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Examining the Daryl Morey-Doc Rivers marriage: it’s been all honeymoon so far but could they clash over analytics or personnel eventually?

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Daryl Morey is at the helm of the Sixers as team President and it’s comforting to know the Sixers once again have one of the best front offices in the sport. Morey’s name is absolutely synonymous with incorporating as much information as humanly, algorithmically, and robotically possible as he builds teams and aides in game plans. He wants to work with people who are always expanding their knowledge base, always questioning, always adapting, always iterating always innovating. I’ll admit I was very skeptical when the Sixers hired Doc Rivers to partner with him. The common criticisms of past Sixers’ teams were team chemistry, failure to adapt, accountability for superstars, and flawed use of analytics (e.g. punting superstar wings to form a swarm of bigs all launching midrange shots). And so it was a bit of a head scratcher to me when Doc was onboarded, since he has famously, and quite recently, struggled with several of these issues despite his massive career body of success.

But we’re around the halfway point of the season and now look! Doc Rivers is coaching the All-Star team because his team has the best record in the East! Joel MVbiid has possibly been the best player in the league so far, and at worst a top-three candidate for MVP. Ben Simmons has taken another leap, while remaining a contender for First-Team All-Defense like a season ago, and Tobias Harris has played near-worthy of an All-Star bid himself. The team seems to truly like each other and are clearly having fun.

But let’s dig a bit deeper and see what’s worked or what could lead to some hiccups or fights in the marriage, assuming all marriages have a few, shall we?

Incorporating advanced analytics into game plans

Rockets’ former coach Mike D’Antoni certainly was open to Morey’s famous and vast data sets in Houston. Rivers, unlike D’Antoni, already has a championship on his resume and perhaps (I’m speculating) a certain level of confidence in how he's always operated given said level of success. So could it be possible that Morey and Rivers may clash over something like just how much to implement the use of analytics into game plans or even larger personnel decisions?

What does Daryl Morey look for in a head coach?

Here is a bit of Morey speaking from a podcast, one with The Ringer’s Bill Simmons from a couple of years prior. He is speaking about a head coach’s willingness to incorporate the data a front office shares. It’s still relevant today:

Here is the transcription:

“....A lot of that [incorporating data into game plans] and really advanced work on scouting reports and having a coaching staff that knows how to use it, that’s still coming as well. But yeah, I have a great coaching staff now, even though Mike [D’Antoni] obviously is far along in his career he’s always been a pioneer and he’s surrounded himself with great assistants who are also very forward thinking guys so....”

My translation: “a lot of coaches don’t want to use nerdy data in their game plans, I’m lucky I have a coach who not only does but enjoys it.”

Here is another clip from a pod with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, a bit more recent, on what Daryl looks for in a head coach, prior to joining the Sixers:

Here’s some of the transcription if you can’t be bothered to listen:

“....I like someone who I’m being challenged by...so Mike [D’Antoni] just comes in and is constantly like ‘Hey I think we should do this,’ and I think it’s going to work. But the reality is without Mike D’Antoni this Clint [Capela] for [Robert] Covington trade never happens. I’d be shocked there’s very many coaches in the league where I can get that trade done.....as a GM if you’re making what is a pretty big gamble,... if you don’t have the coach on board and in a way that he understands how to use what we’re going to try and do you can’t make that, it’s just too risky, too risky, too much given up and the fact that Mike, I was like ‘hey were gonna do this you know, if there’s a [center] that makes some sense we’ll look at it but frankly I think it makes sense maybe not to do it at all’ and coach D’Antoni saying ‘I trust what you guys are doing, I see what you’re doing we’re gonna make it work.’ That means so much and so that’s what I look for the most, someone who challenges me, works with the whole organization, and can execute.”

My translation: Daryl uses the diplomatic “sandwich method” here to begin and end by saying he likes someone to ‘challenge’ him. But if we’re reading between the lines, the most intriguing nugget is obviously how much he values an open-minded coach who would trust the GM to go make a splash or risky trade.” It’s yet to be seen how open Doc has been or will be to Morey’s trade ideas, although we did see this admission from Doc:

Doc famously struggled as a coach with GM duties in Los Angeles. So it’s at least fair to wonder if a couple of the trades Doc did not want might have ultimately been helpful here. But that's purely speculation on this writer’s part. I have no reason to assume they’ve really clashed yet. Maybe Doc was just doing some PR to reassure his guys he fights for them.

Doc’s history with analytics

Doc and Daryl were actually both part of some Celtics teams in the early 2000’s. And The Athletic’s Derek Bodner posted this fun gumbo quote, which came about years later when teams were more open, yet largely still resistant to incorporating data into game plans:

So has Rivers been open to incorporating his front office’s analytics into game plans or open to roster shake-ups? His history prior to Philadelphia is a bit muddy on the subject.

Once upon a time, when it was clear the Celtics were looking to rebuild, and Doc wanted no part of that, we got this report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, then reporting for yahoo sports back in 2013:

“Celtics GM Danny Ainge leans heavily on his analytics staff, and at a meeting with Doc Rivers at season’s end, it was suggested Rivers should perhaps incorporate more of those elements into his game plans and preparations, several sources told Y! Sports.

Privately, Rivers winced over the contents of some of the discussion, sources said. There was no confrontation, but there was tension. For Stevens, he’s long been immersed in the statistical revolution, and he’ll give management far more input into his rotations and style of play. For better or worse, that’s the new NBA.”

Suggestions to incorporate data more in future jobs was a complaint of Doc by C’s Prez Danny Ainge, who has since relied heavily on people like Mike Zarren (you’ll know him best as the dude who was reportedly on the phones with Bryan Colangelo trying to get Jayson Tatum and a future pick when Bryan wanted Markelle Fultz). And the Sixers brass interviewed Zarren for a GM role on more than one occasion.

Then there was the bubble last year. The Clippers blew a heart-breaking 3-1 lead over the upstart Nuggets. It was suggested that Rivers may have overlooked some data.

Indeed, this past offseason we started to read stuff like this, per Jovan Buha of The Athletic:

“Two philosophical points of contention between Rivers and the organization were, more recently, his insistence on playing backup center Montrezl Harrell over starting center Ivica Zubac and, at large, his reluctance to develop or empower the team’s younger talent throughout his tenure.”

More on that much-discussed subject, per Orlando Silva at Fadeaway world:

“Yet [Montrez] Harrell’s postseason role was that of an effective rotation player (18.7 minutes per game), despite the Clippers posting a team-worst minus-11.6 net rating with him on the floor in the playoffs, including a mind-blowing minus-30.1 net rating while sharing the floor with Leonard and George.

In comparison, the Clippers had a plus-17.7 net rating with [Ivica] Zubac on the floor in the playoffs and a plus-11.1 net rating with Zubac alongside Leonard and George, with both marks ranked No. 1 among the team’s rotation players.

Meanwhile, Rivers maintained, publicly to the media and privately to his staff and the organization, that Harrell was the better player, in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary.”

Her’s a look at the data that did not persuade Doc:

The Clips blew double-digit leads in multiple close-out games during their epic choke, while nerds on Twitter were happy to cite the information which might have changed the outcome.

Alarmingly, this wasn’t the first time Doc’s teams have blown a 3-1 lead for failing to adjust in a playoff series. It happened once in Orlando and twice with the Clips.

It would be reductive to say analytics definitely would have saved his teams (Chris Paul wasn’t fully healthy back in 2015 and the Magic team was purely overmatched by the Pistons) but a failure to adjust was certainly a fair criticism in each case.

(Of course, it’s no small irony his team blew an 18 point lead with 15 minutes to go in a close-out game to Morey’s analytics-heavy 2015 Rockets)!

I hosted Bleacher Report’s resident analyst, Dan Favale, on my “No Paricular Hurry Podcast” about the Clips’ playoff rotation in the Bubble and how Doc ignored the data to go down with the ship and he said simply “I mean, he did not make adjustments in the playoffs.”

Some NBA agents apparently agreed, per The Athletic.

Favale went on to add that we may be able to tell if Doc and Daryl are on the same page “mostly from [the Sixers’] shot profile.”

For both the Celts and Clips to suggest Doc implement more data moving forwards and then wind up working with perhaps the most data-obsessed Team President in any sport ever! Fascinating!

It’s at least a bit odd right? But again, Joel is playing his best ball, Ben Simmons is playing his best ball, Harris is too, and the team’s in first and Doc’s literally coaching the Eastern Conference All-Stars! So perhaps Doc has adapted, or perhaps he’s never had someone as talented as Morey to work with or both plus ten other factors.

Let’s listen to Dan Favale and glance at the shooting profile to get more info about the marriage.

Shooting profile

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Last season the Sixers ranked 26 in the league in what Cleaning the Glass refers to as “location effective field goal percentage;” basically, is your team is taking shots that produce the most points on average. This year they’ve improved that to 17th ranked overall; perhaps due in part to the seismic shift in free throw attempts from a season ago. They’re first overall in free throw rate this year. Last year they were only 20th at 19 percent. That goes a long way towards improving your team’s shot profile.

The other elements are all the tenets of Moreyball: in short, take shots at the rim, take free throws, take 3s, and limit mid-range shots and long two pointers, at least by players who aren't excellent at making them.

The Sixers take the 5th highest frequency of long 2s in the league. That’s probably not ideal. They take the third-highest rate of mid-range shots. They rank 19th in frequency of shots at the rim (not good). And they rank 28th in three-point attempt volume (quite bad).

I’m not sure we can conclude that Morey and “Doc are not on the same page” based on this shooting profile. Afterall, the Sixers are the 3rd most deadly from midrange. And 6th most accurate from long 2. But you have to think it bugs Morey that the team is shooting so few triples and shots at the rim.

Here is how the Atheltic’s Derek Bodner put it, rather forebodingly last week:

“Even in the most optimistic view possible — that Rivers has found the comfort zone of every mid-range shooter on the roster simultaneously — there’s still likely to be a significant regression coming. No team in the CleaningTheGlass database, which dates back to the 2003-04 season, has finished a full season shooting as high on long 2-point jumpers as the Sixers’ rate of 48 percent so far this season, and the league average is pretty consistently in the 38-40 percent range. The Sixers can be really, really good on those shots and still be significantly less efficient from here on out than they have been up to this point. It would certainly be nice if their league-average offense wasn’t quite as reliant on these jumpers as they currently are.”

Takeaways with the second half of the year and playoffs in mind

So it would at least appear, based on reputation, that Rivers could have benefited in the past by using more front office data in his game plans: at least the Celtics and Clippers wound up thinking so as they both mutually parted ways. If you ask me he certainly hasn’t had sufficient numbers in his “gumbo” historically. And based on the Sixers shooting profile, maybe he could use a little more still.

But look everything is rosey when you’re winning and the Sixers are winning. So the honeymoon is on. I do not assume the Sixers front office and coaching staff are clashing right now. But what looms ahead? What if Derek Bodner is correct and they experience negative regression from the mid-range?

There’s no way to sugarcoat this. This team has relied on fourth-quarter hero ball from Joel Embiid and he’s largely delivered. But the old adage of “this is what’s got us here, this is how we’re going to play” probably won’t work as well when they’re facing the East’s top 2 or 3 teams. And no 3-1 lead would be safe if another team out-informations and out-adjusts Philadelphia. I believe the Sixers have optimized in many ways a flawed roster from years prior. As many fans have noted, a stretch 5 and a triple threat wing would create more looks at the rim and more 3s. You don’t want to just chuck more 3s just to say you did. They must be high quality. And even with these fixes, it may still not be enough to beat the likes of the Superteam Nets. But it would at least give Rivers more weapons. Then it would be on him and Daryl to learn from their failed marriages and make this one work and consummate their love by delivering the city a ring and a wedding with a socially distanced parade and masked outdoor ball.