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As Rivers moves on, we rank the Sixers top six coaching candidates

Mike Budenholzer, Nick Nurse, Monty Williams, Sam Cassell, Mike D’Antoni, Frank Vogel... let’s dive in.

Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

In the biggest news of the day, the Philadelphia 76ers have moved on from head coach Doc Rivers.

If you were a Doc supporter, you could feel somewhat vindicated from your years of defending him right now.

He eventually made the necessary tweaks to his rotation this season, pivoting away from Montrezl Harrell and to Paul Reed just in the nick of time. He began to stagger James Harden and Joel Embiid a bit more as the year wound down.

And he led a group without Embiid into Boston and stole home court advantage. He was at the helm for the (post) Process era’s greatest victory, that decisive Game 5 road win. Embiid was hurt. Harden was up and down. Tyrese Maxey is still just 22. And somehow his team possessed a two-point lead with about four-and-change remaining at the crib before the team went ice cold.

But they were in position.

If you’re a Doc hater of course, you could counter with basically this: Doc Rivers was renown for leaving fans of his teams gutted and heartbroken, after horrifying second-round playoff losses. And in his brief three years, we got two of those.

And maybe the rest of you fall somewhere in the middle with a more nuanced analysis.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski followed up the breaking Doc news with a list of six candidates the Sixers are eyeing. Let’s rank them.

6) Sam Cassell

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Sam Cassell had ice water in his veins as a player. He entered the league as an older rookie and shattered dreams by draining dagger threes in crunch time at MSG to help Houston win a pair of rings over the ‘94 Knicks and ‘95 Magic.

He has been an assistant alongside Doc Rivers since the start of the 2014-2015 season in L.A. He came with Rivers to Philly and has been an invaluable resource for this team, most noted for his off-court developmental work with still-emerging stud Tyrese Maxey.

The argument for Big Shot Sam might go something like this: he’s long overdue for a shot at HC. He knows this group and as far as we know, they really like him. He knows the system and wouldn’t need to change a ton, so that might appease Embiid, who seemed to love playing for Doc. Maybe if in an interview Sam said he’d be more willing to play the young guys sooner than later in a given season (he has claimed he suggested they play Maxey sooner back in 2020-2021) and focus more on player development, without drastic change to the top end hierarchy, that appeals?

The case against Sam might go something like this... he’s never been a head coach so you have little clue what you’re getting. Is that ideal for a team of vets as experienced as Embiid, and possibly Harden? Based on rumors in that link to the left, Doc’s leaving may increase the odds Harden returns.

Yet Sam may not be different enough for this front office. Daryl Morey told the RTRS guys that Doc and Sam are “a tandem in my mind.”

And Sam is, perhaps proudly, not an analytics guy. If Morey went to Sam and said I want to try some radical (or basic) new approaches based on my advanced data, would Sam be willing to deviate from his gut and implement it?

I’m not sure. And with all of these unknowns and Doc affiliations, he’s not high on this list.

(Curious that Dave Joeger wasn’t included.)

5) Mike D’Antoni

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s difficult for me to put MDA so low on this list because the resume is there. He’s one of the best coaches of the modern era. He helped spark the pace and space, tempo era with his innovative “7 seconds or less” approach. And then he devoured Morey’s data sheets on airplane rides, and went on his own to MIT Sloan Conferences, and never stopped learning and adapting. His best work was probably deviating completely from what he did in Phoenix, and trusting Morey’s math on iso-ball in Houston with Chris Paul and James Harden. It worked.

Whenever Morey has spoken about what he looks for in a head coach, it’s MDA and that includes implementing data in strategy, and an openness to unorthodox trades.

Those 2018 Rockets had no business nearly beating the super team Warriors, but they were close. Close doesn’t get you a ring, but it should be considered when predicting the future.

On the other hand, he’s 72 years old and his mere presence as Harden’s MVP-winning coach might threaten Embiid or the offense in general.

(Does Harden envision a restructured pecking order with “his guy?”)

MDA also struggled in both Los Angeles with Dwight Howard and New York with Carmelo Anthony when he couldn’t run a well-spaced offense.

But still, he helped change the game of pro hoops twice, over 10 years apart, with two polar opposite strategies.

The optics of this move are probably the worst of all, recreating the ‘ole Rockets, hiring #HardensGuy after a series like Harden just had, etc.

But at the end of the day, he’s one of the best coaches of all time who continually evolves and wins when given a point guard like Beard. And what if this is the only way they can keep James? That might bump MDA up the list a bit if Morey and Joel were hellbent on keeping Uno.

Being given an ultimatum on coach by a guy who fizzled so badly isn’t the right approach. But what if it beats any alternative where Harden walks? A very plausible right thing for the wrong reasons scenario.

4) Frank Vogel

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

If you hold MDA’s age and strong ties to Harden against him, Frank Vogel is probably an easier compromise pill. He’s an underrated coach in the NBA. He’s evolved with the times. He worked his way up from assistant from gigs in Boston, Philly and Indiana. His time in Boston coincided with Morey’s, when Daryl was a front office stat-mind.

He developed Paul George, likely overachieved with the likes of Roy Hibbert (the verticality innovation) and George Hill when given the top job in Indy. Those teams knocked off Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks before giving a surprisingly tough series to LeBron James’ Heatles.

And then he won the Bubble title with LeBron, Anthony Davis, Danny Green and co. He did not have a ton of time to get that core to click, but he figured it out on the fly giving him the “has worked with absolutely elite superstars and won” notch on his belt.

His work with an on-ball G.O.A.T. like LeBron, and an injury prone big in AD, who can play inside and outside while running pick-and-roll... there’s definitely a theoretical fit here.

I’m not sure Vogel’s hiring would be met with excitement. But maybe it should be. It’s hard to say with this stuff.

His firing in L.A. felt like a clear scapegoat sitch not unlike a few of the next ones.

3) Monty Williams

Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns - Game Six Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Monty is best known for his work in Phoenix, winning Coach of the Year honors in 2022. He took a Suns team with Devin Booker, Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton to the brink against the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals, before Jrue Holiday and Greek Freak broke their hearts.

But he’s a “prime candidate” for Philly according to Chris Haynes of TNT.

I could be talked out of having Monty third here, if you made a good case for one of MDA or Vogel. But he was an assistant in Philly under Brett Brown then won big after departing.

The one thing that lingers in my mind is just how badly the Suns flamed out in 2022. It happened again this year sort of, but I won’t hold it against them as much this season, because he had to cobble things together on the fly amid blockbuster change, all before Chris Paul got injured.

The Suns led 58-51 in Denver in Game 2 these playoffs when last at full strength. If they’d closed the door that night it would have secured home court and the chance to go up 3-1 on the Nuggets. They won their first two home games. So there’s always an alternative universe.

The relationship with Joel Embiid is there. I think this would be a solid hire. But how much of an upgrade it would ultimately be, I’m honestly not sure.

2) Nick Nurse

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Nick Nurse started as coach of the Rockets G League affiliate when Morey hired him back in the day. Of course, he won a title with the Kawhi Leonard led Toronto Raptors, cementing his name as one of the top X’s and O’s guys in the NBA.

He has defended Joel Embiid about as well as anyone in the league not named Erik Spoelstra, especially given the talent he’s had to do it with.

His resume isn’t as glowing as it was a year or two removed from the 2019 title. The Raptors offense has seemed needlessly stale and uncreative at times. He has pushed his players regular season minutes to the absolute Tom Thibodeau brink and that obviously won’t work here given the age and injury risk profiles.

On the flipside, he oversaw one of the most rigid and formulaic load management programs in history, as Leonard sat out roughly every 3.5 regular games during their championship season.

Maybe he would be amenable to leaving the Sixers offense largely in place, but with some key tweaks. More Tyrese Maxey off-ball movement? More time spent practicing better passing angles for Joel? A more diversified offensive attack less prone to stalling vs. an elite team? A team where one player isn’t the absolute focal point?

Maybe he would quickly consent to some minutes restrictions and rest games for older studs. He certainly has an affinity for versatile switching bigs, and not the type Doc used to prefer backing up Joel.

My favorite part about the case for Nurse is his apparent willingness to get weird and tinker.

Morey and Nurse used that G League affiliate team as a “laboratory” as they’d call it. It was a tremendous petri dish where both wound up accumulating tons of data and lessons they’d each apply to the NBA game successfully.

We have yet to see a front-office and coach in tandem the way Morey worked with D’Antoni in Houston. Based on their history, it seems likely we might get a lot more experimentation and creativity with Nurse. He and Morey might apply a bit of “game theory” where you aren’t so vanilla when trying to beat a better opponent.

Why is he not first here? Well, he was recently fired by perhaps the top GM in the sport in Masai Ujiri. Maybe Masai had a decent reason for that. I might make some calls and see what I could learn about the way it ended up North.

1) Mike Budenholzer

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The no brainer top spot here goes to Mike Budenholzer. My bigger concern is would he want this tricky job with sky high expectations and an unclear roster? Would he commit before learning what’s happening with Harden or Tobias Harris?

It’s still puzzling the Bucks canned Bud, and unlike when Masai Ujiri does something, I don’t have the same trust in Milwaukee’s management.

Budenholzer comes from the Gregg Popovich tree like Brett Brown, Ime Udoka, and others once did.

He was a top trusted assistant to Pop for four championships in San Antonio (all but their last one in 2014). When he first got a chance to take the top gig in Atlanta, he won a still-to-this-day amazing 60 games with a Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Al Horford led team. They had no true franchise players, but their ball movement was beautiful and they overachieved.

Back in February of 2019, former Sam Hinkie lieutenant turned founder penned a great piece titled “Bucking the Trend.” In it, Ben Falk detailed how many teams were terrified of allowing three pointers, amid the Steph Curry led league triples revolution.

Coach Bud Light year’s group zigged where others zagged, and chose to allow the most three point attempts in the entire league, going all in on rim protection. That strategy was often still in place during key playoff wins en route a title.

Had Khris Middleton not got hurt in 2022 and then Giannis in 2023, there’s a world where this Bucks team was looking to three-peat. Heck, they were a couple shots away from a 3-0 series lead over the eventual 2019 champion Raps. Maybe they woulda won that won too.

Brook Lopez utterly morphed from one-way post-up big to one of the greatest defenders in the NBA playing the type of drop coverage Embiid is best suited for.

Joel has the feet to move on the perimeter a bit better than Brook, but that takes effort and energy too. Bud’s preferred defensive system would be a rather seamless fit compared to some others above. He’s won a chip with P.J. Tucker.

He also won a ring allowing a sky high usage rate MVP to thrive, but vitally, without limiting the co-stars. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton still hover in All-NBA and All-Star conversations. He may not upend the Sixers’ hierarchy, but some change to diversify the scoring attack is definitely in order.

And maybe the best part of all, you ask? Just look at Giannis’ minutes per game before and after Bud came onboard for the 2018-2019 season:

Giannis hasn’t topped 33 minutes per game since before Bud joined. Bud has been even more religious about regular season minutes restrictions than his mentor Popovich once was with certain older (Duncan) or injury prone (Kawhi) players.

Bud prioritizes the tournament and he has found ways to win when his star is not in the game. The Bucks were 11-8 without the Freak in the game this season. And they’re 32-33 without him since Bud arrived.

He prefers to let his other best players take the load when his MVP sits out, rather than all-bench looks. I think he’s simply been better than Doc at enabling his co-stars to eat.

In the end, here’s how my rank would look.

Tier 1: Budenholzer

Tier 2: Nick Nurse

Tier 3: D’Antoni, Vogel, Williams (a close jumble)

Tier 4: Cassell


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