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September 29, 2020

Updated Sixers coaching rumor tracker: Doc Rivers emerges as potential favorite

Mike D'Antoni and Tyronn Lue were the favorites. Does Doc Rivers' availability change that?

Sixers NBA
Doc-Rivers_093020_usat Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

(Former) LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers.

Each passing day brings another rumor about the Sixers' head coaching position. Are they handing the team over to Mike D'Antoni, are they signing up for the Tyronn Lue era, or will a curveball come at the final hour, like newly-available Doc Rivers? Given the organization we're talking about here, anything is still on the table.

Rather than spamming you with a million 200 word articles to keep track of it all, we're setting up a tracker for all the latest info, the profiles of coaches who are in the mix, and even some nuggets on coaches who have publicly dropped out of the running.

Let's run through what we know.

UPDATE (10/01): Doc Rivers is not just part of the search at this point, he appears to be the guy who is leading the pack. A wild Wednesday featured multiple meetings between Rivers and the men in power in Philadelphia, including GM Elton Brand as well as owners Joshua Harris and David Blitzer. On the other side of those meetings, league insiders say he's now perhaps the favorite from the job.

That's the word from Marc Stein of the New York Times, who believes Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue will take the position Rivers vacated in L.A.

Stein's reporting was matched by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski a short while later on Thursday morning, and there appears to be some fire driving this smoke. 

The primary contenders

Mike D'Antoni, free agent

Strengths: His most recent stint as the head coach of the Houston Rockets was another huge success in a revolutionary offensive career, with D'Antoni's Rockets owning the highest regular-season win percentage (.682) of any team in the Western Conference over the last four seasons. D'Antoni's arrival ushered in a run of super-powered offenses in Houston, who were scoring healthily before he arrived but took things to another level with D'Antoni. His track record of super-charging players on offense is terrific, and would fill a need for a Sixers team in need of a jolt.

Weaknesses: D'Antoni has had trouble when he has been asked to adapt to personnel that doesn't fit cleanly into his idea of how basketball should be played. The 2012-13 Lakers, for example, were a disaster of comical proportions. His Knicks tenure, save for a brief renaissance when Amare Stoudemire first signed there, was a complete disaster. D'Antoni and Joel Embiid seem like oil and water, and Ben Simmons only seems to be a fit if he's unleashed as a downhill rim-running threat, which is not really possible with this roster.

The latest intel: The rumors have been coming fast and furious on D'Antoni, who appears (at least at this moment) to be the frontrunner.

Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week (9/15) the job is effectively D'Antoni's to lose, with a disaster interview the only thing that could potentially derail him. Since then, his name has only picked up steam, with various insiders reporting that he would be part of a group receiving a second round of interviews with Elton Brand.

On Wednesday (9/23), D'Antoni's name popped up once again. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor says the noise surrounding a possible marriage is only growing.

Some are more skeptical that the interest is a two-way street. Multiple league sources who spoke with PhillyVoice have questioned whether D'Antoni is genuinely interested in the job or whether it's a leverage play to get a better deal elsewhere. There are other teams, most notably the Pacers and Pelicans, with rosters that better suit his style of basketball. 

While the Sixers will be actively trying to reshape the roster ahead of next season, building a D'Antoni-style roster would be a significant undertaking, begging questions about whether they should be fitting the roster to a coach rather than the other way around.

On Philadelphia's end, the interest appears legitimate. Ownership has long been a fan of D'Antoni dating back to his brief stint as an assistant on Brett Brown's staff. 

Tyronn Lue, Clippers assistant

Strengths: Lue was both an underrated tactician and a strong leader at the helm of the Cleveland Cavaliers, juggling egos and major pieces masterfully en route to three straight Finals appearances, including one championship in 2016. Lue fits the demanding leader role many feel the Sixers need to challenge Embiid and Simmons, with an established track record of standing up to LeBron James in the biggest moments of their careers. The job he did in 2018 specifically is pretty underrated, with the Cavs managing to reshuffle most of the rotation at the trade deadline while still making a Finals appearance.

Weaknesses: Lue carries the stigma of most coaches who have been paired with LeBron James, and to some degree rightfully so. We don't know what he can do without one of the all-time greats running the show on the floor, as Lue was fired after an 0-6 start to the 2018-19 campaign.

The latest intel: On September 3rd, Sportsradio WIP's Jon Johnson reported the Sixers and Lue were close to a deal to make him the next Sixers head coach. Soon after, Johnson backtracked, and team sources who spoke with PhillyVoice were firm about the report being inaccurate within minutes of it coming out.

Lue has taken a backseat in the headlines in the weeks since, his name mostly popping up in tandem with the other big names on the market. Up to that moment, the inside buzz had been overwhelmingly in Lue's favor, with some expecting him to get the job the moment the Clippers were eliminated from the playoffs. 

Whether the silence in the period since Johnson's report means anything is up for debate. Lue reportedly backed out of consideration for the Lakers coaching job over a pay dispute, and some believe they're trying to make their options appear open for the sake of leverage. With Lue in the mix for other high-profile jobs left around the league, it'd be a dangerous game of chicken to play.

That speculation notwithstanding, league insiders believe he and D'Antoni are the only two realistic candidates left at this stage of the search. 

Doc Rivers, free agent

Strengths: Rivers is in rare territory as an NBA head coach, a so-called "players coach" who nonetheless is a no-nonsense leader of men. It's what allowed him to ultimately have success with personalities that were all over the map, and why he was able to build organizational culture for a franchise in L.A. that was best known for its racist owner before he arrived. A winner of 943 games across 21 seasons, Rivers has consistently earned rave reviews from his players, adapts his messaging to suit the personnel he has, and would provide the Sixers with about as respected a leader as you'll find at the head coach position.

Weaknesses: Would you believe me if I said it was the actual coaching part of the job? Rivers' latest playoff flameout marks the third time in his career one of his teams have blown a 3-1 series lead, and he was already the only coach to oversee more than one of those. Rivers' best work tactically has come on teams with lower pressure and expectations, while his years in charge of would-be contenders were plagued by questions about his rotations, adjustments, and meandering identity. Perhaps not the best guy to fix those problems for Philadelphia, then.

The latest intel (9/29): ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski provided our first real timeline update on the coaching search. Prior to a Wednesday night meeting with Philadelphia ownership, Woj said a decision was expected, "this week," and it looks like there's a light at the end of this tunnel.

Wojnarowski's report followed reporting from Shams Charania of The Athletic on Wednesday morning that Rivers would be meeting with the team in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia's coaching search appeared to be narrowing down to two candidates prior to Rivers' departure from Los Angeles, but things have heated up quickly between the Sixers and the former Clippers coach. Whether he'll be able to move to the front of the line and ultimately land the job is another story, but he appears to be one of the most serious candidates for the job in spite of how quick the turnaround has been here.

Within hours of parting ways with the Los Angeles Clippers, multiple teams (including the Sixers) reached out to Rivers to see if he was interested in their opening, sources say. That window might have been even shorter, in fact — Marc Spears of The Undefeated reported the Sixers and Pelicans had reached out to Rivers within about an hour following his departure.

Now that the Clippers job is open, the Sixers run the risk of one of their preferred candidates taking another job if they decide to earnestly consider Rivers for the job. Do they like him enough to take that chance? That remains to be seen.

Early names who have faded

Ime Udoka, Sixers assistant

Strengths: Seasoned under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Udoka has been revered for his mind and his demeanor any time his name comes up in coaching conversations. Udoka has said himself that his journeyman's career as a player helped him become a better coach. He was instrumental as a free agent recruiter when the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge, the defensive coordinator for the Sixers in 2019-20 (the side of the ball where they didn't embarrass themselves), and already has a level of familiarity with the players in question. If Udoka gets the promotion, it comes with the subtext that the stars in place are on board, I imagine.

Weaknesses: They're not that different from his strengths — Udoka was part of the trainwreck season that just ended, and if he was the impact guy he's supposed to be, wouldn't that have shown up somehow? With Udoka coordinating the defense, the Sixers were still as reluctant to change their base coverages as ever, and Embiid was less engaged than he has ever been on that end of the floor. Udoka might end up being a great coach somewhere, but it's fair to ask if he was too close to the team this year to be trusted as the guy to lead them out of this mess.

The latest intel: Udoka feels like the break glass in case of emergency plan at this stage. The Sixers don't dislike him, but they have their eyes set on bigger, more experienced names.

Dave Joerger, free agent

Strengths: Joerger has proven he's not married to any particular style, sticking with the NBA equivalent of ground-and-pound in Memphis before helming a ultra-fast attack in Sacramento. Diversity in style is something the Sixers need from a potential coach, and Joerger already has an abundance of experience in spite of his young age (46), having coached five champions in minor league basketball before moving up to the big show. He knows his stuff.

Weaknesses: When you run into off-the-court issues at both of your NBA stops, that's not the best sign, especially when you're being asked to lead a team with a lot of contrasting personalities and egos. Both of Joerger's last two stops ended in fairly dramatic fashion. Are the Sixers a strong enough organization to absorb a coach who has clashed with front office superiors elsewhere, and is that the right sort of guy to sort things out for this team? 

The latest intel: Joerger's name hasn't come up much at all over the last few weeks, despite appearing in early shortlists for the position. Several big-name candidates have circled back for more interviews with Brand, so I'd take that as a sign that he's not a serious contender at this point, barring a new development.

Out of the running

Jay Wright, Villanova

Strengths: Wright has been a fixture in the local hoops community for nearly two decades, transforming the Wildcats into a national power during his time in charge. He ahead of the curve on play style, leaning into small ball and a perimeter-heavy attack to pile up points and open up the paint. Though Wright's program has produced few standout NBA players outside of Kyle Lowry, he has consistently improved lower-ranked prospects to the point that his program competes year in, year out with teams built around collections of five-star recruits. He's a rare college coach who would walk in with gravitas. 

Weaknesses: Many believe Wright has the right combination of demeanor and acumen to make the leap to the NBA, but it's a risk no matter how you slice it. Wright's system is a bigger advantage in the college ranks than it would be in the NBA, where embracing the three-point shot is a given, not an advantage. His ability to make sense of this jumbled up team would be in question just like it would for any of the other candidates, with the added pressure of adjusting to coaching pros vs. teenagers. And there's also the whole, "Does he want to leave a better job?" thing.

The latest intel: Turns out, the answer to that last question is a resounding no. On September 2nd, Wright publicly removed himself from consideration for the Sixers' job.

"Out of respect for our Villanova community and our 76ers organization, I feel the need to address speculation about the 76ers head coach position," Wright said in a statement. "The 76ers have a great leader in Elton Brand, outstanding young talent, and an incredible opportunity for any coach to compete for a championship. As a lifetime 76ers fan, I have confidence they will bring in the right coach to build on what Brett Brown has developed. I am not a candidate for the job. I am very happy and honored to coach at Villanova."

Would the Sixers have gone to Wright over a proven NBA coach given the choice? It was certainly on the table. Ownership has long had the hots for Wright, who they know would be a hit with the locals and who they believe could cut it at the top level. Doesn't look like they'll get to find out, however.

Billy Donovan, new Chicago Bulls coach

Strengths: Long renowned for his modern offensive style at the college level, Donovan's spread pick-and-roll offense was run to great success by Chris Paul and Co. this season, with the Thunder using their guard-heavy lineup to construct the best crunch-time offense in the league. Donovan is no offensive zealot, either. Comfortable using "Horns" and motion sets as much as he is spreading the floor around his ballhandler, Donovan is a flexible coach with a reputation for being a good guy to boot. 

Weaknesses: Donovan ran into very similar "accountability" problems in OKC the Sixers were hoping to move on from when they fired Brett Brown. Kevin Durant (accidentally) publicly cited Donovan as a coach he didn't want to play for when he left for Golden State, and he struggled to meaningfully change the offense until after stars like Durant, Russell Westbrook, and even Paul George left town. Buy-in would be a concern.

The latest intel: On Tuesday evening (9/23), Billy Donovan accepted the head coaching position in Chicago, officially ruling himself out of the running for the Sixers job. Prior to that decision, Donovan had advanced through the initial round of interviews and was in consideration alongside the front runners, according to sources close to the situation.

When Donovan parted ways with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the assumption based on OKC's public statement was that Donovan did not want to be part of a rebuolding situation. That made the decision to sign with the Bulls a little curious with other jobs still there for the taking.

Two league sources told PhillyVoice it would be more accurate to say Donovan was looking for a situation with a degree of certainty moving forward, as it pertains to the roster he's coaching and the front office/ownership working above him. Philadelphia did not offer that on either front, and though Donovan was said to have come away impressed with Elton Brand, he obviously felt more compelled to move forward on the Bulls offer. Chicago's front office (which includes former Sixers exec Marc Eversley) is newly established but has more certainty in structure at this time.

Extraneous rumors

Speaking with people around the league, you get a wide range of reactions to what the Sixers are trying to do right now. While local sentiment regarding Philadelphia's ownership has never been worse, their reputation is a bit better elsewhere, with most pointing out that they believe Joshua Harris and David Blitzer are willing to spend to try to win. That's not always a given.

However, there is widespread confusion about what the Sixers are doing and what the future holds. Elton Brand has been the leader and representative for the franchise during the search, but it remains unclear (even to league sources connected to the search) whether he'll continue to be the head honcho or whether the coaching search can be finished without a definitive plan for the front office. Many around the league are skeptical ownership would relinquish increased power to a President of Basketball Operations, and hiring one in the first place would likely require putting the coaching search on hold to allow that person to come in and hire their preferred candidate. 

Brand's contract is another layer of complication, and Keith Pompey reported late Wednesday that Brand spoke with the Sixers about the potential for a new deal. Giving a new deal to a GM who has overseen (or at least been part of) a disastrous recent period for the franchise would raise some eyebrows, particularly when they haven't concretely ruled out another hire being made above Brand.

While the coaching search by all accounts appears to be shrinking, there's a lot of uncertainty about what happens if and when that's over. 


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