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May 16, 2023

Sixers fire head coach Doc Rivers

Rivers was dismissed after three seasons and three consecutive playoff failings.

The Sixers dismissed head coach Doc Rivers on Tuesday morning, a team source confirmed to PhillyVoice, ending Rivers' three-year tenure in the lead chair for the organization.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, who was the first to report the news on Tuesday, reports that the Sixers' search will include a wide range of well-known coaches, including former Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, former Raptors coach Nick Nurse, and former Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.

The list of names available to be had right now is at least one major reason to move on this decision sooner rather than later. There are some other coaching mysteries out there at the moment — the potential for Ty Lue to leave L.A. has been floated by some major players around the league — but moving on from Rivers immediately following the season's end allows you to get in the mix for any of the big names in the pool.

In three seasons at the helm of the Sixers, Rivers led the Sixers to a 154-82 record in the regular season, ending his tenure with a pair of back-to-back 50-win seasons, including a 54-win campaign that marked the best regular season for Philadelphia in over 20 years. Rivers' failings in the playoffs, however, spelled doom for a head coach who arrived in Philadelphia with a history of high-profile flameouts already under his belt. The Sixers lost two different Game 7s under Rivers, which included their 2021 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in which Philadelphia squandered homecourt advantage through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. 

In a statement released by the team on Tuesday morning, Daryl Morey offered high praise for Rivers while acknowledging the reality of the last few seasons.

“Doc is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, a future Hall of Famer, and someone I respect immensely," Morey said. "We’re grateful for all he did in his three seasons here and thank him for the important impact he made on our franchise. After having the chance to reflect upon our season, we decided that certain changes are necessary to further our goals of competing for a championship.” 

While not an unexpected choice, it's an interesting decision when looking through the perspective of the team's star players. Rivers' tenure as head coach coincided with Joel Embiid's rise from well-known star to yearly MVP candidate, with Rivers immediately establishing a hierarchy that put Embiid at the top of the organization, with no room for interpretation otherwise. Following Philadelphia's Game 7 defeat in Boston, Embiid offered an endorsement of Rivers and the job he had done, though he noted that doing a good job hadn't stopped other coaches from receiving the axe recently.

“As far as my coach, I think he’s done a fantastic job,” Embiid said. “We’ve gotten better over the years. I think he’s done a great job. I don’t make the decisions. I think he should be fine. We’ve got a great relationship. You look at the way he handled the whole situation that we had a year or two ago, I thought he kept the team afloat. He’s been a great leader for all of us, a great motivator."

“But then again, you look at what’s been happening over all the league, it’s tough. I’m glad I don’t make those decisions. I think all of those guys, they deserve to have jobs. I know Coach Monty, he’s a great coach and I think he’s done a fantastic job. You look at his team, I think he’s gotten the best from all of those guys. Coach Bud from Milwaukee, winning a championship, he did the best job he could."

(Name-checking Monty Williams during this presser is an interesting thing to keep in mind moving forward, as Williams was once an assistant coach in Philadelphia who Embiid has experience with.)

On the other side of the coin, Harden appeared to have a less rosy view on Rivers, saying that their relationship was "okay" and leaving it at that following the Game 7 defeat. In an appearance on NBA Today earlier this week, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported that Rivers' status could weigh heavily as Harden assesses his options this summer:

James Harden was not all that supportive of Doc Rivers in his press conference yesterday. I think behind the scenes from [what I was] told that one person said it would be hard for me to see James wanting to come back and play for Doc again, this is going to be a situation where those two decisions are linked. As we go forward into this into this offseason and you have another second round exit, you have to decide if you want to lock in your future around those [Harden and Embiid], and then if you’re doing that, what does that mean for Doc Rivers? Because the decision seems to be linked.

The one thing of note in Wojnarowski's initial reporting on the candidates is that (aside from Cassell) these are all experienced, veteran coaches whose strengths and weaknesses feel relatively set in stone. With the Sixers on a win-now timeline, you could understand wanting to go with more proven candidates rather than taking any risks on young upstarts, though you could argue what Philadelphia needs is a creative, tactical thinker in that lead chair who can expand on the bread-and-butter plays they've developed running things though Embiid and Harden. 

(I suspect Nurse will be the favorite name with the fanbase, as he has a reputation for more creativity than many of the listed names in this group, though you'd have to be confident that his regression over the last couple of years has been a product of the roster rather than a reflection of his acumen. Nurse's teams have been among the worst in the league at half-court offense as the roster has shifted post-Kawhi and Kyle Lowry.)

Of course, the biggest question here is whether a coaching change in Philadelphia ultimately "matters" beyond offering a blood sacrifice to appease the fans after a horrendous showing to end the Sixers' season. The Sixers needed a shake-up of some sort, though Rivers' limitations as a playoff coach do not offer a complete explanation for the disappearing acts of their stars in big moments throughout the series. It's an attractive job opportunity, but a tough one. Anyone signing up for the job will have to offer a sales pitch on how they'd get Joel Embiid and the supporting cast to the next level, breaking through the second-round muck they've been trapped in.

This story is developing.

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