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Doc Rivers Q&A with Liberty Ballers

Featuring your questions!

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks-Press Conference Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Last weel, we asked readers to pose their Doc Rivers-related questions for Liberty Ballers, our SB Nation sister site covering the Philadelphia 76ers. We got plenty of questions, and a few Sixers fans even came over from LB to offer their own responses to what Bucks fans were asking. With the dust settled and Rivers’ Milwaukee debut about four hours away, my counterpart Paul Hudrick is here with answers! Huge thanks to him on behalf of the Brew Hoop staff, and please go check out the work of his team over at Liberty Ballers, plus follow Paul on Twitter/X.

All of Australia asks: If Nick Nurse retired tomorrow, would you take Griffin or Rivers as [Philly’s] new head coach?

Wow, we are NOT easing into these! Neither would be the correct pick, but if those were the only two choices, I’d go Doc. For all of Rivers’ shortcomings in the postseason, he did lead the Sixers to excellent regular seasons. In his first year, they were the top seed in the East. Last season, the Sixers had the best record in the NBA from Dec. 1 on. I’m legitimately not sure if Adrian Griffin is an NBA head coach—the Bucks didn’t seem to think so!

Air Giannis asks: How does Doc use the pick & roll to such a high success rate? The CP3 & Griffin and Harden & Embiid success has me very excited about how he’ll utilize Dame & Giannis.

Well, it helps that all the players you mentioned are likely Hall of Famers. The Sixers had one of the best offenses in the NBA last season in part because Rivers recognized he could utilize what Harden loves to do (pick-and-roll prodding) and what Embiid loves to do (operate from the elbow and nail) in one action. I think what Doc does well is figure out what his best players like/where they feel most comfortable and then puts them in those spots offensively.

The concern came with the other three guys on the floor. The Sixers frequently had spacing issues and had so many possessions become stagnant come playoff time. We’ve already seen what more ball and player movement has done for Embiid this season.

Air Giannis also asks: What is his defensive philosophy or scheme? Will Brook be good in it or should we be finding a quicker C to run his scheme?

This is a little tricky because of the James Harden factor. Harden was a player who wanted to switch everything instead of fighting through screens. That sort of became the Sixers’ de facto defense as a result. Previously, they had Ben Simmons, who was one of the best defenders in the league before his recent health issues.

Give Rivers credit in that the Sixers still boasted a top-ten defense despite Harden and Tyrese Maxey both being in the starting lineup. The Sixers also became a better zone team under Rivers. Though it’s fair to note that longtime Pacers assistant Dan Burke (now with the Pistons) was Rivers’ defensive coordinator in Philly.

Brook Lopez is similar to Joel Embiid defensively in that their obvious strength is rim protection. Embiid does move his feet pretty darn well for his size and would occasionally switch in certain matchups, but Rivers valued his presence at the rim more than anything.

Cervarello asks: Is he any sort of offensive or defensive genius? He’s always had star players on his teams which can skew if someone runs actual plays or just lets his guys play. I’d like to see someone ignite the Dame/Giannis pairing to a level I think most fans expected to start the year. Defensively is he going to run a scheme that much different [than Griffin] that will hide some of these players' weaknesses?

So, I would expect the Giannis-Dame pairing to take off under Doc. Clearly, the Bucks’ offense hasn’t really been the issue this year, but I can understand fans wanting more out of their superstar pairing. Rivers will likely find the best way to utilize both players together.

Credit where it’s due, Rivers was the one who started utilizing Embiid at the elbows/nail as a way for his star center to avoid double teams and see the floor better. There was a story I’d heard that Rivers one day asked Tobias Harris which way he was more comfortable driving to get into his shot. Harris said he could do either, but Rivers got out of him that he felt more comfortable going left. That was ahead of Harris’ best season as a Sixer.

I think where Rivers got into the most trouble was when the things that were his linchpins on both ends stopped working. When the Celtics were able to sort of solve the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, we didn’t see much in the way of counters from Rivers. Defensively, it’s hard to know how much was him and how much was Burke, but defense was not the issue with the Sixers against Boston. Again, credit there for the defense being solid despite two below-average defenders in Harden and Maxey (though the trio of Embiid, Harris, and P.J. Tucker was excellent defensively in that series).

SidtheSquid asks: In the balance between strong culture vs. individual excellence, Doc seems like he prizes culture over individual performance. Do you agree? Was that a key factor in the disconnect with Philly players?

Have to say, I’m not sure there was a strong “disconnect” for any players not named James Harden (and previously Ben Simmons).

I will remind everyone of a kind of bizarre situation involving Maxey though. Maxey suffered a broken bone in his foot and was out awhile. When he returned, Rivers brought him off the bench as a way to ease Maxey back in. As time went on, Rivers stuck with De’Anthony Melton in the starting lineup. The bizarre part is Rivers told us it was Maxey’s idea to come off the bench. In the time since we’ve learned it was definitely not Maxey’s idea. And frankly, Maxey came off the bench probably about two weeks too long.

What makes it weirder is that I’m not sure what Doc was doing. Maxey is one of the hardest-working and most humble players I’ve ever covered. If there was some sort of message being sent, I’m not sure what it was. And why lie about it? There were a few odd instances like this during Rivers’ tenure, including his decision to play DeAndre Jordan over Paul Reed—and going after reporters for questioning it. Simply put: if you have any hope of a younger player getting a bigger role, prepare to be disappointed.

Overall, the culture was mostly fine under Rivers. The one area the team really improved was the games where Embiid sat. Harden’s presence and the emergence of Maxey helped, but it’s worth noting that he seemed to change the way the team handled those spots. And as we’ve seen, Rivers often excels in situations where his team is shorthanded.

remember ‘71 (as well as a few others with similar questions) asks: I’m curious to hear how the Sixers community feels about how Doc handled the Simmons situation. At the time it felt a little cruel and unnecessary and kind of broke the unwritten rule of coaches not publicly criticizing players. Maybe it was warranted? Or had happened before and he was trying to motivate Ben? But it really seems like Simmons has never fully recovered and now Doc seems to also take cheap shots at Harden lately—feels a little concerning for the Bucks.

This is another situation that Doc handled in a peculiar way. Simmons really had terrific moments in Philly, but everyone saw what happened to him in the postseason. While all those flaws were present when Rivers took over, he largely ignored them publicly. In fact, any chance Rivers got, he would be overly effusive in his praise of Simmons and crush reporters who were critical.

In the Sixers’ first-round series against the Wizards, Simmons had a game where he had fifteen assists but scored only six points and went 0-for-6 from the free throw line. When a reporter asked Doc about his concern level over Simmons’ lack of scoring and struggles at the line, Rivers went in on the reporter and called Simmons “a treasure.”

So, that’s why when Doc ultimately gave an honest answer about Simmons, it was so jarring. Think the Sixers community is likely split. Simmons was a lightning rod for criticism here because he didn’t always have the best attitude when asked about improving his game. By the same token, Rivers did put the franchise in a difficult spot that Daryl Morey was luckily able to salvage.

The comment was probably fair, but again, Rivers’ handling of the situation was bizarre and clearly hurt the team (and possibly Simmons).

Mitchell Maurer asks: Why didn’t things work out with Doc Rivers in Philly? Was it a series of coaching gaffes, or does the roster construction and/or player performance play a role in the Sixers not making it past the second round under Rivers’ tenure?

Like with any team, it’s a combination of things.

Embiid still has yet to have a fully healthy postseason run. It’s difficult to assess any coach with that context. I’d add that the Sixers had the Celtics on the ropes last year after winning Game 5 in Boston and holding a late lead in a potential closeout Game 6 in Philly. So, Rivers probably got the Sixers as close as they’ve come to the ECF in the Embiid era.

With that said, Rivers was far from perfect from a coaching perspective. Once Boston figured out the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll—basically daring Harden to drive and finish—there was no counter from Rivers. If you watch the last six minutes or so of that Game 6, the offense is painfully predictable. It was also on the players, as the few good looks they did get didn’t go down.

His decisions in the Hawks series were even more mind-numbing. In Game 1, Doc opened the series using veteran Danny Green on Trae Young. It took Young carving up the Sixers for a whole half before he made the change to Simmons. And if you look at the rest of the series, Simmons almost totally shut Trae down. Rivers also continued to use Dwight Howard as a backup center with Simmons on the floor. It was a complete spacing nightmare and led to the team cratering whenever Embiid went to the bench. And the team’s collapse in Game 5 will forever be one of the worst moments in Sixers postseason history.

The biggest issue with Rivers is his rigidity. Whether it’s playing all-bench lineups, refusing to play younger players who are so obviously better than veterans, or refusing to adjust once the opponent shuts the water off on go-to actions—the lack of adjustments by Doc was likely a huge factor in the team moving on.

One more, major thanks to Paul for taking the time to answer your questions!