Doc Rivers Media Day 2021

The addition of coaches challenges on questionable officiating was supposed to empower teams to advocate for themselves when they feel like they’ve been dealt an injustice on the court. For Doc Rivers, the introduction of a challenge has become an enemy of sorts.

Last season, Rivers was criticized for failure to use his challenges at times. Most notably, he allowed an opportunity to challenge a call pass late in a road loss to the Blazers. There were a handful of questionable rulings made by officials down the stretch of the Sixers’ 5-point loss to the Nets on Friday night. Namely, the basketball appeared to deflect off Kevin Durant and go out of bounds, but officials awarded possession of the ball to Brooklyn. In the final 90 seconds of play, the Nets made excessive contact with Joel Embiid on a layup attempt that Embiid missed. No foul was called. In the same sequence, Durant bowled over Danny Green as he pushed the rim. The officials called Green for a blocking foul.

Rivers did not challenge any of them.

“We have a guy behind our bench that looks at them, and he had his thumbs down on all of them, so,” Rivers explained when questioned about his decision.

Fans and media were profuse in their criticisms of Rivers’ unwillingness to challenge the calls. They posited that it was the latest example of Rivers’ tendency to deflect blame onto others instead of taking responsibility for coaching miscues. It is an interesting point. Maybe even an agreeable one, at that. After all, that trait was on display at the end of last season, when Rivers tried to spin another playoff failure as a positive. It was also on display when he tried to spin his own infamous comments about Ben Simmons after the Game 7 loss to the Hawks when asked to revisit them towards the end of this past offseason.

It’s totally fair to criticize Rivers’ explanation for not using his challenge on any of the aforementioned plays. Each coach gets one challenge per game. Challenges are treated as timeouts. If successful, the challenging team retains the timeout. If the call stands, the challenge counts against the team’s timeouts. The NBA limits each team to four timeouts in the fourth quarter. Rivers had only used two timeouts prior to the final three minutes of regulation. He used his third timeout in the final 20 seconds of the game. So, the argument that there was no downside to using a challenge is totally valid. Rivers didn’t use the timeouts anyway. 

Further, Rivers is the head coach. He gets paid handsomely to serve that role. Part of that responsibility is to make tough decisions and fall on the sword when they don’t pan out. Even if it’s left to a trusted staffer to review those questionable plays to determine if a challenge is worth risking a timeout, Rivers has final command. Perhaps the assistant serves as his eyes on those plays. But, Rivers should not be pointing to whomever sits behind the bench in explaining why he didn’t leverage tools that were at his disposal in a risk-free environment.

Now for the part that some critics are neglecting. It’s incredibly easy to watch from a television camera angle and issue judgments on questionable plays. It’s occasionally even easy to do so from the media section. But, that doesn’t mean Rivers is seeing the same things everyone else is in real time. It works the other way, as well. There are certainly times when the angle from the bench makes certain rulings more obvious than they are to media or on television.

Taking it a step further, whether or not the call should be challenged might not even be the top priority to be addressed on a play-to-play basis. There is an effort across all professional sports to speed games up to appease impatient audiences. That means there isn’t always going to be enough time to cover every base in the short windows of opportunity that teams have to restore order within games.

Embiid seems to have a pulse on that perspective, too. “I know they’re trying to speed up the game,” the big man said after Friday night’s loss. “I thought the ball was off KD on that inbound, I thought I got pushed on that missed layup.”

For what it’s worth, the instant replay on the Wells Fargo Center’s jumbotron made it clear that the ball was off Durant. Armed with the angle from the media section, I can comfortably say there was some extra contact on the layup that Embiid missed, too. As for Green’s blocking foul, he shuffled his feet at the very last moment before Durant ran him over. Maybe there was an elbow from Durant in there. But, that was probably the right call.

Embiid wishes there would’ve been some extra eyes on those plays. But, he owned his mistakes after the game. “I still gotta make it, that’s not an excuse. But, there’s a couple plays that could’ve gone either way,” the MVP runner-up said.

“Like I said, I know they’re trying to speed up the game. But, these wins, they matter. I know it’s only regular season. But, when you play against Brooklyn, those tougher games, anything we can get, we’re gonna do. In those situations, I just thought that they should’ve taken a second look at it and make the right call.”