Doc Rivers is officially the new head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, and the time to look at how he can ultimately make a difference in Philly is here. One specific area where Rivers can make a mark on the Sixers is by how he uses Ben Simmons, and potentially develops his offensive game.
If Rivers can encourage Simmons to start shooting more jumpers, there’s no doubt it will be valuable to both Simmons’ development and the Sixers’ long-term ceiling. But in Rivers’ introductory press conference, he said that he isn’t overly concerned with Simmons’ shooting, or what position he’s labelled as.
“If you watch my teams, I rarely say a guy is a one, a two — I don’t get lost in the minutiae,” Rivers said when asked about how he might use Simmons. “I don’t get lost in what position guys play, I look at how many points we score as a team. I don’t care how we score. My teams have always been very good offensively, in the top five overall, and we score points. We score points in a lot of different ways...
“We just have to figure out how to make it work the best.”
Rivers said he considered taking a break from coaching after leaving the Clippers. He only wanted to take a job for a team that excited him, and the Sixers were that team. He sounded particularly eager to work with Simmons and Joel Embiid, repeating several times how effective they’ve been together.
Simmons took on a different role in the Orlando Bubble. He shifted to power forward as Shake Milton entered the starting lineup, spent a bit more time off the ball, did far more damage from the elbows, and flashed what he can do as a roll man, just as he did earlier in the season before his back injury in February.
There’s plenty Rivers can do to continue this growth.
Looking back to Rivers’ earlier years as the Clippers’ head coach is particularly interesting because of how he used his own athletic, 6’10”, power forward playmaker: Blake Griffin.
Griffin and Simmons have obvious differences. Simmons is a highly athletic player in his own right, and showed more aggressiveness when attacking the rim this season. But back in his physical prime, Griffin was one of the most explosive finishers the NBA has ever seen. He also gradually improved his comfort and efficiency from mid-range, and has turned himself into a fairly high-volume three-point shooter (although this mostly came after he left L.A., as he only started taking more than 1 three-pointer per game for the first time in his last full season with the Clippers in 2016-17).
Rivers used a lot of pick-and-roll with his Lob City Clippers teams that routinely excelled on offense (they ranked 1st in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and 5th in 2016-17). With Chris Paul’s mastery leading the way alongside Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (the NBA’s best rim roller in his prime), they were built for this kind of attack. Rivers used Griffin in a healthy amount of these pick-and-rolls, as well as face-up situations, and as a passing/dribble hand-off hub at the elbows.
So, I decided to go back through some old Clippers film to look at how Rivers utilized Griffin and what tactics he can use with Simmons.
(A quick note before continuing: It has to be stressed that roster improvement is still more important for the Sixers than a head coach upgrade. Adding more perimeter creation, pick-and-roll talent, and shooting is essential to the Sixers taking a bigger step forward — and maximizing what Simmons can do.)
Simmons was used more as a roll man this season and found success. He benefited from the increased usage, as well as individual improvements such as stronger screen setting and more assertive rolls to the rim.
While Simmons can’t replicate Griffin’s high-flying finishing as a roll man from his younger years, this is still a good way to get Simmons attacking downhill. He’s also a better passer, and can provide the short-roll playmaking that Rivers used with Griffin.
Griffin could find Jordan in the dunker’s spot for lobs, and was often used to set up weak-side shooters by firing passes across the court. Serving as the roll man in pick-and-rolls accounted for 14.8 percent of Griffin’s possessions in 2016-17 and 21 percent in 2015-16. Simmons, on the other hand, was used as a roll man in only 3.5 percent of his possessions this season, due to a combination of the Sixers’ limited collection of ball-handlers and Brett Brown not using much pick-and-roll in his offense.
Rivers can use Simmons in pick-and-rolls like those broken down in the video below:
Rivers also implemented plenty of off-ball movement for his shooters to enhance his offense in general and his pick-and-roll attack. On the following play, Paul hits Griffin on the short roll. Rather than Griffin just heading to the basket or passing to someone waiting in the corner, the defense is tested even further as J.J. Redick runs off a pin-down screen from Jordan to open him up for the jumper:
“If you’re not a great shooting team, create more movement,” Rivers said at his first press conference when talking about the Sixers’ shooting. “Increase your speed. Play from different spots. I don’t think this is a bad shooting team. If you look at it, I think they were 9th in field goal percentage from the three last year. So they have proven they can make shots.”
While guys like Milton can handle some pick-and-roll duties and Tobias Harris can do his part (more so when he’s playing for Rivers again), the Sixers need more. They need guards with the necessary pull-up threat to draw extra defenders and open up the floor for others, with the passing flare to punish shifting defenses.
If they can add such players to their backcourt, and find more quick-trigger shooters to increase spacing, Rivers will be able to do even more with Simmons as a roll man.
During his time with the Clippers, Griffin had the benefit of posing far more of a threat to shoot the odd three or fire from mid-range than Simmons. Defenders had to press farther from the basket against Griffin and couldn’t always drop way below screens, so pick-and-rolls were easier to handle. That said, Rivers still used some short pick-and-rolls from near the block and elbows with his two bigs, similar to the even shorter snug pick-and-rolls that Simmons and Embiid have used effectively.
Yes, the Clippers had a bigger vertical threat for Griffin to hoist lobs to in DeAndre Jordan. But the Sixers can still generate advantageous looks near the basket with these plays. It’s a unique way to bully opponents when used selectively. If Embiid’s screen connects, there’s not much defenders can do to stop Simmons flying across the lane to finish when he’s already so near the basket. Go under the screen, and you basically give Simmons all the runway he needs to take off and score. And if Embiid’s defender steps over onto Simmons, then Embiid can slip behind the defense.
How Rivers utilizes Embiid will be interesting to follow. You can probably expect more usage as a roll man (Embiid’s improvement as a more purposeful rim roller in Orlando is encouraging), and Rivers should look to sprinkle in some of these short pick-and-rolls with Simmons, too.
Double drag sets
This action gives a ball-handler a pair of screens, and creates the option for one screener to pop to the arc and the other to cut inside. Brett Brown used double drag at times with the Sixers — for instance, with Harris controlling the ball and Simmons and Al Horford working as screeners.
If we get away from Griffin-based plays for a moment, a pick-and-roll oriented coach like Rivers could use more of his double drag actions that worked in L.A. for Harris, with Simmons (or Embiid) as the second screener.
Here, Austin Rivers gets a pair of screens from Jordan and Harris, with the former rolling and the latter popping. As Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner work to contain Rivers and Thaddeus Young stays in the lane against Jordan’s roll, Harris is left in space for a triple:
One reason Rivers had Harris playing the best basketball of his career in L.A. is that Rivers also gave him more high screens to work with. Harris ran 5.1 pick-and-rolls per game in 2018-19 with the Clippers, ranking in the 86th percentile. In 2019-20 with the Sixers, he ran just 3.3 per game.
Rivers spoke highly of Harris and his pick-and-roll play in his introductory press conference, so you can likely expect to see more — perhaps using Simmons’ improved screening in the process.
Attacking from the elbows
Griffin ranked in the top five in the NBA in elbow touches per game every season from 2013-14 to 2016-17 with Doc’s Clippers. Rivers let Griffin do a lot of damage from this part of the floor, both as a face-up scorer and passer. While some of these possessions would simply let Griffin go to work (he had more scoring weapons in his arsenal than Simmons) or use a hand-off, Rivers used some simple actions like the following to get the Clippers moving off the ball.
Austin Rivers cuts to bring Pascal Siakam inside and further fill the paint. The Raptors fail to communicate their assignments as Jordan shifts along the baseline, and Rivers hits Kyle Lowry with a solid screen to give Griffin a clear window to find Raymond Felton for three:
The Clippers go into their second option on the following play. Redick isn’t open on the dribble hand-off as Marco Belinelli wriggles past Griffin, so Redick heads to the basket and sets a screen for Luc Mbah a Moute on Nicolas Batum, creating an opening for a layup:
The next example shows more of Rivers’ off-ball screening, creating another open score under the basket. Paul sets a back screen for Redick and Redick moves down to screen Andre Drummond. Jordan cuts across the clear lane and Griffin sets him up on time:
It’s easy to see Simmons succeeding in Griffin’s place in plays like this, with screeners and cutters moving around him. Simmons’ experience of operating at the elbows this year, as a driver and facilitator, should prepare him to potentially do more under Rivers.
“As a point guard you have to kind of find guys and get guys situated into whatever sets you want to call or whatever coach is calling,” Simmons said at a team practice on July 31 when discussing his altered role and playing more from the elbows. “So, for me to be able to run down the floor and get to where I want to be on the elbow and have somebody guarding me one-on-one, and then know my guys are there doing a lot of stuff on the backside, it helps a lot. There are so many different possibilities offensively for us to go towards.”
Besides plays like those above, Rivers also used Griffin in a ton of dribble hand-offs with Redick. The former Sixers marksman took off in L.A., using actions like hand-offs and constant, crafty movement off the ball. Rivers said in his first press conference in Philly that he wants to increase the Sixers’ pace and turn them into a top-10 offensive team. Quick-hitting pick-and-rolls and hand-offs could be a part of this. Especially when Simmons is leading the offense without Embiid and has extra shooting. Plus, a dribble hand-off from Simmons can be particularly effective when his defender is sagging off and his screen hits, as the shooter is left open as soon as they come off the screen.
Doc Rivers has flaws that can’t go overlooked. He’s dealt with chemistry issues (most recently with this year’s Clippers), often leaned too heavily on his favorite veterans, and has failed to make enough adjustments at times in the playoffs. I argued that Tyronn Lue would have been the best hire for the Sixers. He’s creative offensively, he’s held stars (including LeBron James) accountable, and has shown that he’s quicker to make smart, timely adjustments in the playoffs than Doc.
Rivers is still a good coach, though. From some of the movement/creativity he can bring offensively, to the way he’s maximized certain players (ranging from DeAndre Jordan, to Tobias Harris, to his younger, scrappy Clippers in 2018-19), to the respect he commands around the league. Hiring an advanced offensive mind like Alvin Gentry to join his coaching staff (which is reportedly a “serious possibility”) would make a real difference as well.
If Rivers plays to all of Ben Simmons’ strengths both on and off the ball, then this is just one of the ways he can help in Philly.
The next task for the Sixers is making the right moves this offseason, to ensure that Rivers can operate with the offensive talent that this team needs to complement its young stars.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.