Sixers: Mike D’Antoni is the clear top choice for head coach

Over the weekend, former Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he was stepping down from his role in Houston after the team’s most recent playoff exit. The departure was amicable and long expected—D’Antoni’s contract was up, and new ownership had expressed a desire to bring in their own guy. Naturally, it didn’t take long for rumors to swirl about possible interest from the Sixers.

Given D’Antoni’s long-anticipated availability, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard his name linked to Philadelphia, and his track record of success and history dealing with superstars makes him an obvious front-runner for the job.

Coaches of his caliber and resume (672 career wins; .570 W/L%) don’t come around often, and of all the high profile names linked to the Sixers thus far, Mike D’Antoni should absolutely be the preferred candidate. He’s an experienced winner in this league, he’s an innovator, and his history dealing with superstar egos (Kobe, Melo, Harden, CP3, Westbrook) equips him to deal with Embiid and Simmons more so than any coach aside for maybe Ty Lue (LeBron).

Despite these reasons, D’Antoni is being viewed as a controversial choice in Philadelphia, both within the fan base and the media at-large. The main argument from detractors is that his offensive system wouldn’t fit our roster, and more importantly wouldn’t fit Embiid and Simmons. While I certainly understand where this concern is coming from—it’s a natural question to have—it misses the overall point of D’Antoni’s offensive genius.

While the extremes of his innovative offenses might lead you to believe he’s a coach with a rigid, set offensive system, the truth is D’Antoni has adapted his schemes drastically to fit the strengths of his players. Where D’Antoni is flexible in scheme, he’s devoted to the principles that guide him: space, pace, and a lot of threes—whatever that may look like with a given roster.

D’Antoni and the Suns walked so Steve Kerr and the Warriors could run

In Phoenix, the famed “seven seconds or less” offense primarily focused on getting out in transition, and running 4-out pick-and-rolls with Nash and Stoudemire (playing small at the 5) in the half court. Nash was an assassin in the open floor but a generally passive lead guard, so Phoenix leaned on his quick-decision playmaking in the P&R to get he and Amar’e easy looks at the rim or one of their athletic wings an open look from three—that‘s how the Suns version of D’Antoni’s offense beat you.

Contrast that with the offense in Houston, which eschewed the pick-and-roll for an isolation-heavy attack, yet still produced quality looks at the rim and beyond the arc, and it’s clear these offenses have different faces but the same DNA—one is pass-happy, one is dribble-happy, but both had pace and a lot of threes. While the difference between a P&R and Iso attack is minor compared to the banner concepts of pace and space, D’Antoni’s slight change in scheme was guided by the differing play styles of Nash (passive) and Harden (aggressive).

The major point I’m trying to make here is that nobody was mistaking Harden for Nash when D’Antoni first tapped him to be the lead ball-handler four years ago, just like nobody would mistake Simmons for Harden right now; but the through-line between Nash and Harden is that D’Antoni knew exactly how to put each player in a position to consistently pressure a spread out defense, and I trust D’Antoni would do the same with Simmons.

D’Antoni’s fit with Joel Embiid…

As far as how he would handle Embiid, those concerns are equally understandable given the Rockets decision to trade Clint Capela and play the second half of 2020 without a center. But it’s important to understand that their abandonment of the center position was very openly an experiment—everyone from Daryl Morey on down has parroted in the media that the decision to go ultra-small was all about doubling down on the area that gives them an advantage over opponents. The data led them to conclude that they were a worse team with Capela on the floor, and better with PJ Tucker at the 5, so they leaned into that knowing it was likely the final year of D’Antoni/Morey ball.

It wasn’t some insistence that the center position is extinct—it was an insistence that centers like Clint Capela are extinct. If you think D’Antoni (or anyone at the forefront of small ball) thinks Embiid fits in that same basket then you’re simply lost.

For what it’s worth, Houston did have a player in Russell Westbrook who led the NBA in post-up possessions amongst guards (per Synergy). Obviously this isn’t the bread-and-butter of D’Antoni’s offense, but he’s clearly willing to take advantage of a mismatch down low when the opportunity is presented to him. On top of that, anyone clamoring for the Sixers offense to become more 4-out around Embiid—which it should—would surely welcome D’Antoni’s extreme spacing. In terms of creating *functional* spacing for four shooters on the perimeter—Brett’s main concern for going 4-out—D’Antoni is as experienced they come, having coached small-ball offenses since their inception in the 1990s.

I won’t sit here and tell you D’Antoni is the perfect coach for Joel in terms of fit—other coaches will surely elevate him more—but the lazy suggestions that he wouldn’t know how to use him, or that he would consider trading him are both so far beyond the pale it’s almost reckless for me to address them.

What about defense?

A big knock on D’Antoni over the years has been that he doesn’t care about defense. While this is a lazy generalization that we slap on most “offensive minds” in sports, it’s definitely fair to point out that his best teams in Phoenix and Houston have all been somewhat lopsided.

With that said, each one of those teams was at least league average defensively. Here’s where his Phoenix defenses ranked over his four full seasons: 18th, 16th, 15th, 17th; and in Houston: 18th, 7th, 17th, 15th. Never once were his teams a liability on defense despite generally being smaller and lacking top-end defensive talent. Give him Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and there’s no reason to think his defense will rank outside the top-10.

On it’s face it seems lazy to sit here and assume Ben and Joel will carry the water on defense, but are we really going to posit that Brett Brown was a plus in terms of coordinating a defense? I don’t think so. Quite frankly, there’s no reason to think a defense under D’Antoni will be any less elite than it has been already—Embiid and Simmons are 90% of that equation, with scheme and the rest of the roster accounting for the other 10.

Not every coach is going to make a tangible impact on both ends of the floor, so the least you can hope for is one who clearly provides value on one end or the other, and it’s hard to deny that D’Antoni satisfies that offensively. If you think the organization would be more wise to bring in a coach who can lean into our already present strengths on defense, so be it, but the idea that D’Antoni will be a negative defensively is flat out wrong.

D’Antoni elevated both Nash and Harden to superstardom, and it’s fair to credit him with jumpstarting their Hall of Fame careers.

It can be easy to discredit the success of some NBA coaches to them having simply coached generational talents, but there isn’t a more clear case of a player‘s success being tied to a coach than with Nash and D’Antoni. This isn’t to say Nash wasn’t excellent pre-Suns—he was a two-time All-Star—but it was laughable to consider him the two-time MVP he became under D’Antoni, who helped elevate Nash’s assist rate and shooting efficiency to career-high marks when he joined Phoenix at age 30.

Much of the same can be said of Harden, whose breakout was less drastic than Nash’s (Harden was a perennial All-Star by this point) but he still received a noticeable bump from D’Antoni that enabled him finish top-2 in MVP voting each of the first three seasons in his system. Nash was a top-30 player who instantly became top-5; Harden was a top-15 player who also became top-5. Make of that what you will.

“But his teams never made the Finals?!”

This is true, and to history goes the victor, but if we take a closer look at all of his contending teams in Phoenix and Houston there’s little reason to pin his team’s playoff shortcomings on him.

The unfortunate case of the mid-2000s Suns is well-known, but the details are worth rehashing. With the 2004-05 Suns—D’Antoni’s first full season—a red hot Joe Johnson (52% from the field, 56% from three in the playoffs) got hurt in the second round playoff series vs Dallas, and his unavailability for the games 1 and 2 (both home) of the Conference Finals vs the Spurs was too to much for the top-seeded Phoenix team to overcome headed back to San Antonio down 0-2. Fast forward to the ‘07 playoffs, and Phoenix saw two starters (Stoudemire and Boris Diaw) suspended for a pivotal Game 5 of a 2-2 second round series vs the Spurs for leaving the bench at the end of a Game 4 to spring to the defense of a wounded Steve Nash. With that game being a lost cause, and Game 6 in San Antonio, the higher-seeded Suns (and arguably better team) once again didn’t stand a chance. It’s worth noting both instances came against the eventual NBA Champion Spurs.

As for Houston, I don’t think I need to go into too much detail beyond pointing out that James Harden shoulders much of that blame. 23% shooting from three in the 2018 playoffs vs Golden State capped by a 2/13 performance in Game 7 is the defining moment of his career up to this point, and while the “choke” phrase is thrown around too often in his case, he’s never elevated himself or others in the playoffs. It’s also worth noting that D’Antoni’s four playoff losses in Houston came against a 67-win (Kawhi-led) Spurs team in ‘17, the dynasty Warriors in ‘18-19, and Lebron’s Lakers here in 2020.

If you’re keeping track, D’Antoni was eliminated by three eventual NBA Champions in Phoenix (SA, DAL, SA), and likely two eventual Champions in Houston (GS, and likely LA). The three eliminations to teams that didn’t go on to win the Finals were to Tim Duncan’s Spurs in 08, Kawhi’s Spurs in ‘17, and Steph and Klay’s Warriors last season. Sure, he may not have marquee playoff success, but D’Antoni has been battling with heavyweights his entire career.

The Sixers ought to be clear-eyed about what they want out of their next head coach—someone with real playoff experience, someone with experience handling star egos, and someone who can modernize the style of play. Being the attractive coaching destination that they currently are, they won’t have trouble finding candidates who satisfy one or two of these criterion, but rest assured Mike D’Antoni is the only one who confidently checks the box on all three. He’s an experienced winner, an offensive innovator, and a steady, tested hand in the locker room. I would be okay with a handful of names already linked to the Sixers, but each of them would be a consolation to D’Antoni.

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