Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Doc Rivers’ commitment to DeAndre Jordan cost 76ers in Game 1 vs. Heat, and could easily cost them the series

The gambling community earned a rare, collective victory on Monday when Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers announced that DeAndre Jordan was going to start Game 1 of their series against the Miami Heat. The Heat were favored by just three points in the first quarter of Game 1, but Jordan’s presence insured a lopsided opening frame. Why? Because late-stage DeAndre Jordan has built up a remarkable track record of dragging his teams down.

Among players to have played at least 225 minutes, Jordan has astonishingly had the worst net rating on each of his last three teams. In all three cases, the decline was rather drastic.

  • The 2021-22 76ers had a plus-2.8 net rating for the season as a whole, but a minus-7.7 net rating during Jordan’s minutes.
  • The 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers had a minus-2.9 net rating for the season as a whole, but fell all the way to minus-12.3 with Jordan on the floor.
  • The 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets outscored their opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions for the season, but were themselves outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions when they used Jordan.

So, as bettors surely predicted, the Heat won the first quarter 30-22 and covered the spread in one of the easier wins Vegas will grant this postseason. In fairness to Rivers, his options with Joel Embiid injured were fairly limited. He could have dusted off another relic in Paul Millsap. He could have relied on unproven youngster “B-Ball” Paul Reed. He could have gone small with Tobias Harris at center. 

All three options performed better than Jordan during his minutes. The Sixers held their own with Reed (minus-3 in 13 minutes) and Millsap (minus-2 in six minutes). They thrived with Harris (plus-8 in roughly eight minutes). But Philadelphia lost the game in the 17 minutes Jordan spent as their center. The 76ers lost those minutes by an astonishing 22 points, eight more than their 14-point margin of defeat.

Plus-minus numbers can be misleading when used out of context, but I can assure you, the tape does Jordan few favors. The only people more excited to hear that Jordan was starting than bettors were the Heat themselves. They ran pick-and-rolls at Jordan on their first four offensive possessions and scored on each of them.

Thankfully, the Heat gave Jordan a breather on their fifth possession. They went right back at him on their sixth.

The quality of Jordan’s defense on these plays ranges from “decent enough” to “garden variety bad” to “they’re just plain picking on you,” but it’s not what Jordan does on these specific plays that necessarily matters. A team can learn a lot about itself in how an opponent game-plans against it. The Heat ran variations of the same play at the same, single player over and over again until they’d played him off of the floor. When your opponent so transparently tells you that it wants you to use a player, you probably shouldn’t use that player. At least make them work to identify your weaknesses. Don’t serve those weaknesses to them on a silver platter.

If you’re worried that I’m picking on Jordan’s defense, don’t worry. There’s plenty to say about his offense as well. He made two shots all night. He also committed two turnovers in this opening four-minute stretch: a dropped pass that went out of bounds and a bizarre offensive foul. 

It only took four minutes and change for the Heat to play Jordan out of the game. With a 15-6 lead, Rivers went to Reed. That, appeared to be that. The experiment had seemingly failed. Jordan had a brief cameo later in the first quarter, but was largely unseen for the rest of the first half. When the dust settled, the 76ers had won the 17 minutes they’d played without him by double digits. With a halftime lead, it looked like they’d cracked the code to surviving without Embiid.

Whether or not that code was sustainable is ultimately questionable. Reed’s fouling problem puts an inherent limit on his workload. Harris leans small even by power forward standards. Playing him at center carries risks. But without Embiid, Philadelphia’s margin for error is tiny. Their best chance at winning was to introduce higher-variance strategies into the series.

In some ways, they did so. Their 2-3 zone defensively did a wonderful job of helping to mitigate their size issues. Having Harris at center may have meant sacrificing defense and rebounding, but it opened the entire floor up for them offensively, and while a shootout with the Heat is hardly the ideal setting for this roster, it allowed an inferior roster to hang with a No. 1 seed for most of the first half.

And then Jordan started the second half at center. Charitably, the explanation here would be that Rivers understood that small lineups take a physical toll on players and he wanted to try to steal a few minutes with Jordan before going back to what worked. The stint was mostly innocuous, though Jordan’s limited defensive mobility was again apparent. 

Jordan stayed on the floor for a few minutes. The Sixers held their own, but lost their lead. He was removed in favor of Reed. Surely, at this point, his night was done?

Of course it wasn’t. The most important play of the second half came just one minute and 31 seconds after Jordan was removed. The Heat missed three consecutive shots in a single third-quarter possession… but rebounded all of them. Bam Adebayo got fouled on the fourth attempt, and after just 91 seconds of rest, Rivers went back to Jordan. 

Now, in fairness, Reed had just committed his fourth foul. One could argue the move was made to get him off of the floor, and there’s probably some truth to that. But going back to Jordan rather than using the small-ball lineup that looked so good in the first half, especially after giving up three offensive rebounds on a single possession, sent a message: Rivers did not want to get bullied on the glass.

By now, you’ve likely caught on to the tone of this story and know that even with Jordan, they would, in fact, be bullied on the glass. It wasn’t long before the Heat pulled in another offensive rebound on Jordan.

And then another…

And then another…

Jordan has a reputation for being a great rebounder. At one point in his career, he genuinely was one, and he can still rack up high raw rebounding totals just by virtue of how close he tends to stay to the basket. But Jordan’s impact on a team’s ability to rebound is fairly limited at this stage of his career. The Lakers pulled in just 50.3 percent of available rebounds during Jordan’s minutes this season, up only a slight tick from their 49 percent figure for the season as a whole, and remember, this is a team that frequently used LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony as centers. Last season’s Nets, a small-ball team to its core, was only slightly better on the boards with Jordan in the game, pulling in 50.9 percent of available rebounds with him and 49.9 percent without. If it was simply athletic limitations, that would be one thing, but Jordan boxes out inconsistently and displays dispiriting effort on plenty of possible rebounds. It’s not as though the Heat weren’t getting any offensive rebounds during his earlier minutes.

By this point, Jordan had scored all of his points. In fact, he didn’t record a single statistic of any kind during his two-and-a-half minutes. That didn’t stop him from making it harder for teammates to do so. It turns out, having a center parked under the basket makes it harder for guards to drive there themselves.

Each Jordan stint widened the gap on the scoreboard. The 76ers were outscored by two points in his first second-half stint, three in his second and eight in his third. His defensive limitations were on full display, and the 76ers allowed Miami a bonkers 159.4 offensive rating during his minutes. He was little help on the glass as the Heat out rebounded the 76ers by 10 in the game, and aside from a few lob dunks, his primary offensive contribution was in clogging the paint for his teammates. All of this begs the question… why did Rivers keep using DeAndre Jordan?

“We just felt like, we talked to our guys,” Rivers said. “They wanted a big guy, a big roller, I thought the second half that’s how he has to play every night. Those first four or five minutes were great from him, that’s what we need. We also love Paul, but we don’t need Paul in foul trouble, and that’s why you don’t want to start him.”

Keeping Reed out of foul trouble should be a priority, and he did commit five fouls in 13 minutes. But this is a playoff game, and it was a winnable one at that. If they needed him to play more, they should have let him play until a sixth foul knocked him out. Rivers went on that players preferred Jordan. “It’s funny, at halftime, we asked all our key guys, we were thinking about it, because I thought Paul Millsap gave us decent minutes, and to a man that’s where they wanted to go,” the coach said.

Part of a coach’s job is managing his players. If the players want to do something that won’t help the team win, the coach has to be able to get them to buy into the proper strategy. In Game 1, that was Reed and small-ball. Yet the Sixers didn’t just go away from it. They doubled down on Jordan.

“We like DJ,” Rivers said ominously. “We’re gonna keep starting him whether you like it or not.”

Those were the scariest words that Rivers could have uttered after the loss. This is a coach who does not like to be challenged. It was only a week ago that he turned a press conference into an opportunity to (unsuccessfully) debunk the criticism surrounding his many blown 3-1 leads. Rivers has a history of going down with the ship, especially at the center position. He infamously stuck with Montrezl Harrell as his 2020 Clippers, the championship favorites, were upset by Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in large part because Rivers refused to make a change in his front court. He appears to be going down the same road with Jordan again.

But if Rivers thinks that Jordan’s shortcomings are a fiction created by his critics, Philadelphia’s angry fans or the bettors who profited off of his mistake, he just isn’t grasping what happened in Game 1. We may not like Jordan starting, but you know who does? His opponent. As the Heat themselves proved, they were thrilled to face Jordan. They literally won Game 1 during the minutes he was on the floor, and if Rivers isn’t careful, they’re going to win the whole series that way too. 

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