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December 02, 2022

How does Doc Rivers win with undermanned teams? Just ask him

If Doc Rivers was hoping for a smooth, drama-free start to the Sixers’ season, he probably picked the wrong team to coach. This is the Murphy’s Law franchise — anything that can go wrong will go wrong, at least in recent years. It was only a matter of time before a highly praised offseason turned into an injury-plagued, up-and-down season through November. Philadelphia’s three best players have all already missed time due to injury, with James Harden's return looming as a rare piece of good news.

Rivers has seen worse than this. When he took over as Magic head coach in 1999, he stepped into the shoes of coaching legend Chuck Daly, possessing little of the firepower Daly had at his disposal the previous season. Four starters, including Penny Hardaway, were moved in the offseason for a combination of young players and picks.

It left behind a team that Sports Illustrated ranked 28th of 29 during a preseason preview, only ahead of the post-Jordan Chicago Bulls flailing in the early days of their rebuild. And Rivers recalls an even more inglorious claim from the prognosticators — they believed his team didn’t have a single player inside of the NBA’s top 300. So all year, he decided to let that hang in the air and (literally) hang in the team’s most sacred space.

“I remember putting the article in the locker room and telling them they had to keep it up,” Rivers told PhillyVoice during a recent phone interview. “I would call them all Number 301.”

It ended up being the right tactic for that group, though he admits now channeling rage for 82 straight games is not the way for everyone. The young and undermanned Magic finished 41-41, Rivers won his first Coach of the Year award, and the Magic did enough to inspire free agent commitments from Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady the next offseason, nearly adding Tim Duncan in one of the great what-if moments in NBA history.

So began the ebb and flow of Rivers’ career in that year before the stars arrived. He has been associated with some high-profile failures with big-name stars by his side but is nearly as synonymous with winning games with undermanned and outgunned crews. Sometimes, you are going to have to make do without stars, without go-to guys, without an idea of who you might have available every night. Finding the right mix with everyone healthy has been a struggle so far, but if he can channel what the Sixers have shown with a shorthanded roster, the Sixers may still find a way to live up to the sky-high expectations from the summer.

“What you put into one game when you have nobody,” Rivers says, “it’s amazing the difference in what you put into it.”

It’s where Rivers’ mind goes first when he’s asked if shorthanded lineups cause his approach to change more, even down to second-guessing his plan more frequently. Saying it so plainly will inevitably make a few people mad, but this is life in the NBA. When stars are available, there isn’t a ton of mystery. There’s a natural order brought on by star power that fades with a thinner group, particularly in crunch time. This is a vet-heavy Sixers team, not a young team on a fact-finding mission. He continues:

“When you have everybody,” Rivers says, “You know the sets you’re going to run, you’re pretty sure what you’re going to do. When you don’t, the amount of film work and detail [increases]. I think you can get a team to the last five minutes, and winning the game is what’s hard down the stretch. That’s what all the work goes into. What are we going to run? Who’s going to be involved? What’s our best lineup?”

The Sixers have not had the luxury of simplicity recently, losing Harden and then Tyrese Maxey and then Joel Embiid (if just for a short time) over the course of a long month of November. But aside from the recent beatdown in Cleveland, they’ve handled the stretch well, competing hard even in the games they lost.

Some things, you can sort of fake for a while. Philadelphia’s offense has been rough in the Harden-less run, but they’ve executed in crunch time when it matters. Rivers’ teams have historically ranked near the top of the league in efficiency for after-timeout plays, which is something he credits to that initial coaching run with the Magic. Prior to McGrady’s arrival, there was no clear-cut guy to give the ball to in big moments. Instead, Rivers says his staff had to focus on manufacturing clean looks by any means necessary, using tricks and misdirection to unsettle other teams.

Deception is only going to win you so many basketball games. The Sixers' recent success has been powered by Philadelphia’s defense, which has been the single-best unit in the league since Harden went down in early November. Even saying that is underselling the results. The gap between the Sixers and the second-best team during that time is roughly equal to the gap between second place and 12th. 

To no one's surprise, Joel Embiid has been the biggest difference-maker there. During that same time period, the Sixers are 13.3 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Embiid on vs. off. But there is a key follow-up there — during minutes without Embiid, the Sixers have played top-10 level defense during this last month. They're dropping from historic to just outside the top five for the year, but maintaining that level is an achievement in itself.

It's a reflection of the roster shift, certainly, but Rivers' mind goes elsewhere. The key, harkening back to something he has preached from the moment he arrived in Philadelphia, is culture. Without collectivism to fall back on, the head coach doesn't believe much else matters. You buy in together, or you fall apart.

"We're good enough," was Rivers' message to the team after the injuries started. "We have to play differently. And in the long run, this is going to help our team. This is the first step toward becoming a really good basketball team."

They were forced to learn that last season when Ben Simmons’ holdout left them with a giant hole in the roster for most of the season. It ended up being somewhat of a blessing in disguise for Philadelphia, thrusting Tyrese Maxey into a larger role that put him on a fast track toward bigger and better things. And Philadelphia was able to pick up some improbable wins that went far beyond Simmons’ absence. Their win in Sacramento last season featured none of Embiid, Tobias Harris, or Seth Curry on top of the Simmons holdout, Philadelphia leaning on Shake Milton, Maxey, and an assortment of other role players to bring a W home.

"I think that definitely helped them," Rivers says of the holdovers from last season. "Because they've been through it...they absolutely have that next man up mentality. And they also look at it like they understand, especially this year, there's a competition on our team for who's going to play. And so when they're getting their opportunities, they're going for it. And I absolutely love that."

In the huddles during these MASH unit games, Rivers says he leans into positivity to an almost comical degree. His logic is straightforward — the lesser-used guys are more in need of external belief to keep runs from spiraling out of control. A kick in the ass might get your top guys rolling, but it’s rarely the approach he believes works for a team relying on fill-ins and spot starters to carry them.

Rivers thinks a lot of the recent success should be attributed to the time spent creating belief away from the crowds and cameras. Since arriving, Rivers has often used Philadelphia’s low-minute games, off-day scrimmages involving staffers and players further down the bench, as a barometer for the program.

“One of the things we wanted to do when we got here is to change this culture to a working culture, a team culture, and a culture that is not about the years and who you are, it’s about the amount of work you do with each other,” Rivers says. “We started it immediately and have been very consistent in doing it, and it allows an eight-year vet to not feel like it’s a bad thing to be in a low-minute scrimmage.”

To that end, the Sixers have made an effort to make those off-day scrimmages feel less like pickup games and closer to real, competitive environments. A coaching group spearheaded by Eric Hughes, Spencer Rivers, and Brian Adams is present to observe and officiate these games, but they’re also there to get coaching and execution reps in. The scrimmages have timeouts with drawn-up plays, creating simulated late-game situations for young guys who otherwise have a tough path to real minutes. Even a questionable whistle is viewed as a teaching moment, a reminder to play through it if something out of your control works against you.

Outliers further up the totem pole have helped keep the competitive fire burning at the low-minute games. Tyrese Maxey has appealed to staffers to let him continue playing in the scrimmages after playing 30+ minutes in actual NBA games the night before.

“We would politely say no,” Rivers says with a laugh.

There are, of course, things you’re not always able to teach or build through scrimmages and instruction. The 2018-19 Clippers are probably the team Rivers earned the most credit for as a head coach, pushing a group to 48 wins that traded* their leading scorer, Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris, in the middle of the season.

(*A quick sidebar about the day of the Harris trade: Rivers says he had called Harris into his office to tell him he’d been traded prior to a game, only for Lawrence Frank to text him the deal was off right as Harris entered the office. Rivers made an excuse to dismiss Harris without sharing any of the news. “I call Lawrence like, what the fuck is that?” Harris went on to score 34 points and hit the game-winner against Charlotte that night, hours before he was indeed traded to the Sixers.)

After Harris was traded, Rivers was left with a group of players he thought had two killer traits: inner toughness and bench scoring. Leaning on the latter, the Clippers essentially flipped the importance of their units, hoping to consistently win minutes with their backups while hanging on with the starters. It worked well enough to push the Kevin Durant-era Warriors to six games in Round 1, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell combining for 61 points off the bench in a Game 2 win that stands as the largest comeback (31 points) in NBA history.

Sweet Lou and 2019 Trez aren't walking through that door, but the Sixers have a better chance of replicating the mean streak within that Clippers team. Rivers has made it a point to talk up the importance of the vocal leaders in their locker room, mentioning Tobias Harris and Georges Niang as important tone-setters. They go about their business in different ways — Harris is a smooth, even-keeled leader who invests in the success of his peers and serves as a source of calm. By contrast, Niang is a rambunctious shit-talker, somebody who will chirp at an opponent for 48 minutes and push his teammates with a more playful, brotherly hostility.

And then, of course, there’s P.J. Tucker. Having a vet like Tucker play bad cop makes it easier for Rivers to strike a balanced tone, keeping an eye on the long haul and avoiding burnout.

“He’s relentless defensively about focus and making mistakes. He does not let up. And I guarantee you it gets old to some of our players at times,” Rivers says. “But it’s consistent. And so they know it’s not going to stop. If they don’t mess up, they don’t hear PJ. If they mess up, they’re going to hear PJ.”

This is to say Rivers' idea of accountability is all about collective responsibility. It comes from Harris emphasizing and celebrating opportunities for bench players, it comes from Embiid setting a defensive tone, it comes from days off where Paul Reed is working with a coach to keep his lungs and legs ready to play 15 consecutive minutes in a real game. The coach's responsibilities go far beyond X's and O's.

"All coaches, we have to be great crisis managers," Rivers says.

So far, Rivers has handled this year's opening crisis about as well as could be expected. There's a long road left, on which we can pick apart rotations and postgame quotes and what they choose to run in those final five minutes. But Rivers has coached high-expectation teams in sports-crazed markets before, and he is going to continue doing things his way.

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