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Fixing The Philadelphia 76ers

Benny Nadeau breaks down how the Philadelphia 76ers can capitalize on their promising future.

Ben Nadeau

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To put it lightly, the Philadelphia 76ers have (partially by design) had a difficult time staying afloat over the last four years. Since their last playoff berth in 2012, the Sixers have accumulated a brutal record of 105-289, and are set to miss the postseason for the fifth straight campaign. Over that time period, thankfully, the 76ers have collected some of the league’s best young players and assets and will add another in June’s draft. But after injuries to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid slowed down the team’s collective development this season, the question is where can they go from here?

Following the calculated plan of former general manager Sam Hinkie, the Sixers have plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future — though there are still significant hurdles to overcome. Fixing a roster like the Sixers’ is much like buying a bottle of wine: the urge to uncork it is ever-present, but the longer you wait, the better it’ll taste. With that in mind, here are four things the 76ers and general manager Bryan Colangelo should do this offseason.

Define The Roster Before Drafting

When Ben Simmons’ fractured his fifth metatarsal, early expectations for the 76ers dropped significantly. With the No. 1 overall pick shelved for the entire season, the 76ers were officially unable to answer one of the roster’s biggest questions in 2016-2017: is Simmons a point guard?

Last week, head coach Brett Brown said that the franchise still sees Simmons as the point guard next season and that he’ll get plenty of opportunities to prove himself up to the task. This type of firm decision-making will shape the 76ers’ future, but in a draft that’s brimming with point guard talent, they’ll have to make another tough decision when they’re on the clock.

As Dennis Chambers noted last week, the 76ers’ upcoming options are endless. If Simmons is indeed the floor general of the future, Philadelphia could easily add one of the final missing pieces to their starting five. Whether that means drafting Kansas’ Josh Jackson, Duke’s Jayson Tatum, Kentucky’s Malik Monk or Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, it’d be hard to argue against any of those choices.

However, if the 76ers aren’t truly committed to Simmons at point guard, that’s a decision they’ll need to definitively make before June’s big night. Missing out on a potentially franchise-changing stud like UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Washington’s Markelle Fultz — although they’d need some lottery luck to be in a position to draft either player— or any of the other highly-touted prospects at point guard would be tragic if the Simmons experiment is eventually abandoned.

Additionally, the Sixers will need to decide if Dario Saric is the go-to power forward — and if so, what does that mean for Jahlil Okafor next season? Saric has averaged 12.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, but he’s blossomed since Embiid’s season ended prematurely. In fact, over his last six games, Saric has upped his averages to 21 points and 7.5 rebounds and recently became the newest frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.

Is T.J. McConnell a one-year wonder? Can the 76ers squeeze more out of Nik Stauskas? Is Robert Covington a piece for the future? Until the 76ers know how these players fit into their rotation and plan moving forward, they likely won’t know what the team needs most going into draft night. Remember, if the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick falls outside the top three, it will go to the Sixers, which would be a much-desired solution to the draft dilemma ahead of them.

Be Extra Careful With Handling Injuries

Staying healthy is an obvious goal for any team, but considering that short-term health issues weren’t a major concern in recent seasons, it needs to be stated. As the Sixers set in motion their multi-year tanking effort, they used some of their highest selections on players with injury concerns and European stashes. Now that the 76ers have finally solved their big man logjam, it’ll be up to Embiid, Simmons, Saric and Okafor to stay on the court and continue their collective progression. Add in tempered, but hopeful, expectations for both Timothe Luwawu-Cabaret and Justin Anderson — the latter of whom was acquired at the trade deadline in a package for Nerlens Noel — and the Sixers will have a young core to march into 2018 and beyond with.

Of them all, the crown jewel is certainly the aforementioned Embiid. Drafted way back in 2014, the 76ers knew the circumstances surrounding the center and his potentially career-altering foot issues, but selected the talented Jayhawk anyways. Part of what would eventually be dubbed “The Process,” Embiid missed two straight seasons as the Sixers racked up countless losses. However, when he finally made his debut in 2016, the return on investment was immediately better than expected.

The runaway leader for Rookie of the Year was averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in just 25 minutes per game before injuries reared its ugly head. Although it’s a meniscus tear that has shelved Embiid for the remainder of the season, rather than that pesky foot, the 76ers must know that they’re approaching dangerous territory again. When healthy, Embiid is one of the most talented centers in the entire league — but staying on the court has been the one major issue that has plagued him so far. Considering this, the team should be very conservative in treating Embiid and its other players with serious injuries. The long term goals to this team must take priority over rushing players back into action after rehabbing an injury.

The rise or fall of the 76ers depends entirely on Embiid and, if he can stay healthy, he and Simmons could eventually form one of the league’s next great dynamic duos. If he cannot, the 76ers will suffer a major, major setback and will have to start searching for a new set of answers.

(Continue To) Trust The Process

Following the New Year, Embiid and Saric had the Philadelphia faithful thinking about the playoffs after going 10-5 in the month of January. For a franchise that’s in the middle of its worst playoff drought since the late 90s, the excitement was palpable. Was Embiid really doing all this? Is McConnell the next great discovery at point guard? Could the Philadelphia 76ers actually find themselves staring down the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers come playoff time?

Unfortunately, the 76ers won’t make the playoffs this season, but this campaign has undoubtedly been a significant improvement over that 10-72 season.

However, the worst thing the 76ers’ front office could do now is attempt to accelerate the process. The Lakers, for example, saw some great things from D’Angelo Russell during his rookie season, drafted Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 overall selection, and got a healthy Julius Randle back from his devastating leg break. But what did they do in free agency? Of course, they signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng for a combined $34 million per year until the end of the 2019-2020 season.

With new head coach Luke Walton in town, the Lakers’ front office immediately thought about pushing for the Western Conference’s eighth seed and now will pay for it. As franchises have learned time and time again, there are no shortcuts to success — just ask the Brooklyn Nets. Growing a winner takes time and the 76ers would be well-served to keep this in mind.

Avoid Long-Term, Inflated Contracts

Thusly, this summer, the 76ers must avoid giving out bloated contracts to veterans that will only steal playing time from their young, budding stars. The Sixers did well in this area last year, opting to sign veterans Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez to short-term contracts that would help guide their cornerstone youngsters. Instead of getting their money tied up in restricted free agents like Allen Crabbe or shooting for the stars with DeMar DeRozan, Colangelo kept things in perspective, and now he must look to maintain that approach once again.

The Sixers will need to look for free agents that complement the unique skill sets of their core players moving forward, so a focus on a perimeter scorer could be key. Colangelo should forget about the possibility of the Washington Wizards not matching an offer sheet for Otto Porter Jr. and it’s unlikely that a veteran like the Los Angeles Clippers’ J.J. Redick would leave a contender for the 76ers, but aiming somewhere in between could be beneficial for all parties involved.

Adding a reliable shooter like Patty Mills to the backcourt behind Simmons is the type of shrewd, economically responsible signing that Colangelo should chase when free agency opens. Mills is shooting 42 percent from three this season, but he’ll turn 29-years-old in August and the opportunity for one last major NBA payday could be enough to sway him away from the San Antonio Spurs.

Some other intriguing options for the 76ers this summer could include Tim Hardaway Jr., Kelly Olynyk and JaMychel Green — three restricted free agents that’ll look to cash in after strong seasons. Whether it’s three-point shooting, floor spacing for Embiid or rugged toughness, any signings must work in sync with the system, not take it over.

For all of Hinkie’s once-polarizing decisions, he clearly built the foundation of a potentially great franchise — now it’s up to the new leadership to capitalize on their fantastic draft position, grow their young core and, most importantly, stay patient. While the NBA world will forever cross their fingers for Simmons and Embiid’s collective health, the Sixers have an extremely wide margin of error this summer. Whomever the Sixers pluck out of free agency and the draft may not address all of the team’s concerns or needs, but, just as Hinkie imagined and designed it, there’s plenty more room to grow.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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