In an era where seemingly every decision is based on analytics and numbers, Doc Rivers is a pleasant breath of fresh air in the basketball world. While he should not be discredited for his adaptations to these valuable additions to the game, Doc is one of the purest basketball minds that remains in the sport. After a successful 13 year playing career in the NBA, Doc transitioned directly to the other side of the out-of-bounds line.
Entering this season Rivers is the 11th winningest coach in NBA history and 2nd amongst active coaches. Doc has spent 20 seasons as an NBA coach and already has 1 championship under his belt. There has been much talk about how Rivers will alter the usage of guys like Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, along with new additions like Seth Curry and Danny Green.
While all these are undoubtedly extremely important to the potential success of the team, there has not been enough attention brought to the impact of Joel Embiid. At the end of the day, Joel Embiid is the ultimate make-or-break player on this team. He will need to be every bit the star that he has proven to be for the Sixers to be legitimate competitors. While Rivers has never coached a big man with a skillset as diverse as Joel Embiid, there are examples of usages throughout Rivers’ coaching career that will be shown in Embiid’s game this year.
Magic and Horace Grant
Perhaps the first big man with stylistic similarities to Embiid that Rivers had a chance to coach was Horace Grant. Despite being 36 years old and at the tail-end of his career when he reached the Magic, Grant started 76 games and played 29.1 minutes per game in his first season under Rivers. He registered a 12.6% usage rate and recorded 8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. However, this team was primarily built around Trace McGrady with him averaging as much as 32.1 points per game one season under Doc so there was not a major emphasis on the big man.
While this may also be partly due to the stage of his career he was in, Grant surprisingly did most of his offensive damage as a jump shooter. 70.58% of Grant’s shot attempts in the 2001-02 season came via the jump shot with the largest percentage of them (53.82%) coming from 16 feet or further out. Unfortunately off the court issues between Doc and Grant forced this partnership to an early end but this inclusion in the mid-range game is something that could be replicated with Embiid.
Doc Rivers & The Celtics Era
The first big man that Rivers built into a more prominent role in his offense was Al Jefferson. In his first season as the starter in Boston (2006-07), Jefferson averaged 17.2 points per game along with 11.7 rebounds on a 22.4% usage rate. While Jefferson was no stranger to using his jumper either, he played more of a traditional big-man role, taking 82.6% of his shot attempts within 10 feet of the basket. Rivers found ways to get Jefferson clean looks and he had an extremely efficient year recording the 2nd highest shooting percentage of his entire career this year.
Doc Rivers is probably best known for his time with the Celtics, especially due to the 2007-2008 team that won the championship. Led by Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, as well as Sixers assistant coach Sam Cassell, the team finished with a 66-16 record and ranked number 1 in the league in defensive rating. Kendrick Perkins and Glenn “Big Baby” Davis also played a major role as doing the grunt-work defensively and on the boards, which is a role that may be replicated with Dwight Howard this year.
Outside of Joel Embiid, Kevin Garnett is probably the most talented big-man that Doc Rivers has had a chance to coach. The 2007-08 championship season was Garnett’s first season with the Celtics and he produced at an extremely high level. Averaging 18.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.4 steal, and 1.3 blocks per game, KG was a force on both ends of the floor. He also recorded an impressive 25.5% usage rate and 25.3 player-efficiency rating (NBA average is 15). Garnett has been known for his mid-range shooting and proved this by shooting 48% or higher from each level on the floor.
Garnett was also used in the post on a regular basis, which is an area that essential to utilize with Embiid. Garnett hit his hook shot at 61.4% and his fadeaway at 58.8%. While these are both impressive totals, Joel Embiid has just as much potential to score at this rate. Garnett still launched 73.1% of his shot attempts via his jump shot which is a number that Embiid should not reach given the extra 1-3 inches and roughly 40 pounds that he has on Garnett.
Doc Rivers & The Lob City Clippers
Rivers showed his coaching versatility by adjusting to a completely new coaching style in the lob-city Clippers led by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. I previously wrote about Doc Rivers using the same method he used with Blake Griffin on Ben Simmons in an effort to expand his jump shot.
While DeAndre Jordan was the traditional center on the team, he played a far different role than Embiid will as he was the secondary big on the Clippers. With a set role of blocking shots, getting rebounds, and catching dunks this is a role that will be must better suited for Dwight Howard and has been one that he has transitioned into extremely well in the twilight of his career. In the first season under Rivers, 81.8% of DeAndre Jordan’s shot attempts came around the rim- primarily on alley-oops. Given the injury history and the different play-style of Embiid, this is not a role that would suit Joel at all.
On the other hand, Blake Griffin is probably the most versatile big man that Rivers has coached prior to Embiid. While he did his fair-share of high-flying, Griffin also flashed his abilities in the post as well as in the mid-range and beyond the arc. In his first year under Rivers, Griffin had a 29% usage rate and posted a 58.3 true shooting percentage. Blake attempted 52 three-pointers in this season and shot nearly 28% of his shot attempts between 16 feet out and the 3-point line.
In his first season under Rivers, Griffin also saw a great increase in post-up possessions. In this 2013-14 season, Griffin saw his points per possession increase from 0.83 and 0.88 in the previous seasons to 0.95 this year. This number ranked 7th highest in the league amongst players with over 80 post-ups and Griffin took 30% of possessions in the post overall. This versatility will be the biggest preparation that Doc has had to prepare for coaching Embiid.
Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire
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