Doc Rivers is public enemy No. 1 in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia 76ers are underperforming to start the 2022-23 season. Joel Embiid’s unbelievable dominance from this past weekend saved the Sixers from falling to a 5-9 record and perhaps prevented Rivers’ seat from warming up.
James Harden’s foot injury and Embiid’s shaky start to the season did not help and neither did some inconsistent and/or underwhelming play from many of the team’s key role players. Rivers is not the sole reason for the Sixers’ rough start to the season, but he is still responsible, especially when he openly admits that the team was not ready to win at the start of the season.
Frustrations with Rivers date back years, crystalizing when the Sixers lost to the underdog Atlanta Hawks in the 2021 playoffs and never looking back. Rivers’ reluctance to play young guys still sometimes shows with Paul Reed and has already cost them Charles Bassey, who is emerging as a quality player with the San Antonio Spurs. His legacy of playoff failures — all those blown leads and zero conference finals appearances since 2012 — is too vast to ignore.
Rivers has to make changes. The rumblings about his job (in)security may not have reached Daryl Morey and the front office yet, but they get closer with every loss. Even before Harden’s injury, the warning signs were there. Even as the course gets corrected, others remain.
Much of the problems this Sixers roster has — its lack of reliable ball handlers and players who thrive playing uptempo — is not on Rivers. But many of the team’s other problems are. The fan base has been and continues to be severely against Rivers. Here are three things Doc Rivers can do to make himself look more favorable.
3. Figure out and maintain effective rotations
Doc Rivers’ lineup and rotation decisions can sometimes be confounding. Some of the lineups he uses are devoid of offensive creators — there are instances where Shake Milton and De’Anthony Melton are the key initiators — and, for reasons we will get to later, these have been very detrimental. He has even found ways to neutralize what should be a strong lineup by doing things like playing Montrezl Harrell, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey together.
Rivers has looked to stagger his four key players, pulling Embiid and Maxey out during the first quarter and letting Harden and Tobias Harris run with the bench guys. Not relying on all-bench units when he has his four key players available is a promising development, but sometimes his bad habits persist.
The biggest point of contention for his rotations is the backup center spot, which he has maintained is still a fluid situation between Harrell and Reed. Rivers is leaning into Reed more than Harrell recently, but he could do better at optimizing the situations where each guy plays. Additionally, he cost the Sixers some crucial possessions at the end of a loss to the New York Knicks by playing them together.
Trusting guys through foul trouble (especially if they’re the most important player on the team) is another area where Rivers can show some improvement. The Sixers are deep enough that Rivers can find lineups that make sense for 48 minutes.
2. Help Joel Embiid unlock his playmaking
Evidenced by being one of the worst offenses in the entire league during the past two weeks, it’s clear how big of a crutch James Harden was for the Sixers on offense. Embiid has been as literal of a saving grace as one can be. His unbelievable scoring outings have partly covered up the fact that he dominates without the Sixers making his life easy.
When Embiid posts up, the Sixers don’t do much to free anyone else. On the opposite side of Embiid’s post-up, Rivers should have his players run a play to A) free up a player(s) for a clean shot opening for a pass and B) limit the number of players who can double Embiid.
There are plenty of options at their disposal for getting guys open when Embiid posts that don’t sacrifice spacing. Setting backdoor and pindown screens are the simplest ways to get either an open cutter or shooter. Take a look at what the Dallas Mavericks do with Luka Doncic in the post. Screens from Dwight Powell help free up Reggie Bullock and a sharp cut from Dorian Finney-Smith temporarily opened up a pass to Jalen Brunson in the corner:
Feels like a tone setter from Dallas to start. Suns showed their hand vs. Luka in P&R, so they move him to the post. Next thing is they have Powell flare for Bullock which a) works b/c Ayton is locked in on help and b) puts Chris Paul in action off-ball. Result is an open 3. pic.twitter.com/lSOOAao1lw
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 7, 2022
Embiid has the ability to drop passes off to backdoor cutters or find guys on the perimeter. He did so routinely in his last two games especially. Rivers should be having his four other players create these openings more. Heads-up plays, like this cut from Danuel House Jr. when he notices all ayes are on No. 21, should be supplemented with off-ball screens to extract more options:
Some Sixers players will find the cracks in the defense when defenses swarm Embiid and the big man can find them. But aside from that, there isn’t much action going on when Embiid isolates. Maintaining space around him in those situations is smart, but there is room for an Embiid-led offense to be even better. At least with Embiid, they can afford to be stagnant. Without him…
1. Organize the offense when key Sixers rest
Sticking with the theme of stuff he has to do on offense, Doc Rivers must figure out a way to open up the floor for the rest of his players. The Sixers’ offense falling off a cliff without Harden or Embiid on the floor simply cannot happen. Even with his two stars, the team looks far too lifeless and immobile on offense:
Off a made FT, the Sixers:
-Don't cross halfcourt until 17 on the clock
-Ball doesn't break the 3-point line until 2 on the clock
-Tucker & asst. coach yelling that the play's not being run right
-Maxey & House disappear off the broadcast
-Sixers still give up a transition dunk. pic.twitter.com/RQVo5jfo3n
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 11, 2022
The Sixers can look to the Utah Jazz team they just faced for examples of moving without the ball and setting screens when they don’t have an all-world scoring threat on the floor. Since they don’t play at a high tempo — though they have the ability to do so more often — they have to make every possession count. It’s less forgivable to throw possessions away when you aren’t manufacturing easy fast-break opportunities. Especially in crunch time, the offense falls flat far too often. Granted, this was still an issue with Harden, who is prone to waiting far too long into possessions to start trying to do something.
The two prevailing narratives from last weekend were that Joel Embiid was extremely good and that the team has no answers for the minutes he is on the bench. That will change when Harden returns to the lineup, but that doesn’t excuse the problem. The Sixers are already very good at getting buckets with off-ball screens, but they use them so infrequently that it hardly gives them a remedy for non-Embiid minutes.
In fairness to Rivers, the Sixers are showing serious improvement on defense, though that side of the ball is largely dependent on effort, especially from Embiid. When the big fella has it going, the team does. Rivers’ decision to give Matisse Thybulle more minutes in wake of Harden’s absence has proven to be a pretty good decision, and the team is now doing a way better job all-around, especially in transition.
Doc Rivers’ job seems to be safe barring a failure too big to ignore. Whether he will start changing his ways remains to be seen. Ultimately, his decision to do that (or to not do that) will be a deciding factor on whether he remains the Sixers head coach.