The Sixers turbulent coaching search has been hotly debated in recent weeks. Both Tyronn Lue and Mike D’Antoni posed risky alternatives to a poorly constructed roster. While each brought interesting philosophies, Elton Brand (and Co.) finally settled on an experienced name.
In Doc Rivers, Philadelphia now has a respected name among the coaching ranks. Rivers is a foundational pillar in the NBA. A coach with a championship pedigree who demands leadership on and off the court. But his recent track record and approach should ring substantial alarm bells. How it impacts Philadelphia is now the key element moving forward.
LOB CITY’S CULTURE AND ULTIMATE FAILURE
“There was just so much pettiness. So much pettiness. It’s weird to think what we had the potential to accomplish & what ultimately derailed that was pettiness” – JJ Redick.
It is easy to assess Doc Rivers’ Clippers’ tenure as moderately successful. Four straight 50+ win seasons marked the Lob City era in Los Angeles. The Clippers were explosive on the court and an absolute mess in the locker room. In 2015, the team took a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. But EVERYTHING collapsed at home after an 86-68 lead late in the third quarter of Game 6. Los Angeles blew the game, the series, and spiraled into postseason mediocrity for the next two seasons.
The Clippers were often the source of drama as Doc’s teams began to crack. Who can forget the night in 2018, when Blake Griffin (and teammates) openly confronted Houston in the locker room. Sources described Rivers’ players as “daring and confrontational”. Regardless of how you view the incident, one thing is clear. Those hyper-talented Clippers teams crumbled. Especially when up against Golden State. Here is how Redick described some of those historic collapses against the Warriors.
“If I’m being truthful, after that, we did not have a chance. We didn’t have the mental toughness.”
These are scathing remarks for a coach who preaches team dynamics and leadership. Los Angeles collapsed again this year by tossing away a 3-1 series lead against the supremely inferior Nuggets. Thus putting into motion the changes that led to Doc Rivers landing in Philadelphia.
QUESTIONABLE SCHEME / PLAYER FIT IN PHILADELPHIA
No one expects the Sixers roster to look the same next season. But in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Doc Rivers now faces unique challenges. Rivers’ recent teams have been heavily reliant on elite pick and roll ball handlers (and shot makers). In Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard, the head coach had two maestros to run his ship. The Clippers were consistently among the top offenses in basketball. Built by a complement of shooters and rim runners.
While Philadelphia should eventually migrate to a more traditional pick and roll offense, the tools are currently not there. Embiid is a static center who punishes you in the paint. Without an outside game, Simmons is a downhill player with limited ability to run pick and roll. This is where things get interesting (and a bit scary). Doc Rivers’ success is mostly predicated on traditional offensive principles with little room for wiggle. How? Let’s dive in.
LIMITED PACE AND A LOW THREE-POINT VOLUME OFFENSE
In a league where three-point shooting continues to rise, Doc Rivers’ offense simply has not kept up. Again, a large part falls on Paul and Leonard. Both players love to prod defenses and use up the shot clock. Since 2015 the Clippers have been a moderately slow offense. One that rarely shoots from distance. This is where it ranks among the rest of the league.
Enabling Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard in the half-court makes obvious sense. But in Philadelphia, things are completely different. In Ben Simmons, the Sixers have the ideal ball handler to create havoc and push the tempo. Simmons was severely limited by a non-functional roster last season. The result was one of the fastest players in the league handcuffed in the half-court. Without pace, the Sixers often struggled to create scoring and three-point shooting.
Enter Doc Rivers. Will we see a coach who will push his core principles to the extreme? Or one that will see the value of a faster offense? The Sixers are currently not constructed for a high three-point volume offense. But a few roster tweaks can quickly tip the scale back to the days Simmons would run to find shooters. Some of the most offensively lethal lineups under Brett Brown.
ANOTHER UNIQUE BALL HANDLER HAND-CUFFED IN TRANSITION
Part of running a deliberate offense includes avoiding the temptation to run. In Los Angeles, Doc Rivers had another unique point forward in Blake Griffin. While Griffin and Simmons are different players, both possess the ability to rebound and get from point A to B in a flash. But Griffin was rarely used in that mold. Look at how Rivers deployed Blake in transition compared to the league’s top transition player (Russell Westbrook).
This season Ben Simmons topped at 5.1 transitions possessions per game. This was well below the league leaders Giannis Antetokounmpo and Westbrook. The idea that we could see a reverse in Simmons’ transition opportunities is freighting. Yes, there is something to be said about a functional half-court offense to fit Embiid. But the Sixers are also sitting on a couple of young guys who are ideal open court players. Both Matisse Thybulle and Zhaire Smith are flawed shooters who love to run and attack the basket. Putting a cap on those opportunities limits Ben Simmons and the development of their young (and cheap) kids.
LITTLE PLAYER MOTION IN THE HALF COURT
Perhaps the most head-scratching element of Rivers’ philosophy is how little it relies on player motion. It is a scheme heavily dependant on isolation principles and supreme shot-making. But as the league moves to more (and more) motion, the Clippers again lagged behind the curve. This can be catastrophic in Philadelphia. Why? The Sixers do not have a Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Motion is a huge element to unlock space for Simmons and Embiid. But as we see, it is not part of Rivers’ DNA. Again, take a look at the distance the Clippers traveled on offense last season.
Looks kind of familiar right? The Sixers were a static offense last year. Players often stood and waited for either Embiid or Simmons to act. The idea that Rivers could bring a similar static element does not mesh well with this duo. Motion breeds passing lanes and space. Two supreme prerequisites for Embiid and Simmons to thrive.
Doc Rivers’ arrival signals the start of a new era in Philadelphia. While there is a substantial buzz around the hire, it should not be viewed without context. Rivers has won big in the NBA. That matters. But recent history points to a head coach stuck on basic principles. The Sixers do not have a basic roster nor do they have basic stars. For Rivers to make it big in Philadelphia, it will require a significant shift in philosophy. It will also demand Rivers to regain his locker room presence. Without those components, Philadelphia could be embarking on a long and painful partnership.