The Philadelphia 76ers made a drastic decision following another year of playoff embarrassment. They decided to fire head coach Doc Rivers after their drought of appearances in the conference finals reached 23 years. An eventful offseason for the Sixers begins.
Following a Game 7 where Joel Embiid and James Harden completely stunk it up, firing Rivers doesn't look like the appropriate move. But given the Sixers' continued inability to win in the second round and Rivers' extremely shaky track over the last decade, Philly understandably wanted a change.
“Doc is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, a future Hall of Famer, and someone I respect immensely,” said Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey in a statement officially announcing Rivers' firing. “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.”
After reporting Rivers' firing, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski dropped six names that are expected to be in the Sixers' search for a head coach. Here they are, ranked worst to best.
Morey's infatuation with bringing in former figures from the Houston Rockets should leave no surprise that D'Antoni is getting consideration for the opening. He was also an associate head coach with the Sixers in the 2015-16 season and was very close to landing the head coach position before Rivers was hired.
D'Antoni helped turn Harden into the superstar that the NBA has known for nearly a decade. His understanding of offenses could help the Sixers improve their offense around Harden (should he stay in Philly) and Embiid. But his teams have traditionally played at a high pace, something Harden and Embiid are not built for at this stage in their careers. As the oldest candidate listed — he's 72 years old — his abilities to remain a top-tier coach should be questioned.
Williams was fired after four seasons on the job with the Phoenix Suns. He helped the team take a big leap in his first season before adding Chris Paul and becoming a playoff team. Prior to landing the Phoenix job, he was an assistant coach with the Sixers, giving him some familiarity with Embiid.
While Williams did help get the Suns to the Finals and had those teams excel on both sides of the floor, his coaching failures of the last two seasons look quite similar to those of Rivers: a team with a lot of talent falling flat on its face in the biggest postseason moments due in part to the coach's inability to adapt. While he represents a new voice, Williams' track record as of late is hard to overlook, even though he had to juggle the difficulties brought on by a midseason blockbuster.
4. Frank Vogel
Vogel steered the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship in 2020 and coached the Paul George-led Indiana Pacers teams that made back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014. Way back in the day, the Wildwood Crest, NJ native was a Sixers assistant coach in the 2004-05 season.
While hiring a defensive-minded coach makes sense with a roster featuring the likes of Embiid, P.J. Tucker and De'Anthony Melton, Vogel's squads played at higher paces than Embiid-led teams have. His offenses are usually on the bad side, a worrisome trend for a coach as offensive efficiency is in its golden age. Part of the reason he got fired from the Lakers was an inability to adapt to the team as it cycled in new players.
3. Sam Cassell
Rolling the dice on a first-time head coach is always risky when a team is desperate to compete at a championship level. But promoting from within allows the team to retain a positive voice. Of all the names on Rivers' coaching staff (which also includes Dave Joerger, who has six seasons of NBA head coaching experience), Cassell seems like the guy best suited to get a promotion.
Cassell, an assistant coach in Philadelphia for the past three seasons, is known to have a great relationship with Harden and Tyrese Maxey, whom the Sixers will likely extend at some point this offseason. He was recently a candidate for the Houston Rockets' head-coach vacancy before it went to Ime Udoka. Cassell is an unknown commodity as a head coach but seems to be well-liked in Philly.
A championship-winning head coach is always an alluring target. The former Milwaukee Bucks coach was canned after his team flopped in the first round of the 2023 playoffs. It is true that Budenholzer's shortcomings as a head coach led to the Bucks' premature playoff eliminations in many years.
However, his schemes also turned a solid team into a true contender and eventual champion. He built a strong defense centered around drop coverage, the scheme the Sixers use with Embiid. While Philly doesn't have other strong defenders like Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bud has a basic blueprint to work with. His offensive schemes would have to be adjusted with the Sixers' stars, though his teams did a good job of leveraging three-point shooting around a superstar.
1. Nick Nurse
Nurse represents another head coach on the market with a championship. The Sixers' defense would likely be great under him, who orchestrated very strong defensive units with the Toronto Raptors. Embiid once said that the team plays like it prefers to slow down the opposing star rather than win games. Given his desire for Philly to be staunch on defense, perhaps he would welcome Nurse and his strategizing.
Nurse's decision to run small rotations would likely not sit well with aging, slower stars like Embiid and Harden. That is perhaps the biggest factor that makes him and Philly look like a poor fit. On the positive side, his Raptors teams as of late have been solid on offense despite a lack of perimeter shooting and talent subpar to the trio of Embiid, Harden and Maxey.
Whichever coach the Sixers decide to go with will have to make the right schematic adjustments and get the trust of the team's key players. Morey and the front office simply must hit a home run with this hire.