Hiring Mike D’Antoni as coach would be crazy, but it might work even if it means the end of Joel Embiid with the Sixers | David Murphy
The Sixers are wise to consider the former Rockets coach to replace Brett Brown. But his history with big men would make an uneasy fit with Embiid.
Sometimes, what an organization needs most is a shock to the system. It needs more than a shake of the snow globe. It needs a sledgehammer.
The same is true for certain young players. They need more than inertia to propel them to superstardom. They need someone who is willing to push them off the plateau.
If the Sixers are this type of organization, and Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are these types of players, then Mike D’Antoni is the coach that all of them need. Granted, that is a big bunch of ifs. In particular, the last two of the three. One of the enduring maxims of regime change is that things can always get worse.
The billion-dollar question is who do the Sixers think they are? And what do they think of Simmons and Embiid?
Let’s get Simmons out of the way first, because he should be the least of the Sixers' concerns. The one commonality shared by the Sixers' leading coaching candidates is that they’d find a way to utilize Simmons' skills. He is capable of playing elite on-the-ball defense, and of guarding one-through-five. He can handle the ball. He can occupy an elbow. He is a willing and able passer. On any NBA court, there are 35 minutes a night available for a player with these sorts of attributes.
Embiid, as usual, is the crux of the matter. With the notable exception of his failed experiment with Dwight Howard in L.A., D’Antoni has never fielded a team with a ball-dominant, back-to-the-basket center. His best teams have featured quick-twitch, well-conditioned, rim-running athletes paired with point guards who can create in isolation and shoot the three. He’s never had a team that successfully incorporates a player with Embiid’s skill set, and it’s difficult to imagine how his scheme would even allow for that possibility without a bona fide perimeter scorer. When you look at it that way, it would be crazy for D’Antoni to coach a team that features Embiid and Simmons as their two primary scorers. But, again, maybe crazy is what the Sixers need.
Here’s the argument for D’Antoni. I’m not sure that I buy it. But I’m increasingly unsure that I don’t. The Sixers want to make the Embiid-Simmons partnership work. It will be difficult for them to acquire the personnel that would maximize the chances of that happening under an ordinary coach (frankly, they already did acquire it, and then they traded him to Miami, but that’s another story). Which means their best chance is for either Embiid or Simmons to become a much better version of the player he currently is, or for one of the two to reinvent themselves.
One lesson of this year’s playoffs whatever their circumstances, is that it is awfully difficult to win with a player of Embiid’s profile. Building a team around Embiid means sacrificing pace, and pick-and-roll proficiency, and defensive versatility. To make up for it, he needs to become one of the most dominant feed-the-post players to have ever played the game.
At one point, there was reason to think that might happen. That clock has long begun to tick. This year, the Sixers had a better offensive rating with Embiid off the court than with him on it (110.8 to 113.0). He more than made up for it on the defensive end of the court, where opponents averaged 7.2 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench. Overall, though, the Sixers were only about five points better with Embiid than without him, a dramatic difference from his first three seasons, when that number was in the double digits. There’s no question about his talent. But you are in denial if you do not acknowledge the serious questions about whether that talent will reach its full and necessary potential.
There’s even more reason to doubt whether Embiid would have a place in D’Antoni’s fast-paced, five-out scheme. He does not set great ball screens. He does not read-and-react. He runs the court with the energy of a 20-year-old Cub Cadet.
At the same time, if D’Antoni thinks he can find a way to reinvent Embiid, what is the downside of letting him try? If it doesn’t work, there’s a good chance the Sixers find themselves in the same situation they already seem likely to be in. At the moment, they have a two-year window to make the Embiid-Simmons partnership work. If they haven’t arrived at a decision by then, one will likely be forced upon them by one of the two, if not both. If Embiid is still healthy, they’ll have an opportunity to trade him for the sorts of pieces that can better complement Simmons. If he isn’t healthy, it won’t have mattered which coach they hired. So why not let D’Antoni have a go in the interim?
It’s one of those ideas that keeps sounding crazier until you realize it might actually work. In Houston, D’Antoni built a title contender around James Harden using the same sort of glorified role players and unglorified castoffs that the Sixers are likely to be fishing with, given their weird collection of talent and bloated payroll. Even if Harden proves to have been the only ingredient that mattered, the Sixers will still be in a position to pivot to a run-and-gun future built around Simmons and whatever perimeter talent they can land in a trade of Embiid. To accept this, you have to accept the fact that the Sixers already have plenty of reasons to wonder whether they’d be better off moving their big man. You also have to accept that, given their current personnel and payroll, they’ll be hard-pressed to give Embiid and Simmons a conventional supporting cast. After Jimmy Butler and last year’s mad science experience, where is there left to turn?
At least, that’s the argument. What we know for sure is that the hiring of D’Antoni would be a sure sign that the Sixers understand the potential that they’ll need to pivot to a future without Embiid. What’s more likely — that the front office can give Ty Lue or someone else the players he’d need to win a title with Embiid and Simmons? Or that D’Antoni can give Simmons and Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton and maybe even Tobias Harris and Zhaire Smith a system that elevates the impact of their skill sets while figuring out how to make it work with Embiid?
Whatever your answer, it’s a question the Sixers are wise to be asking.