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May 24, 2023

Sixers coaching rumors: Nick Nurse finalist for two other jobs, Doc Rivers in mix for Suns gig

As the Sixers' coaching search continues on, the franchise may be faced with an unfortunate reality — their process could take long enough to remove one of their preferred candidates out of the running for their job. And depending on how things shake out, Doc Rivers could also pop up at a new location before Philadelphia can finalize its final plans.

The Sixers' initial shortlist of six names — Nick Nurse, Mike D'Antoni, Monty Williams, Mike Budenholzer, Frank Vogel, and Sam Cassell — features a decorated list of experienced coaches, but one man appears to be a hotter commodity around the league than the rest. As the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns narrow their searches for a final round, Nurse has made the short list for both franchises, according to the latest from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski:

The Phoenix Suns are advancing four candidates to a final round of interviews this week, including two NBA championship coaches: Nick Nurse and Doc Rivers, sources told ESPN on Tuesday night. 

 Nurse and Rivers will meet with senior leadership along with two rising stars in the coaching profession: Suns associate head coach Kevin Young and Sacramento Kings associate head coach Jordi Fernandez, sources said. 

 Nurse has emerged as a prominent candidate in the Suns' and Milwaukee Bucks' coaching searches, sources said. Nurse is one of three finalists in Milwaukee, including Golden State associate head coach Kenny Atkinson and Toronto assistant Adrian Griffin, sources said. He also interviewed with the Philadelphia 76ers, sources said. [ESPN]

Nurse being at or near the top of the candidate list for a handful of teams makes plenty of sense on paper, as he theoretically represents the best blend of championship experience and tactical ingenuity. Though he is coming off of a pair of middling seasons with the Raptors, many point to the roster as the reason behind his recent struggles. His willingness to try new things and scramble opposing offenses jumped off of the screen when he had a battle-tested roster to work with during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Many people around the NBA were more impressed by his work in the latter season after winning a title, as the Raptors managed to win 50+ games despite the loss of Kawhi Leonard in free agency.

On paper, Nurse is a good split-the-difference candidate for a Sixers team that needs some direction. He has ties to Daryl Morey after spending time coaching Houston's G-League affiliate, but he's not someone who would come in and carry the label of "James Harden guy" in the way Mike D'Antoni might, which would allow him to come in with a cleaner slate to implement what he feels might work best for the Embiid/Harden combination on both ends of the floor. And frankly, he's a bit more of a hard ass than some of the other candidates, which I think could work in Philadelphia's favor.

The problem as it stands for Philadelphia is that their search could take long enough to take themselves out of the running for Nurse, unless they suddenly find some urgency. There's no guarantee Nurse is going to get either of the Milwaukee or Phoenix jobs, certainly, but if he were to get offered either job as the Sixers continue to deliberate, it would be hard to argue passing up on a chance to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo or Devin Booker/Kevin Durant for the chance to potentially get offered the Sixers' job. And when Daryl Morey sat down with reporters last week, Philadelphia's lead basketball decisionmaker was clear that they're not rushing through this process.

"We're taking a careful process with the coach, we do not think it will move quickly," Morey said. "We're going to look at all the candidates, we're already very encouraged by the candidates that reached out. We have an MVP player, we have a great roster that lots of players want to play with, lots of coaches want to be with."

Getting the right coach is more important than getting your coach the quickest, but the Sixers will have to determine if they are one and the same as a result of the market forces they're dealing with. Working from the list of names that the Sixers have floated, Nurse feels like the most inspired choice if they're not going to give a serious look to up-and-coming assistants. So we'll see just how much they like him in the days/weeks to come.

The other noteworthy part of Woj's latest is Rivers' inclusion in the race for the Phoenix job. Much like in 2020, when Rivers was coming off of a high-profile flameout with the Clippers, the ending at his previous job has not stopped him from getting in the mix for another big gig. That speaks to a couple of different things — Rivers' desire to keep coaching, certainly, but also his big-picture track record rather than the nuances of his resume. As Rivers has reminded people in the past, he is one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, which would be easier to focus on were it not for the mistakes and shortcomings in a playoff format.

While I thought Rivers showed some growth in noteworthy areas last season, it certainly wasn't enough to say that he should walk into another great job with future Hall of Famers on the roster. My belief three years ago, which holds true now, is that Rivers would benefit from taking a step back from being the lead guy to assess where he has (and hasn't) gone wrong, to at least give himself a chance to avoid the pitfalls of the past. But perhaps the Suns won't end up caring, and his ability to connect with star players wins out. In spite of the playoff failures,  Sixers star Joel Embiid was still upset to see Rivers given the boot, which Morey had to acknowledge recently.

"I think it's natural to be very close with the people in the locker room. He was very close with coach Rivers," Morey said. "And yeah, he was shocked about the change. And it's my job to help convince him that the new coach is someone that he'll have a great relationship with as well."

Perhaps the Sixers need a coach who can establish good relationships in the locker room without completely handing it over to the stars. As the league watches the Miami Heat climb to within a game of a Finals appearance, teams around the league should be trying to figure out how to replicate their no-nonsense, high-adaptability approach away from South Beach. It would seem to start with a coach who can figure out a way to walk the line between partner and authority figure, and that's the sort of person the Sixers should be after right now.

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