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July 11, 2021

Season in review: Doc Rivers' tangible impact vs. his playoff mistakes

Doc Rivers joined the Sixers last fall, pushed the franchise to their first No. 1 seed in two decades, and has spent the weeks following their playoff exit surrounded by questions from fans about whether they should keep him or not. How's that for a welcome to Philadelphia?

After taking a look at the job Daryl Morey did in his first season on the job, it's time to look at the other big hire, who learned the hard way how quickly the conversation about a coach can change around here. There was plenty of good on the coaching side, and the question is how much that matters when you fail so miserably on the big stage.

Regular season results

The book on the Sixers before this season? Talented, young, and inconsistent. On their best nights against the best competition, they were liable to have sensational performances, inspiring claims that they were a team on the rise and ready to contend for a title. And then they would cough away leads and lose games against teams with far inferior talent, leading many to dismiss them as a serious threat until they changed the roster or changed the coach.

Philadelphia did both last offseason, and though Daryl Morey's moves can't be discounted, neither can the presence of a new voice. Rivers came in and set the tone from the beginning, actually getting career-best fitness from Joel Embiid instead of simply asking for it and falling short. The Sixers kept a lot of their old staple plays, thriving in handoffs, while adding more pick-and-rolls and new looks for the big guy, operating out of "Delay" to allow him room to attack from the middle of the floor.

Under Rivers, the Sixers simply put into practice a lot of ideas that had been tossed around verbally under the previous regime. While they admittedly had better floor spacers around Embiid than ever before (and certainly compared to 2019-20), the consistency of their spacing around him was a reflection of work and messaging on the coaching side. With simplified reads out of the post, Embiid finally began turning double teams into an opportunity, rather than a problem, showing off some of the best passing of his career.

Tobias Harris, who played his best-ever basketball under Rivers in L.A., looked a lot closer to the $180 million man they paid him to be than he had just one season prior. Rivers' role in that was simple, but effective, with a demand for Harris to play more decisive basketball from all areas of the floor. Though his three-point volume dipped, Harris wasted far fewer possessions with slow, stagnant basketball, attacking the rim with gusto and turning in his best season as a playmaker. 

But it was the defensive end where Rivers and his staff made a bigger impact, pushing the Sixers into the elite territory they have fallen short of in years past. Rather than dropping Embiid to the rim on every possession and presenting a predictable scheme to the opponent, Rivers and assistant Dan Burke demanded Embiid to show higher and make individual calls against teams in pick-and-roll this season, the big man proving capable of playing out past the three-point line whenever called to do so. The players behind him, many of them coming in with poor reputations as defenders, bought into the changes and showed real progress, with guys like Furkan Korkmaz transforming from huge negatives to at least passable members of a unit. 

The night-to-night competitiveness of this group, even when down a player or two, was a stark contrast to years past. You can chalk a good chunk of that up to Embiid leading by example after years of moping around when the game wasn't of interest to him, but Embiid and others have credited Rivers for demanding that from them, keeping the team locked in throughout a long, grueling season under the glare of COVID. Squandering the No. 1 seed is something we'll get to below, and nobody deserves an award for regular-season standings, but keeping everyone engaged is a tougher achievement than Rivers will be given credit for.

If Rivers had gotten even a remotely usable version of Ben Simmons on offense in the playoffs, the Sixers would have had their most successful season in two decades. Even with the result they ended up with, the Sixers were able to turn what was billed as a feel-out year into giving themselves a realistic path to the Finals, something very few people gave them a chance to do before the season. 

Playoff faceplant

There's no way around Rivers' extraordinary failure in the second round. What made it even more painful was that he seemed to be on the right path toward change for most of the season, only to revert to his worst habits and tendencies when it really mattered. And maybe everyone should have seen that coming.

This isn't the first time Rivers has gone down while leaning on "his guys" and regular-season lineups that had no business being used on a big stage. But it was especially disappointing after watching Rivers mix and match in the regular season, and even making bold changes when necessary in the first round. Rivers didn't have to go with a small lineup to open Game 5 against the Wizards, but it seemed like a positive sign for what was to come, an old coach who had learned new tricks.

Think again. Before the Sixers ever had an opportunity to blow big leads, they kicked off Round 2 with a gameplan doomed to fail, sticking Danny Green on Trae Young for some inexplicable reason and giving away the opening game in the process. Rivers had saved Simmons for top assignments in second halves all season, and despite an endless stream of questions about it up to that point, he still opted to do something other than putting his best perimeter defender on Atlanta's best perimeter player. Considering how tight the series was and Simmons' success against Young across the following six games, you could argue that the initial poor decision was the single worst mistake of the Round 2.

Avoidable mistakes were the theme of Philadelphia's second-round defeat. Nobody in their right mind thought a Howard/Simmons lineup would work in the playoffs, not even before Simmons' meltdown and Howard's horrific playoffs, but Rivers decided to go to it when everything was on the line in Game 7, bookending a series that featured all-bench lineups on the floor in Game 1. 

Philadelphia's inability to come up with answers in the second round is a direct product of how Rivers coached the team during the regular season. Rather than experimenting with smaller looks, toying with lineup combinations, and changing styles depending on the opponent, the Sixers mostly stuck to the same script every single night. There was value in that, evidenced by the No. 1 seed they earned in spite of injuries and illness, but they were ill-prepared to adapt or call on a different sort of lineup when Atlanta went on sustained runs to erase Philadelphia leads.

One of the big questions you have to answer to assess Rivers' season — how culpable is he for Ben Simmons' spectacular flame-out in the playoffs? Throughout the season, Rivers was Simmons' biggest public booster, often swerving left from a question about a different player's impact during press conferences in order to talk up Simmons' production or impact. There were certainly times where that was fair, but by the time we reached the playoffs, Rivers' excuse-making for Simmons reached critical mass, and his first-round rejection of questions about Simmons' free-throw shooting quickly blew up in his face in the next round.

The optics of the situation aside — and they are admittedly awful! — I always look at the player first, and there's plenty of evidence we should do so here. Brett Brown's public demand for more threes did as much to change Simmons' approach (which is to say "nothing") as any amount of coddling has. A lack of progress over half a decade is hard to pin on anyone other than Simmons, who has talked a big game about comparing himself against the greats of the league and has only lived up to those claims on the defensive end of the floor. While the Sixers did not abandon their previous playbook under Rivers, there were plenty of changes and tweaks this season, only for the team to end up watching Simmons meander aimlessly toward the dunker's spot when it mattered for his third consecutive playoff run. 

If Rivers is accountable for any of that, it's the lack of urgency to try to shake Simmons out of his stupor, because we saw him succeed as an attacker even within the Atlanta series. But holding him responsible for Simmons' refusal to change is a bridge too far for me, and the lack of change to his offensive game says a lot more about Simmons and the people around him than Rivers.

Even still, the head coach owns a massive share of the blame for the series loss, if for no other reason than his points of weakness being predictable. Hiring a coach immediately after he is fired elsewhere can be fruitful if you get the right guy, but it also means they've had less time to reflect on and learn from their failures. Rivers being the same guy he has been for roughly two decades shouldn't surprise anyone. 

How unsafe should Rivers feel?

There were questions (almost all of them from fans) about whether Rivers should return after Philadelphia's unthinkable loss in Round 2. Firing Rivers was never going to happen then, not one year into a megadeal, but whether he should be under pressure and whether he is under pressure are two different things.

With or without a roster shake up, Rivers will be judged on what he's able and willing to do in the playoffs next season, not on where his guys finish in the East standings at the end of the regular season. We can look for signs and hope throughout the regular season as we would with player development, but as we saw against Atlanta, sometimes it's only a matter of time before people revert to their base instincts. The possibility exists that Rivers' instincts are simply not good enough, save for a situation where his team is so overwhelmingly talented they can win playing their way all the way through the Finals.

An optimist would say that Rivers can go into this offseason with his eyes wide open, no longer seeing this group with rose-tinted glasses. If Rivers gets to that point, it's a big development — the head coach was one of the people most adamant about keeping the current core together during the season, ultimately believing in Simmons and Co. to get it done their way and not the way everyone else thinks they should play. His comments about Simmons as a title-winning guard following Game 7 give credence to the idea that he could shake some things up even without a big roster change. If harsh failure can change a player, there's no reason to think it can't change a coach. Well, except for the fact that it hasn't changed Rivers much to this point, which is a pretty big caveat.

In a situation where the Sixers do change the roster, Rivers would have far fewer excuses for mistakes. Put any normal-ish guard in Simmons' place, and all of a sudden Philadelphia would have less excuses for crunch-time meltdowns and failure to execute. The only place left to look would be at the star center and the head coach, and with due respect to the title-winning coach, that's a popularity contest he's never going to win. And to his credit, Rivers recognized right away who the franchise player was when he arrived, trying his best to build an ecosystem around Embiid after the Sixers not-so-delicately tried to straddle the line over the years. Given Mr. Burner Account's thoughts on the matter, it is important that the current regime understands who drives this program forward, and Rivers' ability to get through to (and make best use of) Embiid is arguably the most redeeming feature of his Sixers coaching career so far. 

Philadelphia inked a deal with Rivers that had a lot of financial conviction behind it, reportedly in the neighborhood of five years, $40 million, and that's not a deal many teams would be happy to pay while bringing in another head coach to pick up the pieces. Further complicating matters is the order of operations in Philly — Rivers was hired before executive Daryl Morey, and a decision to move on might get a little messy depending on who his strongest endorsers are in the building.

Looking at it with all factors in mind, I think you should prepare for at least a couple more seasons of Rivers unless there is another cataclysmic series loss. And look, he has plenty of those on the ol' resume, so that might come as soon as next spring. But for the time being, your best bet as a fan is to hope his eyes are wide open after a humiliating defeat.

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