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June 05, 2023

How does loss of assistant Sam Cassell impact the Sixers?

The Sixers will lose their top assistant before next season.

As the excitement over the Sixers hiring a new head coach dies down, the reality of a staff change has begun to sink in for Philadelphia. Assistant coach Sam Cassell is heading to Boston to join Joe Mazzulla's staff, turning a beloved coach into an immediate division rival. Who and what are the Sixers losing here?

While NBA coaching charts are not as specialized compared to their counterparts in the NFL — you're not going to see a "point guards coach" the way you'd see a position coach in football, for example — a coach's background ends up playing a pretty big part of their role on staff. Cassell, unsurprisingly, was tasked with passing his wisdom onto the guards in Philadelphia. This was most notable with Tyrese Maxey, who Cassell often referred to as his "star pupil" and who arrived as a talented, somewhat flawed prospect before blossoming into one of their best players. While Maxey's relentless work ethic was the driving force behind his ascent, Cassell's personal and professional attention helped steer Maxey in the right direction. The two worked out together in L.A. in the offseason, and Cassell was a frequent sounding board for Maxey as he found his way at this level.

A savvy and impactful guard during his playing days, Cassell has been a Doc Rivers lieutenant since before his playing days even ended, essentially serving as a coaching intern for the Celtics during his final playing season in 2009. In the decade-plus following that season, Cassell has earned strong reviews for player and skill development, but also for his demeanor as a leader. Cassell has a big, boisterous voice and laugh and has a knack for keeping the mood light, and balances that with attention to detail and commitment to the craft.

Cassell's ability to find a middle ground helps explain how he had the respect of both the rostered Sixers players and the members of the coaching staff. Rivers told reporters this spring that Cassell was the only member of his coaching staff to sit in for coaching meetings on offense and defense, a reflection of both his aptitude and his desire to get a head coaching job down the road. He has interviewed for multiple head jobs elsewhere, including in Houston this offseason, and it feels inevitable he will get his shot at some point. 

In a Sixers coaching pool that was filled with championship coaches and highly-experienced veterans, Cassell was the lone fresh face the Sixers put on their shortlist. Once the Sixers decided to go in a different direction and hire Nick Nurse, it felt all but inevitable that Cassell would look for a job with another staff that pushes him closer to a lead gig. With Joe Mazzulla expected to be under the watchful eye of Boston's front office next season, it's not inconceivable that Cassell could be promoted to the lead job in the event that the Celtics struggle next season, an opportunity that likely wasn't coming to him in Philadelphia.

Cassell's departure does highlight one of Nurse's first big steps as head coach — filling out his coaching staff. After taking the position in 2020, Rivers put together a fairly decorated set of assistants, hiring former Kings and Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger on top of coaxing longtime Pacers assistant Dan Burke to coach Philly's defense. It is not immediately clear who (if anyone) will stick around for the Nurse regime, though the expectation is that Nurse will have full say over what his staff looks like heading into next season. His staff in Toronto included two former head coaches (Nate Bjorkgren and Earl Watson) in addition to his top assistant, newly-hired Bucks coach Adrian Griffin.

Although the Sixers are looking for Nurse to bring his championship-level experience to Philly and push their team over the top, there is still a significant amount of value in keeping strong teachers and ascending assistants on staff. With the new collective bargaining agreement stifling teams who push deep into the salary cap, internal development is going to be more important than ever for expensive, vet-heavy teams like the Sixers. The Cassells of the world are an important piece of any successful team, and Nurse would do well to find a replacement with Cassell's blend of personal and professional steadiness. 

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