Doc Rivers will be on the call for ESPN’s season opener tonight, as he returns to the booth for the first time in more than a decade. Rivers joins Doris Burke and Mike Breen on ESPN’s revamped lead broadcast team after being fired after three seasons at the helm of the Philadelphia 76ers.
It has been reported that one of the main reasons Rivers was fired was because James Harden was not a big fan of him as head coach, with Rivers calling coaching Harden “challenging” earlier this summer. Somewhat ironically, Harden is pushing his way out now even with Rivers gone and Nick Nurse being a coach he admires, and it’s led to questions about exactly how all of this went wrong in Philly. While Rivers has been asked about Harden a number of times this summer, his most interesting comments on his former star player came on Wednesday in an interview with Dan Patrick, who simply asked what Doc would tell another team that called him to ask about Harden.
Rivers then detailed how things started so well last year with Harden buying into his role as a point guard, how his All-Star snub sent things spiraling, and why Rivers thinks his “honest relationship” with James is probably why he’s now doing TV instead of getting the Sixers ready for their opener.
"Our relationship, it was an honest one. It's probably why I'm doing TV."
— Dan Patrick Show (@dpshow) October 25, 2023
“He, when playing right – and I tell everyone, go back to the first half of last year where he gave himself to the team. Then we were the best team in the NBA for a 10-20 game stretch,” Rivers said “…but we were because James was being a point guard. It’s funny, a coach called me and said ‘I never thought anyone could get him to do that.’ And, he did for a short term. And that’s what I would tell them. If you can keep him in that and not want to chase numbers or wanting to score, the thirst of scoring, you have a terrific player.”
When asked what changed, Doc pointed to the All-Star snub.
“I would say not making the All-Star team really bothered him. I thought that was egregious,” said Rivers. “The coaches just didn’t put him on. He was only leading the league in assists. He was having the best three-point percentage shooting year of his career. He was averaging plus 20, and the coaches didn’t put him on the All-Star team. He would never say this, but in my gut, I thought it changed almost immediately. I remember about a game or two after that he called me and said, ‘Hey I want to start playing with the second unit more.’ And I know exactly what that means. More shots. I want to go back to attacking and playing. And we had our ups and downs from that point on.
“It’s funny about our relationship, it was an honest one, I’ll tell you that. It’s probably why I’m doing TV right now. But you have to be honest as a coach and you have to just keep selling it. Like, listen, when you do this, it might not be the best or most fun for you, but we are a better team and I never relented on that. And I thought he appreciated that, even at the very end.”
It’s a really interesting quote from Rivers and it’s part of what makes the transition from elite, MVP-level star to even supporting star (or, further along, role player) so difficult for the player. There’s this constant belief that player is still somewhere in there, and it’s hard to give that up entirely, especially if you don’t feel you get the recognition you deserve for what you are doing in a changed approach. That, in particular, seems to be what Doc feels derailed Harden’s commitment to his role as a more pure point guard, and in turn cause issues for the Sixers as a whole.