The debate over whether or not Glenn Rivers is the right coach for this team has been raging since the first loss of the year, game one in Boston. After Daryl Morey spent the offseason and a chunk of James Harden’s money filling in the roster with players who were supposed to add depth and be the perfect compliments to their existing stars, the Sixers were expected to charge out of the gate like a furious raging bull, trampling good teams along the way. Instead, there were immediate stumbles, mistakes, and excuses.
The Sixers were supposed to have new depth with a terrific bench. But the first several games Rivers played his starters the lions share of the minutes and gave the new bench inconsistent minutes. Everyone howled about how bad the “improved” bench looked but the real blame should have been placed with how poorly Rivers was using them. The stars, Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey, were all averaging 36+ minutes over a slow, ugly 1-4 start that saw the Sixers underperforming on both sides of the ball.
If a casual fan just watched those first five games they would have come away with the feeling that Rivers only trusted those three star players to do anything with the ball and that everyone else was simply there to be satellites in their orbit. It would have been hard to argue. One can only wonder what Morey was thinking watching the new bench players struggle with undefined roles and inconsistent minutes.
As scary as it has been watching Harden, Maxey, and Embiid struggle with injuries, it has shed a lot of light on questions that the casual fan might have had about this team. “Next man up” only works if the next man up can play, and the 76ers have shown that this bench does have talent, and can step up when given the opportunity. Considering how well they have played with Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker, and a team of bench guys, it is very clearly time to give this bench that opportunity.
Can Doc Rivers learn from this strong stretch with the Sixers’ bench?
Teams only win when everyone knows their role and players know what to expect. Doc began the year with an extremely tight leash and a short hook. If the bench struggled or if something wasn’t working, they got pulled and the Sixers devolved into “star ball”. Very often, if a team needs something to work and it doesn’t, the answer is to just work through it. Give it the necessary time to come together and succeed.
Rivers is not known for admitting his mistakes, and in all likelihood he would probably say that he always intended to take some of the weight off of the stars and give the bench more responsibility. But this current stretch of injuries has forced his hand and shown everyone what this team can look like without their “big three”. This stretch without stars has been fun and exciting to watch, but obviously the team isn’t going far in the playoffs without those aforementioned stars. So, what happens to this tough, smart, scrappy brand of basketball once those start return?
This stretch has exposed Rivers and forced his hand, whether he will ever admit it or not. Once those three all return and round into basketball shape there will officially be no more excuses for poor play, nowhere for anyone to hide. If this team can play consistently intense basketball on both sides, attack the glass, push the ball, pass more than dribble, and keep the opposition off balance without Embiid, Harden, and Maxey, they should be able to improve upon that when they return. That is, unless they fail to play this style of basketball and are once again reduced to playing one on one, force the ball to a star and get out of the way basketball.
So what changes absolutely must happen for this 76ers team to properly utilize what we have learned without the stars? For one thing, Doc has toyed off and on, with no real consistency, with using Tobias Harris as a primary scorer with a bench unit for the last three years. Because that has been used inconsistently, the results have been inconsistent. It’s time to make that a regular thing, because it has worked here, particularly when Harris is on the floor with Shake Milton and De’Anthony Melton. That should be an easy adjustment with zero growing pains: simply take Tobias out first, replace him with Georges Niang, who plays well with Embiid and Harden, and insert Harris with the bench group when you take out the other starters. That’s one easy and obvious fix.
The next change that needs to happen is the one that will truly test whether Rivers is capable of growing and learning as a coach. The bench must, repeat must, get consistent minutes and regular roles. This rotational madness of some nights we see Shake, some nights Furkan Korkmaz, some nights Matisse Thybulle, some nights Danuel House Jr., with no rhyme or reason beyond Glenn’s “gut feel”, absolutely must come to a full and complete stop. It’s no wonder the bench struggles when no one has any idea if or when they are likely to play.
It’s also in the long term best interest of this group’s playoff hopes to sit their stars down more often. Less wear and tear on the legs will only make them stronger in May, when they will really be needed. Even if it means some initial growing pains, this bench has proven they deserve more minutes, and Morey filled this bench to give them those minutes. It would be in the best interest of everyone, stars and bench alike, to keep the minutes of the “big three” to 30-32 minutes per game. In Milwaukee, the Bucks have kept Giannis’ minutes in the 32 range for years, allowing him to go 100 miles an hour, and then rest and trust the bench. That should be the model to follow.
Without a consistent role and consistent minutes no one can play their best, so the bench minutes should be roughly the same, night in, and night out, regardless of the moment, regardless of the opposition. The rotation will, of course, tighten in the playoffs, but the goal should be to be fresh once they get there. In a year like this, with so much parity, the home court advantage will mean less than ever, so seeding should not be a concern.
Milton, Melton, Niang, and Paul Reed have all proven that they deserve more time and will be helpful assets when properly utilized. They are the ones most deserving of those additional 16- 18 minutes of time. Arguments can be made for Furk, Montrez Harrel, House Jr., and Thybulle to also get more time but the rotation should be consistent, so barring further injuries only one of those four should get that bump to consistent playing time. Good luck to Rivers choosing that, but that’s why he gets paid the big bucks.
This bench group has been so exciting and fun to watch because they are playing smart, fundamental basketball. Move the ball, swing it around the perimeter, drive and kick, pass more than dribble, move without the ball, don’t stand and watch, and attack the offensive glass. That style of play does not lend itself to “hero ball”, and it’s in the 76ers best interest to continue that, even when the “heroes” return. Fast, aggressive basketball on both sides keeps the opposition on their heels and that is how games are won. Save the heroics for the playoffs, when it matters.
If this team struggles when the stars return that tells everyone that Rivers is stubbornly refusing to learn from these games and would prefer to slam into the same walls over and over again just to prove that he was right all along. Those issues have followed him from his days with the Clippers and we are seeing the exact same problems here. If he can make these changes, this team can contend, and if not he needs to go.
A team that is this deep and talented desperately needs a flexible, creative coach who will properly utilize the skills of every player, not just the stars. There have been a number of arguments among the fans and media either for or against Glenn Rivers as the coach in Philadelphia, but this is truly going to be the acid test. This season has shown everyone all they need to see. The talent is here, and they are capable of playing well together. If they play well, Rivers can cement his place as an all-time great coach, If they don’t, there is truly only one man to blame. And replace.