NBA: Are the Philadelphia 76ers exactly what the Doc ordered?

NBA: Are the Philadelphia 76ers exactly what the Doc ordered?

The NBA offseason has been fairly quiet as some are still celebrating the Los Angeles Lakers’ first championship since 2010 in the wake of their beloved Kobe Bryant’s passing. But the 2020 NBA draft is drawing near as we’re about three weeks away from the NBA’s next wave of young talent. The only buzz created around the association though has been head coach vacancies being filled as the Pacers, 76ers, Bulls, and Clippers will all have new play callers on the sidelines next season. The Pacers recently hired former Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren to take over head coach duties. The Clippers recently just confirmed the hiring of assistant coach Tyronn Lue to be their next head coach after parting ways with former coach Doc Rivers. The Bulls were one of the first teams to make a head coaching move by hiring NBA Coach of the Year Billy Donovan. The 76ers hired former Clippers coach Doc Rivers after cutting ties with former coach Brett Brown after seven seasons.

It wasn’t too long ago the 76ers were just a couple of Kawhi Leonard lucky bounces of eliminating the then future NBA champion Toronto Raptors to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. A lot has changed since then as formerly known Sixer, Jimmy Butler, signed with the Miami Heat and is fresh off of an NBA Finals trip. The Sixers re-signed score first swingman Tobias Harris to a 5 year/ $180 million deal last offseason and also inked stretch big man Al Horford to a 4 year/$109 million dollar deal as well. In return, via the same sign and trade that allowed Jimmy Butler to sign with Miami, the Sixers got shooting guard Josh Richardson. With all the additions and aspirations to be one of the elite two-way teams in the league, the Sixers were pre-season heavyweights in the Eastern Conference. 

The Sixers had an up and down season as starters were in and out of the lineup all year. Their young duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid continued to take the next steps in their games with both being named Eastern Conference All-Stars. This was the second consecutive season the Sixers featured a player being named to both an All-NBA and All-Defensive team with Simmons achieving the feat in 2020 and Embiid doing so last year.

Even with the success of their franchise players, the 76ers underperformed finishing with a record of 43-30 after 50 plus win campaigns the previous two years. Some of the 76ers inconsistency this year drew questions about whether Horford could really exist in the frontcourt with Embiid. Was Brett Brown the right coach for the “process”? Would Ben Simmons ever be able to expand his game to the next level by developing a jump shot? Would Joel Embiid ever commit to staying in the paint?

Part of the decline in team success was due to the health of Simmons himself who partially dislocated his patella in his left knee in the Sixers’ third regular-season game in the bubble. Prior to that, back in February, Simmons injured his back and it was discovered that he was dealing with a lower back impingement that held him out for a month. With Simmons out, the Sixers failed to fill his void on both sides of the floor and were exposed by the Celtics in a first-round sweep. 

The 76ers brought in Doc Rivers to be the savior for this young talented team and help turn them from a perennial playoff team into hopefully, a legit powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. A couple of glaring issues with the 76ers is the spacing and roster makeup. The 76ers, as of right now, have 10 guards on their roster. Where the league is heading, guards dictate everything, and the game is tailored to them more than anyone because of the three-point line and spacing. The value of traditional big men is being diluted year in and year out.

The first thing Doc Rivers & the Sixers must do is to find a complimentary big man that can stretch the floor and start alongside Joel Embiid. Al Horford can stretch the floor here and there, but it’s usually out of pick and pop or drive and kick situations where he became effective, especially during his time in Boston.  Horford, a part of the small ball Celtics, was productive stretching the floor when he’s at center. In Philadelphia, he’s being asked to play alongside Embiid who just like Horford, does most of his damage in the paint and low post area.

It’s much more difficult to generate any offense with two big men who share the same scoring strengths, especially in today’s league, that pulls bigs to the perimeter. Embiid has caught a lot of slack for constantly floating towards the perimeter on offense and his three-point attempts. But to his credit, it does help the overall spacing. Yes, Embiid has tended to forget how unstoppable he can be if he devoted most of his time to going back to the basket in the post, but the talent is there and we all know that. Joel Embiid can be the best big man in the NBA whenever he’d like. He can shoot the 3, shoot midrange, he can score in both pick and roll situations, in the post, just pretty much everywhere.

Ben Simmons is handicapped as a scoring threat from the perimeter and the whole league knows this. They run all these high pick and pop’s with Embiid not just so Embiid can take jumpers of his own, but also so Simmons can use his freakish athleticism to get to the rim for scoring opportunities. Not many are as dangerous as him when he gets a full head of steam. But instead of trying to get him to be someone he isn’t, why doesn’t Philly just try to tailor to his strengths first while he works on becoming more effective in that department? Simmons, without a doubt, will have to come back with more assertion and aggressiveness taking perimeter jumpers but it goes hand and hand with the offense the head coach has designed for its ball handlers and playmakers.

Former Houston Rockets head coach, Mike D’Antoni, instituted a system for Russell Westbrook this past season. Even though Westbrook has been a better jump shooter than Simmons thus far in his illustrated career, D’Antoni adapted to Westbrooks’ pros and opened the lanes for him to utilize his speed and athletic ability even at the age of 31. Westbrook’s numbers, post the trade of Clint Capela, skyrocketed as he was posting near 30 points a night since.

The 76ers don’t have to entertain trading away Horford or Embiid, but potentially moving Horford to the bench would be most beneficial to the team. Replacing Horford with a more suitable complementary frontcourt piece to Embiid in the starting lineup may really do wonders for their offense. This won’t be Doc Rivers’ first rodeo with his starting point guard not being a perimeter scoring threat. 

During his tenure as head coach of the rival Boston Celtics, Rajon Rondo was running his offense. Rondo, who’s fresh off of his championship with the Lakers, shares some of the same qualities as 76ers point guard Ben Simmons. Rondo was never quite the shooter as his opponents always went under screen and dared him to take outside jumpers. Just like Simmons, Rondo is also a gifted playmaker, floor general, and even though he lacks the size and athleticism that Simmons possesses, has always been an elite defender. Rondo’s numerously led the league in assists, been named to All-Star and All-Defensive teams and some of that credit does go to Doc Rivers who helped mold Rondo into the player he is today.

Ben Simmons’ ability to utilize his combination of size and speed to attack the rim as well as create scoring opportunities for others is as rare as they come in our league. For his career,  Simmons averages eight assists a game. So we know the more space and shooters he has around him will only help this team reach its desired ceiling. The 76ers must address Simmons’s strengths. It’ll be interesting to see if Rivers will try to duplicate a similar formula to maximize Ben Simmons’s talent as he did with Rondo.

Horford not being present on the court at the same time as Embiid for long stretches will open up room for 3-level scorer Tobias Harris who can create off the dribble, post up, and shoot from the perimeter. It’s worth noting Harris’ career year where he posted 20.9 points a night on just under 50% from the field came as a member of the Clippers back in 2018 with Doc Rivers as his head coach. Slashers, just like Simmons, Josh Richardson, and Matisse Thybulle aren’t nearly as effective with both Horford and Embiid trying to co-exist in the frontcourt.

When elaborating about taking the head coaching job here in Philly, Rivers says this Sixers squad is “loaded” with talent and if he didn’t believe the team had a chance to compete immediately for championships, he would just rather have taken the year off. There’s no ceiling on how great this team can be on the defensive side of the ball. We know Simmons and Embiid can be elite defenders when they want to. Matisse Thybulle came into the league as a defensive pest and specialist and he’s perfect next to Simmons to wreak havoc on opposing team’s guards and forwards. Josh Richardson, who’s the Miami Heat’s all-time leader for blocks by a guard, is a solid 3-D threat and is a versatile defender that can check the 1-3. The talent has always been there for the Philadelphia 76ers, that’s not the question. The question is can the “Ubuntu” enthusiast’s teachings lead the city of brotherly love to the NBA promise land?

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