Following another Sixers season that fell short of expectations, it’s again time to ask—run it back or blow it up? Or perhaps something in between?
We can debate all day over how to allocate blame for this series, but there isn’t much use looking past Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Doc Rivers—each of whom shoulders responsibility for the way these playoffs unfolded. The NBA playoffs are about star players and coaching adjustments, and anything beyond that is marginal.
Simmons’ historically poor free throw shooting and deference on offense, Embiid’s conditioning and inability to close (29.8% shooting in the second halves of Game 4-7), and Tobias reverting back to his old-self under pressure are all criticisms that deserve their moment in the crosshairs. Each of these is a fair gripe with equally fair counter-arguments, and you’ll hear them each debated over the course of the offseason.
However, one criticism from this series that has no room for debate—at least in my opinion—is that of Doc Rivers characteristic playoff mistakes. From refusing to shrink his rotation, to playing too many all-bench lineups, refusing to target Atlanta’s weak defenders, blowing two 18+ point leads, and allowing whatever happened with Ben Simmons to happen, it’s clear to me that Rivers carries outsize blame for the way this series unfolded.
There’s simply no reason to go ten or eleven players deep at this point in the playoffs against this level of competition, let alone in Games 6 and 7 of a series. We can hem and haw over how small his rotation should’ve been shrunken down to, but the fact that Dwight Howard was still getting minutes late in this series is a travesty that forces me to wonder whether or not Doc actually knew he was coaching a Game 7, and not some January regular season game.
Beyond poor rotations, Doc’s inability to take what’s in front of him strategically is jarring. Perhaps the most basic way to attack a defense in the playoffs is by matchup-hunting—when the opponent puts a weak defender on the floor, put him in ball screens, get him switched onto your best offensive players, and let them attack. This sort of targeting is as elementary as offense comes in the playoffs, and Doc’s refusal to take advantage of that despite facing multiple lineups with Trae Young and Lou Williams on the floor (two of the worst perimeter defenders in basketball) is genuinely unfathomable.
That number alone should be enough for Daryl Morey to fire Rivers. I understand the sample is small, but not small enough that we can ignore this data altogether—any coach worth his salt should be able to turn that schematic advantage into easy buckets, but apparently 77 possessions wasn’t enough for Doc.
Speaking of damning numbers, consider this—Doc Rivers is 15-6 when his team is leading by 16 or more points over the past two seasons; the rest of the NBA is 76-3. If that reads like a typo, it’s not. Over the past two seasons Doc has blown twice as many 16+ point leads as the rest of the league combined. That’s something.
Doc Rivers’ history of playoff collapses shouldn’t be news; his track record of blowing seemingly safe leads in both individual games and series is long and well-publicized.
Rivers is one of the more likable and gif-able coaches in the NBA, and with his reputation/championship pedigree it’s not easy to criticize him, and that’s why his hiring was so well-received just a few months ago. But less than a year later that decision is shaping up as a clear mistake.
I’m on record having gone to bat for Mike D’Antoni over Rivers prior to the season, and while I won’t go as far as saying MDA would have led us to a championship, the second the Sixers hired Rivers they put a cap on their ceiling, and that decision cost them an opportunity to make the Finals (at the very least). If recent history was any indication—in hindsight, it should have been—any roster led by Rivers shouldn’t have reasonably been expected to exceed (or even meet) expectations.
I’m not sure how the city convinced itself that Doc would change his old habits at his fifth (and likely final) head coaching stop, but that shouldn’t prevent the team from cutting bait now that his role in their collapse is apparent.
To be clear, there’s ample blame to go around the roster, and Doc obviously isn’t the sole reason the Sixers flamed out of the playoffs; but we can’t ignore his mistakes simply because he shares blame with others. The more important consideration moving forward is whether or not he can be a part of the solution here in Philly. While that answer is more complicated for each of the team’s players, given Doc’s track record we can fairly confidently conclude that he’ll be nothing more than part of the problem for this Sixers team moving forward.