The case for and against hiring Mike D'Antoni to replace Rivers

With Mike D'Antoni again a candidate for Sixers head coach, we look at the case for and against hiring him to replace Doc Rivers.

Mike D'Antoni
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Three seasons after hiring Doc Rivers, the Sixers are searching again for a head coach. 

Thus far in our series on Sixers coaching candidates, we’ve looked at Nick Nurse and Monty Williams. 

We'll next examine the case for and against hiring Mike D’Antoni to replace Rivers.

The case for D'Antoni

No candidate is more experienced than the 72-year-old D’Antoni. Much of that experience is quite impressive.

He was (understandably) a Sixers candidate after the team fired Brett Brown in 2020. A former point guard who played several years in the NBA and ABA before a long, illustrious stint in Italy, D’Antoni immediately transitioned to coaching. At their best, his teams have embodied ahead-of-the-curve offensive brilliance. He surpassed 60 victories in a season twice with his “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns and won 65 games in the 2017-18 campaign with the Rockets. D'Antoni earned his second Coach of the Year honor that season. 

No coach’s personality meshes perfectly with every one of his players, but D’Antoni’s style certainly hasn’t tended to spark conflict. 

“Mike's been unbelievable this year,” Steve Nash told reporters in 2005. “He's extremely bright and finds a terrific balance that's so important in this league of holding guys accountable and at the same time giving guys the freedom to use their tools to help the team win.''

The degree to which D’Antoni has adapted to his players’ strengths is perhaps underrated. Yes, playing at a brisk pace and keeping the paint unclogged is the core of his offensive philosophy, but those concepts are now common sense in the NBA. 

“If that 1-on-1 was not efficient, we wouldn’t do it,” he said of his isolation-centric Rockets offense on the Thinking Basketball podcast with Ben Taylor in 2022. “But it was doing, if I’m not mistaken, 1.2-something (points per possession) — something ridiculous. For a long time, 1.16 was the standard of the best offense an NBA team had. … Our isolation game was 1.25 or 1.24. So why wouldn’t we isolate? 

“People don’t like it. Aesthetically, it’s not good; I don’t love it. I’d rather pass the ball around. If I had a team that didn’t have James Harden, guess what? We’d be passing the ball around. If you’ve got James Harden, then I’m going to make James Harden the best player he can possibly be.”

The public data is less lofty, but it absolutely supports D’Antoni’s point. Per, Houston both ran (far) more isolation plays than any team and ranked No. 1 in points per isolation possession every season from 2017-18 through 2019-20. 

When you look back at D’Antoni’s extensive coaching history, it’s not very difficult to identify ways he could upgrade the Sixers’ offense. Especially given the threat Joel Embiid has become from the top of the key, nail and elbows, the idea of a coach scheming up sharp, well-spaced movement around him is intriguing. 

Reliable counters when defenses increase their aggression in the playoffs would also be great for the Sixers. If the conventional Chicago action becomes predictable, you can set the rip screen. If the defender is too determined to deny the ball, you can slip and dart to the rim. D’Antoni’s teams often play an intuitive style, and that’s positive for any offense. The notion of Tyrese Maxey’s speed, shooting and driving ability with D’Antoni as coach is fascinating, too. 

The case against D'Antoni

D’Antoni has not been a head coach since the Rockets’ 2020 second-round series loss to the Lakers.

He served as a Nets assistant coach for the 2020-21 season and later joined the Pelicans as a coaching advisor. D’Antoni was reportedly a finalist for the Hornets’ head coaching job, which ultimately went to Steve Clifford. He previously interviewed with the Trail Blazers as well.

D’Antoni’s past few years outside of a head coaching role obviously don’t mean he’d automatically struggle upon stepping back into that spot. Still, it’s true that other candidates with strong credentials — Nick Nurse, Mike Budenholzer, etc. — have been head coaches significantly more recently than D’Antoni. 

Defensive questions are clearly valid with D’Antoni, too. The fastidious Jeff Bzdelik, who specialized in Houston’s defense and honed the team’s switch-heavy scheme, has been out of coaching since the 2019-20 season. Veteran assistant Dan Burke was Rivers’ defensive coordinator. 

Rivers, Burke and the Sixers did plenty of things well defensively this season — instilling solid team principles, mixing in zone effectively, and making some smart in-game adjustments like putting P.J. Tucker on Nikola Jokic in a comeback win over the Nuggets. However, the bottom line is they again lost in the second round and allowed Jayson Tatum to score 51 points in the Celtics’ Game 7 victory. At a minimum, it seems unlikely the Sixers can afford a defensive drop-off. There’d be greater optimism on that end of the ball with a candidate such as Nurse. 

Finally, we’ll note the motivations behind hiring D’Antoni would matter. D’Antoni’s overall offensive acumen and the hope he could enhance the talents of players like Embiid and Maxey would be more persuasive arguments to hire him than the notion of assembling the “Philadelphia Rockets.” 

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