After weeks of looking as though Tyronn Lue or Mike D’Antoni was in line to become the Philadelphia 76ers’ next head coach, the briefly unemployed Doc Rivers swooped in to snag the gig. He and the Los Angeles Clippers parted ways Monday. He traveled to Philadelphia Wednesday. By Thursday, the organization had found its preferred candidate for the job and Rivers was hired.
Fans and media are certainly entitled to discuss Rivers’ merits and drawbacks. But I wanted to connect with some people who understand his coaching track record best and give everyone the available information to form an opinion about what he offers and if the Sixers made the correct decision in hiring him. So, I reached out to three people who covered Rivers during his Clippers tenure to provide insight.
Robert Flom is the Managing Editor of 213Hoops, an independent Clippers blog. Lucas Hann is Editor-in-Chief of 213Hoops. Sabreena Merchant is a writer for SB Nation’s Clips Nation. All three are well-equipped to paint an informative, descriptive picture of Rivers as a coach.
What are Rivers’ strengths as a coach?
Flom: Doc Rivers consistently gets good regular-season results from his teams. Now, he’s had a lot of talent over his various coaching tenures, especially on the Celtics and Clippers, but we’ve all seen talented teams lose more regular season games than they should due to lack of preparation or poor tactics. Doc is adept at putting together game plans to defeat specific opponents over the course of a long season, and is generally good at getting results out of the bulk of his roster on a game-to-game basis. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Tangentially, Doc is an NBA legend and has the respect (if not always love) of his players. While his teams might have chemistry issues (more on that later), he does have at least mostly peaceful locker rooms, and gets players to buy into roles, schemes, rotations, etc. There’s something to be said for a charismatic leader who can command a room, and Doc is certainly that. When his teams are at their best, they play hard, play together, and fit perfectly into what he’s looking for from them as players and as a collective unit.
Hann: Doc probably has two big strengths as a coach, one macro and one micro. On the macro level, he might be the best relationships coach in the league, and in a context where “player’s coach” often just means “Black coach,” Doc’s ability to get the best out of certain guys is actually measurable. Just look at DeAndre Jordan’s numbers pre-Doc compared to his ascendance: an Olympic gold medalist, All-Defense and All-NBA 1st Team Center. Montrezl Harrell has become a villain for Clippers fans, but his growth under Doc has also been stellar. I would never underestimate what it means to a player for a guy with Doc’s stature to tell them he believes in their ability to grow into a larger role.
On a micro level, Rivers is one of the better ATO coaches in the league. Through both his pre-Clippers career and with LAC, his teams have been among the more reliable squads in the league to score out of timeouts. It’s not quite as exciting as his ability to get the most out of certain players, but it can matter on the margins.
Merchant: Doc designs great out-of-bounds plays. He was also one of the first coaches I noticed to play zone defense on ATOs to screw up the other team. In general, he is creative on offense and maximizes the contributions of his players on that end. He also understands that players are the lifeblood of the league and doesn’t micromanage [them]. He empowers his players, both on and off the court.
Doc is also just a great coach to deal with as a member of the media. He’s funny and approaches the game with the appropriate amount of seriousness while also understanding that it’s just basketball. I wouldn’t say he’s candid in that he often doesn’t reveal much, but he’s honest. He also is a great face for the NBA. He knows what’s important — he was preaching the importance of voting at 2018 Clippers media day before the midterms. He might be at his best when he’s speaking about non-basketball issues.
What are his weaknesses?
Flom: Rotations, rotations, rotations. Doc Rivers is not analytics friendly. He also sometimes is not very eye-test friendly, either. He recently played Montrezl Harrell far too much in the playoffs a couple weeks back against all reason due to his gut feeling of Harrell being a better player than Ivica Zubac (he’s not), a decision that was a big part of him getting fired. Every number in the book screamed that the Clippers were doing fine when Harrell was off the court, and getting massacred when he was playing, especially against Nikola Jokic. But Doc didn’t adjust, and the Clippers lost to a less talented team. He also overplayed Avery Bradley in the 2019 season, Paul Pierce in the 2016 season, and Jamal Crawford for most of his Clippers tenure. He has his guys, and he will ride or die with them.
Similarly, Doc can be slow to adjust in playoff situations. His teams have blown 3-1 leads in the playoffs three times (though, to be fair, his Orlando team in the early 2000s was an 8 seed playing a 1 seed), and while some of that is luck (I still have no explanation for the Rockets collapse in 2015), there’s a bit more behind it. Even outside of playing Harrell, the Clippers never seemed to adjust in any way to what the Nuggets were doing, and didn’t have much cohesion in attacking their weaknesses. The Lakers disposing of the Nuggets in a brisk five games showcased just how much stronger their overall tactics were.
Hann: His weaknesses are also twofold, and maybe a little more concerning than his strengths are encouraging. After all, he was just fired from the Clippers (in a move I agreed with), so my critiques should be taken in that context. The first has to be his tendency to over-trust veterans who clearly have very little to offer to the team.
It’s common for coaches to have an inexplicable favorite who plays more than he should —but normally, that guy is a trustworthy defender who helps with continuity on that end of the floor. Rivers, on the other hand, over-relies on washed-up veterans who tank the team defensively. He spent an entire season playing Jamal Crawford and Paul Pierce together despite the team hemorrhaging points defensively when they shared the floor. In a year when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Patrick Beverley were on the team, Avery Bradley was his most-used guard. And most infamously, Montrezl Harrell played massive minutes in both the 2019 and 2020 playoffs despite being abysmal and destroying the team on both ends of the floor when he was on the court. But Doc trusted him, so no amount of pleading from the front office could persuade him to adjust. Here’s a tip: if you notice Doc is over-relying on a role player (it might be Al Horford on this Sixers team), pray he’s traded at the deadline. The only way to get Rivers to stop overplaying his favorites is to trade them.
The second, likely more devastating for Sixers fans, is his inability to adjust in the playoffs. Doc’s premise for getting players to buy in is his trust in them, and he’s ideologically opposed to going away from one of “his guys” in the postseason, no matter the consequences. It’s why the Clippers never got past the second round, and why Rivers is the only coach in NBA history to blow three separate 3-1 leads — all in the second round. Once you reach a certain quality of team, his rigidity becomes fatal.
Merchant: Doc Rivers can be a bit stubborn. As we saw in the conference semifinals against Denver, he stuck to his guns on his rotations despite a mountain of evidence that he needed to make an adjustment. As we also learned in that series, maintaining locker room chemistry can be a challenge for him.
What impressed you most during his time in Los Angeles?
Flom: Doc’s most impressive coaching performances were during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the interregnum between Lob City and Kawhi Leonard. He had a mixture of hardened veterans, journeymen, and young players, and was somehow able to balance all those skill sets, personalities, and priorities into very effective teams. While the 2019 team that made the playoffs and took the Warriors to six games got the headlines (for good reason), the 2018 team going 42-40 might have been even more impressive. Doc got huge, important minutes from two-way players who have barely played in the NBA since, as well as from unheralded second-round rookies, and turned the Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell pick-and-roll into one of the deadliest weapons in the NBA.
Many coaches would have folded after going from coaching Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan to Juwan Evans, CJ Williams, and Ty Wallace (much love to all those guys, by the way, who gave the Clippers unforgettable minutes in 2018), but Doc embraced the challenge. His ability to get that motley collection of players to a top-10 offense is pretty incredible, and shows what results he can get when his teams are bought in. The 2019 squad had a lot more talent, but were still more than the sum of their parts, and showed the kind of joy and togetherness that you usually only see in one or two teams a season. Doc can adapt to different players, and he really can get the most out of many of his players – as long as they are willing to listen.
Hann: The most impressive thing about Rivers in his Clippers tenure was his legitimacy. That might seem small, but it was everything for the Clippers. I believe equally that the team needed to move on to win a championship *and* that they’d never be in this position without Doc taking them to this level as an organization to begin with. When Sterling owned the team, Rivers took the Clippers from being a joke to not being a joke, and when Ballmer bought the team, Rivers was the face of the franchise as they brought in players and staff to become the organization they are today. I don’t know where Philly lies on the legitimacy spectrum, but if they need someone to help them get their act together and be respectable, Doc can do it.
Merchant: Merchant said her answer for Rivers’ strengths as a coach is the same as what impressed her most.
What disappointed you most?
Flom: The Clippers have been nothing but a disappointment for almost the entirety of Doc Rivers’ tenure, and while there are many, many complicating factors, he must share a fairly substantial portion of the blame. The Clippers have consistently underperformed in the playoffs — the Western Conference of the past decade has been a hellish landscape, to be sure, but it’s insane that his teams never made the Western Conference Finals. The 2014, 2015, and 2020 Clippers teams were all stacked talent wise, and all fell apart in the playoffs (albeit for different reasons). Doc was brought in to bring the Clippers over the hump, and he singularly failed there, even though there was a lot outside of his control.
Tangentially, as mentioned above, Doc Rivers has had some tumultuous locker rooms over the past few years. This past year apparently saw a great deal of unrest, with at least some of that angst directed at Doc for his preferential treatment of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and failure to account for the other strong personalities in the locker room. Lob City had infamous chemistry issues, but Doc Rivers’ inability to right that ship (or make moves to adjust the locker room, as he had front office control at the time) is notable. Despite being known as a “personality” guy who famously got the 2008 Celtics to buy into Ubuntu (“I am, because you are”), some of Doc’s biggest failures have been in managing the personalities of his locker rooms.
Hann: The largest disappointment was undoubtedly his management of playoff series. He routinely committed obvious and embarrassing errors that left everyone in the Clippers’ press room and organization somewhere between confused and enraged. The Clippers would lose the same exact game twice in a row without adjustments. To be frank, his playoff performances in 2020 were not just unexceptional but lacked competence.
Merchant: Rivers was a disaster as a front-office executive, but in terms of his coaching, I was disappointed that he never managed to get this 2019-20 team on the same page. There was clearly a divide between the new stars brought in and the holdover players from last year’s group. I don’t think it’s the primary reason that the Clippers [underwhelmed] this year; that blame clearly lies in their inability to adjust to the Nuggets. But there was a joylessness to the way the Clippers played this year. They seemed to not care as much as their opponents for most of the regular season, and that often led to a less-than-ideal viewing product.
I’m also disappointed that he didn’t trust Ivica Zubac more this year.
How would you sum up his offensive and defensive philosophies/schemes? How do they align with the Sixers personnel?
Flom: Doc is not a particularly innovative coach in terms of Xs and Os. He’s mostly run pick-and-roll-heavy offenses, though he’s also had some masterful pick-and-roll maestros over the years with Chris Paul, Lou Williams, and Kawhi Leonard. He works plenty of other stuff in (especially for off-ball shooters), but his offenses are fairly standard in terms of modern pick-and-roll. This should be fine for the Sixers — Joel Embiid is a guy who should be dominant rolling to the basket, and Tobias Harris had great success as a ball-handler in Doc’s offense a couple years ago. That’s not even getting into Ben Simmons, who could be used either as a ball-handler or roller — look for Doc to break out some of his old Blake Griffin sets for Simmons.
On defense, he’s proved a bit more adaptive to his personnel. When DeAndre Jordan anchored the Clippers’ backline, he utilized a drop defense that kept DJ close to the basket. He’s done similar for Ivica Zubac, and would probably do the same for Joel Embiid. On the perimeter, however, Doc’s teams over the past few years have been very switch-heavy. If anything, Doc’s recent teams switched far too frequently, even when a switch wasn’t required or forced upon them. The Sixers could probably get away with a switchy defense out on the perimeter due to the versatility of Ben Simmons, the aptitude of Josh Richardson, and the sheer size of Tobias Harris, especially if they go small with another guard or wing instead of Al Horford at power forward.
Hann: Regarding his offensive and defensive schemes, Rivers is a trust guy. He trusts his stars to make plays, and he trusts his assistants to set things up. If I were the Sixers, Alvin Gentry as associate head coach would be a prerequisite to Doc Rivers as head coach — he built the Lob City offense that stayed in use after his departure [Editor’s note: Gentry joining the Sixers as an associate coach has been reported as a “serious possibility.”]. Largely, the 2020 Clippers were disorganized and predictable on both ends, while the 2019 Clippers had game plans that changed night to night and were tailored to opponents. The prevailing sentiment among Clippers fans is that he is better at making mediocre rosters good than making good rosters great.
The biggest problem with fitting Rivers into the Simmons/Embiid duo is just that — they’re already pretty good at basketball. I’m unconvinced that Doc is the guy to get them over the hump, something he failed to do with two great Clippers cores. He also doesn’t have a great track record of holding stars accountable: Garnett won in Boston after taking clear leadership, but the Chris Paul power struggles spoiled Lob City’s locker room and this year, players anonymously complained in the press that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George got preferential treatment. If the goal is to get Simmons and Embiid to get their act together, Rivers may have the gravitas to get an initial buy-in without the discipline to hold them accountable for any shortcomings.
Merchant: On offense, Rivers really seems to want a point guard playmaker who can be an extension of himself on the court. Rajon Rondo was that guy. Chris Paul was that guy. Patrick Beverley was not. Rivers constantly talks about ball movement and the ball finding energy, but he appears to be happiest when he can put the ball in a lead guard’s hands and let that player make decisions. That’s probably why Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams liked playing for him so much.
Doc is going to like Ben Simmons a lot. As far as Joel Embiid, I know Doc adores him, but he’s never had a chance to coach a center with that much offensive skill, so it’s hard to know how he’ll utilize him.
Defensively, I can’t say there’s any single scheme that defines a Doc Rivers team. He mostly tries to play according to his personnel, which has varied over the last few years in Clipperland. I was surprised that the Clippers switched so much this year, especially because though he talks about it a lot, Doc seems pretty loath to go small.
Are there any role player archetypes that he maximizes that the Sixers should target?
Flom: The role player archetype Doc has proven most successful in optimizing is the off-ball shooter. He notably turned J.J. Redick from just a pretty good shooter into one of the best of all time, a truly deadly weapon that was critical for the Clippers in their Lob City days. He had a vast playbook to spring J.J. open, and was consistently able to find ways to adapt to strategies that focused on stopping Redick. Last year, after the trade deadline, Doc utilized much of that same playbook on Landry Shamet, and was rewarded with some excellent performances down the stretch of the season.
Hann: If there’s one guy Rivers loves, it’s a 6th man. The Clippers haven’t dominated that trophy under his tenure by accident. Doc doesn’t run a disciplined offense and he’s (infuriatingly) refused to stagger his stars with LAC. That means one bench guard throwing up a bunch of shots on the second unit in the regular season, plus coasting the team to victories in the fourth when they’re already up. In the playoffs, however, he’s rarely gotten even adequate performances out of his 6th men.
Merchant: Doc loves a good pick-and-roll point guard and a shooter who can run off screens. Do the Sixers have any of those? (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
Is he a good hire for the Sixers? Why or why not?
Flom: I don’t think he’s a particularly great hire, but he’s not a bad one. I’d give the hire a B- or C+ grade, probably. He’s a good coach and has the gravitas to bring some order to what has been a chaotic situation. On the other hand, he hasn’t really demonstrated that he’s a guy who can bring a team from very good to over the top (his championship was 12 years ago and boy, was that roster stacked), and that’s what the Sixers need. I think he can bring some discipline to the team, but also believe that the Sixers require more innovation and creativity than Doc offers. If I were the Sixers, I would not have gone for a big name, but to find someone who could really get Simmons and Embiid to work on the court together in a creative way, and Doc is probably not that guy.
Hann: I might take a cop-out here and say that Doc isn’t a great hire for the Sixers, and that realistically, he’s probably pretty good in terms of what’s on the market.
If I’m being honest, I suspect that Ty Lue would be a better coach for the Sixers. I feel like Simmons and Embiid need a little more accountability, which Lue was better at with his stars in Cleveland than Rivers ever was in LA. Then, in the playoffs, Lue has a better track record of experimenting and adjusting in series than the notoriously stubborn Rivers, who was famously called out for choking in a Phil Jackson “mic’d up” timeout.
Doc raises the floor of a team; the Sixers’ talent already means they have a high floor despite their dysfunction last season. My concern is he does very little to raise their ceiling in terms of making a deep (or title-winning) playoff run... and may even limit it.
Merchant: I was rooting for the Sixers to hire Mike D’Antoni just so he could bring his level of offensive creativity to whatever is going on in Philadelphia. But Rivers is still a good offensive head coach, and I don’t think he would have taken this job if he didn’t have a concrete idea for how to make Embiid and Simmons work together on that end. If Alvin Gentry is following Rivers as his lead assistant, that could be really exciting.
It seems like Embiid is already on board, and Rivers is clearly respected around the league. From an optics perspective, I think he’s a good hire, but good doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll lead the team to a championship. I can tell you this hire will certainly win the press conference.