Doc Rivers has perhaps the NBA’s toughest coaching job.
He’s leading a 76ers squad that has high expectations despite the fact that Joel Embiid and James Harden, their All-Star tandem, don’t fit. Nor does the team have a true point guard or towering backup center on the roster. In addition, some of the team’s ballyhooed offseason acquisitions haven’t lived up to the hype.
Yet Rivers is destined to become the fall guy if the Sixers can’t overcome their shortcomings.
Listen to local sports talk radio, view social media or even bump into a neighbor, and folks are saying it’s time for Rivers to go.
Fans are all but begging managing partner Josh Harris and team president of basketball operations Daryl Morey to duplicate what the Phillies did.
On June 3, with a 22-29 record and a decade-long postseason drought, the Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi and replaced him with bench coach Rob Thomson on an interim basis.
» READ MORE: Sixers are happy to welcome Joel Embiid back from the flu, especially with James Harden’s absence
Under Thomson’s leadership, the Phillies went on to play in the World Series. Along the way, the team dropped the interim tag and gave a two-year contract extension to Thomson.
Some fans want Morey and Harris to elevate Rivers’ trusted assistant Sam Cassell in a similar capacity.
The Sixers are 4-6 and in jeopardy of posting their second three-game skid of the early season heading into Monday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns at the Wells Fargo Center. At 1-4, the Sixers have the NBA’s worst home record.
Ten games does not make a season, especially not an 82-game campaign.
But anything less than an Eastern Conference finals appearance would be deemed a failure for the Sixers. At first glance, it’s obvious they’re a long way from contending for a conference title at the moment. And if we’re honest, it has nothing to do with Harden being out a month with a strained tendon in his right foot. The Sixers were 4-5 with the perennial All-NBA selection, who missed his first game on Friday.
But the Six’ struggles aren’t Rivers’ fault. This is a tough team to coach, because the styles of Embiid and Harden don’t mix.
Harden is ball-dominant and has made a career of thriving in isolation plays. Embiid, a perennial All-Star, is at his best when the Sixers play through him. He’s mostly been out of sync and had poor body language while playing alongside Harden this season.
PJ Tucker, the team’s top offseason acquisition, is a vocal leader, but he has struggled on the defensive end. It could be a result of not fully being recovered from offseason knee surgery, getting used to the Sixers’ scheme, or just a product of being 37 years old.
» READ MORE: Sixers entered 2022-23 NBA season with high expectations, but several daunting questions linger
The Sixers also signed Montrezl Harrell as the backup center. Though undersized at 6-foot-7, he can provide instant offense. However, he’s not afraid to voice his displeasure when things aren’t going his way. The team misses the luxury of having solid backup centers like Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard at its disposal. And the roster doesn’t have a true backup point guard the Sixers could elevate to the starting lineup with Harden sidelined.
“This ain’t easy, man,” Georges Niang said. “And you think about it like, you are bringing new pieces together. We’re 10 games into the year. I hate to compare ourselves to other teams, but Boston [struggled early last season] and flipped the switch and went to [the NBA Finals].
“People forget they were 40 games in and got on a run. You want to get hot at the right time.”
The Celtics had an identical 4-6 record and were tied for 11th place in the conference standings through 10 games last season. They were 20-21 through the halfway mark before going 31-10 the rest of the way.
“We’re still figuring things out and figuring what works,” Niang said. “Like, Doc didn’t coach PJ last year. He didn’t coach PJ with the other pieces that we have. So you have to figure all that out. …Now James is going to be out.”
Embiid has also been out, missing the last three games with the flu. In addition, he sat out the Oct. 28 victory over the Toronto Raptors to rest his right knee.
“We played 10 games and Joel has only been available for six of them,” Niang said. “So you have to give this stuff time. And [Rivers is] a Hall of Fame coach. He’s one of the best coaches of all time.”
Rivers, 61, is ninth all-time in NBA regular-season coaching victories with a 1,047-741 regular-season record in stops with the Orlando Magic, Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers, and Sixers.
» READ MORE: The show will go on with James Harden out. But what will the Sixers do when he returns?
Rivers, in his 24th season, also ranks fourth on the list of all-time NBA postseason coaching victories (104) behind Phil Jackson (229), Pat Riley (171), and Gregg Popovich (170).
In conjunction with the NBA’s 75th anniversary, Rivers was named one of the 15 greatest coaches in NBA history before last season’s All-Star break. The highlight of his career was leading the Celtics to the 2008 NBA title.
But he’s dealing with new pressure and perhaps unrealistic expectations when it comes to the Sixers.
A lot of people picked them to win the championship, thinking we would see the Harden and Tucker of old. They were also thinking Tyrese Maxey would be an unquestioned All-Star. While he has elevated his game, he may be a couple of seasons away from that happening.
Harden has looked better than last season after his rigorous offseason workout plan. However, the 33-year-old still hasn’t regained the elite explosiveness he displayed as a three-time scoring champion and the 2018 league MVP with the Rockets.
Meanwhile, Tucker has looked slow and out of position on the defensive end, and opposing wings are taking advantage of that.
Even in this tumultuous start, Rivers has tried to keep things positive. That hasn’t sat well with fans who are getting fed up with him spinning things to make them look better than they actually are. Rivers’ rotations and in-game adjustments have also been a sore subject. That he has blown an NBA-record three 3-1 playoff leads in addition to failing to reach a conference final in his last six postseason appearances is also a hot topic.
But Rivers has won a lot of games, and is among a small number of active coaches with an NBA title. So he definitely knows more about the game than some think.
» READ MORE: Suns vs. 76ers player props: Chris Paul over first quarter assists, Joel Embiid under rebound total
He has developed Maxey into a star player, and Embiid has had his best two seasons under him.
That hasn’t stopped fans from expressing their desire to see Rivers fired, and he appears to be on the hot seat.
“I think in our locker room, we are all rallying around each other and how can we all make each other better,” Niang said. “And I think Doc is a spearhead for that. He’s always been a team guy first since I’ve known him and since he’s coached me.
“I think that goes a long way, more than people think. And I think it’s unfair for them to say that.”