Sixers vs Suns: The Beginning of the Mike D’Antoni Era

Point guard Ish Smith and associate head coach Mike D'Antoni are set to make their 2015-16 season debut for the Sixers tonight in Phoenix.


The Philadelphia 76ers and new point guard Ish Smith will take on Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns tonight | Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When the Philadelphia 76ers take on the Phoenix Suns tonight at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix (aka “West Philadelphia”), the game will be far away from the minds of most Philadelphia sports fans.

The lack of interest stems partly from an apathy naturally associated with a 1-30 basketball team, but is also influenced by the presence of another prominent event in the Philadelphia sports landscape: the Eagles game against the Washington Redskins, a game which could go a long way to determining the NFC East Champion and one that starts just 30 minutes before the Sixers’ game does.

Still, for a game so far out of the collective psyche of the Delaware Valley, this game against the Suns is intriguing for a number of reasons.

First, the game could feature the return of Ish Smith, who was acquired Thursday from the New Orleans Pelicans for a pair of second round draft picks. The Sixers claimed Smith last February off of waivers, and Smith made an undeniable impression on the Sixers, and perhaps most importantly on big man Nerlens Noel, during his 27 game stint with the Sixers to end the 2014-15 campaign. Whether or not Smith will be available, and how much he will play, has yet to be announced.

Second, the game features the addition of Mike D’Antoni to the 76ers coaching staff. The addition was announced by the team over a week ago, but D’Antoni will make his first appearance on the Sixers’ bench tonight Phoenix, where he experienced his greatest success as a professional when he guided the Suns to a 253-136 record during his five seasons as head coach of the Suns during the mid-2000’s.

Finally, the game represents one of the Sixers’ few winnable games, at least if they play the best version of Sixers basketball that they can. The Suns, at 12-19 on the season, have lost 4 of their last 5 games, including a disappointing home loss Wednesday night to the Denver Nuggets which saw disgruntled forward Markieff Morris throw a towel toward head coach Jeff Hornacek, which earned Morris a two-game suspension.

The Details:

What: Sixers (1-30) vs Suns (12-19)

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

When: 9 PM

Watch: Comcast SportsNet

Projected Starting Lineups: 

Sixers: Kendall Marshall, Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor

Suns: Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, T.J. Warren, Jon Leuer, Alex Len

(Note: Official starting lineups are released approximately an hour before the game).

Injury Report:

Joel Embiid (out, right foot).

About The Opponent:

After starting the season 7-5, the Phoenix Suns have been on a bit of a tailspin, going just 5-14 since. That qualifies as the 3rd worst record in the NBA over that time, with only the Philadelphia 76ers (1-16) and Los Angeles Lakers (3-15) having less wins since November 22nd.

What has been ailing the Suns is similar to what ails the Sixers: they’ve turned the ball over on 16.8% of their possessions during that 19 game skid, the 2nd worst rate in the league, behind only the Sixers.

The result this has had on the Suns defense is, again, similar to the struggles the Sixers face: since November 22nd the Suns have given up 19.7 points off turnovers per game, the second worst mark in the NBA over that stretch. The 16 fast break points per game they have given up over that time is actually more than the Sixers’ 14.5. Add in struggles to protect the rim (opponents the 8th most efficient finishing within 5′ of the basket) and an abundance of second chance points given up and the Suns have some pretty serious flaws as a team.

While the Suns share the Sixers turnover problems, they are the anti-Sixers in one very big way: while their top-two players play the same position, instead of trying to fit two centers into the same lineup the Suns are led by two point guards in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. Bledsoe is averaging 20.9 points and 6.3 assists per game on the season, with Knight providing 19.8 points and 5.2 assists per game on the year.

Knight has been struggling a bit of late, though, shooting just 25.4% from three point range over his last 10 games, and the pair of Knight and Simmons have combined for 7 turnovers per game over that stretch. The Suns have been rotating through their front court rotation trying to find the right combination, with Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris, Jon Leuer, and Alex Len all starting at least 12 games, but no more than 19, for the Suns.

Markieff Morris was suspended two games for throwing a towel in the direction of Phoenix head coach Jeff Hornacek and will be unavailable for tonight’s game against the Sixers.

What To Look For:

The obvious places to look will be at how much the Sixers will use new (again) point guard Ish Smith, how that will impact Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, and what, if any, changes will be made to the offense with Mike D’Antoni now on the bench as associate head coach.

The impact Smith has had on big men, and especially Nerlens Noel, is likely no small reason this deal went down. Noel played by far the best basketball of his career with Smith playing last year, and you could see a similar increase in effectiveness for superstar big man Anthony Davis as well.

PlayersPts/48 minTS%
Noel w/Ish (2014-15)22.656.0%
Noel w/out Ish (2014-15)13.746.7%
Anthony Davis w/Ish (2015-16)36.460.2%
Anthony Davis w/out Ish (2015-16)28.251.8%
(How Ish Smith has improved the effectiveness of the big men he's played with over the last two years. Data from when Ish Smith was on the court. Data as of December 26th, 2015, and courtesy of

At 6′ in shoes and without much of a reliable outside shot, Smith isn’t a long-term solution at the point guard spot, and giving up two draft picks in the 30’s a high price to pay. But if he can use his quickness to get into the paint, create easy scoring opportunities for Noel and Okafor, and not turn the ball over, he could help make this season more palatable, and make it easier to evaluate the big men the Sixers have invested so much in.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.