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NBA Saturday: 76ers Show Reason to Keep Trusting the Process

The Philadelphia 76ers’ process is right on track and the future is seemingly brighter than ever, writes Dennis Chambers.

Dennis Chambers

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Another season of basketball in Philadelphia ended with the 76ers destined for a top-five pick in the NBA draft, which will be their fourth straight. For the fifth consecutive season, the Sixers finished with a losing record. And for the second time in three seasons, the team’s top draft pick didn’t see a minute of on-court action. Overall, for the better part of the last decade, Philadelphia hasn’t had much success competing with the rest of the league.

But change is on the horizon, and the Sixers are getting closer to completing their “Process.”

When the team embarked on their journey to build a long-term contender in Philadelphia, the Sixers identified and prioritized the need for a franchise caliber player. By ridding themselves of any talent that would garner wins during the regular season, the Sixers vaulted themselves near the top of the draft lottery for the opportunity to acquire that type of player organically.

For 31 games this season, it seemed like the Sixers plan worked. Joel Embiid took the league by storm. Even under a minute restriction, as the team weaned their 2014 draft pick back into action after a two-year layoff due to a foot injury, Embiid put up eye-popping numbers. On a per-36 minute basis, the 7-foot-2 center averaged 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.5 blocks a game.

To head coach Brett Brown, those 31 games and a glimpse at the potential future in Philadelphia made the 199 losses over the three previous seasons all worth it.

“What you knew emphatically was that he is the reason we’ve done this,” Brown said speaking to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. “That is the crown jewel. That is our difference maker. He is completely unique. And even in those borrowed time moments, he gave enough example for all of us to recognize he is extremely special.”

In the simplest of senses, “The Process” worked. The Sixers have their franchise player. Despite the injury concerns from his past foot surgeries and his left meniscus tear that shortened his season, Embiid provides the hope to many, including Brown, that his team has a light at the end of the tunnel.

Beyond Embiid, there is even more evidence to suggest Brown isn’t just wishfully thinking.

The Sixers drafted first overall in 2016. Their selection, Ben Simmons, is nearly seven-feet tall with a set of ball-handling and playmaking skills usually reserved for players much shorter. According to Brown, next season Simmons will operate as the team’s point guard. Granted, after suffering a foot injury of his own near the end of his first NBA training camp, Simmons failed to suit up for the Sixers in what was supposed to be his rookie season. However, Simmons recently announced that his latest CT scan showed a fully healed foot and the Sixers cleared him to participate in five-on-five scrimmages.

As it currently stands, the former No. 1 pick is on track to be ready for next season. When he hits the court officially, he’ll bring a wave of hope that couples with the excitement Embiid already injected into the city. But the fruits of the Sixers’ calculated tanking go even further than just Simmons and Embiid.

After being acquired by the Sixers on draft night in 2014, Dario Saric chose to remain overseas and play two more seasons for his club in Turkey. But once the Croatian forward made his trip across the Atlantic Ocean into the Atlantic Division, he showed signs of another future building block in Philadelphia.

Following Embiid’s last in-game action on Jan. 27, Saric took the reins on offense and built his case for Rookie of the Year. Over those 36 games, Saric averaged 16.7 points and seven rebounds per game while showing flashes of ability that justified the two-year wait.

In just one year, the Sixers found themselves improving from 10 wins to 28 wins. Brown crafted a defense that, despite only being anchored by Embiid 31 times, still registered the 17th best defensive rating in the league. While sitting just around the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency isn’t usually a reason to celebrate, it represents growth for Philadelphia. In January alone the Sixers went 10-5, their first winning month since November of the 2012-13 season.

From 10 wins to Embiid, Simmons, Saric and steady improvement, the Sixers’ process is yielding actual results. And more help could be on the way.

Currently, the Sixers hold the fourth best odds to win the draft lottery. Along with their pick, Philadelphia receives the Los Angeles Lakers selection should it fall outside the top-three. The Lakers right now have only a 46.9 percent chance of keeping their pick. So, odds say the Sixers could have the opportunity to add two more top-five lottery picks to a roster with a handful of young and talented pieces already in place.

With the Sixers posting the worst offensive rating in the league this season, a couple of chances at drafting players who can flat out score, like Malik Monk and Jayson Tatum, could change the dynamic of the team’s offense next fall.

However, should the Lakers pick fail to convey this June, it becomes completely unprotected in the 2018 draft. After finishing with the third-worst record in the league this season, it seems unlikely that the Lakers will become exponentially better next year. That would give the Sixers the possibility of two more lottery picks in next year’s draft as well.

On top of the seemingly endless list of draft assets the Sixers hold, their financial books are pretty clear as well. This summer the Sixers could potentially have up to $51.2 million in cap space.

While a 28-win team may not be a sexy destination for free agents this summer, in another year or two the prospect of playing for the Sixers could be sold to high-tier veterans looking for a new home, a team with young talent and a coach who gets the most out of his players.

Between the young players already in house, the opportunity to add top tier talent in the next few drafts and a big pile of money in the bank, the stars may be aligning in the exact way the Sixers had hoped.

The Sixers are still “processing” their dreams of competing for an NBA championship, but after this season there is more reason than ever to keep trusting in what Philadelphia is doing.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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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 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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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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