“I don’t worry about my job. I think I do a terrific job. And if you don’t then you should write it” – Doc Rivers after Philadelphia’s abysmally inept Game 6 elimination against Miami.
Well Doc, allow me to take a stab at it. You see, the NBA is a results-based business. But in Philadelphia, this has taken a back seat to Rivers’ delusionary self-narrative (and ownership’s refusal to admit a massive mistake).
So here we are, two years into this destructive relationship. What is at stake? A TON. How much? Well, for one Joel Embiid is about to turn 29, and without even a single Eastern Conference Finals to his resume. James Harden, fresh off an alarmingly passive postseason, is staring at a contract extension that could cripple Philadelphia’s salary cap situation.
Amidst these fork in the road moments lies Doc Rivers. The Sixers’ head coach will note that winning is challenging and that climbing the mountain is not for everyone. Well yeah Doc, but isn’t that why they are paying you all of this money? Rivers will also point to how he has elevated team expectations since his arrival. That is unless, of course, you erase history (and the fact his predecessor came to a Game 7 bounce away from potentially leading Philadelphia into the NBA finals). This was in 2019. Three years later the Sixers appear farther than ever from that elusive championship. Where it has gone wrong can be traced directly to Rivers’ arrival.
HISTORIC OFFENSIVE INCOMPETENCY
It is easy to paint a nice picture of Philadelphia’s two-year offensive output under Doc Rivers. On the surface, the Sixers have teetered as a league-average group with an occasional impressive outburst. James Harden’s arrival should have flipped the dynamic closer to the league’s elite. It did not.
But the storyline crumbles when you factor in one key element. That is Joel Embiid’s MVP-level play that coincided with Rivers’ arrival. Some will point to Doc as the reason, but those who follow Embiid very closely could see his offensive game take a massive leap in Orlando’s bubble. Credit to Joel in what could’ve been a moment to lift Philadelphia’s offense into the upper echelon. But Rivers’ increasingly stale, low-paced, and even lower three-point volume offense has sputtered next to Embiid’s historic run. How bad is it?
ONLY TWO MVPs HAVE LED OFFENSES OUTSIDE OF THE TOP-10 SINCE 2001
With MVP play from its superstar, Philadelphia has finished outside of the top-10 in both of Doc Rivers’ seasons. Making matters worse, the Sixers once again collapsed as an offensive unit in the postseason. Rivers is very quick to throw a player under the bus (hello Ben Simmons!) or point to a plethora of excuses that remove him from any responsibilities. But the reality is, warning signs were there from the very beginning.
Failing to capitalize on TWO monstrous Embiid’s seasons is a firable offense in its own right (no pun intended). But in Doc’s world, this is a small price to pay for apparently bigger gains down the road. That is, if you neglect the odds that we may have seen the best of Joel Embiid’s time here. Or that at some point Embiid may just want to test the waters for a different organization.
SPEAKING OF THE POSTSEASON …
During Rivers’ celebratory hiring tour I wrote about how it should be viewed with a certain skepticism. At the center of that discussion laid two critical points. The first highlighted how Doc’s Los Angeles Clippers were notorious postseason failures, backed by players voicing scathing remarks about the team’s (lack of) toughness. The other picked on the flimsy foundation in which Rivers relied heavily on isolation basketball to lose BIG.
Fast forward two seasons later and boy, does history have an awkward way of repeating itself. Fresh off another disappointing playoff run, many Sixers’ players (including the general manager) echoed similar sentiments about an ingrained lack of toughness among the team.
HERE ARE SOME POSTGAME REMARKS THAT SHOULD RAISE A FEW EYEBROWS
- “It’s mental toughness. I think that part of it. I don’t think we have it yet” – Tobias Harris.
“When you have size and toughness that goes a long way” – Joel Embiid
“They really went out there and took it and we need some of that toughness” – Daryl Morey
While only Rivers can speak to the makeup of his own team, we don’t need a quote book to land on how the Sixers sputtered against Miami. Decorated Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra is a mastermind in adjustments, and as the series tilted Philadephia’s favor, he made a subtle one to deny Joel Embiid the ball on the block. Aggressive doubles teams that fronted the post and squeezed passing windows proved to be a horror show to the Sixers’ increasingly stagnant offense.
How much did Philadelphia’s offense revert back to isolation-heavy basketball?
JUST TAKE A LOOK AT HOW AGGRESSIVELY RIVERS STEERED AWAY FROM THE SIXERS POTENT EMBIID-HARDEN PICK AND ROLL
Without its main outlet, Philadelphia averaged an embarrassingly low 95.6 offensive rating in Games 5 and 6. Possessions often equated to Embiid fighting off two to three defenders while teammates stood around in amazement. Lack of ball (and player) movement went from bad to non-existent and the Sixers finished the series averaging an excessively high 10.7 attempts with 4 to 0 seconds left on the shot clock. Yikes!
Rivers is quick to point to factors outside of his control (obviously), but the reality is his predictable offense submarined for a second straight postseason here. Last year he singled out the other star player on the way to vacation. This season injuries took the proverbial ‘toll’ (conveniently ignoring that Miami was also missing Kyle Lowry for most of the series). But no matter how you view it, one thing is very clear. Doc Rivers will unapologetically repeat the same losing playbook time and time again.
DUMBFOUNDINGLY POOR LINEUP (AND PERSONEL) DEPLOYMENT
What if I told you that the Sixers starting lineup averaged an astonishing +52 net rating over the last two postseasons? Would you even believe that such a talented group would be capable of two spectacularly pitiful playoff exits? Well my friends, here we are once again.
Combing thru the mess left by Rivers’ incoherent lineup groupings is an exercise that will leave anyone pulling out its hairs. In 2021, Philadelphia’s starters compiled a playoff best +39 net rating. Rather than re-shuffle the deck and slowly mix in bench players, Rivers double-down on an all-bench lineup that aided Atlanta’s comeback in a critical Game 5. The reserve group finished the postseason with a -15 rating opening the door to another historic postseason collapse.
But lost in the shuffle of that particular Sixers’ playoff loss was a trend that has become the trademark of Rivers’ tenures.
Young and explosive point guard Tyrese Maxey logged an inexplicably low 156 playoff minutes, registering less playing time than inept veterans George Hill and Furkan Korkmaz. The message in Rivers’ world is quite simple, and it is one that leaves little to no wiggle room for young players to develop.
While some coaches look for reasons to play their young guys early, Rivers is very quick to point out flaws as to why rookies should never leave the bench. If the goal is to stack regular-season wins under your resume this probably makes some sense. But the Sixers entered the postseason with a glaring hole at the backup center, and after handing out 214 catastrophic regular-season minutes to his old pal Deandre Jordan, Rivers suddenly (and out of sheer necessity) had to push all of his chips towards Paul Reed.
Rivers’ handling of Reed is a classic example of a proud veteran-only mindset. Reed had spent most of the season toying away in the G-League. But as the non-Embiid minutes peaked to massive failures Rivers was left with no other alternative. The only problem? Well, Reed entered the postseason averaging 7.9 minutes per game in mostly mop-up duties. Minutes that should have been used to develop BBall Paul fell in the lap of Rivers’ most trusted allies, regardless if they had done anything to earn them (spoiler alert: they did not). Reed looked surprisingly capable, but positioning and fouling issues could have been addressed with consistent NBA coaching. In the end, Rivers only exacerbated a dire situation by boxing himself into a corner. Call it a Doc special.
SO WHAT IS LEFT NOW?
Ownership’s signaled intent to maintain Rivers into next season was alarming, to say the least. Some rumblings suggest this will be a play to entice other teams to potentially trade for Rivers. It is hard to envision a world where teams are willing to part assets for a head coach who looks increasingly past his prime. But this is the NBA, and weirder things have happened. Regardless of the outcome, one thing is abundantly clear. This Doc Rivers tenure has been nothing short of disastrous. One that could be the final nail of this Sixers era.