Doc Rivers describes coaching James Harden as “challenging”

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers talks with 76ers’ guard James Harden during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Philadelphia fans woke up today to a surprising confessional of former Sixers head coach Doc Rivers. In an interview with The Bill Simmons Podcast, Rivers confirmed recent rumors of tension between himself and James Harden – stating it was “challenging” to coach the veteran guard and alluding to the two having differing opinions on how to win in the playoffs.

Responding to Simmons’ question on what the experience of coaching James Harden was like (1:01:13 mark), Rivers responded:

“It was challenging…We were fighting two things, and not like visually fighting, it was James is so good at playing one way, and the way I believe you have to play to win, in some ways, is different. “Because it’s a lot of giving up the ball, moving the ball, coming back to the ball. I would have loved to have him younger, when that was easier for him because giving up the ball and getting back the ball is hard, it’s physical, it’s exhausting.”

Rivers also noted that Harden’s hyper-individualistic style of play made it easier for opponents to defend him in the playoffs, “when teams are game-planning against you each game, double-teaming, taking the ball out of your hand, making it harder. It’s easier to do that to James compared to … Steph [Curry]”

“What makes James great is that he’s one of the best individual players to ever play the game,” Rivers said. “Ball-handling handles the ball, dribbles the ball, attacks. But that also allows you to attack — you know where he’s at, and you know where the ball is at.”

Still, Rivers defended Harden’s reputation as someone who flops out of the playoffs. “I don’t believe the whole thing that he quits and all that stuff,” Rivers added. “I just think teams make him struggle because they know where he’s at, and it’s easier to find him.”

It’s unsurprising that the team would fire Rivers in an attempt to appease Harden. After three years under Doc Rivers’ tenure without making it any further than they’d done previously, the veteran coach’s job was already on the line. And given the wealth of top-notch coaching on the market this year, it’s quite likely that Rivers would have stayed even without Harden’s supposed disapproval. 

The Sixers are already over the cap even if Harden were to walk; if that were the case, they’d only be left with their mid-level exception. While most teams could at least leverage that situation into a sign-and-trade, the Houston Rockets — where Harden is widely purported to be considering a return to – already has the cap space to sign the 33-year-old outright. Even if the Sixers were able to find a Tobias Harris trade, the team’s lack of compensation picks means they’d be doing so at a deep tactical disadvantage – and still may not have sufficient space to bring in a higher-level player.

With such a sticky situation at hand, and with the ever-present concern of if Joel Embiid will begin to decline from his peak, the team seems to be taking a “whatever-it-takes” approach, patching up what they can in the hopes of achieving a championship with Embiid at the helm. With free agency looming closer, we may soon learn whether the firing of Doc Rivers will be enough to convince James Harden to stay.