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Sixers need Doc to avoid getting stuck in his usual rotational mud

The Sixers are 2-1 in games Joel Embiid hasn’t played, but dropped a winnable one at home to the Wizards, and we got some hints of classic Doc Rivers postgame.

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Washington Wizards v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

“Adapt or die.” -Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in “Moneyball”

The Sixers have a long track record of getting smoked when Joel Embiid sits. Historically, the big man’s on-off splits are staggering. They’ve seemed needlessly stuck in the... mud...when it comes to backing him up, haven’t they? Doc Rivers has played a big hand in that.

Looking back, the issue predates Doc. Sure there was Al Horford, who ensured they could play well when the big fella sat. He was, by several tiers, the best backup big of Embiid’s career, if you’re willing to count him and his $100M+ contract as a “reserve” (he was by the time the bubble rolled around).

They might have been able to use (legend who helped the Sixers get Tyrese Maxey) Mike Muscala by playoff time in 2019, but they replaced him with non-stretch bigs like Boban Marjanović, and later Greg Monroe. You know how that went.

It’s been made clear to us that Rivers has personally, and successfully, recruited guys like Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell, over the years.

Those all seemed like fine regular season pickups for low financial cost. And we can comfortably assume Rivers was on board with, if not fully behind, the addition of DeAndre Jordan, Rivers’ former Clippers All-Star, based on DA’s unfathomable and comical usage in 2022.

But now, just a few games into the season, we can see we’re clearly heading for more “definition of insanity” style blunder, even though there’s more talent to work with.

I can hear a few of you. More on the backup center? More about coaching? Joel Embiid is going to play like 38 minutes per night once the playoff roll around. And this team’s chances are going to come down to the play of Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey. Why are we talking about these minor issues!

But yeah, Embiid has missed three games now, so we’re forced to examine again an issue that has been, let’s face it, no less disastrous under Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers as it was with the prior collaborative regime. And that’s saying something.

Tyrese Maxey’s stellar play helped carry the Sixers small-ball unit in Toronto and Washington. James Harden has been a deft game manager. P.J. Tucker’s ability to defend bigs and space the floor will open up tons of new options.

But they needed more help from the bench in the last one, a 121-111 drubbing by the Wiz.

Wednesday, Paul Reed finally got a chance. Down 47-37, the Sixers needed a spark, so Rivers, desperately, turned to Reed when P.J. Tucker was in foul trouble and nothing was working. After some energy, an offensive board, a dunk, and most importantly, a few stops, the Sixers rattled off a 9-2 run and cut the Wizards’ lead to three at 49-46, in just over two minutes of action.

Something must have happened that frustrated Doc, because he didn’t go back to Reed in the second half, while allowing the Wiz to drop 64 points after halftime points at the crib.

(Is there a pretty German word for the state of desperately wanting stops, but doing next to nothing to get them, rotation wise?)

After the game, Doc was asked to assess Reed’s performance, and given the chance to explain why the energetic ‘tweener didn’t see more action in a winnable second half.

“I thought Paul was OK,” Rivers said. “I thought offensively, same struggle with Matisse [Thybulle] in a lot of ways. They start playing off of Paul, and that’s something that he’s going to get better at. I thought he gave us energy, though,” Rivers continued.

“But offensively, I thought we struggled to score because of the same thing. Him and Trez [Harrell] it’s funny, when Trez plays well, I don’t hear your questioning. They’re going to push each other, and that’s what we want. And the second thing with Paul, hopefully we can move him to the four at times. Tonight wasn’t the night, because they were just helping off of any non-shooter. But we do believe that’s going to happen at some point.”

It vibes as characteristically defensive, doesn’t it? It’s funny, no one complains when he plays Montrezl Harrell, who played terrific in a win at Washington a couple nights ago. Why did Rivers add that part? Did he think he caught reporters in a moment of hypocrisy, demonstrating our results bias? Trez played well so we knew why he kept playing. In this one, Reed played well but didn’t keep playing. Hence, the basic inquiry.

There is problematic stubbornness here that isn’t new. And it’s not hyperbole or hatorade to say it’s really, really bad for the Sixers’ chances of making a Conference Finals or Finals.

If he focused on the defense doubling off of Reed in the half court, and he thinks Reed isn’t ready to stretch the floor from distance (it’s not like Harrell is this marksmen either), and if he thinks Reed needs to develop so he can play the four, not the five, these prior beliefs may have completely clouded for him the fact that the team played some of their best defense (and basketball) of the night and outscored the Wizards with Reed on the court! That type of mistake is a problem vs. the Wizards. But it’s an auto L vs. the Milwaukee Bucks.

We know that Daryl Morey is a big fan of Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. The world renowned psychologists would call it substituting questions that are easier to answer in for questions that are more difficult.

Rivers made the curious decision to close the game with Georges Niang and P.J. Tucker as the bigs. He mentioned Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle was a +4 in his 16 minutes. Yes, the defense sagged off him too, but in this game, the team needed stops. They gave up 121 points at the crib, and did so while trotting out groups like Harden-Trez-Shake Milton-Niang, and Danuel House (-6 in one minute).

So we already know how this stuff plays out. Doc sees a dude like Montrez win Sixth Man of the Year in the regular season, and costs himself as good of a shot at a title he’s had since the Boston Big Three, by leaning on him in matchups he simply could’t win. Ask a Clippers fan if maybe Doc worried that Ivica Zubac couldn’t space the floor either.

Doc believed that Dwight Howard needed to play every single minute that Embiid sat in 2021. And he didn’t much seem to notice how it was playing out in painfully winnable home games vs. a Trae Young led pick-and-roll:

In 2022, he told us DeAndre Jordan was their best roll man. And that idea, in theory, must have explained why he kept getting chances that opposing teams loved to see:

And in each case, he seems anchored to some beliefs that simply don’t mesh with what’s on film or in the spread sheet. Jordan may have been their best roll man, but so what?

In 2021, shlubs on the sofa at home and data geeks screamed in unison for months that Ben Simmons and Dwight Howard weren’t a good pairing. Hell, even Daryl Morey publicly suggested they try small ball, instead. But we had to watch it for MONTHS.

In 2022, shlubs and geeks again agreed that Reed was better, despite his weaknesses, than Jordan. Doc not only missed that stuff for months at a time, he exhibited his stubbornness and condescension with reporters on the topics when asked.

None of this is to say Paul Reed is Al Horford. In fact, Daryl Morey hinted recently, he’s not even better than Andre Drummond (who got absolutely played off the floor by the Boston Celtics when he wound up on the Nets).

It’s to say the Sixers still appear to have a problem with their head coach. And when reporters ask excellent questions, Rivers is more than happy to display whatever faulty reasoning he leans on as he makes errors in real time, errors we can bank on continuing. Stubbornly. He won a ring. He played. We didn’t. He trusts his instincts. You’ve heard the condescending explanations.

Rather than asking who gives me my best chance to win the next three minutes, he appears to be asking things like “who is the most experienced roll man?” or “Is Reed ready to stretch the floor, or play the four?” then arriving at the right answer to the wrong question.

With the Knicks coming up on the docket, there are more than a few parallels in Knicks-World these days with coach Tom Thibodeau, who won a title with Doc back in 2008:

We got some lip service this offseason that Reed would play all the time. But last night, Niang, another player that we were told Doc recruited, got the closer run. It didn’t work out. If you’re Doc’s guy, you’re probably going to play, regardless of the matchup. And opposing coaches have to love that fact every single year. Both Niang and Trez are Doc’s “recruits.”

The Sixers have the talent to win the minutes Joel Embiid rests now. Harden, Maxey, P.J. Tucker, and before his injury, De’Anthony Melton showed us that.

Morey may have even sought to remind angry fans how valuable Melton is, or how much he was missed Wednesday, by posting this after the loss.

But, hilariously, and helpfully, the quote tweets and replies were swarmed with sentiment about his head coach. This isn’t to say play Reed over Harrell and Niang in each matchup. It’s just to say stay flexible. Adapt or die. Abandon your priors. Roll with new info. On any given night, a guy who has a weakness may be your best bet. Especially, when the defense is a mess and Reed and Thybulle, who were both helping you win the first half, are on the bench for the second.

The Sixers should probably listen to the fanbase who was months and months ahead of their head coach in both 2021 and 2022. And at this rate, they’ll have been months and months ahead of the team on the need to bring in a new voice.

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