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May 17, 2023

The six primary candidates for Sixers' next head coach, and why they will or won't work

Who will be the Sixers' next head coach? Here are six options, including Sam Cassell, Mike D'Antoni and more.

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Joel-Embiid-Sam-Cassell-Coach-Sixers Darren Yamashita/USA Today Sports

Sixers MVP Joel Embiid with assistant coach Sam Cassell.

The Sixers moved on from Doc Rivers on Tuesday morning, and within moments of learning that he had been fired from his post, a list of names surfaced that the team could look into. While it's possible they'll look into more names during the process, the initial group of six coaches is the top priority for Philadelphia and these six men are worth a closer look.

Here are the two sides of the candidates we know the Sixers want to interview. 

Mike D'Antoni, former Rockets coach

What does he bring to the table? You know his name for a reason. D'Antoni was an offensive pioneer in the early 2000s, though the noteworthy thing about him having that sort of cache is that he has remained open to new things and new challenges when presented with them by his front office. The partnership he had with Daryl Morey in Houston was a fruitful one for a reason — D'Antoni was able and willing to take the information, roster decisions, and input Morey gave him and turn that into a good product on the floor. 

By now, the uptempo, spread pick-and-roll offense that D'Antoni popularized has essentially taken over the league, with basically all good teams latching onto what D'Antoni brought into the mainstream with the Phoenix Suns. Still, D'Antoni is a coach who thinks about the little details to get the most out of his guards, from driving angles to screen placement and other details that extend far beyond the "seven seconds or less" moniker that made him famous. While everyone considers that D'Antoni could rejuvenate James Harden, it's just as exciting to think about him taking Tyrese Maxey to the next level, either with some X's and O's nuance or by opening up the floor for him with personnel groupings.

Frankly, D'Antoni knows how to get the most out of a lot of guys on this roster before even walking through the door. And it's easily the most hand-in-glove fit in terms of working with Morey specifically, as the two successfully collaborated for years with input flying in both directions. That synergy could help out in important ways, including how D'Antoni would use the various young players and additions Morey makes in midseason and offseason moves. 

What are the potential issues? Saying D'Antoni is "anti big man" would be ahistorical, certainly, but he has run into trouble in the past when trying to coach teams/players who don't necessarily buy into his vision. And we're not talking about so-so talents, either. D'Antoni struggled to make it work with Carmelo Anthony in New York and had issues in Los Angeles with a star-studded Lakers team, even if those weren't all (or even mostly) his fault. Joel Embiid doesn't exactly fit the mold of the big man that thrives in his offense, so it'd be a guessing game trying to figure out what that partnership would look like.

The concern in hiring D'Antoni is the flipside of sending the olive branch to Harden — how much empowering is too much empowering of Harden? There have been reports in recent days, including from ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, that Rivers didn't just ask Harden to buy in on the court, he took him to task in team meetings for off-court behavior. Perhaps a looser approach from D'Antoni earlier in Harden's career was worth having his star's trust, but it's not clear that's the best approach as Harden ages and needs to consider his day-to-day, moment-to-moment choices more.

There's also the fact that D'Antoni is 72 years old, which doesn't mean he needs to be in a retirement home but certainly requires some thought about how set in his ways he might be. He has had some time to sit and think about the game without the pressure of leading a team in recent years, which could be a good thing,  but we won't know how his philosophies have or haven't evolved until he returns to action. 

Mike Budenholzer, former Bucks coach

What does he bring to the table? Put simply, a lot of wins. After leaving Gregg Popovich's side to take over the Hawks in 2013, Budenholzer only went on to win 484 regular season games in the decade that followed. 

One thing Budenholzer deserves admiration, if not credit for is his willingness to live on an island as an NBA coach. As the NBA shifted toward protecting the three-point line at all costs, Budenholzer's teams loaded up on protecting the paint and middle of the floor, choosing intentionally to allow teams to bomb away. And his defensive coverage is one that Sixers fans are plenty familiar with — Budenholzer has loved him some drop, which is exactly what Joel Embiid has thrived in for most of his career. His adherence to his beliefs helped create multiple 60-win teams and took the Bucks from a promising collection of young talent to a two-way machine. 

But don't mistake that concession of threes to opponents as a reflection of stone-age thinking. Budenholzer's arrival in Milwaukee represented a quantum leap forward for the Bucks offensively, with Coach Bud leading the charge on pace and space. A noteworthy anecdote there — during Budenholzer's first year in Milwaukee, he quite literally taped five squares down on the Bucks' practice facility floor to illustrate the proper setup to open possessions and create driving room for Giannis Antetokounmpo. For whatever you might think of his flexibility (or lack thereof) in the later rounds, Budenholzer has done a great job of finding something that works for his top talent and drilling that to perfection.

What are the potential issues? The Bucks suffered some of the same issues as the Sixers when they reached the money rounds of the playoffs. The Bucks followed a Conference Finals appearance in his first season with a second-round loss in the bubble, bounced back with a title in 2021, and then went out early each of the last two seasons. In 2022, Budenholzer's Bucks suffered almost exactly the same fate as the Sixers this year, losing a Game 6 on their home floor before getting shelled by the Celtics in a road Game 7. A disheartening sweep to Miami in round one this year ultimately finished his tenure.

That initial high and the title run shouldn't be sneezed at, but Budenholzer has faced heavy criticism for things like rigidity in style, strange rotation choices, and an inability to counterpunch when other coaches pull out adjustments. If it sounds a lot like the problems Doc Rivers has had in the playoffs, you might be onto something. 

Sam Cassell, Sixers assistant coach

What does he bring to the table? A whole lot of respect from the people who have been around him. Tyrese Maxey has been his star pupil in Philadelphia, but he is not the only guy who has shouted out Cassell for his work behind the scenes. Earmuffs if you can't stand to hear his name, but Ben Simmons credited Cassell for working with him during some positive runs of form at the charity stripe in the 2020-21 campaign. John Wall credited Cassell as a great mentor during his early years in Washington, helping him to become a more complete point guard. And during Boston's 2008 title run, famously coached by Doc Rivers, Celtics teammates frequently cited Cassell as the guy bridging gaps on and off the floor.

It's hard to find anyone who dislikes Cassell, and he has the profile of a former player who would make a good head coach. Cassell was not a particularly explosive player, but he was an effective one, using a wealth of knowledge and subtlety to get to his floor spots and make plays on and off the ball, including from some unorthodox spots (like the mid-post) for a guard. You would think it'd lend itself to a degree of flexibility and creativity as a head coach, having lived through an NBA career where he shifted in and out of responsibilities at a moment's notice.

Cassell has been a basketball leader for quite some time, so much so that he essentially served as a player assistant during his final NBA season before graduating to a real-deal job as a coach. Anyone who has played with or worked with him has spoken highly of his interpersonal skills and his basketball intelligence. It seems unlikely they'd all be wrong.

What are the potential issues? We simply do not know what he would do or be as an NBA head coach, which applies in several meaningful ways. What sort of system would Cassell run on offense? What style of defense does he prefer? Is he a quick adjuster and on-the-fly thinker, or would Cassell be a more methodical guy, believing in his initial plan and wanting to see it through? Either approach can work, but we're all just guessing on how he'd handle himself.

Separate from the tactics, Cassell has a great demeanor for an NBA assistant, someone who can use a stern voice while teaching but who generally helps to keep the mood light. Would that shift in responsibility require Cassell to be a different person from who he is naturally, and is he comfortable and effective with that additional responsibility?

Hiring Cassell involves a different sort of risk from the gambles you'd make on the other names in this list. It's not inherently better or worse, but it's a risk all the same. 

Monty Williams, former Suns coach

What does he bring to the table? A combination of familiarity with the players and success as a head coach. Williams was an assistant for the 2018-19 Sixers under Brett Brown, and a guy many wanted to see promoted before he left to take the Suns job. Embiid name-dropped Williams specifically when talking about successful coaches who had been let go recently, and that in itself is a good sign regarding a potential marriage.

Even before he led the Suns to a Finals appearance and a 60+ win season in 2022, Williams earned strong reviews from his NBA colleagues as a strong leader and a high-character man. And at the helm of the Suns, Williams managed to get the Suns to play free-flowing, aesthetically-pleasing offense even while needing to juggle the demands of multiple on-ball stars at a time. At their best, Williams' teams were able to hit you with guys attacking from different angles, sharing the basketball and lessening the burden on their top guys.

What are the potential issues? If the Sixers' Game 7 defeat to the Celtics in 2023 was a disaster, Phoenix's 2022 loss to the Dallas Mavericks was the mother of all meltdowns. And it was not the first or only time that Williams' Suns shriveled in big moments, with Phoenix losing four straight games in the 2021 NBA Finals after going up 2-0 on Milwaukee and failing to win this season after the midseason acquisition of Kevin Durant.

Notably, not every Suns player had a great connection with Williams. Suns center Deandre Ayton had a particularly rocky relationship with Williams during his tenure in Phoenix, with the pair of men going months without talking last offseason. While Ayton had done himself a disservice by floating in and out of games from time to time, Williams' inability to connect with an important cog on their roster played at least some small part in the Suns' recent early exits.

(Also, do you consider him at fault for Mikal Bridges not having a bigger role in Phoenix, given what we saw him do to end the year in Brooklyn?)

Frank Vogel, former Lakers coach

What does he bring to the table? Title-winning pedigree from a guy who went to Wildwood High? A great story for the local papers, if nothing else.

Vogel's first year with the Lakers was one for the books, with L.A. cruising to the Western Conference's best record behind a dominant LeBron James/Anthony Davis partnership. While L.A.'s offense lagged slightly behind the elite teams that season, a top-three defense filled with try-hards on the wing and length at the rim stifled teams all season. Looking at Philadelphia's roster, there are a lot of guys you could see fitting into a Vogel ecosystem, from De'Anthony Melton to Paul Reed to P.J. Tucker and on down the line.

You could argue many of Vogel's issues in L.A. were a product of being boxed in by other people — he was unable to hire his own staff when joining the Lakers and was forced to work with a pretty awkward Russell Westbrook situation. With a bit more leeway in Philly, maybe he moves back toward the personal peak of his career.

Vogel also had a solid tenure as the head coach of the Pacers, pushing the LeBron James-era Heat to their limit despite not being able to come close to the star power of that Miami team. When you give him enough hard-nosed guys on defense, Vogel's teams have a chance to win through their efforts on that end basically every night.

What are the potential issues? When Vogel had personnel that fit his core beliefs and could do what he wanted in 2019-20, the Lakers won a title. When pieces of the roster shifted in L.A., though, Vogel didn't shift with them, and that was ultimately a huge part of his undoing. 

Vogel is a defense-first coach, which is an asset when you hand him guys who can/are willing to make use of his teachings and schemes. Do the Sixers have a team like that? As long as your backcourt is comprised of James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, I would argue no. So the question is whether Vogel is capable of adding enough defensive value that you're okay with not hiring an envelope-pusher on the other side of the ball.

The Lakers, for example, tried to downsize at times during his final year in L.A., only to play coverages (e.g. drop) that don't really work without a big man/rim protector. Rob Pelinka set Vogel up with a roster that didn't play to his strengths as a coach, but Vogel also didn't get the most out of what he had because of his adherence to how he hoped they could play. Vogel's two-year stint with the Orlando Magic was a similar failed experiment, built around the likes of Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic. Perhaps Embiid is enough to give Vogel the defensive spine he needs, but there'd still be a lot to figure out around him.

And look, the guy started DeAndre Jordan quite a bit in L.A., which is something all of us know hasn't been a good idea for some time. 

Nick Nurse, former Raptors coach

What does he bring to the table? A reputation as an outside-the-box thinker. Nurse took the long road to NBA success, with stops in England, Belgium, the USBL, and the G-League before eventually rising to his position with the Toronto Raptors. Nurse's first year as head coach of the Raptors ended in the ultimate success, with several unorthodox strategies (including a box-and-one against Steph Curry) helping to derail the Warriors dynasty at its peak. Even after losing Kawhi Leonard, Nurse managed to keep the Raptors humming during a COVID-shortened season in 2019-20, pushing Toronto to a 53-19 record with concepts that many teams have outright abandoned at the NBA level, like periodic full-court pressing.

At their best, the Raptors were an example of how a team could maximize their defensive potential by simply using a lot of different styles and schemes. Nurse was willing to try just about anything to meet the moment, even in cases where the team hadn't practiced a particular look all that often. And that sort of approach would be a welcome splash of chaos on a team that needs a way to throw teams off beyond just playing 2-3 zone.

He's also got some history with Morey, for whatever that's worth, with Nurse a graduate of Houston's G-League team that essentially operated as a science experiment for the big club. I suspect that Nurse and Morey would be a pretty seamless fit as envelope pushers.

What are the potential issues? Is Nurse the whiz kid he looked like when he had apex Kawhi Leonard on his team, or Toronto Tom Thibodeau?  Blame the roster he's had available to him if you choose, but it has been Nurse's choice to play his best players for heavy minutes in the regular season, burying certain players and overtaxing his stars. That last part sounds like a particularly dangerous choice for a team with Embiid and (in theory) Harden, who need careful workload consideration now and moving forward.

If Nurse's problems were all about a talent drain in Toronto, you could end up stealing a super-valuable coach with the boldness to shake up games on a moment-to-moment basis. But for as chaotic as the Raptors' defense has been at times, the Raptors' offense has been out of ideas for two seasons running, unable to score in the halfcourt on a consistent basis. It was a big reason no one took them seriously (the Sixers included) when these teams met in the playoffs two years ago and a reason they missed out entirely this year.

There's also the fact that Embiid has publicly made fun of Nurse before, but he has gotten along great with former enemy Dan Burke, so I don't think that should be a huge problem.


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