The problem isn’t Montrezl Harrell, it’s Doc Rivers

Doc Rivers
March 23, 2022, Los Angeles, California, USA: Head coach, Doc Rivers of the Philadelphia 76ers questions a no-call during their NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday March 23, 2022 at Arena in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by PI/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire) ****NO AGENTS—NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY****

The signing of backup center Montrezl Harrell to the Philadelphia 76ers this week came as a bit of a surprise. Even despite Doc Rivers’ extensive history of preferring veteran players to young guys, it seemed for most of the offseason that the plan was to stagger their starters and have Bball Paul come in as the primary backup big.

On paper, this made perfect sense – the additions of P.J. Tucker, Daniel House, and De’Anthony Melton certainly provide the Sixers with some much-needed depth and allow them to experiment with different lineup combinations depending on their opponent.

Plus, it was evident from this past year’s playoffs that Bball Paul’s biggest struggle (aside from a lack of NBA experience, to no fault of his own) was being run in mostly-bench, limited-shooting lineups. By insisting on playing DeAndre Jordan in the regular season and sending in Reed during the playoffs, Doc Rivers nearly guaranteed to set up his own player to fail – something only made worse after Embiid’s injury.

By pairing him at times with Melton, Harden, and House, it seemed as if Bball Paul would finally get some breathing room and be able to focus on what he does best – use his size and athleticism to give guys trouble at both ends of the court. 

But Trez’s signing puts a question mark on Paul Reed’s – and fellow young backup Charles Bassey’s – future with the Sixers. Trez will be the fourth veteran that Doc Rivers has made a primary backup at the five in half as many years.

On the one hand, if this truly is The Year, it makes sense to have a reliable insurance policy – especially on a vet min deal – in the event of an Embiid injury come playoff time. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine that Doc Rivers will still capitalize on the very strong potential of his young players, especially given his…uh, less than great history of putting in Montrezl Harrell in do-or-die games.

In the end, it seems likely that Doc Rivers will go with the choice he knows – even if that choice is a meager 9 points and 3 rebounds in 16 minutes per playoff game – over the choice that has so much untapped potential. 

None of this even accounts for the fact that the team now sits at 17 rostered players – two over the league maximum. With Harrell’s guaranteed deal, the Sixers will be forced to cut two players on partially or non-guaranteed contracts – meaning that among Reed, Bassey, Trevelin Queen, and Isaiah Joe, two will be cut before opening night. 

If it were any other contending team – or any other coach – the Montrezl Harrell signing would make perfect sense. Who wouldn’t want their big man depth to consist of a player who was just named Sixth Man of the Year in 2020? But Doc Rivers is infamous for not only not trusting his young players, but often, not even allowing them to develop in the regular season.

Only time will tell if Doc Rivers learned his lesson, or if history is doomed to repeat itself.