MIAMI — Before everybody dives too gleefully into the search for Doc Rivers’ replacement, they should at least do the man the favor of acknowledging that he has no good options. He may not even have an option that one would qualify as the least bad.
Sometimes, a team is just plain screwed, and there is a very high probability that the Sixers currently qualify as such a team. Nobody needed to watch their 106-92 loss to the Heat on Monday before contemplating such a scenario. We had an 82-game sample that said top-seeded Miami entered this postseason as the better team, and that the Sixers entered it within striking distance only because they enjoyed MVP-caliber production on two ends of the court at a position where many of their opponents barely had adequacy. Take away the MVP and replace him with something less than that and it only makes sense that the gap will widen. Lo and behold, here we are.
There are a variety of reasons why Rivers spent Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals saddled with the full and undivided weight of the social media commentariat’s sacred responsibility for assigning real-time blame. One or two of these were valid, and we will evaluate those shortly, but most of them were coping mechanisms deployed out of necessity to keep a suffocating existential despair at bay long enough to derive some degree of meaning out of 48 minutes of basketball.
Sometimes, blame is a necessary characteristic of hope. Without some reason to believe that the Sixers can overcome Joel Embiid’s absence and win four out of seven games against a higher-seeded team, this series loses all of its dramatic tension. And, at that point, everybody might as well go clean out the garage or waterproof the deck or watch the Phillies.
Again, I make these observations only in the interest of fairness to all parties involved. Any critique of Rivers needs to be made within the proper context, lest we mis-assign priority levels to the issues facing this Sixers team. The latter is an easy thing to do whenever the topic is an NBA team and its coach.
The coach is the easiest variable to change, and, thus, when a team’s outcomes needs to change, it is easiest to believe that changing the coach will do the trick. Yet such focus often serves chiefly to obscure the more pressing and less movable issues confronting a team. This is particularly true in the Sixers’ current circumstances because their current circumstances look eerily similar to the prior circumstances, not just those they faced under Rivers in last year’s conference semis loss but in their two such losses with the coach whom Rivers replaced.
Now, as then, they are a team built around a player with transcendent talent and production but with a style of play that consistently leaves them needing to win their biggest games without him playing at full strength (or, in this case, at all). Now, as then, they are a team that does not appear to have another player who — at least in his current form — is capable of anchoring a championship team. Now, as then, they do not have the depth that might make up for the absence of either of the aforementioned players.
In more specific terms, the biggest issues that the Sixers exposed in Game 1 were as follows: 1) James Harden is nowhere close to the singular scoring talent who played for Daryl Morey in Houston, and, thus, is not a guy who can single-handedly keep the Sixers competitive when they do not have Embiid. 2) The Sixers sacrificed some critical depth to acquire and accommodate Harden, leaving him without the supporting cast he needs in his current form. 3) Such a team is going to win approximately 0% of the games that it plays in which it shoots 6-for-34 from three-point range.
As for Rivers, the biggest problem is that he coached like a man who was resigned to all of the above realities. Game 1 was a game where the Sixers needed to show something that nobody expected. And, in the end, they showed pretty much exactly what everybody expected.
Rivers had a chance to come up with something that would at least have acknowledged the depth of the circumstances. Instead, he positioned himself as a helpless victim of them. The Sixers did not have their MVP big man, nor a big man who could come close to doing MVP things. But instead of going back to the drawing board, he went with the biggest man he had, and then moved on to the next one, even as it became increasingly evident how such a path would end. And even after the final results were in, and the Sixers had been outscored by 22 points with DeAndre Jordan on the court, and Paul Reed had a foul to give for posterity, Rivers doubled down.
“We like D.J.,” Rivers said. “We’re going to keep starting him whether you like it or not.”
The problem with that statement wasn’t the combativeness, or the self-consciousness, or the stubbornness. It’s the honesty. Rivers did not seem to be lying, or over-compensating, or sticking up for his man. He really believes that having Jordan on the court for 17 minutes gives his team its best chance to win. And maybe he’s right. But shouldn’t he at least have a suspicion that the size of that chance is not nearly enough for his team to actually win? And, if he does, doesn’t it make sense for him to at least test his belief that there are no better options? Whatever happened to dying on your feet instead of living on your knees?
This isn’t just about Jordan. It’s about the overall lack of inventiveness and gumption that we saw from the Sixers on both ends of the floor. Instead of trying to frustrate or confuse or surprise the Heat on the defensive end, they spent most of the night in a matchup zone that was the opposite of desperate. Hope is not a strategy. Not surprisingly, hope alone did not work.
It was telling that Rivers emptied his bench with five minutes left and a 20-point deficit, a wide enough window that they would later have a defensive possession that could have given them a chance to cut it to single digits with 1:31 left.
Rivers coached like a man who knew he did not have any answers. On the one hand, that’s not ideal. On the other, he was probably right.