Let's Talk About Doc Rivers (Still Sixers Head Coach)
Sixers fans were truly devastated that they may have to endure another season with their coach, who was recently named to the list of the top-15 coaches of all time.
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Last week, when news broke that the Lakers had decided to hire Darvin Ham for their head coaching job, it was perhaps the angriest I’ve ever seen a completely separate fanbase about another team’s coaching hire – and not even because of who they hired, but because of who they didn’t hire.
That person, obviously, is Doc Rivers, who may have never been a serious consideration to begin with. And yet, Sixers fans were truly devastated that they may have to endure another season with their coach, who was recently named to the list of the top-15 coaches of all time.
As with any coach, the discourse around it can get easily disconnected from reality; everything is the coach’s fault when things go wrong, nothing is to the coach’s credit when things go well. With it looking likely that Rivers will be back for another season, I decided it would be apt for me to sift through the discourse here and see what’s fair and what’s not. How much of a liability truly is Rivers as a head coach, and what are reasonable expectations of him moving forward?
Let’s start with the obvious: if we’re going to arrive at any type of objective evaluation of Rivers as a coach, we’re going to have to separate his actual coaching work from his handling of the media and general public persona. It is undeniably true that Rivers has behaved himself like a complete and total ass for the majority of the time he’s been here. He has been rude and condescending in response to any type of criticism from fans or media, all while dying on some incredibly wrong hills.
He tried to gaslight the entire world for an entire year into thinking that Ben Simmons didn’t need to shoot, or even show any increase in aggression on offense, and that anyone who took such a stance didn’t know basketball. He was incredibly condescending towards the media throughout the entire Paul Reed vs. Deandre Jordan debate. And most recently, he tried to shoot back at the idea that he was in any way to blame for a disappointing second round exit, and lauded himself for the job that he’s done.
And here’s the thing: the problem is not that Rivers is an asshole. It’s that he’s an asshole towards us – Philadelphia fans and media. If Rivers had directed his sanctimonious soliloquies outwards, instead of inwards, I doubt anyone here would have much of a problem with him as a person. He has, at every turn, mocked the popular sentiment of the fans and laughed at the idea that anyone in this city could possibly know better than him or his coaching staff; which, by the way, they often did!
If Rivers wants any chance of being liked in this city, he’s going to have to redirect his anger away from fans – who have generally been quite valid in their critiques – and towards some type of common enemy. If he had taken the energy he put into his Ben Simmons propaganda campaign last season into an Embiid-for-MVP propaganda campaign this season, the city would have celebrated him. It’s not hard to imagine Rivers going full curmudgeon on that subject, bemoaning the role of analytics in the MVP debate, and pleading with people to watch the freaking games.
Instead, Rivers offered only lukewarm endorsements of Embiid’s MVP case. He has very little to say about his superstar player missing out on MVP, but plenty to say about the tragedy that the fans here don’t appreciate Ben Simmons.
— Tom Moore (@TomMoorePhilly) April 10, 2022
For whatever reason, Rivers has decided to wage war on whatever the popular sentiment of the fans is at any given moment. And surely, if the team was winning, and Rivers had obvious accomplishments to hang his hat on, this could all be overlooked. But when Rivers’ actual coaching performance doesn’t leave much to write home about, he’s naturally going to be a villain in the minds of the fans.
In terms of his coaching acumen, Rivers is far from some saboteur. He plays relatively basic, but correct schemes on both ends of the floor. He runs a simple offense that maximizes his best players. He certainly deserves credit for the fact that Embiid has had his two best seasons under him, and that players like Tyrese Maxey have been able to develop and excel in their roles.
Point being, there is no obvious schematic or stylistic decision that Rivers is making that has held the team back. There are plenty of gripes to be had with his rotational decision making and his late game management, but in my mind, those things take a major backseat to whether or not your team is playing the correct schemes on both ends of the floor, and if you play style is a fit with your personnel – which, in Rivers’ case, it is.
Where I take far more issue with Rivers’ coaching is the fact that he was sold as an excellent leader of men who would help to reset the culture here in Philadelphia. He has done absolutely, positively nothing of the sort. When brought in, one of his top responsibilities was to help bring accountability to the locker room and help to develop Ben Simmons both as a player and person. Not only did he fail to develop Simmons, he struck precisely the wrong note at all times and eventually had a flameout with him. And while this team generally remained in-sync throughout this season in spite of all the Simmons drama, you still would be hard pressed to make the case that Rivers has established any type of culture or identity throughout the year.
This team blatantly mailed in the last seven weeks of the regular season, and no-showed nearly half of their playoff games. In both the Toronto and Miami series, it was abundantly clear the Rivers was being out-coached – but not in a tactical sense. He was out-coached in the sense that Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra get their players to play hard and stay connected each and every night, and the Sixers were a team that was incapable of doing those things on a nightly basis.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Sixers’ playoff no-shows – Embiid and Harden deserve the bulk of it. But ultimately, if Rivers was the type of leader that he was sold as, his team wouldn’t have had so much difficulty simply showing up and playing hard on a nightly basis.
Ultimately, I would consider Rivers to be more annoying and underwhelming than outright bad as a coach. He employs the right schemes and general philosophies, has clearly helped certain players become better versions of themselves, and kept a locker room from totally imploding amid crisis. But at the same time, he is a truly embarrassing public face for the organization, he is not the least bit innovative, and he is nowhere near the culture setting leader that he was billed as coming in – at least not in a way that manifests on the court.
The first two years of Rivers’ tenure in Philly have not been anything worth writing home about. The team has underperformed in the playoffs both times, there hasn’t been any type of culture change, and Rivers has established a combative relationship towards the fans entirely through his own doing. I suppose a turnaround is possible – Rivers could make peace with the fans by directing his anger towards common enemies as opposed to the people who are rooting for him, and could perhaps establish some type of identity if the team has more continuity.
But at the end of the day, I think the fans would be best off with accepting Rivers for who he is: an arrogant but ultimately not horrible coach, who can’t elevate the culture of the organization singlehandedly, but also isn’t sabotaging it by any means. He is very clearly not a top-15 coach of all time, but is likely somewhere on the fringes of being a top-15 coach in the league.