Seemingly wherever he goes, Doc Rivers coaches star-laden teams. He's been a head coach for 20 years, with only two losing seasons -- the mediocre and bottomed-out Boston Celtics from 2005-07. He coached Tracy McGrady and (what was supposed to be) Grant Hill with the Magic, posting four winning years and a near first-round upset of the Detroit Pistons as the 8-seed in 2003. After two dismal years in Boston, Rivers was gifted the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. In 2013, he left for greener pastures to join the upstart L.A. Clippers, coaching Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
That trio carried Rivers to his only NBA Championship and established his legacy as an elite head coach. It's a legacy that's been called into question of late. Poor tactics, the blowing of a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 NBA Playoffs and countless questionable substitutions made Doc expendable from a Clippers team with championship aspirations. The narrative had shifted on Rivers. Yes, a fantastic leader of men, but criticized for his in-game acumen.
Only a few months later, Rivers finds himself leading the Philadelphia 76ers, a team stuck on the cusp of playoff success. He's once again inherited an elite tandem of players with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Is Rivers the star whisperer? Can his credibility and revered nature around the league finally propel Philly's star combo to the next step in their careers?
The question is exactly what someone with Doc's pedigree was hired for. Philly has processed, they've rebuilt and (somehow) shed poor decision-making to field a group that is talented, balanced and ready to strike. Daryl Morey deserves endless credit for hitting "Undo All" on Elton Brand's 2019 offseason. He's drafted impactful guards and wings, he managed to dump Al Horford without giving up a bounty.
Perhaps the most important acquisition is another member of the Rivers family, though. Within the Rivers family Christmas Card is one of the premier sharpshooters across the NBA in Seth Curry. The younger Curry brother, Seth is statistically-speaking the more efficient of the two: he's second in NBA history with a career 3-point field goal percentage of 44.3% (only Steve Kerr is higher). This season, he shot 45.2% on five treys a night, a better percentage than Duncan Robinson or Davis Bertans.
Simmons and Embiid are well-known spacing challenges for whomever coaches them. Simmons doesn't shoot jumpers, and Embiid, a post-up maven who needs the ball on the block, loses spacing because of it. While Curry's fit in town is obvious next to those two, it's also integral to unlocking Rivers' playbook. As a tactician and X's and O's coach, he's at his very best when there's an elite shooter he can use to dart off screens.
The proof is in the pudding for Doc. While guys like Paul, Griffin, Pierce and Garnett get all the love for reaching new heights under him, Rivers was masterful in how he deployed Allen and J.J. Redick to balance the attack. Redick turned in career years under Rivers and became more than just a shooting specialist. In four years with the Clippers, JJ averaged 15.8 points on 44% 3-point shooting, taking 5.8 a game. Before joining him in Los Angeles, Redick was little more than a reserve and role player, with some spot starts to his name. It's a similar trajectory to Seth Curry to this point.
Of course, Ray Ray was different in Boston. An established superstar, Allen was an off-ball threat for a decade before landing with the Celtics. Rivers had to be tactful with that group: Garnett and Rajon Rondo were non-shooters, as was center Kendrick Perkins. Rondo would need to dominate the ball as a facilitator, a role Paul would fulfill in Los Angeles for years. Now, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of Ben Simmons.
âRivers' offensive systems change drastically when those players come and go. With Allen, Redick or Dollar Store knockoff Landry Shamet at his disposal, Rivers' teams were top-ten in the league in attempts off screens almost every season. Four times they were also the most efficient at scoring off screens. He's captained a top-ten offense each of the last seven years, including two without mega stars or a shooting threat.
âHis offenses are always solid, but drastically better with elite shooters.
Through the years, Rivers has utilized the same concepts for how to get his shooters open. Whether its Shamet, Redick or the Hall of Fame-bound Allen, many of the set plays and principles are the same. With tweaks to keep up with modern spacing principles, Doc is willing and able to adjust to keep up with the trends.
There's no guarantee Rivers does the ole "cut-and-paste" of these past concepts with this Sixers team. Simmons and Embiid are unique players, due to their size, like he's never coached before. There could be a heavier emphasis on elbow touches (for Simmons), post-ups (for Embiid) and creative pick-and-rolls (for both) than Doc has utilized in the past. But with Curry at his disposal, it's safe to say Rivers will put his son-in-law to work in ways we can predict.
Part of what Simmons so great is the threat he creates in the open floor. Last year he scored or assisted on 12.1 points per game in transition. He's the ultimate rebound-and-run threat who is also an elite defender, knifing in for steals that start the break. There's a good chance Rivers uses him as the de facto point guard and primary initiator, an area his skillset lends itself well to.
If that's the case, eyeballs will be on Simmons for how quickly he could bully his way to the rim. As he initiates, look for many quick screens for Curry to jolt off. Single screens, wide pindowns, walk-up or sprint-in opportunities. They all apply and can create early, quality treys.
I can just see it now: Simmons gazelling his way into the forecourt, bulldozing past his smaller defender while Embiid jogs into a terrorizing down screen for Curry.
The sheer width of Embiid as a screener gives him a ton of utility off-ball. He uses his mammoth frame to carve up space in the lane, leverage his positioning for seals for hi-lo passes and serve as a human blockade. He and Redick worked incredibly well together; Redick averaged over 17 a game in Philly, and Embiid had nearly one-third of his field goals come at the rim during those two years. The gravity helped Embiid, so he worked hard as a screener to leverage JJ open.
The most classical off-ball screening action within NBA circles is known as Floppy, a slow-developing but effective play. Great shooters who know how to get open and read/ manipulate individual defenders thrive here: the entire possession is built around them and affords the shooter a great deal of freedom.
Within Floppy, the shooter sticks his head underneath the rim. The ball is centered up top, and two big bodies are stationed as screeners, one on each side of the lane. The fifth player, typically a wing or guard, words in stereo with the shooter to balance the floor and get the shooter open. The shooter can go in either direction off the screens, often using the other wing to be a second screener or option to wrap around.
Floppy has some counters to it within the Rivers playbook: decoy cutters, set plays and ways that would work with Simmons at the 5 as a facilitator in small-ball lineups. The key remains an elite shooter who is cerebral about how to get himself open and is lethal at knocking down catch-and-shoots on the move.
The second-cousin of Floppy actions is Floppy Chest, giving the same option to a primary cutter but elevating the action to the elbows and free throw line. Allen was elite at navigating through these, weaving above-and-beneath the screens on different sides, popping back when necessary and constantly finding ways to lose his man.
A reason I'd expect to see some Floppy Chest in Philly: there's a greater opportunity for slips, lobs and secondary actions. Normal Floppy is pretty confined to the baseline; with Simmons as a non-shooter, his defender could sag off him and take away curls for Curry around those screens. With the actions at the elbows, Simmons' defender can't stray too far, or else he'll be blindsided by quick ball screens.
Cutters like Curry who learn to come off screens also recognize where to cut. Rivers designed his playbook to give them the freedom to cross sides of the floor when overplayed, where other wings simply clearout and provide floor balance. The common terminology for this is known as "Chop", where as a shooter comes to one side, the other wing leaves it. The result is a looping, circular motion around the screener that makes it incredibly difficult for defenders to "shoot the gap", or go underneath the screen instead of following in their man's footsteps.
Redick was elite with his footwork on the move, so the Clippers hammered this action to death in his time. Rivers would put JJ in the right offensive corner, fake like he's coming up on the perimeter, then dart him along the baseline, where he'd curl around another screen to his right, which is his dominant side.
In the post-Redick era, Rivers relied more heavily on true baseline staggers, sending Shamet off double baseline screens and letting him freelance his way around the floor. There are set plays that cued this freedom, but it was Rivers' acceptance of not jamming Shamet into the exact role of Redick that brought this about. Also, knowing the multitude of elbow touches that Embiid and Simmons have thrived in the last few years, the Elbow Give & Go to Baseline Double set, which was run by the Celtics and is featured at the 3:53 mark of the video, makes a ton of sense for the Sixers, too.
Doc also likes ball screens. A lot. He's been fortunate to coach some unbelievable PNR point guards in Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo. Simmons, the worst shooter of the three, can see teams go under screens, which handicaps a lot of the advantage gained in late-clock situations. It's no coincidence that the Sixers were 29th in ball screen usage last year (only the Houston Rockets, who isolated more than Tom Hanks in Cast Away, trailed them).
One way to shelter Simmons and avoid this dilemma is to have the ball screen not be for the handler. How does that work?
Rivers has been a huge proponent and innovator of the Veer screen, essentially a fake pick where as the screener approaches, he changes course at the last minute and sets a down screen for a shooter.
It was wildly popular with his Clippers teams and for Redick, who would stay stationed in his favorite left corner, waiting for the screen to arrive. Doc had one play that they ran frequently to turn into a Veer action, featuring false motion and some brilliant salesmanship from Redick. He'd occasionally weave into the play for more movement (not a bad idea with this group).
It got to the point where Rivers would default to Veer as his late-clock options. The Clippers ran this to close quarters, all the time in the fourth period and in almost every 2-for-1 situation when Redick was on the floor. It's a dangerous, quick-hitting set that Doc is so infatuated with that its hard to imagine he wouldn't inculcate it deeply in Philly.
Before moving onto the rest of Doc's playbook, let's take a minute to reset on Curry and how he's been used in the past. The last three seasons have seen modest success and infrequent usage off screens. Rick Carlisle, his coach in Dallas for two of those years, has been more of a catch-and-shoot guy for his shooters since Luka Doncic came to town. Terry Stotts, his coach in Portland in 2018-19, ran a motion-based approach that saw the ball stay in the hands of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Doc is unique in that he doesn't just supply a playbook built around his top superstars. He's great at incorporating role players into unique packages or the overall flow of the designed motion, as proof with his time with Redick and Shamet. Curry has proven deserving of the role in terms of his efficiency from deep, though it'll be incumbent on him to prove worthy of design in coming off screens. A large part of my optimism about him being the perfect fit in Philly is in expecting him to translate well to being featured on the move.
There are no mechanical flaws with his shot on the move; like most righties, he's best moving to his right. There's also hope long-term that Isaiah Joe, the second-round pick from Arkansas, turns into someone useful here. I've had Joe as a top-15 prospect in this class dating back to December and thought Philly was the perfect landing spot for him. Even fringe guys like Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz and Danny Green could see tangible gains within this Rivers system. Curry remains the focus of this article because he has the best track record, a clear path to minutes and is brought in to be a shooting specialist.
The sheer volume of specialty shooters in Philly this year, especially in comparison to last season, means the Sixers don't need to run plays for only one guy who can stroke it. When Redick was in Los Angeles under Doc, he suffered from being really the only shooter on the roster. CP3 was playing facilitator with the ball in his hands. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were true 4s and 5s that would serve as screeners. The rotating door of wings (Matt Barnes, Wesley Johnson, a decrepit Paul Pierce) weren't useful in providing spacing on their own, so every screening action was solely designed around Redick.
That might change with this Philly squad. Danny Green is far past his prime and the others are unproven, but there's hope. What I'd love to see are some stagger actions, where Embiid can post up within early offense as a rim-runner. As they clear out one side of the floor for him, a stagger occurs opposite, sending Curry et al cascading to the ball-side and clearing out the opposite low man from trapping the post.
When multiple shooters are on the floor, there can be curls, or Twirls, around as the cutters have the freedom to read the defense.
With Embiid, I'd expect to see more 4-out staggers than 5-out offense; the Clippers went to 5-out more frequently when Montrezl Harrell, an energetic and smaller 5, would be at the position.
The twirl and curl actions prove an important concept: shooters also need to screen in order to get open. Where Ray Allen was somewhat contact-averse, Redick thrived. He was willing to check guys and was a competent-enough screener to create advantages for his teammates and himself.
One concept that I love from Doc (and will copy for my own teams) is the Pinch Comeback concept. Pinch is a term I use to describe a three-man action that's essentially a down screen into a quick handoff. Usually, the elite shooter is the guy receiving the action and getting the handoff, as the movement can help him lose his man and spring free.
Rivers turns that on its head. He uses the shooter as the down screener. With limited help off that shooter, the handoff is easily completed. Then, the shooter will fake like he's leaving to the other end of the floor, then dart off a comeback down screen from the big.
It's a dangerous concept that Rivers has run effective sets for since those Celtics title teams, and he's even weaponized on baseline inbounds plays:
Speaking of guards who set screens, every coach in America is familiar with "screen the screener" concepts. They're efficient ways to get open and cause havoc amongst teams regardless of whether they switch matchups or stay with one assignment.
By coaching post-up threats like Garnett and Griffin, Doc has experience in throwing these plays into his playbook. While they're typically set up for those two and would continue to be for Embiid, Rivers understands that the ending of the play is crucial to creating the advantage for his stars. He tags most sets with having a little, usually a shooter, being the one who screens for the post-up. If that matchup is switched, it's eating time on the blocks.
The shooter then has a planned exit, an area where they're going to cut to off a screen immediately after. That dash prevents the shooter's defender from chipping down on the post.
With an elite post scorer like Embiid on deck, not only will we see a lot of these plays, but Curry will find himself open as the contingency plan frequently. Rivers has run a little bit of everything over his years, so there's real depth to choose from:
As a postmortem on the Brett Brown era, the guy got a bit of a bad wrap. He was handed a clunky, ill-fitting group of offensive pieces and slowed down his offense out of necessity. He wasn't the most creative, but he was so hamstrung that creativity may have been the enemy of success.
What Brown did, and it proved effective, was throw the ball to the elbows a ton. Hi-lo passes from Simmons to Embiid were frequent. Hoford and Tobias Harris were frequent recipients of these actions, too. By the way, let's not forget that Harris enjoyed a career year season in Los Angeles under Doc, which allowed him to garner a max contract. Nobody should be more excited to have the coach in town than Tobias.
Elbow touches should remain a focal point of this offense. Perhaps more balance and fewer cutters through the lane during the elbow touches open things up, but abandoning that part of the floor would be foolish. Both stars are wildly effective here and are athletic enough to get past their man one-on-one to a score from here.
Rivers likes symmetry. The floppy sets all end in a balanced floor. His ball screen actions take place in the middle of the floor, where balance is easier to obtain. When the ball goes to the elbow, it's easy to get out of balance and overload one side of the floor. I'd expect to see a great deal of Horns sets within the playbook when the Sixers try to slow things down. It makes sense to play through Simmons and Embiid here.
Curry should do just fine. He's a solid enough initiator (hey, he's no worse than Ray Allen) to throw the ball to Simmons and Embiid at the elbows. Curry can go to the elbow and come off screens and flares while Simmons handles the ball. The versatility of both should open up all options within Rivers' Horns playbook:
Remember, these plays shown above are just the parts of his Horns playbook that are designed for a shooter to get a look. No formation has more flexibility and can be as quick-striking.
Hopefully by now, I'm not alone in thinking Curry is primed for a breakout in Philadelphia. He's an elite shooter that was acquired for a reason. Yes, he'll struggle at times on defense, but with two elite defenders in Simmons and Embiid to flank him, it's an acceptable change.
Curry's had a good career and can take his game to the next step with Rivers. To me, it's not Curry that needs the Doc, though. It's Doc who needs Curry.
The data and offensive numbers are conclusive that Rivers' teams are best offensively when he can design plays around his shooters. He's not shy about doing so, either, topping the league in usage off screens even while possessing elite offensive threats like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett. He has an incredibly deep playbook for sets for shooters, even beyond the ones we've dissected here. In an era where the 3-point shot is king, building around those who create gravity on a team where its lacking could be the best way to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Morey made a lot of great moves after the season, most of all trading for Curry. If he can fulfill the role that Rivers undoubtedly has lined up for him, the Sixers could take a huge step forward next year.
If he can't, it'll likely be pretty awkward at the Rivers' family vacation.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).