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October 02, 2020

What they're saying: Doc Rivers hire earns Sixers high praise with dose of skepticism

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Joel-Embiid-Ben-Simmons-Sixers-76ers_021520 Brett Davis/USA Today Sports

Is Doc Rivers the right man to get the most out of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons?

Doc Rivers is the new head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Say it out loud, chew on it for a while, it's a fact that's here to stay. The commitment came fast and furious once Rivers parted ways with his former team, and that says it all about how important his new team thought it was to lock him down.

It's a hire with plenty of fanfare, and one thing that has become crystal clear this week is just how well-liked Rivers is around the league. From fans to media to competitors for coaching jobs, the overwhelming consensus has been happiness for one of the good guys. But the Sixers need much more than a good guy, they need a good coach.

To get a feel for what people think about the hire, we've compiled a new what they're saying to hold you over on this lovely Friday afternoon, complete with thoughts from local and national voices on Rivers' fit in Philly. Away we go.

How Doc could manage Embiid and Simmons

Kevin Arnovitz | ESPN

Who better to turn to on the subject of Doc Rivers than a reporter who wrote extensively about the ebbs and flows of the Lob City Clippers? Arnovitz is inheriting a pair of proud, stubborn stars in Philadelphia, but he does not shy away from telling players exactly what they need to do to be part of a winning team.

Rivers takes a special pleasure in challenging young players to set aside whatever perception they have of their games and to embrace a role that will be demanding but rewarding. Soon after he landed the job in Los Angeles, Rivers met Jordan at Nobu, the young center's favorite haunt in Malibu. Rivers not only told Jordan to let go of his desire to be a more integral part of the offense, but that he shouldn't expect to see one playcall. Instead, Rivers said Jordan should focus his skills on becoming an All-NBA center who could anchor the Clippers' defense. Jordan accepted the challenge and was named to three All-NBA and two All-NBA Defensive teams. 

 It's too early to glean what Rivers' specific challenges to Embiid and Simmons will be, but rest assured there will be an imperative to improve. The on-court pieces of their game probably will be just one part of the new to-do list. Rivers will inherit his first team in 13 years in which its best players aren't leaders, either by example or emotionally. 

...

"I am very involved in that, and some guys don't like that," Rivers said of those relationships between teammates. "I'm hard on guys. Playing right -- I'm not going to let you play wrong. That's just who I am in the basketball life. And some guys love that, and can play for that -- and some guys don't." [ESPN]

Another interesting tidbit from the story is the structure of film sessions during his final season in Los Angeles. At the behest of Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley, the Clippers players would make their own film edits in a separate session from the coaches, who would put together their cut of a game so they could compare notes and address problems both believed needed to be dealt with.

That sort of style may not be best or work for this group, which needs a firm hand and even a good kick in the ass to get moving in the right direction. But it does tell us something about Rivers' willingness to explore new strategies to gain trust.

The pros and cons of Doc

Derek Bodner | The Athletic

While we've covered what Rivers' strengths and weaknesses pretty extensively over the past few days, I don't claim to hold the world's only opinion on how he matches what they need. In steps Bodner, who offers many of the same concerns I've had looking at a Sixers-Rivers partnership:

For as good as Rivers’ base system can be, the in-series playoff adjustments can seemingly be slow, if they come at all. And for as fiery and as well-respected as Rivers is across the league, he’s overseen some clubs which quite simply just didn’t seem like they got along with each other, with Chris Paul reportedly telling Clippers owner Steve Ballmer that Rivers was one of the factors for why he left for Houston. 

The locker room dynamic with the Lob City Clippers is a complex subject, and nobody would suggest the Rivers was the primary culprit in the disintegration of the spirit of that team. The subject has been well-documented at this point. Chris Paul is an intense competitor, but can also be demanding to a fault. The Paul/Blake Griffin relationship deteriorated over time, and the intense weight of repeated playoff failures irrevocably changed the relationships in that locker room. 

“I was aloof last year. I didn’t want to be here with these guys,” Rivers would go on to say about his last year with the Lob City Clips, according to a report by Kevin Arnovitz at ESPN. “It was a hard group to like because they didn’t like each other. For me, you have to want to figure it out. And we lost the ability to want to figure it out.”[The Athletic]

Hey, there's Arnovitz again! But that last bit is obviously a huge concern, especially when you consider it against the backdrop of the most recent Clippers flameout under Rivers. The Clippers played as if they had nothing and no one to play for in Orlando, a stark contrast to basically every other contending hopeful in the bubble. For all the concerns about how a fanless environment would impact players, we saw players bought in and locked in the moment they were able to hoop again.

For a guy who has a reputation as a leader and motivator to the degree Rivers does, it's a pretty big concern that more than one of his teams in L.A. splintered.

What does a Rivers team look like?

Mike O'Connor | Rights To Ricky Sanchez

Nobody in the Sixers media sphere wrote with more authority than Mike did about Tyronn Lue over the last month, thanks to his experience covering the 2018 Cavs team. He's got plenty more to say about Rivers, predominantly what you can expect from him as an offensive playcaller and scheme designer.

First and foremost, you can expect to see a healthier dose of pick-and-rolls under Rivers, in part because most coaches would lean heavier on that than Brett Brown did previously. But Rivers' experience over the last decade-plus has featured work alongside plenty of interesting talents, and O'Connor believes Rivers can apply that practical experience to the Sixers.

Rivers also has experience diagramming sets to open up post-ups for big men like Kevin Garnett and Blake Griffin. Neither of those players are the low-block brutes that Joel Embiid is, but having experience catering to scoring big men is at least a positive. Of course, the real question for how Rivers can help Embiid is whether or not he can convince him to get in career-best shape, but more on that later. 

 In regards to Ben Simmons, I don’t see Rivers helping him as much as D’Antoni (whose run and gun style fits Simmons perfectly) or even Ty Lue (who coached Simmons’ mentor in Cleveland) would’ve. But perhaps Rivers can get Simmons involved via some of the more perimeter based responsibilities that Griffin used to handle -- handling pick and rolls, scoring in isolation, and making plays on short rolls. [RTRS]

Griffin almost immediately took his game to a new level under Rivers in L.A., thanks in part to an increase in responsibility with Paul injured in 2013-14. Simmons is nowhere near the finisher young Griffin was (few people are), but he's a more creative and consistent playmaker who could stand to use Griffin as a blueprint for offensive improvement over time. Griffin was an awful free-throw shooter and around-the-rim player when he first came into the league and has expanded his game immensely in the years since, thanks in part to Rivers affording him more responsibility.

These two being capable of dragging the team to respectability doesn't mean they should have to do it on their own. Rivers will almost certainly make their lives a little easier on offense.

Rivers will get the best out of Embiid & Simmons

Vincent Goodwill | Yahoo! Sports

As many people have rediscovered over the last 24 hours, Doc Rivers once compared Philadelphia's young combo to a modern equivalent of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. That's about as bold of a proclamation as one could make, with both guys easily sitting in the top 10 in any list of all-time great basketball players.

Goodwill makes an astute observation about the trouble with that comp — those two were not just better, they were in better stages of their career to make the partnership work:

He once compared the duo to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, certainly a high order of flattery and the standard many young point guard/center combos say they’d like to be, almost reflexively considering it’s been decades since anyone can actually claim to have seen Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar at their zenith. 

But the beauty of those two was partially organic and mostly by the distance in their ages—Abdul-Jabbar being the MVP when Johnson was a rookie so there was a natural pecking order between the two, even though it always felt like Magic’s team. When Abdul-Jabbar started fading, Johnson started ascending, so a passing of the torch wasn’t so contentious. They helped each other thrive despite their individual weak spots, thus gained an appreciation for the bigger picture. 

But having two young stars battling for their place in the league, let alone their own team, causes friction. It’s a turf war. [Yahoo]

This is a better framing of a question that gets lots of run in Sixers discussions: "Do Embiid and Simmons like each other?" That's a question easy enough to dismiss for most fans, who see both players say the right things and assume they'll figure it out eventually. But the question is really whether they like, trust, and believe in one another enough to establish a true pecking order and change their developmental paths explicitly to help out their teammate.

So far, it has been Embiid offering the olive branch by committing to outside shooting so the floor can be opened up for Simmons. The favor has not been returned in kind, and the partnership (at least offensively) has been an uneasy one, in spite of some success in actions like snug pick-and-rolls. They benefit from playing next to each other based on the pure talent alone, but that's different from actively making one another better.

I don't know if either guy is willing to totally change what they do in order to make this work. Perhaps it's not as dramatic as that sounds in the first place. But they certainly lack the synergy of the game's great combos, and that can't be faked.

Is Rivers the right guy for the job?

Sean Highkin | Bleacher Report

If you're looking for the blueprint Rivers could use to get this team where it needs to go, it might not be Rivers' title-winning team from 2008. Once again, Blake Griffin's name looms large for Simmons, with that initial 2013-14 season under Rivers a showcase of what the coach can do for talented young players:

The blueprint for how this marriage can succeed is provided by the 2013-14 Clippers, the first and best version of Lob City under Rivers. Despite Paul missing 18 contests in the middle of the season with a shoulder injury, that team won 57 games. With Paul out, Griffin was the Clippers' de facto point guard for much of the season and had the best year of his career, placing third in the MVP voting. 

That year, Griffin showed himself to be a gifted passer; he's still not in the same zip code in that regard as Simmons, whose peers as a playmaker in the modern era are LeBron James and Rajon Rondo. Simmons is also a better defender than Griffin ever was. He doesn't shoot, but Griffin didn't shoot well at the time (27.3 percent from three-point range in 2013-14). 

Brown talked in recent years about wanting to use Simmons the way Rivers used Griffin; now, the Sixers have hired the coach who unlocked Griffin in the first place. [Bleacher Report]

Here's the rub with these comparisons — will Simmons to commit to being a Griffin-like player in the first place? Simmons' desire to play and be seen as a point guard rather than a forward was a big factor in how the team set up in years past, from how the coach organized the rotation to how the front office built the roster around him. He appeared willing to make the switch to forward heading into the Orlando restart, but we didn't get to see that play out with extended reps thanks to Simmons' season-ending injury. Was it a true change for the future, or a temporary switch?

As Arnovitz noted in the first story shared up top, Rivers has not been afraid to have tough convos with players about what they needed to focus on in their roles. Rivers has a better chance to lay down the law and establish a new hierarchy than Brown, and Simmons certainly has a wealth of forward experience to fall back on. Whether that's put to use is still up in the air.

Rivers is here to make the best of what's left

Chris Ryan | The Ringer

A plank in the case for Rivers was the level of stability he offered in comparison to his closest competitor, Mike D'Antoni. There are arguments to be made in favor of hiring MDA instead, but it would have necessitated a more dramatic reimagining of the roster to suit what the former Suns and Rockets coach likes to do.

That's not the case with Rivers, who will change up the offense but not necessarily require a complete teardown to get this team moving in the right direction, Ryan writes.

Make no mistake: This is a repainting move, not a rebuilding one. Doc is being brought to Philadelphia to throw a new coat on the wall and see if it unlocks the space, not knock down any retaining walls. (I’ve been looking at a lot of home-improvement Instagram. Rock with me.) Had the Sixers gone with Mike D’Antoni, my guess is that would have spelled the end of the Joel Embiid–Ben Simmons experiment in Philly. D’Antoni is adaptable enough as a coach, but his core principles don’t seem to support having multiple floor-clogging bigs on the floor at once. 

Personally, I found the prospect of Simmons running a D’Antoni-fied Sixers offense tantalizing to consider, but trading Embiid—even if it brought back a pie-in-the-sky return like James Harden—would probably offend the fan base on a level they hadn’t experienced since the Charles Barkley–for–Jeff Hornacek trade. 

Yes, Rivers has overseen some on-the-fly roster makeovers in Boston and Los Angeles. And the Clippers dealt Blake Griffin and Chris Paul on his watch, so it’s not like trading franchise players would be a completely foreign concept. But I am almost certain that Rivers’s pitch to the Sixers was, “I can make this work,” and the Sixers pitch to Rivers was, “Please make this work.” [The Ringer]

Others have made this comparison already, and it's a good one: Rivers is the Sixers' version of the hires the Phillies and Flyers recently made at head coach. Dave Hakstol, Gabe Kapler, and now Brett Brown are being viewed as a big part of the reason three local teams failed to win anything of consequence, in spite of investment from ownership and name-brand talent in place. A change in voice and investment in culture-builders was warranted.

In the Flyers' case, Alain Vigneault absolutely made a difference from the bench when paired with growth from young players and impactful moves from the front office (the Kevin Hayes signing, for example, certainly seemed to help tie things together for Philly). Joe Girardi, on the other hand, showed the limitation of banking on a new coach to fix all the problems inherent with the organization from the top down. For all the consternation over Kapler's use of the bullpen and his constant lineup toggling, the former Phillies manager led the Giants to a better record than Girardi did the Phillies this year.

And that's the piece of danger about this hiring for the Sixers — it can't be the only thing that happens this offseason. Rivers offers hope of improvement without any other changes, and that has to feel comforting for a franchise that looked lost in the wilderness last season. But the work is not done, and even if you think a new coat of paint is all this sucker needs to feel fresh again, you still have to provide the painter with a brush.


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