clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I can’t believe the Sixers haven’t fired Doc Rivers yet...and yet, I can totally believe it

The Sixer are digging into a sunk cost and it’s going to impact multiple legacies here.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Philadelphia 76ers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Back in 2020, when the Sixers moved on from Brett Brown, the fan base wasn’t exactly up in arms. Many seemed to think a change was in order. The team was picking between two excellent candidates in Mike D’Antoni and Tyronn Lue at the time, when suddenly, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer made the tough decision to fire (a less excellent candidate in) Doc Rivers as head coach in L.A.

The collaborative front office at the time in Philly, the uncannily Knicksesque decision making entity comprised chiefly of Josh Harris, David Blitzer, and Elton Brand (the same basic unit who prioritized keeping Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris and signing Al Horford over Jimmy freaking Butler) pivoted to offer Rivers a massive five-year, $40M deal.

It was the team’s last major move before they hired Daryl Morey weeks later. Morey was able to move Horford and Simmons, but it took multiple draft picks to figure out. He apparently tried but wasn’t able to move Tobias Harris. And we can only read tea leaves to gauge his true feelings regarding Doc Rivers. But little has seemed symbiotic about their b-ball tenure thus far.

Ballmer, back in 2020, didn’t think the future Hall of Famer in Doc was the best man for the job with the Clippers anymore. And he was oh so right. In just his first season as head coach, Lue, who won a title coaching LeBron James in Cleveland, made the final four, something Doc Rivers hasn’t been able to do since 2012 when he was with Boston.

Back in 2020, you’ll recall, the two buzzwords in Sixersville were “accountability” and “adjustments.” And they wanted someone who could build chemistry and get over that dreaded second-round wall.

Remember, fans wanted Joel Embiid to be in better shape, and keep his spirits up. They wanted a coach to push Simmons to shoot. And they wanted a coach to take full responsibility for things, modeling true leadership. The other element was in-game adjustments. Many fans were disappointed with Brown’s inflexibility on certain defensive principles and substitution patterns. The Sixers also had some locker room issues. Fans occasionally worried about Embiid and Simmons getting along so they wanted someone to fix the chemistry.

It was always so weird to me they went for Doc since Rivers was basically JUST fired for whiffing on all of those things the Sixers were looking for! Did they not pay attention to the bubble at all?

A) Rivers didn’t make enough adjustments over the years with L.A., especially in that final series against Denver, infamously over playing big man Montrezl Harrell vs. the dynamic Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll. B) it’s been reported Doc mostly defended that putrid decision, foreshadowing how him and accountability have been basically oil and water over the coming years; he’d cite things like the team’s need for a more traditional point guard as an explanation for what went wrong in LA, despite having multiple superstar playmakers in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. C) He never could get out of the second round even with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and JJ Redick in their primes while D) chemistry was often pointed to as why things fell apart in both Lob City and again later in 2020.

Adjustments? Not even close. Accountability? 0-2. Final four? Not this guy. Great chemistry? Not so much. It was pointed out that the 2020 Clippers players didn’t rush to wish Doc well on social media once the decision was made, a telltale sign of a truly fractured locker room.

So if those were only minor red flags, on an otherwise illustrious HOF resume, holy mackerel have these issues compounded in Philly.

It was almost a perfect storm to accentuate Doc’s flaws, wasn’t it? The Sixers have historically been a disaster when it comes to backup center minutes. And here comes the coach who was canned for how he deployed his backup big in L.A. And unlike the much cushier L.A. media, who Doc was always able to charm, the Philly beat has illuminated just how much Doc despises simply saying “my bad,” with their well-informed questions about multi-game plus-minus samples and the like.

Now a Morey team has fielded analytic nightmare lineups for months at a time leaving some fans to wonder if his vaunted algorithms started to backfire once he moved to the east coast. Remember the months and months of Dwight Howard-Ben Simmons lineups? DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap over the Paul Reed Victory Tour?!

The way Simmons fizzled out of the 2021 playoffs offensively was crazy. And yet, look what PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck said, not at all unfairly, back then:

As much to blame as Simmons?! They overachieved in the regular season by winning the one seed, but they underachieved in the playoffs. A Doc hallmark. And they ran it back with him in 2022, arguably Joel Embiid’s most important season.

Last season, you remember not so fondly. Doc was at his best when the expectations were lower. Just like his 2018 season in L.A., he took an undermanned team further than people thought. They were a fifth seed before the James Harden trade. A testament to the way he unleashed an MVP in his prime.

But his reliance on DeAndre Jordan in the tail end of the season and playoffs was a stark reminder that he still routinely sees the game through a 2008 lens, the way it was played back when Doc was in his coaching prime. Kevin Garnett didn’t even play center in those days. It was a different time. Now opposing coaches live for Doc’s predictable clumsy lineup combos.

Did he leave Embiid in a blowout playoff game too long where he took an elbow to the face which broke his orbital bone, partly because of Doc’s own lengthy past history with blowing massive leads? Many of us will always wonder.

Here was what Doc’s former player Matt Barnes said this offseason, after Morey told us Doc would be back:

“Doc is a great, motivational, give-you-energy type coach. One thing that sticks with me is when he said ‘be a star in your role,’ Doc is great at these sound bytes that will get you going. But it seems like every situation he’s been in, a few years in, there starts to be a similar narrative. Guys are starting to tune him out, guys aren’t listening, .... there seems to be this similar narrative once Doc gets somewhere that first few years it looks good, ‘rah, rah, rah, then shortly after that it always seems to turn out to the same situation so, I’ll just leave it at that.”

So here we are.

We know Doc is going to struggle massively with in-game adjustments, sometimes at comical proportions. We know that he’s going to frustrate a fan base by his own reluctance to be held accountable, his fundamental trouble just saying “I screwed up.”

If he gets credit (Morey says he does) for recruiting guys like Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, Georges Niang, DeAndre Jordan, and Montrezl Harrel, he should lose some for the role he played in Simmons’ eventual hold out. (Morey just may have been able to get more in return or spend less picks, if Doc wasn’t so busy cracking on Simmons in the media).

He couldn’t resist taking shots at Ben’s character, even while Morey was haggling over picks, and role players.

That stuff may have trickled down to his players over his tenure. Embiid has been accused of pointing fingers at both Simmons and Harden following back-to-back playoff exits. Maybe what Joel said was true. Maybe he would have said those things even without his head coach modeling the way. Who knows. But this stuff isn’t an issue for better organizations. We don’t have to ask Gregg Popovich these questions. Pop’s players see the leader saying ‘we did something dumb,’ or ‘put it on me,’ and tend to adopt that style.

Doc was not and still isn’t the best coach for this job. I can’t believe he’s still here. And yet, I can so believe it. Oh, these Sixers and their sunk costs... like overpaying wildly to trade for Tobias Harris, and then bidding against themselves to keep him for $180M over five years.

From a spring episode of the “Please Don’t Aggregate this” pod, Jake Fischer recorded this, before the Sixers were eliminated by Miami:

“From what I’ve heard… I don’t think ownership is dying to make a change at the coaching position. People in and around the league talk all the time that Daryl Morey purportedly doesn’t value Doc that much....there’s a lot of money owed to Doc over the next three seasons. He’s got $8M average annual salary, three more years, $24M….

We would hear about all that money the team still owed Rivers from Adrian Wojnarowski, Ramona Shelburne, and others too when discussing the team’s decision to retain Doc for the 2022-2023 season.

And I have a hunch as to why Morey himself may not have pushed terribly hard for Doc’s exit just yet.

I’m guessing ownership still really likes Doc. Maybe they’re digging their heels in now with the criticism. And maybe Morey could get Doc fired if he pushed for it. But maybe he hasn’t wanted to because he knows he wouldn’t even be here in Philly with his own $50M contract (heck he may not even be in basketball following his own twitter scandal) had Doc not been willing to sign off on Morey’s subsequent hire.

For Morey our choices are icky: A) He thinks Doc is absolutely the guy, in which case maybe Daryl is no longer the guru you once thought he was B) He’s powerless. Lol the Sixers hired him and won’t let him do stuff or C) The wonky order of operations he was hired under has somewhat compromised his ability to make crucial but tough decisions, in part because he’s so loyal... or he at least felt he needed to wait a few years before making a major move his superiors weren’t stumping for:

I’m open to B (on this particular issue) but I’d probably cast my vote for some version of C, with B elements. The whole order of operations, bringing in Doc first and giving him some sign off power, may have bought Doc not just job security but a ton of loyalty. Now perhaps Morey’s loyalty has become a massive liability for the team and multiple Hall of Fame legacies.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

But there isn’t much time. If the Sixers truly want to win a championship, they’re going to have to make the key change and land someone new, and fast. I don’t know if they could swing a Mike D’Antoni or a Quin Snyder (there may be some contractual hurdles). I have my doubts about current folks on Doc’s staff, because as far as I know, they love every single thing Doc has done each step of the way. Sam Cassell is not a big analytics guy so he doesn’t make sense as the best replacement to collaborate with the MIT-loving Morey.

So I’m not sure who the best candidate (besides D’Antoni) might be. Embiid has lobbied for his former assistant in MDA before, while Harden, P.J. Tucker, Danuel House, and Montrezl Harrell have all played some great ball for him too.

D’Antoni completely remade himself from the 7 seconds or less ball movement wizard in Phoenix to the “let’s push isolation ball to it’s ugliest limits” in Houston, showing he’s willing to adapt and adopt any style to win. He’s been eager to incorporate Morey’s data recommendations into game plans.

MDA makes way too much sense here. He was a top-five coach within the last five years. No one else they would be considering could claim that, including Doc. Let alone the crucial preexisting relationships MDA has with Morey, Joel, Harden, and Tucker. But he’ll need time, so this needs to happen quickly.

The fans were right about the Simmons-Howard lineups, the DeAndre Jordan minutes, Paul Reed, the need to dispense the all-bench crap in big games. They’re right about the need for a new voice. Check any post about the Sixers and it seems someone is replying “fire Doc.” Things are at a fever pitch. The next home loss, you’re likely to hear some chants.

It doesn’t matter if there are other things more important than coaching. You can’t magically heal Harden’s foot. You can’t magically make Embiid a better passer or Maxey a better defender. You can’t trade Furkan Korkmaz for Mikal Bridges and solve everything. But coaching then represents some of the lowest hanging fruit they can absolutely address.

Doc is one of the winningest coaches of all time. He probably forgot more basketball than I’ll ever know. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Embiid was back-to-back MVP runner-up under him. Doc hasn’t had a healthy and mentally engaged roster for either playoff run. We can defend him too if we want. But this isn’t the time.

We always knew the coach who took over for Brett Brown was going to get all the post Process credit. That’s literally why Brett pushed so hard for that extra year on his original deal. He knew the developmental work he’d do would be attributed mostly elsewhere. So the ‘Joel is great’ argument shouldn’t cloud our judgment on an otherwise easy call today.

The Sixers could easily upgrade. And if they don’t, they may all regret it for a long time. Maybe they already should. Doc wouldn’t be a “fall guy” if they moved on. He’s still blaming others for his current mistakes. He still trots out lineups with Shake Milton, James Harden, Trez, and Niang when he needs a key stop. They’re too vanilla and predictable on offense. They look flat out confused about whether or not to switch on defense now at 5-7 through 12 games. The Embiid-first post-up pecking order still leads to too many turnovers or forced shots over doubles. The team still looks like they’re stuck in quick-sand. Rivers will likely continue getting stuck in his usual rotational mud, then tell the media they just don’t get it.

The time for a change was probably a long time ago. We shouldn’t all be wondering which one dimensional player Doc will overplay by the second round of the playoffs again. But for now we must.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Liberty Ballers Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Philadelphia 76ers news from Liberty Ballers