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Where Do the 76ers Go From Here? Part 2: Doc Rivers

The second part of a four part series discussing what the Philadelphia 76ers should do following their ignominious defeat in the playoffs. Big expectations cause big let downs which lead to big changes. Part one featured Ben Simmons, now it’s time for Doc Rivers. Rivers has come under fire for the upset loss to the Atlanta Hawks, probably copping the second most blame after Simmons. Should the 76ers keep Rivers around? That’s the question for today.

 

The Flaws

Doc Rivers | Postgame Media vs Atlanta Hawks (06.16.21) | Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Post Game Press Conference

 

There are obvious problems with Doc Rivers. The biggest one is his continual inability to win playoff series. Getting the one seed is all well and good, but once a Doc Rivers led team gets to the playoffs the wheels, for whatever reason, fall off. Since leaving the Boston Celtics, Rivers has continually underperformed with very good teams. He failed to take the Chris Paul and Blake Griffin Los Angeles Clippers to the Western Conference finals, and then did the same with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Worse still, his successor in Los Angeles, Tyronn Lue, managed to do what he couldn’t in his first year with what many would say a worse roster and worse injury luck. 

Blown leads in games and in series countinally haunt Rivers everywhere he goes. It’s odd though, because there’s never just one thing that happens, there’s never one thing exactly to pinpoint. If it hadn’t happened a ridiculous amount of times, one could attribute it to luck, but it can’t be that. Luck doesn’t cause you to have the most losses in clinching scenarios in NBA history. They don’t cause you to blow multiple 3-1 leads, or lose a ridiculous amount of double digit leads in games either

Doc is doing something wrong, but what is it? There have been tons of generic suggestions thrown out about why Rivers is failing. Stubbornness, can’t adapt, doesn’t draw up plays, but it’s the same thing you hear about every coach when they fail, and when they win it’s suddenly not a problem anymore until the next loss. It seems like a classic example of fitting a result to a cause. One specific claim that has been thrown out about Rivers in this series in particular is Rivers’ overreliance on the bench, but does it hold water?

 

All-Bench Lineups?

The biggest criticism leveled against Rivers has been the handling of the bench. Branching from that, the largest condemnation has been for playing all-bench lineups, and playing too many bench players. It’s true, Rivers’ use of the all-bench lineup absolutely cost the 76ers game one. That is undeniable. Already, that could be seen as sin enough. There’s no reason to do that in a playoff game, and it burned them in what ended up being a very tightly contested game. It’s also true that Rivers went with a deeper bench than pretty much any playoff team, with eleven members seeing 10+ minutes per game, although one could bump Danny Green out considering he missed most of the Hawks series. 

Game One was a mistake for sure, but that’s not indicative of the whole series. Just how much did Doc Rivers play the much maligned all-bench lineups against the Hawks? NBA.com official stats list 67 different lineups run against the Hawks. Only 16 saw more than five total minutes. None of those were an all-bench lineup. The most any all-bench lineup played was three minutes in one game, which was the game one disaster. No other all-bench lineup played more than one total minute in a seven game series. All-bench lineups (besides Game One) were not the problem here. 

Even if they were, what was the realistic solution for the 76ers? Joel Embiid was playing on a torn meniscus, playing him extended minutes was not a realistic option. It’s not really a Mike Budenholzer situation, where a fully healthy Giannis Antetokoumpo is sitting for inexplicable reasons. Embiid routinely looked gassed in the 4th quarter even with the minutes he played, and could you imagine the vitriol Rivers would get if Embiid played 40+ minutes per game and aggravated the injury?

Ben Simmons was obviously not an option to stay in with the reserves. His total lack of offense or spacing means he needs Embiid (Simmons and Howard is a no-go) and multiple shooters around him, which he won’t get with the bench. Seth Curry was getting picked on defensively by basically everyone on the Hawks, so there’s a limit to how much he can actually play. Danny Green only played in two games and wasn’t particularly effective in either. That leaves one starter, Tobias Harris, that can play heavy minutes with the bench, and he did. The most common bench lineup was Harris + four in both the regular season and the playoffs. Some lineups found moderate success , with the most common fivesome of Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, Dwight Howard and George Hill posting a slightly positive net rating. Many other lineups with Harris + four were extremely negative however.

The point is, it wasn’t like there was some magic lineup to be found. Most of the starters have some sort of limitation that limits heavy minutes and/or playing extended minutes with the bench. Embiid played as much as he could, Simmons became unplayable and Harris did play with the bench a lot. What was the solution? Fully tear Embiid’s meniscus? Play Ben Simmons and Dwight Howard together, one of the worst spacing fits in all of basketball? Try and play Seth Curry 40+ minutes (which he’s never done before) and get cooked defensively possession after possession? Split up the starting five lineup that was basically the best lineup in basketball

Rivers could probably have done more, but there were no easy or clear solutions, and saying “Rivers kept playing all-bench lineups and that was the reason they lost” is patently false. 

 

Too Many Cooks?

It’s easily arguable that Rivers’ did about as well as he could have with the players he used. Maybe there was a magic combination of the Sixers roster, but extra experimentation would’ve possibly involved playing even more bench players, which was something he’s already being raked over the coals for. Many teams switch to eight or even seven man lineups for the playoffs, whereas Doc used at least ten throughout the playoff run. Again though, with the deficiencies of the starters the bench was absolutely necessary, and the bench also has a lot of specialists that make it hard to play them heavy minutes. 

Matisse Thybulle is all defense, no offense. Furkan Korkmaz is the opposite, and had to shift to a starting role once Green went down. Dwight Howard was the only backup big. Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton filled the spark plug off the bench role, but which one was going to actually perform was up in the air game to game. Both guys had games where they were crucial parts of a 76ers’ win, with Milton carrying in Game Three and Maxey filling in for Ben Simmons in Game Six. They also don’t make plays at all for others, which meant George Hill was the only one left to properly move the ball on the 76ers, and already is the most well-rounded on the group. Every one of these guys was pretty essential to the team at various points in the series, so who do you leave off?  

Doc Rivers cannot be absolved of blame. Game One was a travesty, and if he didn’t play an all-bench lineup there this series might not have even made it to Game Seven. It also can’t be sheer luck that Rivers is continually blowing lead after lead. Maybe his motivation is terrible, or the players don’t trust him, or something. The oft-repeated claim that Rivers bungled the bench and continually played all-bench lineups however, is really not true.

 

Should the 76ers Keep Rivers?

Jun 11, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and guard Ben Simmons (25) react with head coach Doc Rivers (right) after the 76ers defeated the Atlanta Hawks in game three in the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Dale Zanine-USA Today

Whether or not Rivers’ lineups are the problem is not the biggest issue on hand however. For whatever reason, Rivers cannot get it done in the playoffs, and that alone is worth a look. The 76ers have a window with Joel Embiid, and it’s not long. Big men with injury problems don’t tend to have long careers, and the goal is champion, not a regular season first seed and a second round exit. That being said, there are three reasons to keep Rivers around for at least one more year.

  1. The playoff exit can be attributed more towards players failing rather than Doc. You can argue that he didn’t put them in the best positions to succeed, but Ben Simmons, a max-contract player, was unplayable at multiple times in the series. There’s not much Rivers can do with a point guard that is scared to shoot, drive or handle the ball and can’t make free throws, and he implied as much in his post game press conference. His best player was also injured and failed to deliver in the 4th, and his third best player in Tobias Harris also picked some really awful times to completely fail to score. There’s not one major thing you can point at and say Rivers completely botched it, and therefore people are referring to tired old adages and nebulous, unprovable concepts.
  2. Under Rivers, there was significant improvement from nearly every player except Ben Simmons. Tobias Harris was considered one of the worst contracts in basketball last year, and this year he was an All-Star snub that scored 20 PPG on fantastic efficiency. Joel Embiid went from All-NBA to MVP candidate. Seth Curry had the best year of his career. Matisse Thybulle went from good defender to All-Defense. Shake Milton went from a stand-still shooter to a Sixth Man of the Year candidate at times. Dwight Howard  continued his late-career resurgence, and at least some credit needs to be given to Doc in Tyrese Maxey’s stellar rookie year. It’s true that Rivers couldn’t improve Simmons offensively, but no one has in his whole career. Perhaps you can blame Rivers for “coddling” Ben, but there’s more evidence to suggest this is a Ben Simmons problem than it is Doc Rivers.
  3. This is an admittedly weak reason, but Doc did JUST sign a five-year 40 million dollar deal this year. That’s guaranteed money that the 76ers don’t want to pay, considering they are also still paying Brett Brown for two more years. Knowing when to cut losses is a sign of a good front office, but for the reasons above judging Rivers as a loss already is tenuous at best. 

 

Everyone Deserves a Second Chance. Probably.

The odds of the 76ers firing Doc and paying three coaches in 2022 are rather low, even if Doc did deserve it. Whether he deserves it or not is up for debate, and there are a lot of positive factors for Doc staying. The step that the team took with him over Brett Brown (in the regular season to be fair) was rather significant, and the playoff failure this time, can be reasonably placed upon underperforming players rather than a massive misstep by the coach. The leash is short and the seat is hot for Rivers of course, but at the very least they should be available for one more postseason run. If Daryl Morey makes the improvements to the team that he needs to, there are no more excuses for another playoff failure.

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