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ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne: ‘The Harden-Doc Rivers thing was never great’

The ESPN reporter thinks James Harden is more likely to stay with the Sixers now that Doc Rivers has been fired.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers announced Tuesday that they were parting ways with head coach Doc Rivers, just two days after the Sixers were smacked out of the playoffs in Game 7 by the Boston Celtics.

It was the third consecutive second round exit for the Sixers. Something had to change. And now, it has.

But the conversation surrounding Rivers’ job security had started long before the slaughter at TD Garden. However, since that loss, the talks had garnered a new focus: would James Harden refuse to play for Rivers again? The suspicion of a rift between the two was always there, but it seemed all but confirmed by Harden himself postgame. When asked about his relationship with Doc and whether or not he’d like to see the coach return next season, Harden simply replied “our relationship is OK.” Yikes.

Things ramped up even further on Monday as ESPN’s Ramona Shelborne reported that Harden’s potential free agency might hinge on whether or not the Sixers brought back Doc Rivers for another season.

Now, if that is the case, the Sixers seem to have made their decision. Shelburne joined 97.5 The Fanatic to talk about the dynamic between the two and what moves she thinks the Sixers may make next.

The problem between Rivers and The Beard had been brewing for awhile, as many had speculated.

“There was a lot of doubt whether James Harden would want to play for Doc Rivers again,” Shelburne said. “That was the vibe in the locker room and it had been that way all year, despite everyone’s best attempt at putting on a nice, happy face. That has been an undercurrent all year.”

When asked what she think caused the rift, Shelburne pointed to aspects of their relationship on and off the court.

“There was a few team meetings I had heard about where Doc tried to say something about [Harden] going out on the road and ‘how does that look? How does it look to your teammates? If you are going to do that you gotta really show up in the game.’ There was a lot of trying to hold James accountable in certain ways,” she said.

That seems fair. Harden does love his extracurricular activities. But the problems went beyond butting heads off the court, and it had a lot to do with the major shift Harden made as a player when he came to Philadelphia.

Harden, who spent the majority of his career as a shooting guard, transformed with the Sixers. He still hit his patented step-back threes and looked for openings to drive to the rim, but he was now serving mainly a new role as a facilitator. Suddenly, the three-time NBA scoring leader was now the NBA assist leader. When it worked, his duo of facilitation with the finishing of Joel Embiid was unstoppable, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Harden.

“On the court, I don’t think there was ever a real fit. I think James is a free-flowing offensive player,” Shelburne said. “He played a role in this team that he really has made no secret that he saw as a sacrifice. I think James was never quite comfortable on that role.”

With problems on and off the court, Shelburne reported that she believed it was bound to be “one or the other” for the Sixers and that Tuesday morning they “obviously made their decision”. She stresses, however, that she doubts the decision to let go of Doc was solely because of the issues with Harden this season.

Speaking of Harden, he still has the opportunity to leave Philadelphia to chase a bigger, longer contract elsewhere this offseason. But if he stays, Shelburne thinks there’s one man the Sixers should start their head coach search with to work better with the 10-time All-Star.

“I think they need a more offensive-minded coach. If they’re going to do this Harden-Joel Embiid thing again, I think you gotta start with Mike D’Antoni. That’s Harden’s guy,” she said. “He’s known as an offensive genius. He’s creative.

“If you’re going James Harden until the end, if you’re gonna give him three or four years and roll with it… you just gotta get the guy that’s made him work the best.”

Expect D’Antoni’s name to keep popping up as long as Harden is set to return to Philly, considering his resume along with his history with Harden and Daryl Morey. Our Dave Early broke down the candidacy of D’Antoni and other available coaches here.

That being said, D’Antoni’s candidacy may rest heavily on Harden’s presence, which is still up in the air. The Beard’s 2023-24 team is something Shelburne shared her thoughts on, but was clear that it was simply that: her beliefs, nothing official.

“I don’t know which way James is going to go,” she admits. “My guess, if I was predicting, not reporting, I think he stays.

“I think letting Doc go probably opens the door for him to stay, and [the Sixers] go with the same pairing next year with a different conductor.”

Well, it’s going to be an interesting offseason in Philadelphia.

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