With Doc Rivers set to lead the Philadelphia 76ers for the next five seasons, the puzzle that has stumped the league is now expected to be cracked.
Doc Rivers was let go from the Los Angeles Clippers on Sept. 28. The Philadelphia 76ers, after a month of meticulously reviewing coaching candidates, called Rivers the next day. On Oct. 1, the Sixers and Rivers agreed to a five-year contract.
Needless to say, it didn’t take much for the Sixers to commit to their new head coach. But is he the right fit for Philly’s needs?
At a glance, Rivers has an elite resume: just above .500 overall record, an NBA championship, nearly 1000 wins as a head coach, and the experience of playing in the league. Rivers notably led the 2008 Boston Celtics to a championship and fathered the Lob City era with the Los Angeles Clippers. Outside the lines, Rivers has been the voice of reason throughout the league’s multiple race relations crisis in the past ten years, which is arguably his most impressive quality.
Rivers’ resume and presence automatically put him in the upper echelon of coaching candidates. And for the Sixers, he was an easy choice to lead their franchise.
And the franchise needs leadership — badly.
This past season, the 76ers held the league’s best home record prior to the NBA restart, winning 31 of the team’s 34 home games. They were, however, the worst road team in the league at 12-26. Despite having four max contract players, the Sixers were never able to find consistency, clearly by the contrast in their home and road records.
The problem begins with their stars. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have not found chemistry, despite being considered top players in their respective positions.
Simmons, a point forward without a jump shot, has to get in the lane to be effective. Embiid, a post player with a jump shot, is at his best when in the paint.
Their styles clash, to an extreme. Embiid is highly efficient in the paint, shooting 62% on shots within 10 feet of the basket. In a micro view, Embiid is productive when allowed one to three dribbles in the paint shooting 49%. When he has to take seven or more dribbles, that percentage drops down to 36%.
Meanwhile, Simmons is at his best within the paint, when he’s able to get downhill on drives with one to three dribbles. He shoots 52% when able to get downhill, and 92% of his field-goal attempts are within 10 feet of the basket.
For Embiid to be successful he needs to be down low with respected shooters around him, but Simmons needs the paint clear in order for him to get downhill. This leads to a lackluster juxtaposition between both players while on the court.
On top of their two superstars, the 76ers have two other max contract players who did not play worthy of their contracts this past campaign. Tobias Harris and Al Horford both will look to have bounce-back seasons, after being unable to find their groove throughout 2020.
Harris is an easy fix, considering his best year came under Rivers in Los Angeles. Rivers was able to put Harris in an up and down tempo and a four-out offense that allowed the forward to be great. He is at his best in transition and when he is able to move without the ball.
Rivers unleashed Harris’ potential, and most likely will not have any problems digging his play up from under the dirt.
Horford’s situation isn’t as simple.
Horford struggled to find his role in his first season with the Sixers. Father time may have played a role in Horford’s inability to get his legs this season, but a glaring factor that must be addressed was the lack of chemistry between Horford and the remaining Sixers’ stars.
Horford’s best NBA seasons include him being played down low and at the high post — in a moderated point forward role. In Boston, that moderated point forward role included Horford initiating the offense, finding Jalen Brown, Jason Tatum, Gordon Hayward, etc. on the perimeter and on back door cuts. With Philly, Embiid and Simmons aren’t doing as much movement.
Instead, they need the ball in isolated situations, and everyone around them needs to be ready to catch and shoot. This has never been Horford’s game, and his inability to adapt showed this year. Rivers will have to find a way to not only match the mix-match styles of the two stars but also fit Horford into that picture.
How will it get done?
That is the million-dollar question that former Sixers’ coach Brett Brown was fired for being unable to answer. The easy solution is to separate the stars, but when you have two players that are viewed as perennial All-Stars, it’s hard to ship one away. With the money that Philly’s offense spent to build their roster, getting rid of their current core is out of the picture.
So the next step is for the coach to make it work. And to make it work, Rivers will have to think outside the box. The first step might be to avoid dissecting the offense first. When the Philadelphia dilemma is analyzed, the offense is the primary topic. Their defense was often overlooked and deserved the same level of scrutiny.
This past season, the 76ers had the eighth-best defensive rating in the league, allowing 108 ppg. On the road, they allowed an average of 111 ppg, a factor that contributed to their abysmal road record.
The Sixers have a big core. Embiid is 7 foot, Simmons is 6’10, Horford is 6’9, and Harris is 6’8. Add in whoever, and that lineup is still bigger than most in the league. The defensive versatility that length provides the Toronto Raptors is what the Sixers can utilize with their current core. Rivers has made a stamp in the league as a defensive guru, with his teams always being near or on top of the league in defensive rating.
The biggest factor that makes a team elite defensively is simply the willingness to play defense. Willingness is also a factor in conditioning and offensive improvement as well. The Sixers’ stars have shown they do not possess the willingness in order to improve.
Simmons is going to have to build a jump shot. The offense will have more motion, the lanes will be clearer, and the other core members will be able to play their natural styles if Simmons can learn to play the position as a stronger shooter.
Embiid is going to have to get in better shape. Every year, the same comments and perceptions are made. He undoubtedly has a great game, but late in the crunch, when stars are needed the most, he is often gassed.
And this may hold a part towards the abnormally quick hiring of Rivers: his stature. Rivers played in the NBA, even making an All-Star appearance, and then was hired as a coach three years following retirement. As a coach, he has won a championship and has spoken out against social injustice each time the league needed a voice. Rivers has built a reputation that commands respect. Players, coaches, writers and fans all have a high level of respect for Rivers. That should carry into the Sixers’ locker room.
Simmons and Embiid need a coach that can hit the right buttons to make them improve on the areas that have scarred their professional careers so far, and Rivers may be the coach to do it.
However, Rivers isn’t the Messiah. Despite the elite resume that he holds, he also has been a part of some of the league’s ugliest break-ups in recent years. The “Big Three” Boston Celtics era of the late 00s ended with Ray Allen leaving the team after Rivers’ decision to place Allen on the bench – a decision that apparently split the locker room.
The “Lob City” era in Los Angeles had its fair share of drama. De’Andre Jordan and Chris Paul developed a highly sour relationship that led De’Andre to nearly leave LA during the summer of 2016, ultimately leaving in 2018. That same Clipper team had animosity towards Rivers’ son and backup point guard Austin Rivers to the point that once Chris Paul was traded to the Rockets, Paul led his new teammates through a secret tunnel in Staples Center with the intention of fighting Austin Rivers.
This year’s Clippers team ended their season in one of the biggest playoffs collapses in the recent decade.
Rivers’ skill with the Xs and Os is undeniable, but history has shown that his locker rooms tend to spiral under his watch. Philadelphia is already a locker room that’s had its ups and downs, most recently a rotation player calling out Brown prior to his dismissal.
Rivers is an elite coach with a Hall of Fame stature, but the Sixers have serious issues that need to be worked out both on and off the court. To assume that Rivers will be able to fix them all simply isn’t realistic.