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August 24, 2020

10 candidates to replace Brett Brown as Sixers head coach, and why they will or won't work

Plus, two well-known names the team should avoid at all costs...

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Sixers-coach-candidates_082420_usat USA TODAY Sports/File

Will the Sixers hire any of these five candidates to replace Brett Brown?

After seven years of Brett Brown, the Sixers are in search of their next head coach to lead them through an uncertain future. All they have to do is find someone who can make sense of a jumbled roster, build an effective offense around a post-up center and non-shooter at point guard, and motivate his stars to reach an elite defensive potential they've only scratched in spurts.

No pressure, right? 

Two years ago, the opportunity to step into the lead chair for the Sixers would have been one of the most exciting prospects in the league. While it's still a rare chance at one of just 30 NBA jobs, and an opportunity to make something of two uber-talented players, the appeal is not what it once was. There is pressure to win in spite of huge questions about the viability of the roster.

But the search will begin, so we might as well start looking at some potential options on the market. With the understanding that names will rise and fall and there are a lot of agendas being pushed when head coaching jobs open up, and after asking around both locally and nationally on the matter, these are some candidates to keep an eye on in the weeks (and perhaps months) to come. 

Tyronn Lue, Clippers assistant

What does he bring to the table? You know Lue as the head coach who won the title with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love in Cleveland. Whether that's a deal-breaker or a deal-maker depends on who you talk to.

After coaching under the glare of the LeBron spotlight, Lue would be one of a small group of coaches who probably wouldn't bat an eye at managing expectations in Philly. While he wasn't renowned for X's and O's during his days in Cleveland, that's different than saying he's lagging in that area. In fact, Lue won a lot of fans through his ability to make changes and adjustments on the fly, a skill many Philadelphia fans crave in the coach's chair.

Perhaps more importantly, Lue established a level of respect with a team that had two of the most dominant personalities in the league. As chronicled by Lee Jenkins in 2016, Lue challenged LeBron at all times — including in an exchange in front of the whole team in the middle of their classic Game 7 victory:

With 2 minutes and 27 seconds left in the first half of Game 7 and the Cavaliers trailing the Warriors by three points, Tyronn Lue called timeout. “Bron, you’ve got to be better than this,” the Cavs coach implored. 

 “What do you mean?” James asked, incredulous. He had just scored 41 points with 16 rebounds in Game 5 and added another 41 with 11 assists in Game 6, evening a series that was essentially over. He’d sent his teammates impassioned late-night group texts, showed them the commencement address Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford and convinced them during a post-practice bus ride across the Bay Bridge that the championship was their destiny. It’s already written, he shouted from the back. 

 “What more do you want me to do?” he pressed Lue. 

“Stop being so passive!” the coach barked. “Stop turning the ball over! And guard Draymond!”

If you can coach that player in that moment, logic says you might be able to get through to Embiid and Simmons.

So why not? As a motivator and a leader, Lue seems to have the goods. There's no questioning his fitness for the job there.

It's always fair to wonder, however, how much LeBron hides when it comes to a team's offensive system design. Add on Irving's ability to break guys down one-on-one, and it was viable for the Cavs to hunt switches and attack them for long stretches of play. The same won't be true in Philadelphia, where more nuance and guidance is going to be needed from a tactical standpoint.

We've not seen much of Lue outside of LeBron's orbit, as Lue was fired just six games into his first season in charge of Cleveland following LeBron's departure. Will his adaptability still shine through without having the most versatile two-way star of all-time to spearhead any changes?

(A point of concern from a hiring perspective: Lue did not end up taking the Los Angeles Lakers job last year in part because, reportedly, he was in search of an additional two years of commitment on L.A.'s end. Are the Sixers willing to offer a five-year deal to get him, and should they? Even if they are, the collaborative decisionmaking apparatus in Philadelphia could pose a problem. The Lakers also asked to place several coaches on Lue's staff, including eventual head coach Frank Vogel, which Lue was not happy with but reportedly would have accepted with a proper contract offer. If the Sixers want Lue, they likely won't be able to play hardball.)

Ime Udoka, Sixers assistant

What does he bring to the table? 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 arm him with perspective valuable for a coaching candidate.

"I’ve been around basketball my whole life. The way I played, I had to think the game and be tougher and smarter than people because I wasn’t the most skilled," Udoka told the Express-News in 2017. "I’ve always thought the game. I told them what I saw when they asked my opinion. That part has always come natural."

The Sixers no longer have the ability to lure big-time free agents after their ill-advised splurging last summer, but Udoka has proven to be useful on that front. Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge claims it was Udoka, a former teammate, who convinced him to sign with San Antonio in the summer of 2015. Udoka took a chartered flight with Aldridge in which he laid to rest the big man's concerns about his fit in the Spurs system, the organization, and why they wanted him. If nothing else, it shows Udoka is an effective communicator.

He certainly has the respect of his coaching peers, including Popovich, who has raved about his former assistant whenever he has been asked about him. The familiarity factor with the current group could end up being mutually beneficial — Udoka has seen first-hand what these guys may want or need, and there's less time that needs to be spent on trust-building between the players and a coach they already know.

So why not? This is not meant to disrespect Udoka, but if he was capable of being an agent of change for this Sixers team, you suspect that might have shown up at some point during this brutal season. 

While Udoka no doubt has some support internally, fans will notice the team's defensive structure did not change in any meaningful way with Udoka in the "defensive coordinator" role on Brown's staff. If the goal is to distance the team and the players from the voices they tuned out during their poor 2019-20 campaign, going with one of Brown's top assistants for the opening doesn't make a lot of sense.

Udoka, of course, didn't get less smart than he was when they hired the sought-after assistant in the first place. It could be that Udoka, like some of the players on the roster, was just not in the proper position to influence the team and change things for the better.

But that seems too excusatory. If Udoka wasn't able to exert influence as Brown's top assistant, that's a bad sign for his ability to win over the big guns on the roster. Most people say he played the role of "good cop" under the firey Popovich, so whether he has it in him to be the stern leader they need is questionable.

Jay Wright, Villanova

What does he bring to the table? For a Philadelphia audience, there's a lot less explaining to do here. 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.

Unlike some other top college coaches, Wright was 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.

Wright is the guy many people know and would feel comfortable with locally. Not as much selling to do as there would be with other candidates.

So why not? The first thing you have to ask is whether Wright would actually want the job or not. There's a strong case to be made that he has a better gig where he's at — the Villanova machine is basically self-sustaining at this point, and Wright gets paid handsomely to churn out winning seasons and rarely faces any blowback when the Wildcats bow out early in the NCAA Tournament. Does he want to give that up for less control and higher stakes at the NBA level?

Even if he does, there's always the question of how a college coach will translate to the professional ranks. Many believe Wright has the right combination of demeanor and acumen to make the leap, but it's a risk no matter how you slice it. For every success story like Brad Stevens, there are four or five washouts who didn't stick for one reason or another. And 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.

At Villanova, Wright is the face of the program. He may have stature and tenure in Philadelphia, but turning over ego management and a complicated offensive problem to a first-time NBA coach is a lot to ask.

Kenny Atkinson, former Nets coach

What does he bring to the table? A reputation as a builder, a thinker, and a tone-setter. Atkinson is an affable guy, but don't confuse general kindness with a soft approach. He will get after players and make tough calls on who plays and when (even to his detriment during his final season with the team).

Under Atkinson, the Nets played a read-and-react style offense with roots in the Spurs "motion" offense Brown preferred, and the former Mike D'Antoni assistant sprinkled in a healthy helping of pace. That might scare some people off as too similar to what the Sixers already had.

I'm less convinced he's completely married to that style, as the Nets had a stable of guards who made it sensible to play that way. It's possible Atkinson could roll out a system that has familiarity for the Sixers' stars but with tweaks stemming from lessons he learned in Brooklyn and his own views on how to maximize Embiid and Simmons.

If the belief is you simply need someone willing to challenge your stars without disrupting too much else — and if Brown is the only head to roll, that's the signal you're sending — hiring Atkinson to be a more aggressive version of Brown could end up being the right play.

So why not? The same reasons listed above. Atkinson, as I wrote back when he was let go, is in many ways a variation of Brett Brown. Heralded as a culture-builder who led the Nets through dark times, Atkinson began to struggle the moment he was forced to deal with actual stars.

The central conflict, it seems, was a dispute with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant over not starting their buddy, DeAndre Jordan, and instead opting for Jarrett Allen:

It's no longer breaking news when basketball superstars demand (and are granted) input into decisions made by their front office; that's today's NBA, where player empowerment rules. When Atkinson and the Nets mutually parted ways 62 games into the season, multiple reports suggested both Durant and Irving had a hand in ending Atkinson's tenure. 

For one thing, said team sources, it rankled them that Atkinson was bringing their "brother" Jordan off the bench, favoring the 21-year Allen in his starting five. Not coincidentally, in interim coach Jacque Vaughn's first game, he elevated Jordan into the starting lineup in Allen's place. [ESPN]

An optimist might look at this as a positive. Here was a head coach willing to stand for his principles and a better current player regardless of what his stars thought. But in a league run by stars, in an environment where you are seeking to get a full buy-in from Embiid and Simmons, Atkinson has already had some hiccups in star management. He is a no-nonsense guy, and while that could end up being exactly what these two need, it could also fail in spectacular fashion.

Beyond that, I think Atkinson is good on the tactical side, but the recently-departed Brown neutralized Atkinson's Nets in the 2019 playoffs with two simple moves: sticking Ben Simmons on D'Angelo Russell and top-locking against Joe Harris. The talent gap was king, but think of how mad Sixers fans would be if their coach proved unable to figure out how to exploit a team starting Greg Monroe in a 2019 playoff game. 

Dave Joerger, former Kings and Grizzlies coach

What does he bring to the table? At 46, Joerger already has an abundance of coaching experience under his belt. Fresh out of college, he took a GM job with the Dakota Wizards that eventually led to a prolific minor league basketball run. Joerger won five championships in the minor leagues and had 18 different players called up to the NBA during a four year stretch from 2003-2007.

Rising up the ranks as an assistant coach for Grizzlies, Joerger's promotion to lead assistant and captain of the defense coincided with a dramatic improvement on that end for Memphis.

During his early days in charge of the Kings (and frankly, for much of his Memphis tenure), Joerger's teams were accused of being a plodding, ineffcient offense built around too many midrange shots and post-ups (hey, that sounds familiar). But Joerger dialed up the pace and sprinkled in new looks during his final season in Sacramento — including split-cut plays and "Spain" pick-and-roll — that might be of use in Philadelphia. Adaptability is going to be a major key for any coach hoping to lead this team out of the wilderness. 

So why not? It's hard to dispute Joerger's credentials as a basketball thinker. Unfortunately, being an NBA coach is about much more than just knowing the game, and Joerger has found himself out of a job on two separate occasions because of an inability to get along with people.

In Memphis, Joerger clashed with Grizzlies management, and the atmosphere was reportedly so toxic that he actually asked for permission to interview with the Minnesota Timberwolves after just one season with the Grizzlies. That toxicity bled into relationships with players, and Joerger told reporters in Memphis that he believed Marc Gasol was trying to get him fired during the 2015-16 season. When Joerger parted ways with the Grizzlies, their general manager indicated he wasn't committed enough to the job.

In Sacramento, Joerger once again found himself at odds with the front office, and when the Kings eventually parted ways with him, it was reported that Joerger was on his way out in part because Vlade Divac wanted to, "consolidate power" in the organization. Joerger had some well-publicized clashes with young Kings players, noticeable enough that rival players even stood up for them later.

Joerger is the common denominator in two very similar situations. That can't be ignored, even if it'd be fair to point out he's not the only person at fault here. And while Joerger did succeed at improving Sacramento's transition attack, questions remain about his ability to design an effective halfcourt offense. 

Assistants worth a look

Let's go through a few who lean more toward "unknown" who would have to win the job with creativity in the X's and O's department. An opinion-based note: the names listed above this section are a lot more likely. My understanding is the Sixers are focused on experienced coaches of a certain ilk to hand the team over to.

Chris Finch — Currently the associate head coach for the New Orleans Pelicans (though that's up in the air following Alvin Gentry's exit), Finch has a varied resume similar to Raptors coach Nick Nurse, with head coaching gigs in England and Belgium preceding a G-League job with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, an assistant job with the Rockets, and the associate head coach position behind Mike Malone in Denver. Finch is generally viewed as a sharp offensive mind willing to use unorthodox methods to get things done.

Sam Cassell — The former champion and NBA point guard has been grinding through the assistant coaching ranks from the moment he retired in 2009. Credited by John Wall as an important mentor in Washington, Cassell has served under Doc Rivers in L.A. since 2014. Cassell was a strong leader in his playing days, something that could translate well for him in the lead chair, and has a wealth of experiences to guide someone like Ben Simmons specifically.

Adrian Griffin — Originally in the mix for Philadelphia's head coaching job when they were on the hunt in 2013, Griffin made an impression on Sixers brass at the time and has served under a top coach as an assistant to Nick Nurse. Griffin has rubbed elbows with a variety of coaches and players, from Tom Thibodeau to Billy Donovan, though it does feel he's more likely to get a shot with a team focused more on rebuilding and development.

(A not-so-fun footnote: Griffin's ex-wife recently accused Griffin of, among other things, domestic violence, a charge Griffin denied after coaching the Raptors in a recent restart game vs. Philadelphia.) 

Other names — A few other names popped up in conversations with people around the league. Oklahoma City lead assistant Brian Keefe has been noted for his ability to push back on ideas without sacrificing strong connections with staffers and players alike. Dallas' Jamahl Mosley is the defensive coordinator for a team that doesn't play great defense, but has earned endorsements for a blend of intelligence and leadership while serving under Rick Carlisle.  

Well-known names to be dismissed

A pair of popular-ish names who should be immediately thrown on the scrap heap, in the opinion of this writer: Mark Jackson and Jason Kidd

The former created a toxic environment in Golden State that was well-documented, with a list of transgressions including not allowing Jerry West (a certified legend) to attend practices, firing an assistant coach without cause (and later having to backtrack as a result), and falsely accusing injured big man Festus Ezeli of rooting against his own team. Under his watch, the Warriors, who later blossomed into a title-winning juggernaut, often ran out star-less bench units and played stagnant, disconnected basketball. It seems pretty impossible when you look how things went after he left.

Kidd is another matter entirely, but as with Jackson and the Warriors, his last team made a giant leap forward the season after he left. Milwaukee's aggressive, blitzing defensive scheme was successful early, but eventually revealed to be susceptible to an avalanche of open corner threes, and after middling-to-bad results on the defensive end in his final 2.5 seasons, the Bucks have turned into a defensive juggernaut in the two seasons following his departure.

Perhaps time to reflect has done both men well, but both could be credibly accused of being inflexible with puzzling rotation and schematic decisions. 

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