Source: Harden issued ultimatum ahead of River’s dismissal

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Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers, right, talks to James Harden during the second half of Game 4 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Saturday, April 22, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Boston, May 14, 2023 — The Philadelphia 76ers, moments after the franchise’s fifth second-round exit in six seasons, left the hardwood for the final time of the 2023 postseason. With perhaps their best chance at winning a championship in the Joel Embiid era spent, a large shadow of uncertainty lingered over the Sixers. Of all the questions surrounding the upcoming offseason, the largest continues to revolve around what the future would hold for the team and All-Star point guard James Harden who holds a player option for the 2023-24 NBA season.

Harden’s post-Game 7 comments

Harden, who had just labored through one of the worst postseason performances of his career, showed no desire to bathe in the moment as he made his way off the court shortly after giving the Boston Celtics their deserved congratulations. Not long after, reporters caught up with Harden in the locker room. When asked about his relationship with Doc Rivers and whether he would like to see him return as head coach next season, Harden simply replied, “Our relationship is okay.”

That answer sent shockwaves across social media airwaves. It was not inherently surprising that Rivers and Harden did not see eye to eye, nor was it the first time the idea of Rivers being dismissed was discussed in the court of public opinion, but for a player of Harden’s stature, who is rumored to have the ear of the front office to such a degree, to make such a comment publically certainly caused a stir.

Just two days later, Rivers was dismissed by the Philadelphia 76ers.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 17: Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers looks on during a NBA game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Clippers on January 17, 2023 at Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

Despite an initial feeling of safety Rivers and his staff felt after Game 7, as reported by Marc Stein, the future Hall of Fame coach was suddenly without a team, and many were anxious to point their finger in response. Harden’s postgame comments came quickly to mind, and many began to theorize that he was potentially behind River’s dismissal.

From national NBA insiders like Adrian Wojnarowski to Ramona Shelburne, who alluded to the futures of Harden and Rivers being linked, to local columnists like Marcus Hayes. The prevailing thought was that Harden played a role in the Sixers’ decision to part ways with Doc Rivers despite comments to the contrary by President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey.

Even several members of Rivers’ staff reportedly felt that Harden was “a driving force” behind the firing of Rivers, according to Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer. That thought, as one source told Philly Sports Network, may not be entirely without merit.

What role did Harden play in Doc’s dismissal?

According to a source close to the situation, Harden met with both Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers shortly after Game 7. During this interaction, Harden vehemently expressed his disapproval of Rivers as the team’s head coach moving forward. He was so passionate about Rivers being dismissed that he made it clear that a future with both of them in Philadelphia was simply not possible. It should be noted that Joel Embiid was not present for this interaction.

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)

The comments of both James Harden and Doc Rivers since the latter’s departure show there was a clear philosophical difference between the two in regard to how the former MVP should be utilized. Rivers did not offer Harden the “basketball freedom” he was so accustomed to, something that the 10-time All-Star is reportedly looking to regain in 2023-24, according to Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes. Whether or not he can find that freedom in Philadelphia or elsewhere remains to be seen.

It should be stated that while Harden’s disapproval of Rivers may have played a small part in the dismissal of Rivers, it was far from the only cause. Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer clarified later that the dismissal of Rivers was not solely, or even directly, based on Harden’s desires.

During his three seasons in Philadelphia, Rivers had on multiple occasions faced criticism from outside the organization, whether it be in regards to the perceived lack of importance he placed on developing talent, his questionable practice habits, to the simple fact that sometimes a new voice is needed in the locker room, there were reasons for the team and coach to part ways that do not in any direct way pertain to James Harden.

While Rivers’ third season was arguably his best, it still was not enough to instill hope that he was the right person to take the Sixers further than they’ve gone in over 20 years.

Doc is gone; now what?

With Doc Rivers’ tenure in the rearview mirror, logic would dictate that Harden would return to Philadelphia after his grand proclamation, right? Not exactly. While he was clear that he would not be returning with Rivers at the helm, Harden did not state that the dismissal of his now-former head coach would confirm his free agency decision.

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) calls to teammates during the first half of Game 5 against the Boston Celtics in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Sixers are still very much in play to retain Harden, but it is far from a foregone conclusion. The Houston Rockets and the Phoenix Suns are still considered potential threats to pursue last season’s assists leader, and either team could make a tempting pitch based on a variety of reasons, from family to freedom, to familiarity. The drama surrounding Harden’s free agency decision is certainly not over at this point, and the Sixers may not have helped themselves with their recent head coaching hire.

In place of Doc River, the Philadelphia 76ers have turned to former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to lead the franchise from this moment forward. While he is a highly respected individual and is projected to do well in Philadelphia, Nurse is not a coach who historically embraces the idea of “basketball freedom,” particularly if it comes at the cost of winning.

While Nurse has already met with Harden, sang his praises, and publicly commented on how to maximize him as a player, it’s still up to Harden to buy into that plan.

If he honestly values freedom over money or glory, then perhaps Harden’s time with the Sixers has come to an end, regardless of the Doc Rivers situation. However, if one of the greatest players in NBA history is truly committed to greatness, then there is still abundant opportunity in Philadelphia, arguably more so under the new coaching regime.