Four Thoughts On The Sixers Front Office and Coaching: It's Beginning To Feel A Lot Like 2018
Does D’Antoni mean a Ben-centric Sixers?
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA.
The Sixers were swept by the Celtics just over four weeks ago now, and not a single change has been announced within the organization aside from the firing of Brett Brown. It’s completely and utterly ridiculous, and yet also unsurprising.
In a painfully slow manner, the rumors are trickling out in regards to the next coach and changes to the front office. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey has been the leading man on that front, with a number of pieces in the past couple weeks that have shed light on what changes could be made.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on those rumors and what they might mean.
1: Hiring Mike D’Antoni would make the team better, even if it doesn’t seem so on the surface
I had the same gut reaction as many others to the Mike D’Antoni rumors (Pompey says it’s his job to lose) -- that his pace and space system doesn’t make sense with the Sixers’ personnel, and that he doesn’t solve many of the problems here.
But then I realized: just because the Sixers don’t maximize D’Antoni doesn’t mean that D’Antoni can’t maximize the Sixers, if that makes sense. The Sixers may not be able to dial up the pace and space to the level that D’Antoni is known for, but moving things a bit in that direction could be helpful for the team.
No coach is going to solve all of the Sixers problems. But D’Antoni shifting to a more pick and roll based offense would be a step in the right direction. His emphasis on pace could help Ben Simmons. And, his history of getting players to shoot more 3s could help across the board.
As a couple examples: Eric Gordon shot 9.8 3s per 100 possessions in his final year with the Pelicans, compared to 13.7 in his first year under D’Antoni. P.J. Tucker shot 4.3 3s per 100 the year before joining the Rockets, compared to 6.7 in his first year in Houston. He gives his players the ultimate green light from deep -- Rockets players have often mentioned that D’Antoni gets more upset over passing up potential open looks than he does over attempting a bad one.
Here’s the problem with thinking that will translate to the Sixers’ many low-volume shooters: most players want to shoot the ball more often. It’s one thing to feed a player’s appetite for shots, and it’s another thing entirely to convince players who seem to deplore shooting to begin doing it.
Perhaps D’Antoni could get through to Ben Simmons, and perhaps he’ll get Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson to up their attempts as well. But I have my doubts on all fronts. Simmons’ issues run very deep, Embiid has been vocal about not wanting to shoot 3s, Harris has an inexplicable amount of timidity, and Richardson has a slow release that limits how many shots he can get off to begin with.
The point being: D’Antoni may not ultimately make a huge difference on that front. If he does, great, but I’m not banking on it.
Regardless, D’Antoni is a forward-thinking coach who is capable of adapting his system to fit his personnel. I’m not sure there’s any system that fits this team as currently constructed, but D’Antoni is as good a coach as any to take a stab at making this team -- whatever it will look like -- work.
2: However, what would hiring D’Antoni mean for the Simmons/Embiid dynamic?
Please allow me to go full Spike Eskin tea leaf reading mode for a moment. To be extra clear, this is all speculation.
So far, the noise surrounding the Sixers’ coaching search has been loudest for two candidates: Mike D’Antoni, and Ty Lue. The former brandishes a patented style that decidedly benefits Simmons far more so than Embiid. The latter is a Klutch Sports client who coached Simmons’ mentor.
D’Antoni seems to be the favorite, according to Pompey’s article. Pompey says a source told him D’Antoni “would have to bomb his interview with the Sixers owners not to be offered the job, and said D’Antoni is the candidate they want.”
As I went through above, D’Antoni is a good coach who could help in a number of ways. But that being said, I just don’t understand how the Sixers could be this enamored with him -- this convinced that he is the answer to their woes -- while still planning to play through and build around Joel Embiid.
I am not saying that D’Antoni couldn’t figure out how to feed Embiid in the post, or that he’s incapable of slowing the pace down. I’m merely asking what the overwhelming appeal is for hiring him to coach a team whose leading scorer is a brute force, post-up big man. There is plenty of appeal for him coaching an offense that’s based around Simmons; there is very little for one that’s based around Embiid.
As a mere observer, reading the tea leaves, watching the Sixers flirt with two coaching candidates whose appeal seems more tied to Simmons than Embiid, I simply wonder if the current braintrust is angling for a day in which Simmons is a Sixer and Embiid is not.
Is it a stretch? Maybe. But let's not act like the current front office hasn’t taken a decidedly pro-Simmons stance already, at least in comparison to how they’ve treated Embiid. Lest we forget that the Colangelo burner accounts were extremely supportive of Simmons, and antagonized Embiid repeatedly. I’d find it hard to believe if that sentiment existed merely in the mind of Bryan/Babs, and did not trickle down at all to the rest of the front office.
This front office also punted on bringing back Embiid’s two closest on and off-court companions last summer, and the departure of one of them (Jimmy Butler) was likely a welcomed sight for Simmons. They put the ball back in Simmons’ hands, let him play point guard, and also signed a center to a max contract who complements his game more so than Embiid.
Simply put, this coaching search might be another example of the noticeable pro-Simmons pattern to their decisions. It has nothing to do with the Simmons-Embiid relationship, but rather, the organization’s possible preference for Simmons over Embiid. As the big fella clowns the organization on Twitter and talks about how much he misses old teammates, Sixers brass continues to move forward with personnel decisions that seem to benefit Simmons more so than him. One simply wonders what it all means.
3: Of course no executive worth a damn wants to come here without full power.
This was a notable excerpt from Pompey’s article on potential front office changes:
“League sources have said the Sixers are inquiring about the possibility of hiring a president of basketball operations.
One source said that Portland Trail Blazers president of basketball operations/ general manager Neil Olshey might have some interest in the Sixers, but that’s only if he has total power, as the president and general manager.”
And guess what: Mr. Olshey would be extremely reasonable for feeling that way! It’s the norm with front office changes in the NBA! Just ask the folks who interviewed for the Sacramento Kings job:
Amick: “There were (GM) candidates that, when they heard Joe Dumars was involved in the process, said ‘no thank you’.......”
— Carmichael Dave (@CarmichaelDave) September 17, 2020
Why the Sixers insist on trying to keep parts of their current front office in place is beyond me. It’s nothing personal against any member of their front office -- it’s simply understood that when a team wants to bring in a president of basketball operations, they will have to clean house and give that person full hiring power. I would be shocked if they were able to hire anyone who is established, qualified, and competent while trying to keep the bulk of this front office in place.
At the very least, it’s a positive sign that Pompey reported they are inquiring about the possibility. The door does not yet seem to be shut on them hiring an outsider and cleaning house. However, I’m dubious of it happening, because…
4: The rumors trickling out right now follow a frighteningly similar pattern to 2018
The similarities between the previous round of changes and the current one abound. In both cases, the processes were overly drawn out, they seemed intent on keeping certain elements of the front office in place, and the sole information that leaked to the public was that they were going after big names who already had jobs.
In 2018, that obviously resulted in the hiring of Elton Brand. In 2020, I’m tempted to believe that they will simply fire one or two scapegoats from the front office, and carry on with their business as usual.
I suppose that the only difference between then and now is that this one is following a complete and total embarrassment of the organization on the basketball side of things. Perhaps that spurs the change needed to get this franchise back on track. Or, perhaps their bizarre insistence on keeping parts of a front office in place that has robbed this organization of all the riches it once had will lead to them once again striking out on the opportunity to implement real change.