PHILADELPHIA — It seemed like an outrageous claim:
“I think I do a terrific job!”
Doc Rivers said this after his basketball team just got demolished by a tepid Heat team in the second round of the playoffs. He said this a year after getting upset in the second round by a mangy kettle of Hawks.
Ridiculous, right? Wrong.
No coach in recent Philadelphia history is less popular at this moment than Doc Rivers. This is a very Philadelphian way to think: He said mean stuff, and he insulted us, so let’s fire him.
Short-sighted, ill-conceived, and, for the moment, ignored by Sixers management. Said president Daryl Morey: “I just think he’s a great coach ... and we’re going to see where this journey takes us.”
Objectively, Rivers’ journey in his first two seasons, while tortuous and bumpy, has been completely acceptable. Unfortunately, he makes it hard to argue in his favor.
He continued, “No one picked us to be anywhere!”
Does this sound like the outrageous claim of a narcoleptic Belgian who believes he invented the question mark?
It does. It isn’t.
He’s even right about that, to a degree.
Granted, Rivers has lost his temper a few times ... but, well, once even Charlie Manuel offered to beat the hell out of Howard Eskin, Doc’s main tormenter. You can’t blame the Doc for getting mad at the King.
Regrettably, Rivers also occasionally stoops to condescension, a petty indulgence unworthy of his noble character.
He’s hurt some feelings, including mine: Yes, I know basketball, Doc, and so do most Sixers fans.
The reality is, in his two seasons, Rivers’ biggest mistakes have come on the podium, not on the court.
Is this optimal? No. Is this irrelevant? Yes.
If you think about it ...
First, to Doc’s most recent assertions, responses concerning his job performance.
His young players got better. His veterans got better. The team won lots of games, made the playoffs both seasons, won two first-round series, then lost in the semifinals largely because of circumstances beyond his control.
“No one picked us to be anywhere!” He’s kind of right, because he began the quote with, “When I first got here.”
In fact, no one did pick the Sixers to secure the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed in the 2020-21 season. They were picked to finish in the middle of the pack.
Doc said nobody expected much of the Sixers again this season. With the Bucks returning as NBA champs and with the Nets loaded with Hall of Fame talent, the Sixers were, in fact, projected to be a second-round loser again. So, in the context of expecting the Sixers to achieve more than they did, Rivers is right.
Further, had prognosticators known that Ben Simmons was going to boycott the entire NBA season, the Sixers would have been picked as first-round losers.
That’s his greater point. Rivers coached spectacularly over the first 54 games without his All-Star, first-team all-defensive point guard. They were 32-22, with Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry in the backcourt and Matisse Thybulle at small forward. Give the man some credit.
What about the playoffs?
The Sixers blew a 2-1 series lead to the Hawks last season, but that was mostly because Simmons refused to attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarters of the last four games of the series. Twist it any way you like, but no team wins when the primary ballhandler won’t shoot.
Why didn’t Doc force Ben to shoot? Because Simmons had been enabled by ownership to be insubordinate, so no, not even Doc could make him shoot.
This season, the Sixers lost to the Heat mainly because Joel Embiid got hurt. The Heat entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed. They dominated the Sixers at home. They won in six games.
Embiid didn’t play the first two games as he recovered from a concussion and an orbital bone fracture in the series finale at Toronto. You want to blame Rivers for the concussion? OK — Embiid got hurt as the Sixers held a 29-point lead with less than 4 minutes to play, and he already was playing with a torn thumb ligament — but it’s a lazy, silly argument.
Rivers’ teams are notorious for giving up leads, and Embiid’s presence secured the big lead. He scored 10 of the Sixers’ last 14 points before he got hurt. Finally, Rivers had planned to call a timeout the first chance he got in order to replace Embiid.
Besides, Embiid didn’t aggravate his thumb injury. He got fouled in the face with a random, reckless elbow.
At any rate, Embiid wasn’t available the first two games in Miami, he wasn’t very good the next four games, and the Sixers lost to a top-seeded team that might have beaten them even if Embiid had been completely healthy.
So, there are the results: unfortunate in circumstance, disappointing in outcome, but completely explainable.
Now, let’s address motivation.
Paid to win
They didn’t play hard when the game got hard.
This was the most damning shortcoming laid at the Sixers’ feet after the Heat series. Tobias Harris said it first and best. Embiid and Maxey co-signed.
This never is the fault of an NBA coach.
Players either want to win, or they don’t, and they almost always have to be elite players. Just twice in the last 41 years has the NBA champion not contained a player who’d won or who would win an MVP award. Titles go to one-name players: Jordan, Magic, Kareem, Kawhi, Duncan, Isiah, Steph, Kobe, Shaq, Garnett, Giannis, and, of course, LeBron.
Nobody ever had to inspire that legion of legends. They inspired themselves.
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and James Harden inspire no one, themselves included. That’s not Doc’s job.
His job is to make them better players. He’s done that particularly well.
Under Doc, Embiid became an MVP candidate. He was better in 2020-21 than he was in 2020, and he was the best player in the NBA this season. His conditioning improved, his diet improved, his game improved: he made his first all-defensive team last season (second team), then led the NBA in scoring this season. He also abandoned his petty social media feuds and provocations.
Under Doc, Maxey, a 21st overall pick in his second NBA season, grew from a backup rookie shooting guard to a passable starting point guard to a lethal wing weapon.
Under Doc, Thybulle, a 20th overall pick in 2020, was a second-team all-defensive pick last season, and his defense made him a starter this season.
Under Doc, Harris, who averaged 19.2 points before a deadline deal landed Harden, remade his game in the middle of his 11th season and became the Sixers’ best player in the playoffs.
Harden? Well, he arrived injured and never got healthy, and the Sixers still went 21-10 in games in which both he and Embiid played, including the playoffs.
Rivers admitted that he needed more time to incorporate Harden. But considering that Rivers had just four practices with Harden between the trade and the end of the season, then had just five more practices with Harden before the playoffs started, that .677 win percentage was impressive.
In fact, it was 30 points better than the Heat managed in the regular season to secure that No. 1 seed.
Terrific job, Doc.©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.