Mike D’Antoni has coached big men with big names before, among them Amar’e Stoudemire, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.
Joel Embiid, though, would be unique.
How would D’Antoni, who just led a Rockets team without a traditional center, coach the NBA’s best post-up center? It’s a fascinating question, and one apparently worth considering in greater depth as the Sixers continue their search for a head coach to replace Brett Brown. We reviewed the case for and against D’Antoni, a free agent after four seasons with Houston, here.
In a story published Tuesday night, The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey cites a league source who “said the job could be D’Antoni’s to lose.” Pompey reports that D’Antoni and Billy Donovan are expected to interview with the Sixers and names Tyronn Lue as “among the other candidates.”
D’Antoni’s Rockets spread the floor and prioritized three-point shots and isolation possessions for James Harden, two things that often coincided. A league-high 50.1 percent of Houston’s field goal attempts were threes, compared to 36.0 percent for the Sixers (21st in the NBA). The Rockets’ 22.6 isolation possessions per game were first in the league by a landslide, largely because of Harden, while the Sixers averaged an NBA-leading 12.8 post-up possessions per game, largely because of Embiid.
Embiid has talked before about needing to sometimes stray from the interior to accommodate Ben Simmons and best serve the Sixers. If D’Antoni becomes the Sixers’ next head coach, how much would that be necessary?
“I can be dominant down low, but then again, to help the team it’s not always about me,” Embiid said on Aug. 23. “It’s about the team. With the roster we have, if it is the same roster next year, I’ve gotta be able to space the floor, I’ve gotta be able to play outside, because we’ve got Ben, who’s such a threat. Especially when he’s got the ball in open court, you’ve gotta give him space. You’ve gotta space out for him. And then when the game slows down, you’ve gotta play through me on the block.
“And sometimes I’ve gotta set screens, sometimes I’ve gotta give space to other guys. That’s when my guard skills come in handy, and that’s what I’ve gotta work on. I’ve gotta work on everything, from the post to ball handling to shooting the ball. I always say, I want to be a complete basketball player, so that’s not going to stop me.”
The Sixers obviously won’t have an identical roster as this past season, though it remains to be seen just how different it will be. The state of Simmons’ shot also looms as a significant factor. The 24-year-old isn’t going to be a conventional perimeter player unless his jumper suddenly merits respect from opposing defenses.
D’Antoni is widely perceived as a modern, ahead-of-the-curve kind of coach, which contrasts on the surface with the notion of feeding Embiid in the post. However, Embiid post-ups were, by the numbers, an excellent play for the Sixers. He produced 1.10 points per post-up possession in the 2019-20 season, No. 1 among high-volume post-up players. He’s so effective at drawing fouls — one commonality with Harden — that the post-up isn’t an outdated or ill-advised play when Embiid’s involved.
Embiid’s three-point shooting might very well be key in a D’Antoni offense. He’s hovered between 4 and 4.5 threes per 36 minutes with the Sixers and is a 31.9 percent career three-point shooter. His soft touch and strong free throw shooting all suggest he should be a bit better, and the Sixers may need him to be if D’Antoni takes over. One can imagine D’Antoni structuring the offense so that Embiid’s primary jobs are to either post up or be stationed behind the arc.
And, though Houston and the Sixers were both at the bottom of the NBA in pick-and-roll frequency, we figure it would still be an element of the Sixers’ offense. Using Simmons as a short roll playmaker would be more intuitive than relying on Embiid often as a screener and roller. He’s a work in progress in that area (see film review).
If general manager Elton Brand ends up hiring D’Antoni and also sticks with his word that he's not looking to trade Simmons or Embiid, who’s on the roster around the Sixers’ two All-Stars is likely the central question in determining D’Antoni’s offensive philosophy. Fluid, efficient offense wasn’t readily available for Embiid, Simmons or the Sixers this year, and a head coach only has so much power to change that.