At 5-7 and with championship aspirations, the Sixers have had a disappointing start to their season. There have been problems with the team across the board and most of the finger-pointing has been directed at embattled coach Doc Rivers.
“Bill Simmons has been saying for weeks on his podcast Doc could be the first coach fired. Certainly, people are chattering about that in the league ecosystem, but I don’t know how much that chatter is actually reality,” Zach Lowe recently mentioned in an episode of The Lowe Post.
Rivers has faced criticism for years, and it’s only intensifying. Philadelphia residents have gone so far as to make epic diss tracks calling for his firing. How much of that criticism is deserved, and how much is unfair?
The Sixers ugly but effective offense under Rivers
The Sixers’ offense has been a stagnant, my-turn-your-turn mess. James Harden in particular has been dribbling the air out of the ball and has created a ton of disjointed, ugly possessions.
Twenty-dribble, no pass possession from Harden. pic.twitter.com/mMxqytSney
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) October 30, 2022
While the oftentimes-unimaginative, slow, foul-baiting style of isolation-heavy offense is unbearable to watch, it is perhaps unfair to criticize Rivers too much for it because of how effective it’s been. The team was ranked fourth in the NBA in offensive rating before Harden started missing time with a right foot tendon sprain on Nov. 3.
On top of that, Harden had been one of the best isolation players in the league, averaging a solid 1.16 points per possession. As a frame of reference, the Sixers’ overall offense has scored 1.11 points per possession. At that rate, why wouldn’t Rivers allow Harden to isolate as much as possible?
The math is the math, and Rivers shouldn’t be faulted for going with it. Former Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni used similar logic in having Harden isolate constantly, as D’Antoni told podcaster Ben Taylor during a recent appearance on the Thinking Basketball podcast.
“If that one-on-one was not efficient, we wouldn’t do it. But we tracked it. It was doing 1.21 or 1.22 [points per possession], something ridiculous. 1.16 for a long time was the standard for the best offense that a team had.”
With Harden gone, the Sixers have been struggling to score, and Rivers can take some blame for that lack of adaptability. They’ve been the worst offense in the league through those three games as of Nov. 11.
READ: How long is James Harden out?
Sixers transition defense has been abysmal
The real problems for the Sixers have been on the defensive side of the ball, where they’re ranked 19th overall. The team’s halfcourt defense hasn’t been great, but where they are getting pummeled is in transition defense, where they’re showing a shocking lack of effort throughout games. Their defense is ranked 26th in the league in points added in transition, per Cleaning the Glass.
The effort on this transition defense by the Sixers is woof. pic.twitter.com/hCStn03n90
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) October 27, 2022
There’s no magic scheme to try and fix these issues. The team simply needs to be motivated to try harder and not make fake attempts at effort, like Tyrese Maxey making a wild lunge for the ball or Harden jogging slowly back into the play as shown above.
That Rivers isn’t able to get better effort is a legitimate and serious critique against the job he’s done this season.
Sixers are not executing Rivers’ schemes across the board
That lack of execution shows up throughout all areas of Sixers games. Rivers’ lineup choices can be befuddling, but he isn’t the horrendous tactician that he’s made out to be. What stands out upon watching the Sixers is not a cripplingly-bad strategy or too few Paul Reed minutes, but that their gameplans are not being executed well. The players seem to be tuning Rivers out to some degree, as evidenced by their play on the floor.
Need examples? In their home opener loss to the Bucks, the players were ignoring Rivers’ instructions from the sidelines, allowing the Bucks to tie the game in regulation and win in overtime.
Pretty horrific execution there from 76ers. Let them roll it all the way up, Doc signaling they have a foul to give and they don’t foul. Then falling asleep on the drive and kick giving up a 3. Phew. pic.twitter.com/2YrCXlm5h1
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) October 21, 2022
In their next game, losing 114-105 to a Spurs team playing in a road back-to-back, Rivers noted that his team did not look prepared.
Doc Rivers, on the Sixers right now: “We’re not ready yet, honestly. We’re just not. We’re not ready to win yet. You can feel that. We got a lot of work to do.”
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) October 23, 2022
And in a 119-109 loss to the Raptors four days later, Rivers again noted his frustration at his team not listening to him.
“[The offense] can be such a better offense if we just played right. If we spaced the floor more, played a little faster, and didn’t turn the ball over,” Rivers told reporters.
Plays that the coaching staff are calling after made free throws look horrendously executed, and transition defense continues to be a problem.
Off a made FT, the Sixers:
-Don’t cross halfcourt until 17 on the clock
-Ball doesn’t break the 3-point line until 2 on the clock
-Tucker & asst. coach yelling that the play’s not being run right
-Maxey & House disappear off the broadcast
-Sixers still give up a transition dunk. pic.twitter.com/RQVo5jfo3n
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 11, 2022
Rivers’ greatest purported strength has been his ability to relate to players. If that is gone, then why exactly are the Sixers keeping him around?
It’s still very early in the season, and Rivers has a lot of time left to right the ship. But there is championship-caliber talent on this roster. If these troubling trends hold up and Rivers’ messaging isn’t getting through, then that could be enough justification to finally turn the page on his time in Philadelphia.