Sixers head coach Doc Rivers is the name that’s trending on Friday after the Sixers entered a crucial juncture in their season and hit a skid.
Joel Embiid was perhaps in a dead heat with Nikola Jokic for MVP, the Eastern Conference’s top seed was suddenly within reach, but instead of capitalizing on the moment, their three game losing streak, which culminated in a loss to lowly Detroit Pistons, has dampened the mood. There’s no excuse for how poorly the Sixers played in that last one, a 102-94 loss to the team with the NBA’s third worst record.
We’ll round up a couple Doc Rivers items here since that’s the man many are focusing on right now.
Of course, this stuff may have at least started brewing when Team President Daryl Morey made the decision to sign DeAndre Jordan. Morey has cautioned in the past about bigs who can neither shoot nor switch and how he wants to prioritize getting ones who can do at least one of those two key things. So there has been a steady faction on Twitter wondering why on earth Morey won’t intervene to force Rivers to experiment with non-Jordan backup big alternatives now that it’s pretty clear Jordan isn’t who they hoped he’d be. DJ has been a pretty big disappointment. And that’s the backstory coming into this week at least from the fans perspective.
Embiid’s comments after the Milwaukee game
Then we got the Embiid comments following the Bucks game. Joel openly questioned the rotations and game plan for slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I was on the bench the whole time ,” Embiid said after the 118-116 loss. “When I was on the floor, you know, really made sure that I was always there to help. I thought we didn’t follow up that strategy, we didn’t build a wall, and you had a lot of free lane to just attack and get whatever [Giannis] wanted. And that changed the game. Maybe next time just match up the minutes,” Embiid suggested.
This was rare for Embiid, who tends not to question what’s clearly a coaching or tactical maneuver like this. But you can be sure he was frustrated with all of that one-seed and MVP buzz surrounding that game. He had to watch helplessly as his team hemorrhaged buckets sparking a key eight point run while he sat in a game they ultimately lost by two.
Ringer pod rumor
Next we got some chatter on The Ringer NBA Show. Here’s what co-host Wosny Lambre said about Doc Rivers:
“A few weeks ago - because I’m decently tapped-in with the players side of what’s happening with the Sixers, no I don’t know anybody in the Morey administration. Anyway I’m hearing like, ‘Man, some guys are not feeling Doc. And His rotations, his philosophy, what he’s doing. Guys aren’t feeling it.’ To me sometimes you can chalk it up to be like, ‘I should be playing more.’ That’s every NBA player. So I’m like, I’m ignoring this. I’m ignoring this.
“The Sixers are in L.A. last week, I’m out and about getting dinner [...] and I run into somebody who’s close to the team. [...] I’m like, ‘Sorry but I can’t pick you guys to go to the Finals this year.’ His response kind of raised my eyebrows: ‘Neither would I.’ Oh, okay. Maybe that’s hyperbole, maybe you’re having a bad week, I’m not even thinking about it. But this is a running tally of what’s going on down in Philadelphia.”
So deciding how plugged in Wos might really be is up for debate. He claims he’s connected on the player’s side of things. Is it possible some Sixers or people in their circle would share this with someone from The Ringer? Maybe. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that has happened. But who knows, we’ll neither take it as gospel nor dismiss it entirely.
Grist for the mill.
Doc’s post game comments about James Harden, not his bench’s struggles
The next reason that Doc is trending today is this quote, after the terrible loss to Cade Cunningham and co:
Watching the press conference on TV, Doc Rivers was asked about the bench: "They didn't struggle, they didn't get a lot of shots in their defense. I think during that stretch it was more James than them. Yeah, it's just a tough night."— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) April 1, 2022
“I thought offensively, we really just stood around, their switching we just played outside and didn’t move the ball as a group,” Rivers said after the game. He added “we played with very little life tonight, didn’t play together tonight at all, that’s something we’ve been doing.”
And then the quote that went viral, when asked about his bench’s struggles.
“Well, they didn’t struggle, they didn’t get a lot of shots, in their defense,” Rivers told reporters in Detroit on Thursday. “I think during that stretch it was more James [Harden] than them. So, you know, yeah it’s just a tough night.”
Hmm... so when you zoom in a little too closely, you may mistakenly conclude: Doc said the bench didn’t struggle, James Harden struggled. And he meant to throw his newly acquired superstar under the bus. Some outlets and aggregators have taken that angle and it’s definitely a bit unfair.
Indeed, if you zoom out little more, you may hear it differently than it was originally presented to you:
As everyone was leaping to the conclusion that Doc was intentionally throwing Harden under the bus, The Inky’s Gina Mizell, in Detroit had a different read. NBCS-Philly looks like they have since deleted the clip, as did SNY Nets videos on Twitter, but here’s Mizell’s position:
As somebody who was in the room, this isn't how I (or anybody else who was there) took this at all. We took it as Doc didn't finish/articulate his thought, that he was saying Harden was primary shot-taker when the bench players were on the floor. Bench was 0-for-5 in first half. https://t.co/Any3erCEly— Gina Mizell (@ginamizell) April 1, 2022
So perhaps the media outlets have heard from the Sixers on this issue, contending Rivers was taken completely out of context.
Perhaps we can even guess that Rivers has already attempted to clear the air with Harden himself. He might have said something like: I wasn’t saying ‘the bench didn’t struggle, you struggled.’ I was saying ‘the bench didn’t struggle ‘cause when they were out there you were the one shooting, and I know you’d be the first to admit you didn’t play the way you wanted, your hamstring isn’t there yet, and I wanted to bolster their confidence, that’s all.’ Or something like that.
And we can guess that Harden told Doc something like “don’t worry, I understand. We’re all good.”
But was it purely a miscommunication? Is it possible Doc let slip something subconscious here? A tired coach, who speaks all the time publicly, and something just came out wrong in the moment after a long road trip might explain it all. But there also might be at least something here.
If we zoom out a little further, and we connect the dots about what Doc said about the ball not moving, “I thought offensively, we really just stood around....” that sounds an awful lot like some of the criticisms lobbied at Harden over the years. It’s been reported he clashed in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant because of this iso-heavy approach. Is it possible Harden took too many tough shots (against a switching defense that offered no clear advantage) for Doc’s liking, didn’t get his bench going, and that’s what slipped a bit?
As PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck writes:
“Pieced together, it reads like a relatively direct, if not especially forceful condemnation of Harden’s performance against Detroit, a 4-for-15 stinker that put the Sixers on a path toward implosion. And, to be fair to the head coach, there’s truth in what he said to the press, and it’s not exactly a revelation when you consider Harden’s career in full.”
So perhaps Doc did not mean to intentionally blame Harden for the reserves often lackluster play. But maybe he is frustrated, even reasonably so, given predictable growing pains this team is facing; growing pains very much exacerbated by Harden’s ongoing hamstring issues. It’s one thing to incorporate a player as heliocentric as Harden has been in the past, one who has never been comfortable as an off-ball catch-and-shoot weapon, and doing so late in the year when he’s not even healthy, that’s got to be especially tricky.
Sources have told Liberty Ballers in no uncertain terms that Daryl Morey strongly backs Rivers. When stuff swirls around like this, we keep that in mind. Nobody here is suggesting otherwise.
But hypothetically, if the Sixers were to lose in the first or second round of the playoffs, and were feeling backed into a corner with Harden’s pending free agency, how these stars may feel about their head coach after a tough loss, how they might feel about their chances for a title in 2023 under Doc... what if that’s another story? Would Morey listen to them? And if he did, would ownership give him the green light to make a change or not?
Daryl Morey may have 100 percent faith in Rivers. But what if at one point in the near or distant future, his stars simply don’t? What if Harden said I’d love to be here for the next four or five years but I don’t love this coach? He will hold an awful lot of leverage very soon. If Doc even accidentally embarrassed The Beard, that type of thing could rise to the surface as a feeling following a heartbreaking playoff series. We’ve already seen hints of that theme last June.
These are the reasons we pay close attention to otherwise non-stories like the ones above. Because it’s a star driven league and it makes sense to bend over backwards to accommodate them.
Jimmy Butler was acquired mid season with a big free agency pending and famously clashed with Brett Brown. The organization wound up regretting not moving heaven and earth to keep Butler even a bit happier.
This organization will only recently have finished paying former coach Brett Brown. They’ll be shelling out the big bucks for a team in the luxury tax, so would they back up the brinks for another head coach on the pay roll if a star or two asked for as much? Maybe if Embiid and Harden wanted it. But maybe not. And how everyone feels might depend on the rest of this season.