It only took 15 games of watching James Harden for Doc Rivers to get annoyed. After a loss against the Detroit Pistons last night — the team’s third straight — where the 76ers got all of eight points from the bench, the coach didn’t put the lack of production on them.
“Well, they didn’t struggle, they didn’t get a lot of shots, in their defense,” Rivers said Thursday (per PhillyVoice). “I think during that stretch it was more James [Harden] than them. So, you know, yeah it’s just a tough night.”
He went on to say that his team looked lifeless, didn’t play together, and stood around on offense. One of the calling cards of a Harden-infected team is stagnation, with his teammates — or him — ball watching as token “floor spacers’’ while one guy — usually him — plays patty cake with a defender until either taking a stepback 3, running a pick-and-roll, driving and kicking/lobbing, drawing a foul, or making/missing a shot at the rim.
If that sentence seemed 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 deficiencies as a coach, and will lose a power struggle this offseason if Philly is looking for a scapegoat for an underwhelming playoff exit because Harden is Daryl Morey’s monster. The coach’s offensive system is seemingly just barking about teamwork and ball movement, while putting the onus on his players to figure out how they’re supposed to work together and move the ball with purpose as opposed to just hot potato-ing it around the perimeter.
That time I wasn’t even trying to condense an offensive philosophy into one mouthful, it simply happened to work out like that. Doc’s strategy, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons why he’s overseen a ton of playoff collapses.
However, he may not even get his team to a favorable position to blow as the 76ers have dropped to fourth in the East, and could face a feisty Bulls team that got a couple key role players back from injury. (Alex Caruso and Pat Williams both made clutch plays in the team’s comeback win against the Clippers on Thursday, and Chicago — unlike Philly — continues to pull for each other despite its highs and lows.)
The Rivers-Harden combination should frighten Sixers fans because, on one side, you’ve got a player who only wants to play his way, and on the other you have a coach trying to get him to conform to a system that’s more theory than Xs and Os.
Going full inferno on a guy in the media is a motivational tactic, not a scheme change. If Harden is ignoring the gameplan, that’s one thing. It’s an entirely different thing if Rivers is rolling the ball out and expecting guys to go full Hoosiers without direction.
In the middle is Joel Embiid, who had 37 and 15 boards in the loss. He tried 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 gotten up at least 19 shots in every appearance. The team is .500 in those 10 games, and 9-6 overall when Harden suits up.
I genuinely think the Philly faithful loved the iteration of this team that was Embiid doing yeoman’s work en route to an MVP, and a bunch of average to above-average role players and Tobias Harris filling in the gaps. Fans love cohesion and chemistry — something that’s continually taken for granted by the organization each time it “upgrades” via trade.
We’ve seen squads make deep runs in the postseason 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 most of the heavy lifting, but the attention they demand allows the supplementary players to supplement.
Killing Harden over Rivers’ comments is easy until you look at the guy leveling the criticism. If it was too late for the Beard to change his game, then what happened in Brooklyn last year when he shape-shifted into a facilitator? Maybe he wants his old life back when he was enabled by Mike D’Antoni and Morey to indulge in excess like parents who keep funneling money to their kid despite an obvious drug problem.
How he’s operating and the way he forced a trade to be with his old GM certainly indicates as much. If you had Harden regressing to his old self even though he may not be his old self, congratulations you’re the one millionth writer to do so, and your prize is to throw your take in the echo chamber with the others.
That said, it’s on the coach to figure out how to get his new cornerstone to buy into his philosophy rather than letting him go belly up at the stepback bar and bitching about it.
There’s a multiverse where Embiid and Harden are collaborating to make life miserable for the rest of the NBA. In that universe Rivers is a competent coach and Harden is an exemplary teammate. That’s not the case on the Earth we currently inhabit, but maybe it could be.