Doc Rivers Is Doing What Brett Brown Couldn't for Ben Simmons, Sixers

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IFebruary 11, 2021

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers, right, directs Ben Simmons, left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 122-110. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Chris Szagola/Associated Press

For a change, everyone's eager to get a piece of the credit when it comes to the Philadelphia 76ers, who have become one of the top teams in the NBA

Joel Embiid has emerged as a full-time MVP candidate after teasing fans with fleeting moments of brilliance in past years.

Tobias Harris, the team's second-leading scorer who is posting career highs from the field (51.4 percent) and three-point range (44.0 percent), checks off another important box that has Sixers fans hyped more than usual. 

And then there's head coach Doc Rivers, who is maximizing Ben Simmons' impact in doing the little things that are adding up to be a big deal, and everybody knows it.

Rivers told reporters earlier this season: 

"I don't care about Ben's shooting as much as other people seem to care about it. I care that he's a great player and I'm going to let him play. I'm going to give him the keys and let him be free and play. If he takes no shots, I'm fine. If he takes 10 3s, I'm fine. If he gets to the line 15 times, I'm fine. Ben is brilliant enough for me to allow to play and not get in his way and try and cloud his head up with a bunch of crap. It's about winning and that's what I want Ben to focus on. How to make each other better and win."

Following a victory over Miami last month, Simmons said: "Doc keeps it real with me. He keeps it straight. He wants to see me get better, improve, and stay in the gym, continue to work. So far, I've learned a lot."

Former Sixers head coach Brett Brown likely had similar goals and aspirations for Simmons. Brown deserves at least partial credit for fostering Embiid, now a 26-year-old MVP candidate. But Simmons' stunted growth contributed to the coach's downfall.

There appeared to be a disconnect between what Brown wanted from Simmons and what Simmons, the only two-time All-Star from the 2016 draft class, was willing to do.

In his final season as Philly's head coach, Brown talked about the need for the star guard to become more of a perimeter shooting threat.

You wouldn't know it by the way Simmons consistently refused to shoot outside the three-point arc, which led at least one executive to think he has made little to no progress since coming into the NBA, per HoopsHype's Michael Scotto. 

In Simmons' first three seasons under Brown, he took 24 three-pointers in 217 games, or once every 9.04 games played. This season under Rivers, Simmons has taken at least one three-pointer once every 2.72 games played, by far the most he has launched since entering the league. 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Simmons' game is about as polarizing as it gets in the NBA. His greatest strengths include getting downhill into the paint, scoring for himself or setting up teammates.  But the consistency and simplicity of his game makes him and the Sixers easier to limit. 

Simmons' scoring has taken a dip to a career-low 13.5 points per game, but he has excelled in below-the-radar areas. The NBA's steals leader from a year ago, he paces the league in deflections with 4.0 per game, and according to NBA.com, Simmons is third in loose balls recovered at 1.5.  

Some league executives believe the growth of Simmons' game in some of the not-so-glorious statistical categories has indeed been amplified since Rivers took over as coach this summer.

"They got a couple of nice pieces to build a future title contender with Joel and Ben, but they needed a closer at the top," a Western Conference executive said.

"That's why Doc is there."

Rivers' resume is certainly impressive, but it's not flawless.

His lone NBA title came in 2008 with the Celtics, but Boston's Big Three could never put together another title run despite being among the upper-echelon teams for years. And when he left to coach and be in the front office of the Los Angeles Clippers prior to the 2013-2014 season, they too fell short of both their own goals as well as those among fans and the media. 

That was in large part why Rivers was fired in September.

But he seems to have found a way to connect with Simmons, in part by amplifying what he does well. 

Rivers talks often about what Simmons brings defensively—no surprise considering he was a member of the NBA's All-Defensive first team last season.

The coach has also looked into ways of getting the 24-year-old better offensive looks while working in the post. 

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

This season, Simmons averages just 1.1 post-up attempts per game, which barely cracks the top 50. And yet his 1.17 points per possession out of the post ranks among the league's top 13, per NBA.com.

Harris, who spent the 2018-2019 season as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, then coached by Rivers, said the coach's insistence on accountability all the time has been essential in getting the guys who never played for him previously to buy into his style of coaching and at times tough-love leadership. 

"Doc can be an assh--e sometimes; he really can," said one of his former players in Boston. "But he wants to get the most he can out of you, and most of the time, he does that."

Said Harris: "Doc is always on us to not get content, to be better than we were last game no matter who we're playing against; whether we're playing against the reigning champions or the team with the worst record in the NBA."

Jamie Young, in his 10th season as a Boston Celtics assistant coach (2011-present) and 21st with the organization, recalls Rivers being able to galvanize the strong-minded personalities of Boston's last great Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They led Boston to the franchise's 17th NBA title, in the 2007-2008 season—their first campaign as teammates. 

"One of his biggest, best things he does, is his ability to communicate," Young said of Rivers. "With those guys (in Boston), he was able to sit them down and tell them: ‘This is what we need to be good. This is what we need to do to win a championship.' So, communication is one of the biggest things that he does very well."

Which is the kind of change the Philly faithful are longing for under Rivers.