What does it say about the state of the Philadelphia 76ers that I felt Mike D’Antoni was their best head coach candidate precisely because the roster was so miscast for him?
Hiring D’Antoni would have prompted a necessary cleanse. It would have signaled a clear-eyed understanding from Sixers general manager Elton Brand and the front office that this team needs shooting, shooting and more shooting to maximize superstars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. D’Antoni’s biggest knock is that he’s no defensive mastermind, but when a team has defensive stalwarts like Simmons and Embiid, that side of the ball would take care of itself.
What’s holding this team back is a clunky offense that ranked 14th in the NBA in efficiency. Hiring D’Antoni -- who, ironically enough, was brought in midseason to be Brett Brown’s assistant coach when the team was 1-26 in Dec. 2015 -- would’ve been the most sensible option because he’s the most innovative offensive mind of his era.
Instead, the Sixers reportedly hired Doc Rivers on Thursday after a quick courtship once Rivers was fired by the Los Angeles Clippers earlier in the week. Rivers, who won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008, was the most decorated head coach on the market and an incredibly charismatic individual who, in my opinion, didn’t deserve the pink slip in L.A.
Rivers is a solid head coach, who may very well get the Sixers over the edge. One thing’s for sure: You can miss me with the 3-1 mockery that Rivers has received. A coach has to win three games against a playoff opponent to “blow” a 3-1 lead series. Somehow, judging by the airwaves and memes, it’s worse to blow a 3-1 lead than get swept. I guarantee you more people know that Rivers has blown three 3-1 leads than know that Terry Stotts has been swept three times. In fact, Rivers has never been swept, which is something you can’t say for Gregg Popovich (four times), Mike Budenholzer (twice) and Rick Carlisle (twice) and uh, D’Antoni (twice). Bottom line, the “blowing a 3-1 lead” thing is one of the most overplayed jokes in sports.
Let’s hope Rivers can fix the Sixers’ offense because the numbers are not great. Philly scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions when Embiid and Simmons were on the floor this season, an embarrassing figure for players of their talent level. For perspective, the Orlando Magic’s Terrence Ross and Mo Bamba were at 104.9 this season in similar minutes. We know the Sixers can do better. Under Brett Brown, they did. That number was 112.8 in the 2018-19 season and 113.3 the year before that.
Then the roster changed. As I’ve written before, the Al Horford experiment went horribly awry after Brown decided Horford should play next to Embiid rather than be his $109 million backup. With Simmons, Embiid and Horford on the floor, the Sixers burped up 98.7 points per 100 possessions, a rating that undoubtedly offended the basketball gods. (It ranked 415th among the 417 three-man lineups that played at least 400 minutes together, per NBA.com stats. They’ll make a combined $86 million next season.)
All of that brings us to the most expensive Sixer, Tobias Harris. Maybe that’s why Rivers was so tantalizing to Brand. Rivers was the last coach that Harris, who the Sixers signed to a 5-year, $180 million extension last summer, truly flourished under as a member of the Clippers in 2018-19. Perhaps Rivers can re-discover the recipe that made Harris an elite shooter.
But first on Rivers’ agenda is selling Horford on the kind of bench role that propelled Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell into Sixth Man of the Year awards. Yes, putting a nine-figure player on the bench would require the front office to understand that Horford’s something of a sunk cost, or at the very least, an expensive relief pitcher for Embiid. That role is what’s best for the team.
One would assume the Sixers are hiring Rivers, in part, because they believe he can maximize superstar talent. That hasn’t happened since the George W. Bush administration. D’Antoni has won as many championships as Rivers has in the last decade (zero), and D’Antoni pushed the fully-healthy Golden State Warriors further than any team on the planet that didn’t feature LeBron James.
I also prefered D’Antoni because, to me, he represents the best chance to get Simmons to start shooting the basketball. You can resist Brett Brown, but you’re really going to tell Mr. Seven Seconds Or Less that jump-shooting isn’t central to a superstar’s success?
I don’t want to sell Rivers short. His Clippers teams have ranked in the top ten in offensive rating ever since Lob City became a nationwide sensation. With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and JJ Redick, no offense was more efficient than Rivers’ squad in 2013-14 and 2014-15. But it all flamed out in the postseason. Rivers famously never reached the conference finals in seven seasons in L.A., losing in the first round three times and missing the playoffs altogether in 2017-18.
In a weird way, Rivers is being hired to do the exact thing that brought his exit in L.A.: maximize a two-headed monster. It’s unfair to put that all on Rivers after one season, but there just isn’t much evidence that Rivers’ leadership skills gets his star-laden teams to overachieve. If anything, it’s the opposite.
The Sixers could have looked at the situation and decided that remodeling the roster in D’Antoni’s vision would have proven too difficult to pull off. The cap sheet is light on assets and bloated with contracts. Rivers has certainly dealt with this situation before, but his track record of success isn’t as long as one would think.