The Sixers entered the 2022-23 NBA season with championship aspirations, but they’ve gotten off to a rocky 5-6 start. Although they temporarily righted the ship with their 100-88 win over the Phoenix Suns on Monday night, buzz about head coach Doc Rivers’ job security isn’t going away.
In late October, ESPN’s Zach Lowe said people were “chattering about that in the league ecosystem,” although he added that he didn’t know “how much that chatter is actually reality.” On Monday, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Rivers is “destined to become the fall guy” if the Sixers can’t turn their season around.
Whenever the Sixers do part ways with Rivers—whether it’s during this season, after the season or sometime in the distant future—it won’t necessarily be without merit.
It’s impossible for fans or media members to fairly evaluate coaches since so much of their job happens behind the scenes. We aren’t privy to every practice or film session. Ego management is an increasingly huge part of a head coach’s job. Rivers’ post-practice conversation with James Harden during training camp—the “this ain’t a democracy” discussion—was far more enlightening than any pre- or postgame press conference that he’ll give.
Doc Rivers talks with James Harden following practice pic.twitter.com/hsmYReiCsb— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) September 29, 2022
It’s easier to scrutinize in-game decisions, but there are shades of gray there, too. When an offensive or defensive scheme breaks down, did the players fail to execute it properly, or was it doomed from the start? The day after the Sixers’ 106-104 loss to the New York Knicks on Friday, Rivers made it sound like the Knicks’ late-game surge was the latter.
“We gave up three corner threes to end the game,” Rivers told reporters. “We don’t give up corner threes. And all three times, one was [Montrezl Harrell], one was [P.J. Tucker], one was Paul Reed. So they spread it around, at least, but all three got pulled in, which, you just, it’s not our rules. You just can’t do it. And we did it. And they made ‘em. Georges [Niang] got pulled in from the elbow, same thing. That one we showed at halftime. You can’t get pulled in.”
He also described what happened on a critical late-game offensive turnover.
“Tyrese [Maxey] makes a pass to Tobias [Harris]. Well, the problem was, that wasn’t the play. The play was the guy was supposed to be on the wing, you throw it to him and he throws it. That guy never came, so Tyrese picks the ball up, now you’re stuck. Well, what bothered everybody with that, we walked over that because we messed it up in Chicago. Then we did it again.”
“So, those are things like, we’re right there, we played hard, but you’ve gotta do those things if you want to win basketball games,” Rivers added.
The players deserve plenty of blame for the Sixers’ slow start this year. Joel Embiid has already missed four games and is playing his way back into shape after plantar fasciitis sidelined him for part of the offseason. Harden has missed the past two games and will be out for at least another few weeks due to a foot injury he suffered last Wednesday against the Washington Wizards. They’re also working to implement a switch-heavy defensive scheme that’s different from the typical drop coverage they’ve played in years past.
“We have been trying to do a lot of switching, going 1-5,” Embiid said after the win over the Suns. “I can do it, but if you’re gonna do it the whole game, it can become a challenge, chasing guards all over the place. What I’m good at is protecting the rim and making sure no one gets in there.
“I think tonight, we just had a different game plan of not necessarily me playing in drop. At times, I was blitzing [Devin Booker]. At times, I was dropping back. At times, I was on the level of the screen. So it’s all really about me just figuring it out on the fly—not really me making it up—but just follow the game plan and follow my instincts.”
Rivers isn’t blameless for the Sixers’ slow start, though. He can bemoan the team’s execution to his heart’s content, but his job is to get players to buy into his schemes and execute them.
After losses, Rivers often mentions the team’s improper spacing and lack of ball movement, as if he isn’t the one who’s responsible for their offensive scheme. If they aren’t executing it properly—as seems to be the case in the early going—it’s on Rivers and his staff to rectify that. Following the Sixers’ 0-3 start, Rivers said they were “not ready to win yet,” which is a stunning admission for a coach of a theoretical championship contender to make.
It’s fair to question some of Rivers’ schematic decisions, too.
During his training camp conversation with Harden, Rivers said the Sixers were a “horrible post-passing team” last year. Harden is by far the best entry-passer on the team, but the Sixers won’t have him for at least the next few weeks. It doesn’t appear as though Rivers plans to change much in his absence, though.
“Not much of our offense changes,” he said after Monday’s game. “We just—different guys have to handle the ball. James was our post-entry guy because we have not been great at it. Now, he’s not. So we have to make the right guy be that guy every time.”
The best coaches adapt their schemes to their personnel, not the other way around. Since Harden won’t be playing 48 minutes upon his return, his absence gives the Sixers a chance to figure out how to generate offense without him. Unless someone else takes a major leap as an entry-passer, the dump-it-down-to-Embiid-in-the-post-every-time strategy might not be as viable sans Harden.
Rivers’ rotation decisions also frequently come under fire, particularly at backup center.
Last year, Rivers played the exhumed corpses of Paul Millsap and DeAndre Jordan over the younger, springier Paul Reed and Charles Bassey. Reed was mistake-prone, but his lateral mobility and defensive playmaking far outstripped what Jordan’s cement-block feet could provide. Although Rivers preemptively tried to shoot down the Paul Reed Victory Tour, the Sixers very well might have lost to the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs had he stubbornly stuck with Millsap and Jordan over Reed.
During this year’s preseason, Reed seemed to be ahead of free-agent addition Montrezl Harrell in the backup center pecking order. But once the regular season began, Rivers largely went with Harrell (122 minutes in 10 games) over Reed (57 in eight games).
“I actually like Trez more with James because Trez knows how to play off James a little better offensively,” he said in late October. “I like Paul Reed defensively. So, that’s where we’re caught.”
With Harden sidelined, Rivers has been leaning more on Reed over the past two games. Harrell started in Embiid’s place against the Knicks, but Reed racked up six steals (!), four rebounds and two blocks off the bench in only 18 minutes. Reed also got the nod as Embiid’s primary backup Monday, while Harrell didn’t play at all.
“This was gonna be a defensive night,” Rivers told reporters after the game when explaining why he went with Reed over Harrell. “You knew it from the start. Phoenix is a defensive team, and we had to put defense back on the floor.”
At this point of Harrell’s career, we know what he is—and what he isn’t. He’s an Energizer bunny who will play hard and attack the glass, but he’s limited to functioning around the rim both offensively and defensively. He’s an outright liability as a pick-and-roll defender, so the Sixers have to run more of a drop scheme with him rather than switching 1-5.
Reed is far more switchable than Harrell, and he racks up steals, blocks and deflections at a much higher rate as well. However, he’s less reliable as an around-the-rim finisher or in pick-and-rolls, which can cramp the Sixers’ offensive spacing at times. They’re averaging only 87.9 points per 100 possessions with Reed on the floor—small-sample-size alert!—which is by far the worst mark of any rotation member. Then again, they’re allowing a minuscule 83.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which is the best mark by a mile.
Beyond what Rivers tells reporters during his press conferences, we don’t know why he prefers Reed to Harrell or vice versa on any given night. Perhaps Harrell is lapping Reed in terms of picking up the Sixers’ offensive schemes. But Harrell’s history in the playoffs—and Rivers’ history of playing him even though he’s getting cooked like a Thanksgiving turkey—suggests the ongoing Reed-Harrell battle deserves the scrutiny it’s getting.
Firing Rivers and replacing him with Sam Cassell, Dave Joerger, Mike D’Antoni or someone else wouldn’t necessarily be a panacea for the Sixers. There’s no guarantee that they’d follow in the Phillies’ footsteps and go on a deep playoff run afterward.
But time is of the essence for the Sixers. Harden, Harrell, Reed, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, Shake Milton and Danuel House Jr. can all become free agents next offseason. There’s no guarantee that they’ll retain all of them. If they don’t, they might be forced to replenish their bench depth with only the taxpayer mid-level exception (assuming Harden stays) and minimum contracts.
In all likelihood, the Sixers will give Rivers the full 2022-23 season to prove that he’s the right coach to lead them to their first championship in 40 years. But if they fall short of that goal, they might wind up throwing away their best chance to win that title in part because of their inaction.