NBA rumors: James Harden may have been behind Doc Rivers firing

The Philadelphia 76ers 'unofficially' fired Doc Rivers because of his broken relationship with James Harden.
James Harden, Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
James Harden, Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers / Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers fired Doc Rivers shortly after the season ended in yet another disappointing, borderline embarrassing second-round exit. The move came with universal approval from the fanbase. Rivers wasn't entirely at fault for the Sixers' most recent postseason flameout, but he sure did wear out his welcome.

It soon became apparent that Rivers' exodus wasn't entirely related to the on-court results, though. All season, the relationship between Rivers and star point guard James Harden felt strained. Rivers constantly went to bat for Harden in the media, but as we all know, Rivers' management style can rub his players the wrong way.

Now, we have definitive reporting on the matter. ESPN's Ramona Shelburne published her tell-all about Harden's tumultuous summer, including his relationship with Rivers and what preceded the Hall of Fame coach's firing.

Per Shelburne, Rivers was "officially" fired because the Sixers flamed out in the second round, but he was "unofficially" fired because Harden did not want to play for him again.

Philadelphia 76ers fired Doc Rivers because of James Harden

Shelburne cites an incident in mid-December, following a Sixers loss to the Houston Rockets. Harden took the final three shots in regulation and missed. The game went to double overtime and the Sixers fell short. After the game, Rivers allegedly "lit into Harden" for his shot selection.

The star point guard mustered a rather unenthused response. He "just couldn't get the ball" to Joel Embiid, who finished the game with 39 points on 12-of-21 shooting. Harden, meanwhile, finished the game with 21 points on ghastly 4-of-19 shooting.

Rivers has always been comfortable with blunt, honest criticism of his players. He has earned the right to speak straight after decades of NBA success. Some players take better to that coaching method than others, though. Joel Embiid likes to be pushed and challenged. Harden and his point guard predecessor, Ben Simmons? Not so much.

Another anecdote from Shelburne feels like the breaking point in the relationship. On Feb. 27, the Heat beat the Sixers 101-99 in Philadelphia — a gutwrenching defeat. The Sixers then traveled to Miami for the second half of a home-and-home a couple of days later, but Harden didn't travel with the team. He arrived early and on his own to "enjoy the nightlife" South Beach has to offer.

That's familiar territory for Harden, who has long enjoyed special off-court privileges due to his superstar status and consistent on-court impact. The Sixers won that game in Miami, but Rivers still expressed frustration to Harden in a team meeting days later. He also mentioned teammates who had expressed similar concerns in private.

The episode was "uncomfortable," says one of Shelburne's sources. Even the players who agreed with Rivers were uncomfortable having their opinions brought to light.

It's hard to imagine a better way to break a locker room in half and distance yourself from a key player. Rivers' misgivings about Harden's off-court behavior aren't without merit, but it's more than a little goofy to openly shame a player in a team meeting while snitching on his teammates.

The last few years have made it abundantly clear that Rivers is out of touch with the realities of today's NBA. His statements to the press played a significant role in pushing Ben Simmons away. That whole situation was a mess and, again, most folks would agree with the substance of Rivers' statements. In that instance, he expressed uncertainty about Simmons' viability as a championship point guard. The entire Philly fanbase was 100 percent on board with Doc's skepticism, but that doesn't make it the right PR move.

Rivers isolated multiple star players and Philly made the decision to fire him with every intention of keeping James Harden. Obviously, that didn't work out. Harden is still on the team, but his trade request remains active and his relationship with Sixers president Daryl Morey has since hit the fan.

Former NBA champion Nick Nurse was hired as Rivers' replacement. He now faces the unenviable task of putting the pieces back together in Philadelphia. The Harden relationship is probably kaput, but Philly can't afford to let another year of Joel Embiid's prime go to waste. Therein lies the challenge.

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