Perhaps more than any front-office executive in professional sports, Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey is known for his analytical mind. But when it comes to evaluating a head coach, even Morey believes that the tactical element of the job is a tad overrated.

“I actually think people put too much importance on that — like it ends up being a much smaller part of the game than people expect,” Morey said. “Relative to working with your star players, recruiting star players, things like that. It is an important element, but it tends to get overvalued.

“It tends to get overvalued by people like me frankly, because it’s an area that I just naturally have an interest in. And I think a lot of people do. But it can only be one part of the puzzle, I promise you. It’s just one part of the picture.”

NBA coaching resembles an iceberg — with much of it only visible above the surface. Getting players to buy in and keeping the locker room together during difficult stretches are essential coaching duties behind the scenes.

After firing Doc Rivers last week, Morey needs a new head coach. That process will require some guesswork on how candidates will interact with players behind the scenes. That part of the puzzle will be key, especially since Morey just let go of a coach that seemingly had the support of Joel Embiid.

“We’re already very encouraged by the candidates who reached out,” Morey said last week. “We have an MVP player, we have a great roster that lots of players want to play with, lots of coaches want to be with. So, we’ll look at that carefully.”

The Sixers’ initial list of candidates, first reported by ESPN, is six names: Nick Nurse, Frank Vogel, Monty Williams, Sam Cassell, Mike D’Antoni and Mike Budenholzer. Let’s take a look at each candidate:

Nick Nurse

On the court: Nurse is known for his unconventional methods, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Perhaps the most famous example is when he dialed up box-and-one and triangle-and-two looks against Golden State star Steph Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Under Nurse, Toronto’s personnel skewed long and athletic. There were some exceptions (Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in the backcourt, Marc Gasol and late-season addition Jakob Poetl in the frontcourt), but Toronto in the last few seasons had several 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-10 athletes flying around defensively: O.G. Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher. In Philadelphia, regardless of what James Harden decides this summer, Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid would provide Nurse with a more traditional roster to work with.

This style of defense produced a couple of consistent statistical trends over the past four seasons. Toronto always finished first or second in opponent turnover rate and ranked between 28th and 30th in opponent corner 3-point frequency. Nurse’s defenses were never boring, but there was a boom-or-bust quality to what the Raptors did defensively.

The results were mixed. Nurse won an NBA title with Kawhi Leonard in 2019, but his true masterpiece was the 2019-20 season. Fueled by the league’s second-ranked defense, Toronto went 53-19 and was one game away from the conference finals the season after Leonard left. But gradually, that constant havoc stopped being effective. The Raptors gave up 50.7 percent effective field-goal percentage in 2019-20 but that number skyrocketed to 56.9 percent this past season. Nurse’s teams went from second-best to second-worst in four seasons forcing opponents to miss.

The Sixers know Nurse and the Raptors defensive philosophy well, and at its best, Toronto’s defense made opponents look bad. Once, they almost stole a game in Philadelphia by employing a full-court press. But it also had faults. Some rotations made little sense and aggressive help schemes that could be picked apart with proper game-planning and ball movement (which the Sixers displayed in last season’s first round).

But what about Nurse’s offense? Toronto’s half-court offensive efficiency ranked in the bottom six in each of the last two seasons. When Toronto beat the Sixers en route to the title, it was Leonard’s brilliance that won out. But it felt like Brett Brown almost coached Nurse to a draw in that series.

And despite Toronto’s half-court struggles, it was a dominant transition and offensive rebounding team in the last two seasons.

Roster-wise, a transition from Toronto to the Sixers would be a massive stylistic jump. The Sixers led the NBA in 3-point shooting this season, while Toronto was 28th. The Sixers rarely run, while Toronto put the pedal to the metal. It would be fascinating to see how Nurse handled the change of scenery.

Off the court: According to Raptors beat writer Eric Koreen, Nurse and Toronto’s front office didn’t agree on how to play younger role players, which lead to a high workload for his starters. Siakam and VanVleet ranked in the top five in minutes per game. Toronto’s depth was not inspiring, so there is room for interpretation. And the Sixers might be a decent match because they’re trying to win now.

In 2011, Nurse was hired as the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. They are the G League affiliate of the Houston Rockets, who were run by Morey during that time.

If Nurse joined the Sixers, an intriguing element would be his teaming up with old foe Embiid. The two of them sparred during a 2022 first-round playoff series that the Sixers won in six games. After Nurse appealed to the officials following a Game 1 loss, Embiid said that he told the Raptors coach to “respectfully, stop bitching about the calls.”

But Nurse has always been Embiid’s most interesting foil. His defense once held the big man to zero points, which is unthinkable. And in recent seasons, the Raptors have doubled and sometimes even triple-teamed him. Embiid has called the Raptors’ style of play “reckless” while also crediting them for making him a better player. Nurse versus Embiid has been an underrated rivalry, which makes their possibly joining forces an intriguing subplot.

Frank Vogel

On the court: Like Nurse, Vogel has won a title recently (2020 with the Lakers) and is known for his defensive acumen. The similarities mostly end there, though.

Omitting two seasons in Orlando that didn’t feature a ton of talent, the defensive rankings of Vogel’s teams in Indiana and Los Angeles are as follows: 10th, first, first, sixth, third, fourth, second and 24th. Like Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, Vogel worked his way up the coaching ranks through the film room.

Unlike Nurse’s best defenses, Vogel’s teams typically featured a more traditional rim protector. There was Roy Hibbert in Indiana, who sealed the rim off entirely. In Indiana, Vogel found a specific formula (drop coverage with Hibbert, stick to 3-point shooters, play positional defense instead of trying to force turnovers) that modern offenses have learned to counter, particularly in the postseason.

But with Embiid on the roster in Philly, Vogel would have an attractive anchor to build another top defense around. This past season, the Sixers defense had long stretches where it lost focus.

While maintaining his defense-first approach, Vogel has adapted. He guided the Lakers to the title in the NBA bubble against opponents that played drastically different styles (Morey and Harden’s small-ball Rockets in one round; Nikola Jokić’s Nuggets in the next). The 2019-20 Lakers started games big in the frontcourt with Anthony Davis at the 4, and that group locked into Vogel’s game plans.

Following the bubble title in Florida, the Lakers made a run of poor personnel mistakes, eventually leading to the disastrous Russell Westbrook acquisition. Davis and LeBron James both dealt with injuries and when they were on the court, the 3-and-D supporting cast who helped them win a title was gone. Vogel was blamed for things like sticking to drop coverage in smaller lineups, and perhaps he might have done a better job in those final two years. But the results got worse as soon as the roster made less sense.

But from a tactical standpoint, can Vogel be an offensive innovator? His offensive ratings in Indiana and Los Angeles were seventh, 19th, 22nd, 23rd, 26th, 10th, 22nd and 23rd. With that lack of success, perhaps an offensive-minded assistant would be a part of Vogel’s pitch to interested teams.

Off the court: Unlike Nurse, Vogel is a more unassuming personality with a sly sense of humor.

While Vogel had excellent talent at his disposal in Los Angeles, he was lauded for getting Davis and James, the Lakers’ two superstars, to buy in. He managed a tricky situation, which included having Jason Kidd on his bench. Vogel would be comfortable stepping into an organization that has seen its share of drama.

Vogel coached with Dan Burke in Indiana, so if he were to get the job, maybe Burke would stay and try to turn around the defense. And if the Sixers hired Vogel, it would be a homecoming. He is from Wildwood, N.J.

Doc Rivers and Monty Williams. (Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

On the court: Williams is unquestionably one of the most impressive people in the NBA. But as Rivers, one of his closest friends will tell you, the image of being a “leader of men” has overshadowed some of Williams’ great achievements in Phoenix, specifically the “Valley-oop”, which allowed the Suns to steal a key playoff game.

Overall though, Williams developed an aesthetically-pleasing, pick-and-roll system that produced results. The Spain pick-and-roll became an incredible weapon for Phoenix. The Suns’ offensive rating under Williams was sixth and third in 2020-21 and 2021-22, although they didn’t exactly play Moreyball in those seasons. Led by Devin Booker and Chris Paul, the Suns ranked high in both midrange frequency (sixth, first, first) and midrange accuracy (first, first, 11th) the past three seasons.

Williams’ résumé is a balanced one. While the offense will get most of the ink, Phoenix finished with a top-10 defense in each of the past three seasons. That is an impressive accomplishment because the personnel did not always scream defensive juggernaut.

The regular-season success, including a 64-win season in 2021-22, led to high expectations in the postseason, but Williams could not match them. The Suns blew a 2-0 lead to Milwaukee in the 2021 NBA Finals. They lost by 33 points in a Game 7 on their home floor, a franchise-altering performance. And while the Suns’ depth was depleted by acquiring Kevin Durant this season, they needed a couple of scorching-hot Booker shooting performances just to push Denver to six games.

Off the court: Williams’ leadership is impressive. His speech after Phoenix went 8-0 in the NBA bubble is memorable. Williams asked his young team to build on that success, and one season later, they were in the finals. He successfully built a culture in a short amount of time and raised the expectations in Phoenix. But like Rivers in Philadelphia, Williams fell well short of winning a title.

The Sixers were Williams’ last employer before he got the top job in Phoenix. Working under Brown, he was the lead assistant on the 2018-19 team that took Toronto to seven games.

One other potential Sixers link: Kevin Young, Williams’ associate head coach in Phoenix, was in the Sixers organization for seven years. Young is currently under consideration to replace Williams in Phoenix.

But it wasn’t all perfect in Phoenix. DeAndre Ayton and Williams had a frosty relationship. Jae Crowder’s holdout was a distraction for Phoenix this season as well. How much those things are Williams’ fault is up for debate.

Sam Cassell

On the court: Of the candidates on this list, Cassell is the only one without NBA head coaching experience, which is probably working against him.

“I would say that we have a roster ready to win,” Morey said. “Obviously, we’ve been very successful, just came up short of our goals. I think we have an MVP-level player. And I do think if you look at the history of the NBA, it’s challenging to walk into that as a first-time NBA head coach. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked. For every rule, there are solid counter-examples.”

But Morey doesn’t have to look far for some solid counter-examples. Nurse won a title in his first season as an NBA head coach, while Joe Mazzulla and Darvin Ham are currently in the conference finals in their debut seasons.

After an excellent playing career, Cassell has certainly paid his dues. He has been an assistant coach since 2009 with stops in Washington, Los Angeles (with the Clippers) and Philadelphia. Since 2014, he has worked on Rivers’ staff. The link between Cassell and the Sixers’ now-former head coach is strong. Cassell finished his playing career by coming off the bench on Rivers’ title-winning 2007-08 Celtics team.

Guard development is what Cassell has been known for at all coaching his stops. John Wall credited Cassell for helping grow his game in Washington, while Bradley Beal reportedly wanted Cassell to return to the Wizards as head coach a few years ago. Tyrese Maxey’s first three seasons have gone well for a player selected with the 21st pick in the draft.

It’s impossible to know what type of schemes Cassell would implement. But if anyone thinks he should get a shot, it’s the coach who the Sixers just fired.

“He’s got an incredible basketball mind,” Rivers said. “And I wish people could just see the mind. When we have our little (coaching) meetings, when we have our offensive meetings and our defensive meetings, Sam is the only one who goes to both because he’s that valuable.”

Off the court: Morey said that he’s also looking for someone who “has a great relationship with the star players.” As far as Sixers connections go, this is the candidate with the most by a comfortable margin.

Cassell is a popular figure throughout the organization with good relationships up and down the roster. In addition to his work with Maxey, he worked out Harden after every shootaround and before to every game. And depending on Rivers’ coaching future, the Sixers might be able to retain most of their current coaching staff if they hire Cassell.

With a development background, would Cassell be a better candidate for a younger, up-and-coming NBA team? The move from assistant to head coach requires a different temperament at times, but Cassell has plenty of NBA experience and is popular with this specific group of players.

Mike D’Antoni and James Harden. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

Mike D’Antoni

On the court: Even without a title, D’Antoni’s imprint on modern basketball can’t be understated. Even if he doesn’t get another coaching job, he’ll go down as an important figure in the game.

D’Antoni’s Rockets teams did not play the same way that his Suns teams did. D’Antoni, Morey and Harden were together for four seasons in Houston. Here is where the Rockets ranked in isolation frequency, per Synergy Sports: fourth, first, first and first. And here is where the Rockets ranked in 3-point frequency: first, first, first and first.

Those were Harden’s prime seasons, and particularly when it came to 3-point shooting and isolations, Houston played a unique style of basketball. Under Rivers and led by Embiid’s midrange game, the Sixers were below average in effective field-goal percentage each of the last three seasons. If Morey wants to return to taking more layups and 3s, D’Antoni can implement that system.

D’Antoni also knows how to get the most out of his guards. If Maxey is going to increase his 3-point volume to over 10 per game, this is going to be the coach who makes it happen. How D’Antoni utilizes Embiid would be fascinating as well, as D’Antoni has an up-and-down history with big men. Embiid’s methodical game trends more toward Pau Gasol than Amar’e Stoudemire.

Defense is not D’Antoni’s strong suit, so finding the right assistant also would be important. In 2017-18, when the Rockets were the best regular-season team and fell just short of a title, they finished No. 6 in defensive efficiency. That was due to a switch-heavy scheme crafted by Jeff Bzdelik who had versatile defensive players like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. The Sixers, with a more traditional lineup, wouldn’t be able to replicate that exact system.

Off the court: Once Rivers was fired, D’Antoni became an obvious candidate to replace him. He was on the shortlist after Brown was fired, and that was even before Morey and Harden came to Philadelphia.

Embiid spoke highly of Rivers, and Harden likely feels the same way about D’Antoni. He is the coach who gave Harden the most “basketball freedom.” It’s worth noting that Harden isn’t the same player now as he was then.

If D’Antoni is brought to Philadelphia and Harden also returns, there will be plenty of questions. Is this a signal that Harden now has the freedom to play as he did in 2017, even with the league-scoring leader on his team? Harden’s late-season comments about “sacrifice” muddied the waters a bit.

D’Antoni did cross paths with Embiid in Philadelphia when he was an assistant coach during the second half of the 2015-16 season. Embiid hadn’t made it on the court yet, and the Sixers went on to win just 10 games. D’Antoni was hired by Houston that summer. And as much concern as there is about how Embiid would fit into D’Antoni’s system, there is no player who complains more about the Sixers’ lack of 3-point volume than Embiid. In the last few seasons, Embiid has taken his game to the perimeter.

There’s no guarantee that Embiid would be thrilled about D’Antoni getting hired, but there are elements of D’Antoni’s résumé that might intrigue him.

On the court: Even though he won the 2021 NBA title in Milwaukee, “Bud” is best known for his regular-season success. He took a team that was directionless under Kidd. With MVP winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, he turned the Bucks into the league’s best regular-season bet. The Sixers have the second-most regular-season wins in the NBA since 2018-19. Budenholzer’s Bucks had 23 more!

Milwaukee’s success starts with defense. Under Budenholzer, Brook Lopez had one of the most remarkable renaissances in NBA history. He went from a rotational big man whose post-up prowess felt like a relic of the past to a legitimate stretch five who doubled as one of the best rim protectors in the league.

Excluding the one season that Lopez largely missed, here is where Budenholzer’s teams finished in defensive rating: second, first, 10th and fourth. It’s easy to see that Budenholzer could have some success crafting a defense around Embiid’s rim protection.

Budenholzer followed Vogel’s Indiana game plan to an even greater degree. The Bucks dropped Lopez back near the rim and used Antetokounmpo as the league’s most dangerous roamer, protecting the paint at all costs. They rarely fouled, hardly forced turnovers and gave up a ton of above-the-break 3s. Most of the time, the math worked out in their favor. In 2020, Milwaukee added Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s best on-ball defenders and screen navigators to make the defense even more difficult to break down.

On offense, the Bucks spread the floor around Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton and bombed 3s. If Embiid stays healthy, as he mostly has in recent seasons, the Sixers under Budenholzer would likely be an excellent regular-season team. He’s also won multiple NBA Coach of the Year honors.

As has been the case for Rivers and most of the coaches on this list, the playoffs have been a different story for Budenholzer. The drop coverage became easier to exploit in the postseason, which led to Budenholzer implementing more switching in their championship season. Some of his usage for Antetokounmpo, whether it was a defensive assignment (not defending Jimmy Butler in this postseason) or minutes load, came under scrutiny.

But as much has been made about the defense’s rigidity and postseason shortcomings, and there were many times that the Bucks’ half-court offense disappeared in key moments.

When Budenholzer won a title, he was very fortunate to escape the second round against a banged-up Brooklyn team. On the other side of the coin, Milwaukee’s shocking loss to Miami last month does not look quite as bad now. Holding on to those timeouts sure does, though.

Off the court: Budenholzer is another coach who has worked his way up the ladder, having a front-row seat for the Spurs dynasty alongside Brown. He has seen Tim Duncan establish a culture and then helped develop one of the best modern examples (Antetokounmpo).

Even one of Budenholzer’s greatest quirks, the habitual use of the use-it-or-lose-it timeout, is borne out of a drive to press every advantage he can on the court.

(Top photo of Nick Nurse and Joel Embiid: Mark Blinch / NBAE via Getty Images)



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