A few hours after the 2014 NBA Draft concluded, several Philadelphia 76ers fans celebrated outside of the Westin Hotel in New York where players and executives were staying. The fans were excited about Philadelphia’s successful draft and wanted to come face-to-face with their favorite member of the Sixers. No, they didn’t want to meet Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel or Joel Embiid. They wanted to see Sam Hinkie, the team’s general manager.
The fans wore customized No. 76 jersey shirts with Hinkie’s last name. Critics of the 76ers’ rebuilding effort often say that the team’s tanking is unfair for the suffering fans, but many in Philadelphia feel the same way as these Hinkie supporters.
Even though the Sixers are almost guaranteed to be one of the league’s worst teams, fans are fine with this because they understand that tanking gives the team its best chance to land several star players and become a contender in the near future.
“It’s really important not to take your eyes off what matters,” Hinkie said on media day. “And what matters is not feeling great about yourself the 3rd of March, but to give yourself a chance to feel great about yourself the 3rd of June.”
Many people around the league are upset with Philadelphia, but what Hinkie is doing makes perfect sense. In fact, some of the anger toward Hinkie seems to be because other executives are jealous. After all, not many GMs are allowed to do what Hinkie is doing, since owners are rarely this patient and fan bases typically don’t blindly support the executive who constructs a 19-win team. However, Hinkie has been given this opportunity, mainly because he and his staff have done a good job spelling out the big-picture vision for the team so everyone is willing to back him for now while the process plays out.
And so far, Hinkie has done a solid job as he carries out his plan. He has stockpiled draft picks and then used those selections to bring in high-upside players who could be stars in several years.
Carter-Williams and Noel were strong picks in last year’s draft. The former won Rookie of the Year last season and the latter likely would’ve been a much higher pick if he hadn’t gotten injured during his lone collegiate season at Kentucky. Both players have a lot of potential and seem like they could be franchise cornerstones for Philadelphia as they continue to develop.
This year’s draft yielded two more very talented players in Embiid and Dario Saric. Embiid, like Noel, may have been the top overall pick in the draft had he not gotten injured during his one-and-done season at Kansas, and talent evaluators believe he’s the best center prospect to enter the NBA in quite some time. Saric likely would’ve gone higher as well if it weren’t for his contract with Anadolu Efes that will keep him overseas for at least one more year. Scouts were very impressed with the progress Saric showed last year, but the overseas deal scared some teams off.
It’s possible that neither player will play this season, but that actually may be Philadelphia’s preference so they can also land a top selection in the 2015 NBA Draft. Hinkie also made the most of his multiple second-round picks, selecting K.J. McDaniels and Jerami Grant (who were being projected as first-round picks at one point during the pre-draft process) as well as Jordan McRae.
“I think we are going to be pretty good going forward,” Embiid said. “We have Michael Carter-Williams, who was Rookie of the Year, and I think that Nerlens is going to be Rookie of the Year this year. [We have] Tony Wroten, and Dario Saric will come. I think the future looks great.”
Hinkie also hired a respected coach in Brett Brown to lead the team last offseason. Hiring a coach like Brown isn’t easy to do when the blueprint calls for tanking. After all, coaches are judged by their win-loss record, so being able to hire Brown after telling him the plan is to lose as many games as possible shows that the head coach believes in the franchise’s long-term vision (and his four-year guaranteed contract helps too).
The 76ers will tank once again this year, judging by the lack of talent on their roster. Last year’s squad featured plenty of inexperienced, mediocre players but they also had veterans like Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner at the start of the year. Now, those players are gone and, outside of Carter-Williams, Noel and Embiid, the Sixers have a group of prospects even the most diehard NBA fan would have trouble recognizing. McDaniels, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims will likely start for Philadelphia, while players like Grant, Wroten, Brandon Davies, Chris Johnson, Casper Ware and Elliot Williams will likely be in the rotation. On most teams, those individuals are end of the bench players or perhaps just training camp bodies. On the Sixers, they’re key contributors.
By playing these young players, Hinkie can try to find a diamond-in-the-rough who could be part of the team’s core on a bargain contract going forward. But more importantly, this roster guarantees that Philadelphia will struggle once again and land a top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, which is projected to be very good.
Philadelphia’s strategy may rub some people the wrong way, but Hinkie knows exactly what he’s doing. Many teams that fell to the bottom of the standings – through intentional tanking or simply struggling – in recent years are now very good teams, such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards. This is no coincidence. Being very bad and getting a top pick is the easiest way to land a star, and it’s no secret that stars attract other stars in the NBA.
Without Kyrie Irving, LeBron James likely doesn’t return to Cleveland. Without Blake Griffin, Chris Paul likely doesn’t accept a trade to the Clippers and ultimately re-sign with the franchise.
Oftentimes, it’s the teams that refuse to have a down year just to land a top pick that end up being in the middle of the pack year after year. Sometimes, this is the general manager’s choice. Other times, it’s the owner who refuses to intentionally put a bad product on the floor.
The 76ers clearly don’t mind doing just that. Philadelphia will be very, very bad this season, likely finishing with even fewer than 19 wins (last year’s total). However, that’s exactly what Hinkie and his staff want because all of the losses will be worth it if the influx of lottery talent allows the 76ers to assemble one of the best up-and-coming teams in the NBA and eventually contend.
Horford Shaking Off Rust in Preseason
After playing in just 29 games during the 2013-14 NBA season, Atlanta Hawks big man Al Horford is using this year’s preseason to get back into game shape and return to All-Star form.
Horford went down with a torn pectoral that required surgery and he missed Atlanta’s first two preseason games as he was still recovering. Now, he has been able to play in the Hawks’ last three games, but the team is easing him back into the lineup. He played 11 minutes on Oct. 14 against the Miami HEAT, 16 minutes Oct. 16 against the Chicago Bulls and 21 minutes on Oct. 18 against the Detroit Pistons.
The 28-year-old has averaged six points and 4.3 rebounds in his first three outings. Last season, he was averaging 18.6 points (a career-high), 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks prior to the season-ending injury. He made the All-Star team in 2010 and 2011, and could once again be an All-Star if he returns to full strength.
Horford’s most impressive game of the exhibition season was against the Pistons, when he had 12 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 21 minutes. After that game, which was his first time playing over 20 minutes, Horford didn’t have any issues with his pectoral.
“I felt really good,” Horford said. “I was pleased with the way that I felt.”
Because he hasn’t played meaningful minutes since last December, Horford knows he’s not going to be back to 100 percent immediately. Fortunately, he’ll have two more preseason games to shake off the rust before Atlanta opens their regular season against the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 29.
“It’s going to take, for me, just time,” Horford said. “I will keep getting in game situations, start that chemistry again with Jeff and get it going. I need to catch up with everybody else. I’m confident that we’ll figure it out. We’ll take it game-by-game.”
“I think he really made a noticeable step forward – his length and going and getting rebounds and extending, just looking comfortable,” Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Horford has two years remaining on his contract with the Hawks, making $12,000,000 in both seasons. Last year, Atlanta managed to win 38 games and still make the playoffs despite losing Horford so early in the season. With their star big man back, the Hawks should be able to take a significant forward this year and be even better.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.