Ever since he fired Brett Brown, Elton Brand has been telling everyone who asks that it will take several weeks to hire Brown’s successor.
I spent the past few days polling a handful of currently powerless NBA lifers about the coaching vacancy. The consensus: It’s a bad job, with a structureless organization. You would work in a brutally demanding town that, after seven years of Processing, itches for validation, but, after seven years of mismanagement, is years (and several catastrophic contracts) away from attainting real relevance.
The main obstacle: the stagnation of Joel Embiid, the 7-foot-2, 270-pound big man whose marketing skills currently outstrip his footwork in the low post and his willingness to use a StairMaster. Paradoxically, Embiid — talented, skilled, and large — also is the main attraction for any incoming coach. Sorry, Ben.
So, who should be the next Sixers coach? Who’s the best candidate? They are not the same question; not exactly. And the best person for the job says he doesn’t want it.
It’s not Mike D’Antoni
The old heads I spoke with said the Sixers lack the proper players to accommodate D’Antoni’s freewheeling styles. He succeeded, to degrees, in Phoenix and Houston, but failed in Los Angeles and New York. He also clashed with big-market stars Carmelo Anthony with the Knicks and Dwight Howard in L.A.; how do you think he’d fare with the petulant Process?
D’Antoni spent a few lusterless months on Brown’s struggling Sixers staff in 2016, and we can fully expect the team and D’Antoni to dance around the prospect of him landing back in Philly. But those will be bluffs, aimed at Philly’s real candidates and D’Antoni’s real landing spot.
That’s for the best. Hiring D’Antoni would be as bad a fit as signing a player like Al Horford.
It’s not Tyronn Lue … is it?
For a guy who’s been in an NBA front office for 11 years and won a title as a head coach, nobody seems to have a handle on Lue’s abilities. Lue has championship rings, but they came as a supporting actor, both as a player on Kobe Bryant’s Lakers team in 2001, and as the head coach on LeBron James' Cavaliers team in 2016. Lue was promoted from David Blatt’s staff when the Cavs fired Blatt at midseason.
But did he coach? Fairly or not, my guys believe that LeBron effectively ran the Cavs until Lue was fired in 2018 after losing the first six games of the season — the first six games he coached without LeBron, who’d left for LA.
There’s a notion that Lue can succeed in Philadelphia because LeBron will influence Ben Simmons, his protégé. LeBron will encourage Simmons to embrace Lue, but that makes little sense. Lue now coaches for the Lakers' chief current rival, the Clippers, but he was available when the Lakers hired Frank Vogel last May. Lue was a candidate, but both sides wrangled over Lue’s autonomy and the length and value of his contract — issues that seem minor if LeBron really wanted Lue.
Lue has a reputation for developing players. He has a reputation for designing plays. He has a reputation for understanding the modern NBA superstar. But these are just reputations.
Besides, Lue would arrive with lots of interesting baggage.
He’s the player that Allen Iverson stepped over in the Sixers' Game 1 win at the 2001 NBA Finals, though the Lakers then triumphed by winning the next four games.
Lue also was director of player development for the hated Celtics from 2009-13, working for Danny Ainge, perhaps the most hated basketball player in Philadelphia.
Lue also is the second cousin of Celtics star Jayson Tatum, the player central to the 2017 draft debacle when Ainge duped Bryan Colangelo into both drafting Markelle Fultz and giving Ainge a first-round pick.
So every time Lue takes the court, die-hard Sixers fans will be reminded of both the greatest moment of the Iverson era, and its unfulfilled promise: a Danny Ainge protégé; and the blood relative of the worst move of the entire Process.
It’s not Billy Donovan
Donovan didn’t win in Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He didn’t win in OKC with Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He didn’t win with Chris Paul this year, though he did a great job. Didn’t he?
Those four players will one day be in the Hall of Fame. Embiid and Simmons have a long way to go before they even think about joining them.
As for this season: Donovan finished in third place in coach-of-the-year voting, but, with Paul on the court, he had less of a job to do than ever before. If you’re going to diminish Lue for having LeBron in his huddle then it’s only fair to diminish Donovan if he has the best point guard since Isiah Thomas in his backcourt.
Donovan’s grasp of modern basketball philosophy is bulletproof, and he was an all-world outside shooter — maybe he could get Simmons to finally pull the trigger — but he could never manage a headstrong player like Westbrook.
He’d have two of them in Philly.
So who is it?
“Really, none of those three fit,” said one source. All agreed.
Juwan Howard. And that’s too bad.
Howard, the head coach at Michigan, announced last month that he would not accept any NBA offers: “I am not exploring, seeking, or listening.”
Yes, he’s said no. That just means it will be a bit harder to land him.
Howard would be perfect: An NBA big man equipped to teach Embiid; smart, worldly, connected to the youth, with a wealth of real-world NBA experience and with little need for more wealth, having earned more than $150 million in NBA salary alone. His resume is outstanding.
A member of Michigan’s Fab Five from 1991-94, Howard graduated early and went on to play 19 NBA seasons with eight NBA teams. He won two titles as a player with LeBron in Miami, then spent six years on Erik Spoelstra’s staff with the Heat before landing back at Michigan as the Wolverines' head coach in 2019, where he was 19-12 in his first season before COVID-19 shut down the world.
Howard is only 47. He had his best season with Jim Lynam in Washington and learned to coach under Spoelstra, who handled stars such as LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and now Jimmy Butler, whom he has coached to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Howard won those 19 games this season with former St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli on his staff. Martelli spent the spring of 2019 as an unofficial adviser to Brown’s Sixers. So, you’d likely get Howard and Martelli together.
Yeah. That fits.