Philadelphia 76ers should keep tabs on Mike D’Antoni

(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

If the Philadelphia 76ers decide to replace Brett Brown, here’s a thought…

Brett Brown began his head coaching journey at the beginning of the most radical rebuild in modern sports history. Sam Hinkie, calculator in hand and his manifesto/resignation still years away, tore asunder the very foundation of the Philadelphia 76ers. It was the beginning of a long and arduous process.

It was Brown who helped develop a slew of second-round picks and undrafted free agents into viable NBA talents. Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, and T.J. McConnell all owe a great deal to Brown’s presence on the bench and in the practice facility.

Brown also deserves credit for keeping Joel Embiid engaged over a two-year span of no basketball. He also kept Ben Simmons similarly engaged when the point guard’s first season was put on hold due to a broken foot. Brown is not perfect, nor have the Sixers been perfect, but he deserves immense credit nonetheless.

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With that said, the Sixers, for reasons largely beyond Brown, are quickly approaching a day of reckoning. The 2019-20 season has hit a massive speed bump, and the Sixers are suspended in a state of disrepair. Currently occupying the sixth seed, I’m not sure a world pandemic will turn the tides in Philadelphia’s favor.

The Sixers may need to tear it down and start fresh this summer (or whenever the offseason begins). Not to the degree Sam Hinkie once did, but beyond Embiid and Simmons, everyone is fair game. Brown included.

I’m not sold on the need to fire Brown. I think he’s a splendid coach, a smart gamesman, and a soothing voice in a messy and disjointed organization. Still, there is a reason Brown’s seat has gotten hotter this season, and the argument for a new voice and a fresh perspective is a strong one.

In a previous column I spoke of Kenny Atkinson as a premier candidate in the event Brown is fired. He is, and I stand firm in my belief Atkinson would bring necessary change to the offense. He’s also a young voice who built a strong culture in Brooklyn. By every measure, he’s a good candidate.

Atkinson isn’t, however, my favorite potential candidate. That honor belongs to Mike D’Antoni, current orchestrator of the Houston Rockets. The biggest knock on D’Antoni is the fact Bryan Colangelo once (maybe) favored him as Brown’s replacement, back when D’Antoni was a Sixers assistant. If you remove a potential Colangelo endorsement, the Seven Seconds Or Less creator has great appeal.

Obviously, D’Antoni has a job right now, and Houston would need to fire him in order for Philadelphia to make a move. This season has been painted as D’Antoni’s final rodeo in H-Town, and another postseason exit could compel the Rockets to shift gears.

If the Sixers and Rockets happen to shift gears simultaneously, D’Antoni should top the list of candidates. He not only has postseason experience and a solid reputation, but he’s a highly inventive coach who could liven up a stone-cold Sixers offense.

Among the biggest criticisms of Brown as a coach has been the rigidity of his offensive system. When Jimmy Butler and eventually Tobias Harris joined last season, Butler wasn’t handed partial ball-handling duties until the playoffs. The adjustment worked, but some viewed it as too little, too late.

Brown is stubborn, and he has a very clear idea of how his team works and which players make it work best. D’Antoni would inject a very different perspective — a move from Brown’s onus on defense and physicality, to D’Antoni’s onus on firepower and speed.

The Sixers have the defensive personnel to thrive regardless of head coach. D’Antoni has coached good defensive teams in Houston, and Philadelphia presents a massive upgrade in personnel on that end. It’s near impossible to have a bad defense as long as Embiid and Simmons are healthy.

The significant change would come on offense. The Sixers don’t have the personnel to run a Rockets-like system. D’Antoni wouldn’t have the enormous luxury of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, or even Chris Paul (unless the Sixers trade for CP3… please).

What D’Antoni could do, however, is weaponize Simmons in new and exciting ways. If the Sixers fire Brown, the next coach needs to expand Simmons’ repertoire — whether the 23-year-old wants it or not. Simmons won’t enter next season chucking threes, but he can thrive as a roll man in the pick-and-roll, or as a cutter in off-ball situations.

The Sixers should aim to move Simmons around and take advantage of the significant pressure he puts on a defense — both as a finisher and as a playmaker. D’Antoni loves to play with pace and spread the floor. He could get Simmons to produce in ways Brown never could.

As for Embiid, it’s essential to not conflate a slow pace with post-ups. The Sixers can run the floor, expand Simmons’ duties, and still focus on getting Embiid good looks on the block. It’s also important to note Embiid’s more harmful tendencies, and how D’Antoni’s more dynamic offense could lead to fewer situations where Embiid is double-teamed with nowhere to go.

This would be as much of a change for D’Antoni as it would be for the Sixers, but in the end, Philadelphia desperately needs change. One can point to D’Antoni’s playoff record — especially his more recent years in Houston — and raise concerns. Fine. But it’s also worth pointing out the historic peaks D’Antoni’s offense has reached in Houston.

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D’Antoni’s offense in Philadelphia, by default, would not be a copycat scheme. He would need to cut down on standstill threes and isolations, and instead focus on ways to spread the floor, create movement, and advantageously utilize two unique superstars in Embiid and Simmons. The end result could be change that benefits both sides.