One season into the partnership of Daryl Morey as Team President and Doc Rivers as Head Coach of the Sixers and it doesn’t seem terribly unfair to ask if their “arranged marriage” (recall the Sixers hired Doc before they hired Morey) might be off to a rocky start. To be clear, I don’t mean that the pair have or have had any trouble getting along; in fact, we’ve seen no evidence of any discord with all signs pointing to both Morey and Rivers being committed to each other and winning this franchise a championship.
But if we look back at the way last season played out, a catastrophic collapse in the playoffs, put simply the Sixers should have been better. And no, not all of this is merely hindsight bias.
Taking a mini-break from Ben Simmons analysis (even though he’s still very much still a theme here)... let’s look at the 5 biggest matchup and rotation issues the Sixers had in the playoffs this season, whether they might have been predictable and what if anything it might reveal about the Morey-Rivers working relationship.
Because whatever players are around next season, it appears Daryl and Doc will be back at it. So how can they be better? Let’s start with what did not work.
5. Opening the series with Danny Green as Trae Young’s primary defender
The Sixers have Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle but decided to open the game with Danny Green against Trae Young.— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) June 6, 2021
The argument for not putting Ben Simmons on Trae Young may have gone something like this: allowing Simmons to “roam” and “help” can disrupt an offense while also allowing him to conserve energy for later in games and potentially avoid early foul trouble after all Young is notorious for drawing fouls.
But there was enough information available before the second round started that the strategy was simply too dangerous.
DANNY GREEN ON WESTBROOK AND BEN SIMMONS ON BEAL TO START, WE DID IT EVERYBODY!!!— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) May 23, 2021
Members of the Sixers beat who covered a January 6th game nobody else watched where Bradley Beal dropped 60 on Philly with Green as his primary defender could have confidently told you 8 games into the season that Green is not the Sixers’ best point-of-attack solution when facing a team with one and only one perimeter superstar.
No game foreshadowed this eventual playoff issue better than a win in February over a Nets team deprived of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Kyle Neubeck, PhillyVoice, following a win over the Nets, February 7th:
“For the first half of this game, Doc Rivers chose to stick [Simmons] on guys like Jeff Green while Danny Green and Seth Curry took turns guarding James Harden. That allowed Brooklyn’s lead guard to get basically whatever and whenever he wanted for the first half and change, keeping the Nets in a game they hardly deserved to be in.
As soon as Simmons was switched onto Harden about midway through the third quarter, there was a night-and-day difference....
The switch ignited a run where they outscored Brooklyn by about 16.
The must-listen Sixers Beat podcast, hosted by Derek Bodner and Rich Hofmann of The Athletic had a running theme on their podcasts all season long: Green is an extremely effective off-ball defender, yet he’s a liability when tasked with limiting a superstar primary initiator; that role should go to Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle.
This is a clip of Sixers Beat analysis spanning months of the regular season. I put the whole clip into 1.25x to speed it up. Great analysis and foreshadowing. I wish the Sixers had listened and heeded the many, many, many warning signs:
Fast forward to that Hawks series, it was straight-up zany to see Green open the game on the blistering hot Young.
By the end of the first quarter, Young had 12 points and 5 dimes, with a TS% of 85.7. The Hawks had stunned the arena with a 42-27 lead. Then the Sixers coaching staff stunned the fans by trying the same matchup for the second quarter also! When the score was 53-29 I guess they needed to see more? Danny Green must have been thinking to himself “I bet coach Popovich or coach Nurse would have switched Kawhi onto my man by now, this is getting awkward, who’s Ben on, Danillo?!”
Philadelphia gave up 74 points by the break at home. Young had 25 points and 7 assists. I suppose at the half, someone in the home lockerroom said “hey Ben Simmons only has one foul, want to try the runner-up Defensive Player of the Year against the dude who is burying us alive?”
And so just like the February 6th game, the Sixers switched from Green to Simmons at the break and outscored the opponent by about 16 in the second half. But it was too late. How did this happen?
Per Kyle Neubeck of The PhillyVoice, Morey gave us a glimpse into his possible hands-off role for coaching and personnel decisions:
“Doc’s done an amazing job, he’s gonna decide those things. My job is just to add the talent and the players and let Doc decide what’s best. But I think he has options. I think he can go a whole bunch of different ways and all of them should be pretty strong and hard to beat in a seven-game series.”
Whatever their decision-making process was, it did not work.
4. The Dwight Howard Conundrum
This next section is about Dwight Howard but Howard himself was not the problem any more than Green was. In fact, it’s crazy to think such a rock-solid acquisition of a Hall-of-Fame rim protector and champion for a veteran’s minimum salary may have ignited some zany butterfly effect which eventually culminated in one of the most heartbreaking series losses in Sixers history. That might sound a bit hyperbolic, but there’s more than a little truth to it as well.
Let’s time-hop for a moment.
Here was what Daryl Morey initially said about signing Howard, per Rich Hofmann of The Athletic, back in November of 2020, discussing minutes Joel Embiid would not be in the game:
“There’s a chance to play like really unique, uptempo, sort of spacing, shooting lineups (around Simmons),” Morey said. “But I also like adding a big just so Doc has all of the sort of tools to basically attack who we are playing in different ways.”
Morey added, per Jack McCaffery, Delco Times:
“Yeah, man,” he said. “That’s a conversation I’d like to have with Doc, but I do think you like to have optionality in how you play. I think Doc and his staff can get very creative with some of the lineups.”
It certainly didn’t sound at the time like Morey thought Howard would get all of the non-Embiid minutes back in Fall of 2020, did it? But Howard got all but 5 of the non-Embiid minutes against Atlanta.
Liberty Ballers had Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale on our “No Particular Hurry” podcast before the season started. And he sounded concerned they might use Howard as the backup “religiously.”
“The one issue with this team … the backup center minutes now like if those are are going to go to Dwight Howard religiously that could be a problem....when you’re dealing with if Dwight Howard and Ben Simmons are on the court at the same time that’s going to be a literal spacing nightmare….”
By the end of January, it looked like Favale’s concerns were coming to fruition:
Derek Bodner: “…the fit with Simmons is real tough. …you’re talking about right now they have a -12.9 net rating when Simmons and Howard are on the floor without Embiid and you’re talking about a 118.6 defensive rating which is just atrocious. I mean it is mind bogglingly bad.... gimme ten f———g minutes though...you can’t have a Greg Monroe situation again.”
Sixers were +24 in the 27.6 minutes when Jo and Ben were on the court together. This game shouldn't have been close. Philly's insistence on compromising everything—rotations, offense, Thybulle minutes—in order to keep Dwight on the floor remains ominous pic.twitter.com/0yqJqcHLlQ— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) May 23, 2021
By March, Morey spoke at the trade deadline, and affirmed the team’s confidence in the roster, but added a familiar tidbit:
“We feel good with Joel and Dwight,” Morey added. “Doc, if he chooses, can put unique lineups on the floor with Ben and Tobias and Mike Scott so we feel good about where we’re at, but if a buyout comes along, it’s more likely big.”
Morey seemed to be publicly noting again that Rivers could experiment with some lineups that included Simmons without a traditional big; that would have allowed the team to stagger Simmons-Embiid minutes and ensure two of their “big 3” on the floor at all times of a game.
Was Morey reminding his coaching staff through the media that there were other ways to play the no-Jo burn besides Howard?! And why wasn’t it happening more?
By April more and more analysts started wondering if we might be headed for another backup center disaster; the type the Sixers had in 2019 with Greg Monroe, and the type that Doc Rivers had with the Clippers a year ago, when he overplayed backup 5 Montrez Harrell while blowing his third 3-1 series lead.
That Harrell blunder reportedly played an important factor in his being fired by Los Angeles.
Sixers Beat, pod, April 11th, Rich Hofmann:
“[Derek Bodner] mentioned this before but I like this....there is a chance that Dwight Howard becomes Montrez Harrell 2.0 this year, where Doc continues to play him and then they don’t have an answer.”
Bodner:....I do worry that Doc is going to lean on and turn back to the traditional center, the big physical, strong, defensive minded center, in Dwight Howard and I don’t know how you’re going to reconcile that.”
Dwight Howard is a -12 in 12 minutes.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 10, 2021
Cant play him with Joel. Cant play him with Ben. Cant play him without either of Joel or Ben vs elite comp.
Here is a little cut-up of the Athletic Philadelphia duo discussing this issue throughout the season. They make clear that Howard was largely positive, but did worry about that changing when they might face an elite opponent:
Looks like Dwight is going to be Doc’s Montrez Harrell this postseason. Let’s hope he doesn’t play like he has in the first two games.— Real Hooper Pilled Trill (@TrillBroDude) May 27, 2021
“Sixers’ executive Daryl Morey has suggested on several occasions that the team could deploy Simmons as a heliotropic point-center, which hints at why he acquired deadly spot-up shooters like Curry, Green, and George Hill.”
June Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
In the end, the Sixers were outscored by 23 points in the 69 minutes Dwight Howard played in the second round. In their four losses, Howard was a -37 in 36 minutes. They lost four games by a total of 17 points, (losses of 4, 3, 3, and 7 in games 1,4,5,7 respectively).
During their epic game 5 collapse, where they blew a 26 point lead, and an 18 point lead with 12 minutes to go, Howard was a -11 during the second half in his brief 3-minute stint. It certainly doesn’t fall completely on Howard’s shoulders, but these were minutes the Sixers were totally vulnerable on both ends of the floor, and Hawks coach Nate McMillan made them pay.
A Simmons/Howard lineup in the first quarter of Game 7...— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) June 21, 2021
Dwight’s performance in these playoffs has not warranted rotation minutes— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) June 21, 2021
It's going under the radar given some other high-profile struggles, but Dwight Howard is borderline unplayable in this series and I can't believe the Sixers haven't tried anything else yet.— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) June 19, 2021
Dwight Howard just can't be on the floor here— Adam Aaronson (@SixersAdam) June 21, 2021
3. The “all bench” units predictably imploded
It took the Sixers months before it started to really feel like they even wanted to avoid the toxic Simmons-Howard minutes.
One alternative became the now dreaded all-bench unit. According to Cleaningtheglass, the Sixers played 6,751 non-garbage time possessions this regular season. And 1,025 (about 15%) of those minutes included none of their starters (Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Green, or Seth Curry).
Fans never trusted the lineups and were petrified for months the team might deploy them in big playoff moments:
Every Sixers game:— Real Hooper Pilled Trill (@TrillBroDude) February 20, 2021
Starters get lead
All bench unit blows lead
Starters get lead back
All bench units blows lead again
Repeat this cycle until the end of the game
I hope tonight proves you absolutely cannot play all bench lineups in the playoffs. Not for a second.— Real Hooper Pilled Trill (@TrillBroDude) May 4, 2021
But the Sixers went to it in game one against Atlanta. At a crucial interval ending the first quarter, and into the second, once the all-bench unit had been deployed like Vulnerable Voltron, the Hawks lead doubled from 10 to 20 in under 3 minutes. Seth Curry pinpointed that precise moment things got truly out of hand after the four-point home loss.
If Green on Young was the gas in game one, 3 minutes of all-bench was the match.
#Sixers guard Seth Curry on slow start: 'End of the first (quarter), beginning of the 2nd, that's when we lost the game.'— Tom Moore (@TomMoorePhilly) June 6, 2021
We’d see an all-bench unit in four of the 7 games, 5 total minutes, a -14 but no stint worse than the -9 in three minutes of game one.
2. No stagger, no swagger: Tobias Harris + 4 reserves didn’t cut it
i'd keep a short leash on non-ben/jo minutes in the postseason. against good opponents, those units with shake, tobi and dwight might not be able to score a lick— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) April 3, 2021
I don’t trust that Tobias/Dwight lineup. They can’t score, let alone against quality playoff defenses. Philly stubbornly investing all non-Embiid minutes into that crew is an existential threat to this team— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) April 30, 2021
The other alternative to Simmons-Howard minutes became the Tobias Harris and four reserves units. There might have been some reason for guarded optimism with these units’ ability to tread water. During the regular season, the Harris+Howard+bench units had some really weird splits: +5 differential over 316 possessions, a painful 16th percentile offensive rating, and a sensational (read: flukey) 99th percentile defensive rating.
Like Ben Detrick of The New York Times, The Ringer, and Cookies Hoops, Derek Bodner was highly suspicious of the strategy too. Both he and Hofmann preferred one of the options Morey mentioned, that Simmons and Harris might be out there for non-Embiid run:
Bodner: …I don’t think we’re guaranteed to see a major Ben-Joel stagger to cover up the 10-15 min that [Embiid] is out....the [Harris] led lineup success is very heavily dependent on defense I'm not sure will translate.
....I think the solution is necessarily you don’t need to have just Ben to prop up that bench group, you can have Ben and Tobias to prop up that bench group…you can have two of them out there…”.
But come playoff time, they did use a chunk of Harris+bench units and the group was a-14.8 differential over 135 possessions, per Cleaningtheglass.com.
Even though a Harris-Howard duo posted a -22 in 49 minutes during round one, we saw a bunch of them again in round two, for 57 minutes and a -14. A lot of it was hard to watch because they just couldn’t score.
after 10 postseason games, numbers are grim— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) June 17, 2021
lineups with dwight: -15.2 net rating in 256 possessions
dwight + tobias: -19.0 net rating in 183 possessions
this isn't criticism of dwight or tobias individually—but there's never been any evidence these groups could score
1. “Not very purposeful with their experimentation”
Rich Hofmann, from the same May 2nd pod above:
“Yeah I thought Ben and Tobias that was what the what the plan was gonna be without Embiid. …but for now I think it might just be Tobias and maybe some all bench look and yeah, I am a little uneasy…but it doesn’t feel like they’re very purposeful with their experimentation on the rotations at least….”
And as you’ve now heard some analysts discuss, we didn’t see the level of experimentation and creativity Morey tempted us with.
Per Nekias Duncan, Basketball News, following a game 4 loss to Washington in the playoffs:
“Sifting through the lineup data at PBP Stats and NBA.com, Simmons has simply not logged much time with him operating as the true (read: only) big on the floor.
The Curry-Hill-Green-Harris-Simmons lineup logged a singular minute in the regular season. Swap out Hill for Korkmaz, and you have a five-minute sample. Swap out Korkmaz for Shake Milton, and it’s a two-minute sample. You get the point.
Beyond the willingness to go that small, Simmons’ usage in those minutes has been... questionable. I’m not sure the Sixers can afford a repeat of Game 4, in which Simmons was mostly used as a dunker-spot threat as opposed to a ball-handler or even a screener.”
The Sixers took Duncan’s advice for game 5 to eliminate Washington, the strategy worked, but then quickly went away from it in the next series without giving it a fair shot. I don’t claim to be the Ben Simmons whisperer, but I am quite certain that using him in the dunker spot as much as the 2021 Sixers chose to is not the way to maximize your title chances. It made more sense when Jimmy Butler was here. But now it often results in a tough contested fadeaway by Tobias Harris.
Doc Rivers failed the Sixers in the second round, and should be under just as much scrutiny as Ben Simmons has been for Philadelphia's shocking defeat https://t.co/1szZOPuRoM— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) June 23, 2021
Here’s a solid five minutes from the past regular season on the lack of creative experimentation from a curious/frustrated Sixers Beat duo who did not appear to believe the team was adequately preparing for post-season ball:
So you had 15 percent of the regular season tied up in all-bench units that weren’t playoff viable. Mike Scott played 852 minutes but he clearly wasn’t in the plans for the second round. Dwight Howard and Ben Simmons shared the floor for 368 minutes. And some lineups that they actually used, effectively, in the playoffs, barely logged any minutes.
Ben-Harris-Green-Curry plus 1 of Thybulle, Maxey or Korkmaz= 26 min, +11— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 3, 2021
Doc goes smallball for the
Dwight 16 min, +8
Simmons 19 pts, 11 ast, 10 reb, 2 blk, 1 stl, 5-8 ft. 7-11 fg, great D, game high +17
Curry 30 pts
Tobias 28 pts, 9reb 6ast 3 stl 1 blk
Small ball worked in round one, but again, they didn’t try it more than 5 minutes in round two. Part of the reason players like Terrence Mann, Dario Saric, Bobby Portis, Nic Batum and others have provided serviceable minutes as a big in small-ball lineups isn’t necessarily because they’re necessarily more gifted rim protectors than Tobias Harris or Ben Simmons (although a couple of them are). But their teams rehearsed their switching during some boring games back in March and April.
You wanted to lock up the one seed and preserve your team’s health. And it’s true, playing lots of all-bench units allowed this team to play their full starting lineup more than everyone else and they were damn good. But they also spent a ton of time doing things that didn’t even help them in the regular season. The opportunity cost of it was not rehearsing many second-round caliber rotations.
Improving the marriage for 2022
“We ground ourselves in familiarity, and perhaps achieve a peaceful domestic arrangement, but in the process we orchestrate boredom.”- Psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel
So what if Morey and Rivers laid back and let each other do their respective jobs and what if that was the problem, too much agreement, not enough dissent? Maybe they needed to hash out a few issues.
Per Neubeck of the PhillyVoice, writing post-season, if the team wants to retain Dwight Howard, Daryl might have to get a bit more hands-on with the rotations and player usages. Neubeck wrote:
“Verdict: [Howard can] Stay, but with conditions
If the Sixers (read: Doc Rivers) are expecting Dwight Howard to come back and play the same role he did in 2020-21, you almost have to move on at the executive level in order to force the head coach’s hand.”
Maybe Daryl has to force some things he’d like to see. On the flip side, this was interesting. Speaking to the media after the season, Morey had this to say about the lack of depth at the backup big spot, per NBCS-Philly’s stream:
“...That’s the kind of feedback that Doc and his coaching staff… to [Rivers’] point that was feedback we had all year....look It takes two to tango…and nothing really presented itself that allowed us to address some of the things that Doc was looking for.”
OK, so maybe to Doc’s credit he desperately wanted an alternative big man he could trust, asked for that all season long, but never received it. Maybe he needed to push even harder to force Morey to kick in the 50th pick in the draft for Mike Muscala in the George Hill trade?
A couple of years ago, Morey mentioned that one of the best parts about working in Houston was his coaching staff’s willingness to incorporate data into their game plans. He noted not every team was as far along in that regard:
“....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.” He also credited Coach Mike D’Antoni for being open to the risky Clint Capela for Robert Covington trade, which led to a radical small ball experiment.
Is it possible he does not have a coach this time around as open to the unique approach to the game that’s made Morey so successful, and largely changed the way a majority of the teams in the NBA play the sport?
It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall for some of the chats between Morey and Rivers. I can’t help but wonder... what if Morey signed a serviceable stretch 5? Or what if Rivers experimented more with small-ball lineups starting in April? What if they had embraced a stagger of Embiid and Simmons all season long? What were the trades Daryl suggested that Rivers may have vetoed?
"Daryl's had several trades so far that I've said, 'No, I don't want to do that,' and he moves on. That's the type of relationship you have to have when you have coach and management, I think it works that way”— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) January 19, 2021
-Doc Rivers on @RichEisenShow
If Rivers is getting a voice in potential trades (which he should) is Morey getting one (or taking one) when it comes to matchups and rotations?
I never thought I’d say this but it felt like a Daryl Morey led team was way too conservative and I think it cost Philadelphia the final four. And I can’t help but wonder how much easier it might be, how much more value it might return if they were to shop Ben Simmons (assuming they want to), had they dodged a few of the issues discussed above and made the Conference Finals.
Maybe there is no discord between Morey and Doc. And maybe there should be a whole lot more moving forwards. Maybe playing too nice contributed to costing themselves one of the smoothest roads to the NBA Finals they’ll all ever see. They may have to take the gloves off in order to improve their decision-making heading into another year of Joel Embiid’s prime.