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August 24, 2022

Best case, worst case: Let's talk about Doc Rivers

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)

We've debated the players in the rotation, the highs and lows the Sixers might reach as individuals, and now we have to discuss everyone's favorite topic: Doc Rivers. Love him or hate him, you likely have an opinion on who he is and what he has to offer. He's the perfect subject for a best case, worst case series, I would argue.

Let's look ahead. 

Best case

Doc Rivers' best season as a head coach was many moons ago at this point, but the 2008 Celtics were a rare example of a big three being put together on the fly and immediately succeeding. There have been groups you could call more talented, e.g. the "Heatles" who formed several years later, but few have been able to immediately come up with a title-winning formula. It takes a lot of sweat equity to get there in the best of circumstances.

By all accounts, Rivers was able to set them on the right path by setting a tone early and promoting a message of togetherness. Boston's rallying cry that season is now common knowledge: "Ubuntu," an African philosophy that roughly means, "I am because we are." For a team bringing together multiple stars who had never climbed the mountaintop while apart, it was a gentle push toward sacrifice from the beginning. As it turns out, that was all the Celtics needed. Boston won 66 games, and though they took a bit longer to win early playoff series than they probably hoped, they eventually won the title and came within arm's reach of a second title in 2010.

Based on what we already know about Philadelphia's preseason plans, it appears Rivers is trying to foster that same team bonding for this year's Sixers. They're headed to Charleston, South Carolina for training camp, with Rivers wanting his guys to have some time and space to grow closer away from people like me in the Philadelphia media (even if I suspect plenty of us will be down there). He understands the need to get this group all on the same page quickly, and he's doing what he can to facilitate that.

For whatever Rivers' flaws are as a coach, he is typically a good Plan A guy, someone who sets his team up sensibly, gets his best players into optimized roles, and wins a lot of regular season games by not rocking the boat too much. With improved depth this season, the Sixers will be able to flank an elite 1-2 combination (and an ascending No. 3) with improved defensive versatility, more consistent shooting, and more competent two-way play throughout the rotation. The Sixers were able to win 51 games last season with a former star refusing to play for the team and an underwhelming cast of characters around Embiid. Rivers doesn't have to do much to get the Sixers off to the races this year.

Speaking of Plan A, look at what his stars have done in the last couple of years. In terms of individual growth, Joel Embiid deserves most of the credit for his step forward as a player. But Rivers also increasingly tilted the team in his direction upon his arrival, something that was not a gimme in many circles at the time — believe me, I know how many people out there were on the "they should build around Simmons long-term" train. He has put Embiid in different and often better spots, and helped him become his best self, even if only slightly. And when Harden came to town last year, the team's offense evolved and adapted to build around that partnership quickly, those two becoming the No. 1 pick-and-roll partnership in the league. Even if Rivers' role in that is simply helping both guys understand how they'd need to adjust to the other's approach, that in itself is significant. 

Looking at the schedule and seeing a brutal final month looks daunting right now, but Rivers could get this group firing on all cylinders early and take pressure off for that final stretch, both in terms of win expectations and the minutes loads for his best players. They could be gearing down and feeling comfortable about their playbook, their rotation, and their place in the standings as other East contenders jostle for position, and March/April tends to be a letdown period for a lot of good teams anyway. The Sixers could very well win a bunch of games against contenders down the stretch even without their best stuff.

A hands-off approach might be what this group needs, and Rivers tends to be a coach who operates that way anyway. As the team searched for answers following their loss to the Miami Heat, Embiid noted limitations of the roster but ultimately downplayed any notion that big changes to the roster or coaching staff would be needed to fix this team. That stressing of personal responsibility was not as splashy as a number of other quotes, but it's ultimately what has to power the Sixers if they hope to win a title. They are well past the point where anyone should think a rah-rah guy is what they need on the bench. Rivers will lead, but he isn't going to define the team's identity, nor should he. The Sixers have big-ticket stars who will ultimately decide who this team is. It will benefit the growth of Philadelphia's core to not have a constant tinkerer messing with things around them, instead allowing them to settle into roles and become the best version of their group.

That said, Rivers has the assistants around him to draw the most out of this group. Dan Burke's defensive style has been a steady drumbeat for many years, but they now have the personnel to play any number of ways, including switch-heavy looks for second units. Team staffers have gently reminded people all summer that they believe PJ Tucker will spend a non-trivial time at center, a claim that can't be made if there isn't some interest from Rivers and Co. to play that way. We've also seen the Sixers dabble more in zone as time has gone on under Rivers, even having some success with it as a momentum shifter as they've tried to fight back in games. That success could inspire Rivers to be more proactive with exotic approaches, using this regular season as a testing ground for things they'll need in the playoffs.

This is a roster that sets Rivers up for success better than previous versions — there are more reliable veterans, fewer arguments about who needs to get minutes, fewer guessing games to be had about the rotation. A rotation that mostly selects itself allows Rivers to focus more energy and attention on long-term concerns, on behind-the-scenes work, on building the resilience of this group through basketball and off-court decisions alike. While people on the outside can discount the value of those things in the middle of a heated regular-season game, they are critical to surviving and thriving across 82 games, and the work shows up when times get tough in the playoffs.

Though I have talked about the Sixers conservatively this summer, I do think there is a non-zero chance they could be an elite regular-season team this year. Not a group hovering around 50 wins, but one gunning for 60+. They have elite top-end talent, improved depth, and yes, they have a head coach who tends to win lots of regular season games and facilitates excellent offense when he has the right pieces in place. 

Worst case

Here's the issue with billing Rivers as the chemistry and kumbaya guy for a talented team — that has not exactly held up outside of that unique situation in Boston. The CP3-era Clippers were a fragile bunch, a team that ultimately devolved into a lot of complaining and bickering as it became clear they couldn't separate from the pack in the West. When L.A. reshuffled and brought together the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George combination, Rivers ultimately oversaw another miserable 3-1 collapse, with both sides sending shade at one another in the aftermath of that defeat. And while I think his role in the Simmons meltdown is overstated, the Sixers ultimately had to deal with a long, drawn-out saga involving a young talent that was not helped by the head coach. Heck, there was a long period last summer before everything got messy in public where the coach was not on speaking terms with Simmons.

As Rivers will point out if you bring these things up, there's a whole lot of context to include when summing his career up by only mentioning the bad times (many of the guys who gave up 3-1 leads with Rivers have had playoff issues apart from Rivers). But if you look down the list at the players he has had on his rosters over the years, Rivers has coached a metric ton of talent. Coming up with a single title is no small feat, but you could also easily argue he has underachieved based on what he's had to work with.

The problem for Rivers as a playoff coach is that that period of the year is when Plan A simply isn't going to get it done a lot of the time. You need wrinkles, adjustments, and proactive changes to stay ahead of the competition because the opponent only gets more familiar with you over the course of a series.

I don't begrudge Rivers for his reluctance to play young guys as much as some do, as it's a common trait among the vast majority of coaches around the league. But if the Sixers deal with injuries or top-of-rotation guys disappoint, they haven't left themselves with much protection through the youth movement. Last year, Paul Reed was buried behind DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap for most of the post-break/pre-playoff period, and Rivers was insistent the latter two options were better right up until he leaned toward Reed when it counted. Though Reed's warts likely would have been there even with more time and seasoning in the regular season, he was not really given that chance in favor of playing Jordan, who had been so bad at previous stops that a Lakers team desperate for any competent minutes let him walk right out the door.

The reluctance to trust youth might harm the Sixers in other ways this year. PJ Tucker's multi-purpose role is a boon for the variety the Sixers can use in lineups, but a concern if Rivers becomes too reliant on him as a safeguard. With the word around the Sixers that Tucker will play some backup center minutes beyond his forward responsibilities, there's danger in expecting too much from him and burning out a 37-year-old by the playoffs. 

What happens to Philadelphia if they don't start strong this season? That's a question geared toward the standings, where they'd likely struggle to climb out of an early hole thanks to a brutal closing stretch, and a concern of team chemistry. Rivers' teams have been copacetic when they win at the level they're supposed to, but his exit in Los Angeles brought accusation after accusation to the surface, a reflection of bickering and pettiness that largely defined that era of Clippers basketball.

The Sixers getting caught up in internal squabbling is the quickest road (sans injury) to irrelevance for this group. Long-term, a Harden partnership is still a source of divide in the fanbase, but most would agree the best-case scenario is Harden rediscovering his best form and building a starry partnership with Embiid. If the Sixers get off to a tough start this season, that not only hurts their contention chances, it opens up a lot of rumor-mongering and whispering about Harden's option and where he could go next. And while digging out of holes is tough for any NBA coach, one of the charges of Rivers and his teams on a broader scale is the inability to stop the snowball once it starts rolling downhill. 

One of the primary concerns I had with the Sixers hiring Rivers is not that he failed at previous stops, but the idea that he had no time to reflect and grow from that failure. It's no insult to Rivers to say that handing someone a massive contract shortly after a flameout at their old job is going to stifle introspection. Few people are going to dwell on past failures after being sent a message that those were not dealbreakers by somebody else. What the Sixers have gotten from Rivers is largely the same coach he has been throughout a lengthy NBA career. What the Sixers needed (and still need) from Rivers is progression, because that's what the organization is trying to do collectively. Winning 50+ games and losing in the second round is not what they brought Rivers in to do.

Rivers being the coach he has been for a long time across multiple stops isn't an outright bad thing, which is the charge his biggest critics have offered the last couple of years in Philadelphia. Last year was basically a perfect snapshot of the Rivers experience, in fact. The Sixers dealt with their lead perimeter player refusing to play for the team quite well, which is both a credit to how he set up the rest of the team and a (partial) reflection of his role in the Simmons relationship deteriorating. The Raptors series featured some of the best offensive play we saw from any team all season and a decision to keep Embiid in late in Game 6 that ultimately led to a freak injury. They were better than they should have been for a lot of the year, and probably worse than they should have been to end it.

Players are who ultimately decide NBA titles, and the Sixers are going to go as far as the Embiid/Harden/Maxey trio is capable of taking them this season. But the thesis of the NBA rests on the power of individuals to change a team's fortune. If most people are simply hoping a head coach stays out of the way, it doesn't put him in a good spot relative to the peers he needs to overcome to win a title. 

Sixers Best Case, Worst Case

Embiid | Reed | Harris | Tucker | Maxey | Melton | Thybulle | Harden | House | Rivers

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