Doc Rivers needs more than motivational tactics to reach James Harden
It only took 15 games of watching James Harden for Doc Rivers to get worked up. After a loss to the Detroit Pistons last night — the team’s third straight — where the 76ers got all eight points off the bench, the coach didn’t blame them for the lack of production.
“Well, they didn’t struggle, they didn’t have a lot of shots, in their defense,” Rivers said Thursday (by PhillyVoice). “I think during that period it was more James [Harden] than them. So, you know, yeah, it’s just a rough night.
He went on to say that his team looked lifeless, didn’t play together and remained on the offensive. One of the calling cards of a Harden-infected team is stagnation, with his teammates – or him – staring at the ball as token “ground spacers” while one guy – usually him – plays cake with it. a defender until they step back 3, execute a pick-and-roll, drive and kick/lob, foul, or make/miss a rim shot.
If that sentence sounded convoluted, it kind of was, but I wanted to describe a Harden offense in one sentence because it’s possible to describe a Harden offense in one sentence. You can’t really do that with guys like Chris Paul, Giannis Antetokuonmpo or Steph Curry because they make their teammates better on and off the ball.
Rivers has his own shortcomings as a coach and will lose a power struggle this offseason if Philly looks for a scapegoat for a disappointing playoff exit because Harden is Daryl Morey’s monster. The coach’s attacking system apparently only barks at teamwork and ball movement, while leaving it up to his players to figure out how they’re supposed to work together and move the ball with a goal, e.g. opposed to a simple hot potato around the perimeter. .
This time I wasn’t even trying to condense an offensive philosophy into one bite, it just happened that way. Doc’s strategy, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons why he oversaw a ton of playoff meltdowns.
However, he might not even get his team in a favorable position to breathe as the 76ers fell to fourth in the East, and could face a feisty Bulls team that brought back a few key players from injury. (Alex Caruso and Pat Williams both made clutch plays on the team comeback win over the Clippers Thursday, and Chicago – unlike Philly – continues to pull for each other despite their ups and downs.)
The Rivers-Harden combination should scare Sixers fans because, on the one hand, you have a player who only wants to play his way, and on the other, you have a coach trying to make him conform to a more theoretical system than X and Os.
Going to hell on a guy in the media is a motivational tactic, not a scheme change. If Harden ignores the game plan, that’s one thing. It’s an entirely different thing if Rivers kicks the ball around and expects the guys to be full Hoosiers without guidance.
In the middle is Joel Embiid, who had 37 and 15 boards in the loss. He attempted to share the lead role with Harden for a few games, falling short of his season average for field goal attempts (19), four of the first five games he played alongside his new running mate. Since then he’s said “Fuck it”, and got at least 19 shots in every appearance. The team is .500 in those 10 games and 9-6 overall when Harden adjusts.
I honestly think the Philadelphia faithful loved the iteration of this team which was Embiid doing the work of a yeoman on his way to an MVP, and a bunch of average to above average roleplayers and Tobias Harris filling in the shortcomings. Fans love the cohesion and chemistry – something that is continually taken for granted by the organization every time it “levels up” via trade.
We’ve seen teams make deep runs in the playoffs with two All-Stars and a plethora of scrubs, and the way they’re able to do that is as a collective. Yes, the big names do the heavy lifting, but the attention they demand allows extra players to fill in.
Killing Harden on Rivers’ comments is easy until you watch the guy leveling the criticism. If it was too late for Beard to change the game, what happened in Brooklyn last year when he turned into an enabler? Maybe he wants to get back to his old life when he was allowed by Mike D’Antoni and Morey to overindulge like parents who keep giving their child money despite an obvious drug problem.
The way he operates and the way he forced a trade with his former GM certainly speaks to that. If you had Harden regressing to his old self even though he might not have been his old self, congratulations, you’re the millionth writer to do so, and your prize is to throw your catch into the echo chamber with others.
That said, it’s up to the trainer to figure out how to get his new cornerstone to stick with his philosophy rather than letting him crumble at the bar of recoil and bitching about it.
There’s a multiverse where Embiid and Harden work together to make life miserable for the rest of the NBA. In this universe, Rivers is a competent coach and Harden is an exemplary teammate. This is not the case on the Earth we currently inhabit, but perhaps it could be.