When the Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated by the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals thanks to Kawhi Leonard's now legendary game-winner, it was Nick Nurse on the opposite sideline, coaching in his first postseason. Nurse and the Raptors went on to win the first NBA title in franchise history that season, while the Sixers have been unable to advance any further than they were in that game against Toronto in the four years since, despite trying with both Brett Brown and Doc Rivers.
Now, it's Nurse who will be mandated with leading the Sixers past the second round for the first time since 2001 after the team Joel Embiid, and the window to build a title team around him isn't getting any wider., and the pressure to do so is immediate. Rivers got three tries, and he fell slightly short each time. Had he been able to come out victorious in Game 7 against Atlanta in 2021, or in Game 7 against Boston this season, he would almost assuredly still have his job. The Sixers have the reigning NBA MVP in
As such, there's a feeling of organizational urgency within the Sixers. That's part of the reason Rivers was let go with two years left on his contract, and part of the reason the organization felt that Nurse was the right fit at this point in time. It's not exactly the same, but Nurse was already in awhen he led the Raptors to the title in his first year as coach after the previous coach was unable to get the team over the hump and out of the East. Obviously the Sixers are hoping for a similar outcome. There were several viable options available, including an in-house candidate in Sam Cassell, and Nurse was the guy they wanted.
When describing what the Sixers were looking for in a new head coach after dismissing Rivers earlier this month, president of basketball operations Daryl Morey listed several features the ideal candidate would possess. "We're looking for someone who brings leadership and accountability, someone who is good at tactics, someone who has great relationships with his star players, and who someone who is good at recruiting star players and players want to play for, someone who builds a great organization," he said.
They think they got that in Nurse, and by all accounts he seems like a solid hire. When healthy, Nurse's Toronto teams were consistently competitive, and when he had a superstar-caliber player in Kawhi Leonard for a single season, he won a title (although injuries to key contributors for Golden State definitely played a major factor in those '19 Finals). He brings a new voice and a championship pedigree to the Sixers, and his no-nonsense style could be good for a team that has developed a reputation for being somewhat soft on star players. Specifically, Nurse will be tasked with maximizing Embiid in the postseason, as the NBA MVP has been unable to lead his team on a deep playoff run under his two previous head coaches.
But, while Nurse appears to be a step in the right direction for the Sixers, other roster changes are still needed for the team to reach its' full potential. It's tough to project what the lineup will look like under Nurse next season without knowing what James Harden's future holds, and his decision is the first domino that has to fall for Philly. But the Sixers' roster could use an upgrade on the perimeter, regardless of what Harden decides to do. Running it back with Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker as the two starting forwards would probably be a mistake, as the Sixers need more reliable athleticism, floor-spacing and shot creation from those spots.
Harris only has one year remaining on the monster contract he signed in 2019, and as a result he could finally be tradeable. Trying to flip him is certainly something that the front office should -- and will -- look into this summer. Getting younger and more athletic on the wings could help Philadelphia become a better transition team under Nurse than they were under Rivers. This past season, Nurse's Raptors were fifth league-wide in transition points per game during the regular season (23.8), while the Sixers were 23rd (19.9).
If Harden bolts in free agency, the Sixers will need to find a lead guard to replace him, as Tyrese Maxey is probably better suited as a combo guard unless he takes a major step forward in the playmaking department over the offseason. Even if Harden returns, the team could still probably use a veteran point who can initiate offense and calm the waters when necessary.
In addition to Harden, the Sixers have several other players set for free agency this offseason. Georges Niang, Shake Milton and Jalen McDaniels will be unrestricted free agents, while Paul Reed will be a restricted free agent, which means that the Sixers will get an opportunity to match any outside offers for the backup big man. Danuel House Jr. and Montrezl Harrell also both have player options for next season that they could decline in favor of unrestricted free agency.
The Sixers have to decide what they want to do with all of those guys. Jalen McDaniels and Paul Reed are two players who seem like they could be good fits for a Nurse-led team given his penchant for leaning on switchy, two-way guys in Toronto. So, they might be worth bringing back. The rest are replaceable, though, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Sixers move on from most or all of them. If Reed doesn't return for one reason or another, the team will have to bring in another reliable backup for Embiid, as that role has proven to pretty pivotal in recent seasons.
Nurse comes to Philadelphia lauded for his ability as an "X's and O's" coach -- an area that has never been known as a strong suit for Rivers. So, the change in the coaching chair could very well prove to be a positive for the Sixers, but Philly's front office still has plenty of work to do, as coaching wasn't the only reason for the team's underwhelming end to the season.