Mike D’Antoni could actually help the Philadelphia 76ers’ center.
Before Mike D’Antoni was the head basketball coach of the Houston Rockets, attempting to revolutionize the league with a micro-ball lineup that just couldn’t seem to get past the Los Angeles Lakers’ bigs, he was an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers under Brett Brown.
Fun fact: There are only two holdovers from that 2015-16 Sixers squad – Joel Embiid, who didn’t play a game due to injury, and Elton Brand, who is the team’s current general manager. Weird.
While that team wasn’t particularly good, it was actually pretty darn bad if we’re being honest, this abbreviated tenure gave the 76ers’ ownership group some first-hand experience with D’Antoni on their sidelines, and if recent reports are to be believed, he left one heck of an impression.
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Initially reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, D’Antoni has suddenly emerged as the top candidate for the Sixers’ vacant head coaching job, supplanting Los Angeles Clippers’ assistant Tyronn Lue for the odds-on favorite to lead the club into 2021 and beyond. Assuming D’Antoni was aware of this situation during his team’s second-round flameout, the 70-year-old’s decision to tender a letter of resignation becomes all the more telling.
This deal could get done quickly and if Twitter is to be believed, some fans of the Philadelphia 76ers are not too happy about it.
Why? Well, because D’Antoni has a nasty reputation of being an anti-big man thanks to his half-decade in the Space City.
In the eyes of many, signing D’Antoni is a clear sign of the franchise siding with Ben Simmons over Joel Embiid, with a blockbuster trade shipping The Process to anywhere from Golden State to Miami looming just over the horizon.
But hey, before you get into a Twitter war over whether or not the Sixers would be better off with Simmons surrounded by Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, and Bam Adebayo, maybe examine, take a beat, and circle back.
Why? Well, I’m glad you asked.
First and foremost, yes, D’Antoni has never coached a player quite like Embiid, but honestly, how many coaches in the NBA have? As the league inches further and further away from the uber-physical style many old heads yearn for, many teams, like the Rockets, have all but given up on running a post-focused offensive attack. That doesn’t mean D’Antoni couldn’t adapt his system to work with an elite player in the paint, he just hasn’t had such a player on his roster from which to run an offense around.
And honestly, it’s not like D’Antoni has been all that bad with the centers he’s been tasked with coaching over his near-20 years coaching in the NBA either.
From his first chance with the clipboard as an interim head coach with the 1999 Denver Nuggets, to his tenures coaching Phoenix, the Knicks, the Lakers, and eventually Houston, D’Antoni’s time running a center-less lineup is a relatively new development arguably more attributable to the Rockets’ general manager than their head coach. In actuality, D’Antoni’s signature play, the pick-and-roll, is actually incredibly reliant on having an athletic center who can score from anywhere on the court while setting a hard edge for a would-be driver.
Do you remember Amar’e Stoudemire for more than his cameo in Amy Schumer’s underrated comedy ‘Trainwreck’? D’Antoni oversaw his development from a power forward selected ninth overall in the 2002 NBA Draft into one of the more exciting centers in the NBA. Granted, Stoudemire was paired up with prime Stephon Marbury and Steve flippin’ Nash for most of his tenure in the desert but if D’Antoni was so anti-big, why would he explicitly reunite with the STAT in New York?
Because at their best, D’Antoni teams are built around a dynamic shooter who can knock it down from anywhere on the court, an athletic big man who can screen and score with ease, and competent 3 point shooters perched on the wings.
If anything, the Rockets’ micro-ball style of play was more of an anomaly based on a hyper reliance on finding a statistical advantage than a natural evolution of D’Antoni’s preferred style of play.
Honestly, between the team’s two (current) All-Stars, it’s Simmons, not Embiid, who isn’t a classical fit in a D’Antoni scheme, unless, of course, the 70-year-old head coach opts to use the third-team All-NBA performer as a supersized screening facilitator a la David Lee in New York or, well, whatever Russell Westbrook was doing in Houston this year.
So, is Mike D’Antoni a good fit with the Philadelphia 76ers as they are presently constructed? No, but not for the reason you might think. To truly maximize D’Antoni’s signature offense, the Sixers would really need to find a top-15 point guard to run the show and a few 40-plus shooters to man the wings. Joel Embiid, conversely, should fit in just fine on a D’Antoni team, especially when you consider just how flexible the two-time NBA Coach of the Year has been at tailoring his scheme to fit his players.