The Philadelphia 76ers weren’t ready for the Boston Celtics.
In a complicated series, following a flurry of wins and high hopes for the Sixers, the explanation is as simple as that. Ben Simmons looked more like a rookie against a Brad Stevens defensive scheme than he had all season. Joel Embiid, fit with his protective mask, showed clear signs of fatigue during a series that spanned from his 67th to 71st games his season — far more basketball in a year than Embiid has played in his entire life.
Along with the struggles on the court, which went well beyond just Simmons and Embiid, head coach Brett Brown was met with adversity as well. From questionable rotations to similar timeout blunders, and perhaps ignoring the defensive struggles of his wing players, Brown showed that he has some serious growth to do himself heading into the offseason.
But fret not, Philadelphia. This is a team that won 52 regular season games and a playoff series a mere two seasons removed from a 10-win campaign. Not to mention, the Sixers will enter the offseason with the second-most cap space in the NBA and a projected top-10 pick in the draft they scored from the Michael Carter-Williams trade all those years ago.
Following the completion of their series, Philadelphia held a day of exit interviews on Thursday to outline what their players, coaches, and front office should focus on heading into the summer months. Let’s take a look at some of the major takeaways.
Developing Core Talent
Simmons and Embiid Struggled against the Celtics; Dario Saric too. Robert Covington played his worst stretch of basketball since developing into an integral 3-and-D player for the Sixers. Markelle Fultz, the 2017 first overall pick, logged zero minutes.
For as bright of a core as the Sixers have, it became abundantly clear there is work to do.
“I can’t wait to go through the summer and improve on all aspects of my game on and off the court,” Fultz said. “Then come back next year and put my stamp on it.”
Fultz’s shoulder and disappearing shot saga since returning from last season’s Summer League were well-documented across the NBA this season. With the likes of Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, both chosen after Fultz in the same draft, making big playoff impacts, it became increasingly difficult to justify where the Sixers drafted the former University of Washington guard.
Brown and Fultz both seemed open to the idea of the rookie participating in the upcoming Summer League in hopes of recapturing the smooth shooting stroke Fultz displayed up until last July, with the team’s coach going as far as to say he “personally hopes” Fultz suits up for summer competition.
Embiid, finally playing in the first full season of his career, started an All-Star game, earned Defensive Player of the Year consideration, and displayed the superstar level talent the Sixers had been hoping for since they drafted him third overall in 2014. But there were still downsides.
Fatigue from his workload and poor decision making (3.7 turnovers per game) held Embiid back from being as effective as his skillset should suggest on a nightly basis. But the big man has even bigger aspirations to take his game to the next level, especially being healthy for the first summer in years to focus solely on refining his game.
“This is my first year going into a summer healthy,” Embiid said. “I’m excited about it. I feel like next year is definitely going to be a type of MVP season for me. But it starts with my body and the skills.”
The last on the Sixers’ supposed Big Three is Simmons. After dominating his way through most of the regular season to 13 triple-doubles and production from a point guard his size that we haven’t seen since Magic Johnson laced ‘em up right out of Michigan State, Simmons’ flaws were exposed mightily by Stevens.
In the current state of the NBA, having a point guard that isn’t at the very least respected as a jump shooter is a problem. Simmons negated most of those concerns throughout the year because it was clear he could get by without hitting a jumper regularly. Plus, he finished at the rim at a staggering 74 percent clip, higher than LeBron’s first seven seasons.
But in order for Simmons to unlock the potential of a future top-10 player in the NBA, he needs to keep opposing defenses honest with a respectable shooting stroke.
The Australian rookie doesn’t seem to think evolving his jumper will be that difficult of his process. What he does think will be difficult, however, is playing him once does have a shot.
“Offensively, it’s going to be tough to stop me,” Simmons said. “With the team, we’ll have another guy that can knock down shots and score, and also another guy who can make plays. So, I think it’s going to be scary.”
There will be quite a few moving parts from now until the start of next season for Philadelphia. But, for the most part, the championship hopes and the judgment of The Process falls on the shoulders of Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz.
Recruiting Outside Help
Brown made it very clear during his exit interview: the Sixers need more help if they want to immediately contend for a title.
While a sector of Sixers fans believe The Process was about homegrown talent delivering the team’s first title since 1983, the man running the show for this version of the squad believes an outside addition is required to return to glory.
“If that portion of the fanbase is still prepared to take this notion (of doing it organically) and that’s going to equal a championship, it’s noble but I don’t agree with it,” Brown said. “I think another high-level free agent is required.”
Heading into free agency, the top two contestants that fit the mold Brown describes are clear: Either LeBron James or Paul George.
With enough cash in hand and the enticing on-court pieces already in place, the Sixers should be legitimate players for either of the two, and common sense at this point could assume they should be able to score free agent meetings with both James and George.
Adding another high-caliber player to a team that won 52 games at first seemed like a luxury the Sixers could afford to miss out on, especially with the uncertainty still surrounding Fultz. If the lead guard returned to form, the prevailing thought was the Sixers would have three All-Star caliber talents already. But after the loss to Boston sans Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward (two All-Star caliber players) it’s obvious that Philadelphia is going to need an addition if they want to keep up with the Joneses.
Aside from cash and surrounding talent, the best way to pitch a new home to a free agent is to have a heavy hitter in the meeting. During J.J. Redick’s free agent meeting with the Sixers, Brown, and Embiid were present at 2 a.m., and Brown even took Redick to the practice court to use him and Embiid is rough actions and sets to best show the shooting guard how he could excel next to a player of Embiid’s caliber. Talk about a recruiting pitch.
From the early returns, it appears Embiid is up to the recruiting challenge yet again. However, he wouldn’t dive into specifics when asked directly if he would like to play alongside one of the best to ever do it, in James.
“Is this tampering?” Embiid said. “Yeah, it’s tampering. So, I’ll answer that question after July 1.”
Over the course of the season, the Sixers became must-watch television and must-talk-about narratives. Following years of calculated losing, it appears their plan held some merit. But in order to make sure the Sam Hinkie-Era losses don’t prove to be a waste of time, Philadelphia needs to head into this offseason with some more calculated formulas for improvement.
The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft
College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.
Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.
It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.
However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.
A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.
Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.
There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.
This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.
But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.
With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.
Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.
Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.
But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.
College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.
NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?
Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.
But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.
The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.
So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.
Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up
The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.
The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.
Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.
Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.
Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.
Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.
NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs
The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.
Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.
Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.
“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”
Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.
“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”
Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.
“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”
That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.
“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”
In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.
“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”
That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.