Doc Rivers Doris Burke Mike Breen Jan 17, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; ESPN analysts Doc Rivers (left) and Doris Burke (center) and play-by-play announcer Mike Breen during the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers served NBA fans a real treat this season. No, not the nightly wonders of watching Joel Embiid score the basketball. By firing Doc Rivers following another second-round playoff loss, the Sixers set the longtime NBA figure up to become the sport’s best analyst in a long time.

This half-season of Rivers on ESPN airwaves and The Bill Simmons Podcast was a no-holds-barred trove of great perspective from someone just months removed from the league. Hardly a fog of war, Rivers’ time coaching Embiid and James Harden, competing at the highest ranks of the NBA gave him insight that bridges generations.

It is over now, with the news that Rivers will become the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. (After a confusing saga beginning Tuesday night where “CNN Sports” reported a deal was done and everyone else said “not yet,” Chris Haynes of TNT/Bleacher Report, Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic, and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN all reported the deal was done Wednesday.)

But for a sport constantly hunting for a chance to break through and a media environment that grows increasingly paranoid and guarded by the day, Rivers was a bright spot. His monthly check-ins with Simmons showed Rivers to be an athlete at heart, with a coach’s mind and a broadcaster’s diligence. On the broadcast, after viewers adjusted to his wrinkled growl pumping through their speakers, Rivers was direct.

The NBA Cup games in Las Vegas last fall may prove to be the highlight of Rivers’ limited time at ESPN. There, his ability to home in on what mattered in big games shined through, as did his passion. In an ecosystem in which Stan Van Gundy can turn a January MVP clash between Embiid and Nikola Jokic into his own personal podcast slamming Embiid’s playoff resume, Rivers cared about what was happening in each game. It stood out.

As the Lakers took home the inaugural NBA Cup, viewers saw controversial center Anthony Davis at his peak. Rivers celebrated Davis’ performance without reservation, highlighting what Davis was doing to overcome the inconsistent jump shot he is so often labeled for. At the same time, Rivers broke down what the Lakers’ defense was doing to quiet breakout star point guard Tyrese Haliburton. The dexterity to weigh concisely on macro narratives and the care to deconstruct schemes is what every great broadcaster needs, and Rivers had it.

In a stroke of luck for ESPN, Rivers also meshed incredibly well with partner Doris Burke. Any sports fan with ears knows a three-person booth can bring challenges. Beyond just making space for one another, the two analysts must bring a unique perspective while also meshing as a duo.

With Rivers and Burke, that effort was hardly noticeable. What makes Burke great is that she keys into a trend early in the game and returns to it throughout. She has a knack for tracking these heading into big matchups and monitoring how they play out within the game she is broadcasting. When those patterns coalesce into a big moment, she pulls the viewer into it confidently, knowing she has provided context so that anyone at home is already excited. Her work is done.

Rivers laid out and let Burke cook. For someone who hadn’t called games for nearly two decades while coaching, that’s impressive. And while it may be a base expectation rather than something worthy of praise, Rivers’ humility to take a back seat to a woman broadcaster was not a given. Many men in sports media would not have been comfortable doing so.

During hourlong runs around the NBA on Simmons’ podcast, Rivers showed he was doing his homework. Perhaps that was with an eye toward being hired to coach in the league at a moment’s notice (he reportedly was an “informal advisor” for Milwaukee throughout the season). But from Rivers’ first episode with Simmons, he showed nothing was off limits.

Rivers took listeners through his relationship with Harden and how it evolved over the course of last season, from the honeymoon phase early on through contract rumors and past an All-Star snub into another playoff flameout. Not only was Rivers openly critical of Harden, he was humble about his own shortcomings. Rivers has a reputation as a bit of an MFer, and wasn’t too proud to hold up the mirror.

The rest of the season, Rivers would be blunt about what was and wasn’t working in various NBA cities. He was not confident in the Lakers or Warriors from early on. He held out hope Phoenix and Milwaukee could get it together. And he was over the moon about his former team in the Clippers, the breakout contenders of the season.

In a preseason call with reporters to preview the NBA season, Rivers explained his loose approach.

“I’m going to be honest,” he said. “Sometimes that can be critical. But as long as it’s honest and coming from the right place, I’ve always been able to live with that.”

He acknowledged it could get him in hot water.

“It’s going unpopular at times, but at the end of the day, I really want people to enjoy the game,” Rivers added. “That’s what I’m in here for, to try to show the audience things that they may not see, to look at it.”

The NBA features some of the most famous athletes on the planet. Many make a living as influencers, fashion icons and endorsers alongside their playing careers. That has led to an era of NBA consumption and content hung up on perception, debate and paranoia.

This works for and against the league, growing the profile of its stars at the same time that those stars grow weary of the limelight. It’s a bunch of celebrities playing a playground game in claustrophobic arenas, yet fans are in many ways as far away from the athletes as ever.

That problem may never go away. But by being excitable, studied and eager, Rivers shone. Others should take note.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.