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Does the Sixers’ Head Coach Search have a Blind Spot?

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There are several names out there... and the Sixers should be darn sure they choose the right one.

Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Living in the “Era of Woke” is unlike anything I’ve ever seen as a writer and journalist. People writing about any subject (sports, pop culture, politics, etc.) sometimes (SOMETIMES) rush to make a point making accusations of “non-wokeness”. It’s something I struggle with, at times, because I try not to pull a false racial fire alarm.

Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a column over the weekend about whether Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue (an NBA Finals winner) should question interviewing. This is brought to mind since the Philadelphia 76ers are widely rumored to be pursuing former Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni (a good regular season coach but has never taken a team to the NBA Finals).

Pompey cites in his column that the job is D’Antoni’s to lose.

Now, the hiring of D’Antoni could raise questions based on how the players fit his fast-paced “Seven Seconds or Less” brand of offense. The Sixers have suggested that they would be open to making trades to better create a team that fits D’Antoni. Joel Embiid has even given the organization his blessing to hire D’Antoni.

There’s a point made in the piece by Pompey (a columnist I have the utmost respect for), and it’s one that I feel the need to discuss — the idea that the Sixers could be seen as choosing this next head coach with “blinders” on. I’m not accusing the Sixers of such things, and there’s no evidence to really support such a thing to be said — yet.

Yes, the Sixers would be right to hire Lue or former Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers (fired yesterday) given the lack of diversity in NBA head coaching positions. However, you never want to hire someone for the wrong reason, and that is the tightrope that’s being walked (somewhat) this off-season.

Do you hire “best available”, “best fit”, or “best PR move”? Lue and Rivers check two out of three of those boxes (fit, PR). D’Antoni, theoretically, isn’t the right fit, but when you have an offense that was as stagnant as the Sixers were last season (20th out of 30 in points per game, and 19th out of 30 in Pace), maybe it’s wise to hire a guy like D’Antoni (an offensive guru).

It should be mentioned that D’Antoni may have replaced Brett Brown years ago before he was plucked to coach the Rockets.

Yes, the NBA has a huge diversity problem when it comes to hiring coaches of color. The league is over 80 percent African American, and there are only five Black head coaches (four, now, since Rivers was fired):

Alvin Gentry (New Orleans Pelicans), Jacque Vaughn (Brooklyn Nets), and Nate McMillan (Indiana Pacers) were all let go by their respective teams earlier this month. The most frustrating replacement, in my eyes, was Steve Nash getting the job with the Brooklyn Nets. I love Steve Nash. I respect Steve Nash, but he also has ZERO coaching experience (head, assistant or otherwise). This is the guy you choose when you’re immediately going to be a contender next season when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving return?

I’m not saying it was a smart hire or not, but when you look at the coaches available, now (especially Rivers), the Nets may have jumped the gun.

There are serious gaps to be bridged in the diversity of hiring Black coaches, general managers (Elton Brand is one of only seven Black GMs), etc. As not great as the NBA has been, the NFL has been way worse. The “Rooney Rule” in the NFL — which was a rule requiring teams to interview one Black candidate — seems way more like placation, now. Before he died in 2016, former coach Dennis Green was the king of getting free steak dinners from NFL owners needing to fulfill the rule.

It’s incredibly frustrating, now, to see Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy not get hired for any head coaching positions given he’s the guy who’s got the responsibility of building and/or maintaining an offense for a guy you may have heard of… Patrick Lavon Mahomes II. (The NFL and the Rooney Rule is a whole separate discussion that I’d be willing to have with anyone.)

But back to the NBA and the Sixers.

When Brett Brown was fired, the momentum Lue had to get the job was full throttle. Lue had championship experience and a history of getting a lot out of All-Stars LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. This was another point Pompey made — the eyebrow-raising concern about Lue and other Black coaches “rarely getting credit for Xs and Os” or “getting the best out of players”.

That’s fair to say, but my counter would be what did Lue do when he DIDN’T have All-Star talent? He went 0-6 and was fired. I’m not saying that Lue isn’t an Xs and Os guy, but that would be a bit of a concern to me — how good of a schemer and planner he is. Would I feel confident in Lue against a coach like Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens, Nick Nurse or Mike Budenholzer? A little. I’d feel more confident if it were D’Antoni or Rivers. That’s for darn sure.

Yes, D’Antoni did less with less when he was with the New York Knicks, but how much blame can you realistically put on MDA when James Dolan is your owner? In the case of Rivers, I’ve actually SEEN him do more with less (see Clippers, Los Angeles 2018-2019).

Would the Sixers receive criticism if they hired D’Antoni over Lue or Rivers as Pompey suggests? Perhaps. The issue with giving the Sixers criticism for such a hire is not really addressing the bigger problem — which is much more systemic (in every league). Both leagues (I say both — NFL and NBA — because of the high number of Black athletes compared to the NHL or MLB) have to make wholesale changes. It starts with hiring or promoting more Black coaches and executives at lower levels to build their resumes.

How Nash got the Brooklyn job without any head coaching experience is borderline inexcusable.

Brand is (allegedly) holding all the power in terms of hiring the right coach despite evidence to the contrary. Pompey cites sources in his column that say that while Brand has a “huge say”, ownership will approve or deny the suggestion. This contradicts other reports in the piece that imply that ownership has been hands off.

Are Brand’s hands tied? If so, what does that say about Brand and this hire? Would he be allowed to make final say, or are Sixers owners too hands on and hire D’Antoni (the guy they want all along) leading to yet more placation?

This is the thing about placation. If you hire a Black head coach and he fails, you do two things:

  • You possibly prevent him from finding other coaching opportunities elsewhere at the pro level.
  • Your franchise may not think about it ever again (a very extreme scenario).

Lue has been trying to become a head coach since being fired after going 0-6 in October of 2018. This is likely his best shot at getting another chance at a winner. Rivers has had several chances at being a repeat winner after getting to the NBA Finals twice with the Boston Celtics. D’Antoni had several shots and never made it to the Finals.

I don’t think the Sixers are going through this process with some kind of blind spot to hiring a qualified Black coach. That’s not my position to say. They seem to be doing their search the right way, and no red flags have gone up.

Hire a coach that’s right for your team, Sixers, but don’t hire one for the wrong reason. That’s just bad business for everyone.