A Doc Rivers Sixers Coaching Tutorial
Everything you need to know about Doc.
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA.
The rollercoaster Sixers coaching search has come to an end. The Sixers have come to a five-year contract agreement with Doc Rivers, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Rivers has all the credentials for the job. He’s won a title, has dealt with plenty of big personalities, and has as much respect from players around the league as any coach alive.
Still, it’s not at all hard to poke holes in his résumé. Rivers-coached teams have underperformed in the playoffs repeatedly, he’s overseen multiple fractured locker rooms, and he’s the only coach to ever blow three 3-1 series leads. Falling short in the playoffs, failing to lead a functioning locker room, and blowing leads are three problems the Sixers have already faced quite a bit.
Here, I’ll take a deeper dive into how Rivers operates, how concerning his shortcomings are, and how I think he’ll fare with the Sixers.
The number one change you should expect under Rivers offensively is a simpler system that’s more based around pick and rolls. And while I would’ve been curious how Mike D’Antoni might’ve tried to radicalize the Sixers’ offense, I do think Rivers’ modern and simple-but-effective offensive structure is still an upgrade over Brett Brown’s. Rivers has a healthy understanding of how to cater an offense to star players, as opposed to Brown’s insistence on trying to build an egalitarian system.
The most obvious player who will benefit from Rivers’ presence is Tobias Harris. The reason Harris has underwhelmed in Philly is not strictly due to coaching, but Rivers made better use of Harris than Brown did -- he put him in high pick and rolls and created opportunities for him in isolation as opposed to Brown, who limited Harris’ pick and rolls considerably.
Harris handled 5.1 pick and rolls per game with the Clippers in 2018-19, compared to just 3.4 per game this season with the Sixers, per NBA.com. Harris is at his best when attacking downhill, and more pick and rolls will give him the chance to do that. In each of the past three seasons, the Clippers have been in the top-five in the league in percentage of offense from pick and roll ball handlers, per Synergy.
Rivers also has experience diagramming sets to open up post-ups for big men like Kevin Garnett and Blake Griffin. Neither of those players are the low-block brutes that Joel Embiid is, but having experience catering to scoring big men is at least a positive. Of course, the real question for how Rivers can help Embiid is whether or not he can convince him to get in career-best shape, but more on that later.
In regards to Ben Simmons, I don’t see Rivers helping him as much as D’Antoni (whose run and gun style fits Simmons perfectly) or even Ty Lue (who coached Simmons’ mentor in Cleveland) would’ve. But perhaps Rivers can get Simmons involved via some of the more perimeter based responsibilities that Griffin used to handle -- handling pick and rolls, scoring in isolation, and making plays on short rolls.
One of the strongest endorsements of Rivers’ system is his ability to develop young players quickly and get the best out of established veterans. While his Celtics teams were generally older, he did turn Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley into contributors very early on in their careers. The Clippers also had generally older teams, but he oversaw the early development of Deandre Jordan, Montrezl Harrell, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
He’s also taken journeyman NBA veterans and transformed their games. He turned JJ Redick into the weapon he is today. He took Tobias Harris’ game to a level that no other coach before or after him has been able to. He helped Lou Williams reach a new level in his early thirties. In one way or another, Rivers has proven capable of taking unwanted pieces and getting the most out of them under his watch. That is one of the hallmark signs of a smart coach with a healthy offensive system.
Overall, I would’ve been more enthusiastic about D’Antoni’s chances of turning around the Sixers’ offense, but Rivers is a clear improvement and does offer considerably more appeal than D’Antoni in other places, such as…
Locker room management
Rivers has everything you could want from a coach in terms of managing a locker room. He’s charismatic, smart, is a former player, and has the caché that comes along with a championship ring. Across the league, respect for Rivers is universal.
And yet, Rivers has been a part of some very dysfunctional teams. The late lob city era Clippers were a mess from a chemistry standpoint. And just this past season, Rivers oversaw a very dysfunctional locker room that featured preferential treatment for star players.
— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) September 29, 2020
Preferential treatment for Simmons and Embiid is precisely what the Sixers were hoping to eradicate in hiring Rivers. The fact that he was fired for committing the exact same sin in another locker room does not bode well for the odds of him implementing a new, healthy culture in Philly.
And, keep in mind, they don’t just need Rivers to manage personalities here. They need him to foster mental breakthroughs to two incredibly stubborn star players on fixing key weaknesses -- Simmons’ lack of shooting and Embiid’s inability to stay in shape. I’m inclined to bet on Rivers’ character making him as good a choice as any for that responsibility, but the fact that so much dysfunction has taken place under his watch might be a sign of how difficult it is for NBA coaches to handle star players regardless of their quirks or flaws; nobody at that level wants to be babysat or psychologically manipulated.
Rivers is undoubtedly smart and respected, but his failures in managing personalities in L.A. should be a lesson that him becoming the Simmons/Embiid whisperer is the furthest thing from a guarantee.
Still, of the three major candidates that they considered (Rivers, D’Antoni, and Lue), Rivers is by far the one who poses the best chance of turning around the culture here in Philly. I fully support the Sixers taking a bet on Rivers being able to provide value there, even if I don’t think he’s a cure-all.
One of the popular critiques of Rivers is the same one that often led the way with Brown: he’s stubborn and slow to adjust in the playoffs. In the Nuggets series, for example, Rivers repeatedly chose to play Montrezl Harrell over Ivica Zubac despite the Clippers playing dramatically better with Zubac on the floor, and having some people in the Clippers organization plead with him to play Zubac. He never budged, and the Clippers paid the price for it.
By all accounts, Rivers is a truly good guy. He’s an excellent person to be the face of the franchise. Rivers helped stabilize the Clippers through their incredibly tumultuous period during the Donald Sterling scandal, even wearing multiple hats in terms of his role in the organization. That’s something that can never hurt, especially for a team full of turmoil and overhaul like the Sixers.
I’ll be curious to see how the Rivers hire affects things from a personnel decision making standpoint. Rivers’ Clippers teams featured lots of players that he used to coach in Boston. The Sixers have not announced that Rivers will have any sort of personnel control, but if he has any input, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Sixers go after some of his former players.
I never found that Rivers did much that was special from a defensive scheme standpoint. In Boston, they popularized the ICE coverage on side pick and rolls, but that’s been ubiquitous for nearly a decade now. Rivers runs a slightly more aggressive defense than Brown, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
I imagine Rivers will be extremely motivated in this role. His reputation has deservedly taken a bit of a hit due to the Clippers collapse, and he must be motivated to make back some ground. If he proves unable to figure out this team, his legacy will really take a hit. The Boston success will look more like a one-off, and he may become known as a coach who continually fails to take teams over the top.
I have not the slightest clue how Rivers will designate Simmons positionally. Hopefully, he doesn’t talk himself into Simmons being a point guard, but it’s possible that he thinks he can unlock something there that Brown was unable to.