Nick Nurse; photo via Wikimedia Commons

Accountability and culture. Two buzz words you’ll hear whenever a team is in the market for a new head coach.

Important vertebrae to the backbone of an organization, sure. But, ultimately, two waffle descriptors in outlining what you’re looking for in a head coach.

Think about it, when have you ever heard of a new-hire who wasn’t regarded as someone who could “set the organization’s culture” or would “hold the players accountable”?

Better yet, when was the last time a head coach hailed for leadership qualities first and foremost won the title?

If the last 15 years of NBA history are any indicator, it doesn’t happen.

Steve Kerr four times. Phil Jackson and Erik Spoelstra twice. Rick Carlisle, Gregg Popovich, Tyronn Lue, Nick Nurse, Frank Vogel, and Mike Budenholzer once each.

Perhaps the lone exception is Doc Rivers in 2008.

Rivers is one of the best regular-season coaches of all time. He has guided his teams to be in positions to advance in the playoffs, even if there is a high-profile history of his teams being unable to close out series as the playoffs go on.

But, there was a unique degree of maturity in his star-studded roster when he won in 2008. Kevin Garnett set the tone for that team, volunteering to take a smaller role on offense in exchange for a larger role on defense so that Boston’s Big Three could gel with the rest of the roster.

“You got to be who you are. Leadership doesn’t have to be vocal. It has to be by example. As a player, I played with Patrick Ewing, who most of you guys remember. Wasn’t a big talker, but he was a phenomenal leader. And he led by example. So, I want everyone to lead in that way. Not just Joel [Embiid] and Ben [Simmons]. I want everybody to lead as far as their example as far as work. We’ll find out who the vocal leaders are,” Rivers said at his introductory press conference with the Sixers in 2020.

“Sometimes, if the best player is not that, you do have to support them. Sometimes, the coach has to get involved in that, sometimes there’s another voice. But, we just want all voices to be credible, and that’s what we’re going to work on.”

Garnett was already a 10-time All-Star and a former MVP when he arrived in Boston. He had the on-court cachet to back up his vocal ways. Yet, he still served as an example for his teammates. The perfect player to be a versatile leader, you could argue. 

More than anything, Garnett’s sacrifice set the tone for the rest of the team to buy into what the Celtics were trying to do. They had the perfect blend of skills, depth, and maturity, enough players following Garnett’s example and putting the team first so that on-court homogeneity wouldn’t inhibit their pursuit of a championship.

Rivers deserves his share of the credit for that championship. His ring should shine as bright as the others do. But, even he would admit that that group was a special pre-mold. A 29-3 start to the 2007-08 season suggests that that meal needed a microwave more than it needed to be cooked from raw goods in order to be served.

The other 14 championship-winners on the list are different. Kerr installed a brilliant offense to fit the core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Jackson popularized the Triangle offense. Spoelstra had the talent, but his resume since the days of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh draws on excellent fundamentals and quick two- and three-man actions on offense. Carlisle is known for play-calling in accordance with what the game dictates and adjusting on the fly. Popovich has adapted his offensive style to match the modern game as it has dictated over his 20-plus years at the Spurs’ helm. Lue is known for his in-game adjustments. Nurse has a reputation for schematic creativity. Vogel’s defensive acumen was the infrastructure of the Lakers’ 2020 title. Budenholzer transformed the Bucks’ defense from below-average to top-three in his first season at the helm.

Again, accountability and culture is important. Those coaches know that. But, accountability and culture don’t tell you the exact moment to set a screen so that you don’t get called for an offensive foul. Accountability and culture don’t call a decoy post-up for the best player and then turn that into a split action for one of the team’s extraordinary shooters.

The reality is that the accountability and culture gurus have a ceiling, and it’s usually cemented within the intra-conference playoff bracket.

The Sixers have already gone the route of accountability and culture. That was Rivers. He was supposed to do what Brett Brown couldn’t: demand offensive growth from Simmons and better physical conditioning from Embiid.

To his credit, the latter happened. Although, Embiid has said on numerous occasions that the birth of his son inspired his mammoth step from perennial All-Star to top-five player. But, part of Embiid’s leap was Rivers implementing plays for him to get the ball in his sweet spots and cleaning up the spacing around him. 

Still, the Sixers got to the same spot — the same checkpoint at which they’ve been stuck since before Embiid was drafted — in each of Rivers’ three seasons at the helm. You can debate his position in the blame rankings.

The accountability and culture guy gets more out of the best player(s), individually and collectively. He improves upon the problems left behind by the previous head coach.

But, it is the tactician — the head coaches presiding over 14 of the last 15 championships — that pushes a team to the next checkpoint and beyond. And that is precisely what the Sixers should be pursuing in the search for their next top chair.

According to ESPN, the Sixers seem to agree. Budenholzer, Rivers’ assistant coach Sam Cassell, former Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, Nurse, Vogel, and former Suns head coach Monty Williams are the candidates reportedly of interest in Philadelphia’s search.

There are causes for optimism and pessimism with each.

Budenholzer is more like Rivers than the others in that he’s resistant to adjustments. But, his teams are win machines in the regular season. You might be able to talk yourself into him positioning the Sixers for one of the top two seeds in the East, setting them up for a favorable path to the Eastern Conference finals.

Cassell has significant personal equity with the central figures of the current roster. But, he has no head-coaching experience.

D’Antoni has never won a title, and it’s fair to wonder whether the offensive innovation he curated in the early 2000s is just the plain modern NBA. It’s also fair to wonder whether a veteran of the business in his 70s would have the daily passion to be a good head coach at this stage of his life. On the other hand, D’Antoni is widely regarded as an offensive mastermind, overlaps with Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey’s basketball philosophies, and was Embiid’s preferred candidate back in 2020.

As creative as Nurse is with Xs and Os, Toronto’s offense in the halfcourt fell off a cliff as soon as Kawhi Leonard left and never recovered. You can argue that there wasn’t enough diversity of talent on that roster, and that’s a fair point. Still, it’s at least a little concerning for a team reportedly looking to hire an offensive genius. That is especially the case considering that the Raptors topped out at eighth in halfcourt offense with Leonard in the 2018-19 regular season and fifth in halfcourt offense in those playoffs, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Vogel is one of three recent title winners in the pool. But, he’s presided over a top-10 halfcourt offense just once in his career. In fact, his teams have consistently placed in the bottom half of the league in halfcourt offense.

Williams was an assistant on Brown’s staff in the 2018-19 season, so he presumably has a relationship with Embiid already. His Suns teams ran some terrific offensive sets, including a noticeable diet of Spain pick-and-roll. But, his Suns blew a 2-0 series lead en route to losing the 2021 finals, a 2-0 series lead en route to an embarrassing blowout home loss in Game 7 of the 2022 Western Conference semifinals, and back-to-back blowout losses en route to a six-game elimination in the 2023 Western Conference semifinals. On top of that, it’s fair to question just how good he is at fostering relationships with the less-featured players on his roster.

The candidate pool hints at on-court tactics being something of a priority. But, Morey put out mixed messages as to what is at the heart of Philadelphia’s search.

“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. So, we’re not going to go in with a prescription or proscription. But, we’re looking for someone who brings leadership and accountability. Someone who is good at tactics, someone who has great relationships with his star players, someone who is good at recruiting star players and players want to play for. Someone who builds a great organization,” Philadelphia’s lead basketball executive told reporters Wednesday, 24 hours after firing Rivers.

“It’s a mix. The available coaches is very strong. That’s why we’re encouraged by the ones that have reached out to us already. Recent championships is a factor. Definitely not a litmus test,” Morey went on to say later in Wednesday’s press conference.

“But, all else equal, I do think that can lend a lot of credibility with players that, ‘Hey, I just did this’. I think that matters. That’s why adding like a PJ Tucker last year is also a positive. ‘Hey, when I just did this with Milwaukee, these were some of the key elements.’ I know that gave him a lot of voice in the locker room.”

Yet, Morey went on to lessen the importance of weighing on-court tactics in potential candidates after including it on his list of preferred qualifications.

“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, relative to working with your star players, recruiting star players. Things like that. It is an important element. But, it tends to get overvalued,” he opined.

“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.”

Perhaps tactics are only a piece of the puzzle. But, the important question is what proportion is that piece of the whole puzzle. Morey might think it’s overvalued. But, that implies a perceived stated value. What is that value? And by what degree does that perceived value exceed what Morey believes is the true value of tactics?

Those are the questions that will have clearer answers as the offseason progresses and the search narrows.

But, one thing is for certain — the Sixers are past the point of having time to focus on accountability and culture. Those pillars should’ve been built over the three years that Rivers was at the helm.

“Accountability is key. It is on the players. But, it has to start somewhere. It has to start with the coaching staff, it has to start upstairs in the front office, it has to start in the training room. Accountability has to be throughout your team, and throughout each single player. It’s a big word,” Rivers said the first time he spoke to media as the head coach of the Sixers in 2020.

“If you don’t do it, you’re not going to win. But, we have to be accountable to each other every single day. That’s the only way we’re going to be successful here.”

If the Sixers are still wondering whether accountability and culture are a problem, this era is too far gone anyway. 


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