but with season ticket sales and such, the impact you can make there this season is limited. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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