Something felt different in the air at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex on Monday for Media Day.
Everywhere you turned, someone had a smile on their face. From players who would spend most of the day answering recycled questions from numerous media outlets to the public relations staff, to team personnel and even team photographers. Everyone seemed to have a pep in their step.
Of course, it’s the start of the season. Basketball is finally back, and everyone is eager to hit the ground running. But this is a team that over the course of the last five seasons has lost 301 games. That’s the highest total in the NBA over that time frame. Things are changing in Philadelphia, however. Gone are the days of ragtag rosters and starting lineups that featured maybe just a handful of NBA-caliber players. Now, the Sixers are littered with high-profile young talent and some veterans sprinkled in who come from winning pasts.
Now is the next step in Philadelphia’s long-term plan to becoming a force in the league. And everyone can feel it.
“We have added a number of pieces, some familiar faces, some unfamiliar,” Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said. “But we feel that all in all, we’re going in with a good blend of that young core that we talk about. We talk about the veteran presence and inclusion with the mix, and feel that things are moving in the right direction with us and put us in a good position to compete and take another step forward as an organization.”
Those faces Colangelo spoke about are well known throughout the basketball community. From top overall pick Markelle Fultz to shooting guard J.J. Redick, and center Amir Johnson — not to mention finally getting 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons on the court — the Sixers have essentially overturned their roster that won 28 games last season.
For a roster that has seen so many changes basically overnight, and in a city that always has high expectations for their sports teams, getting as much gym work as possible is the easiest way to smooth over the impending growing pains. A team that consists of mostly rookies and young players may not be able to navigate through the early season bumps, which is why the Sixers brought in the likes of Redick and Johnson.
With the early excitement and expectations, this team is already feeling, those additions sound like they’re already paying off.
“We all came in here after Labor Day,” Johnson said. “And immediately started working just to get acclimated and get adjusted. It just shows the mentality of coaches and players, you know how hungry and how we want to improve as a team. Coming in with that mindset right off the bat it just made it easy to be prepared.”
As each player took the podium Monday afternoon for Media Day, more and more of the same was heard in their responses. Hope, potential, excitement; these are words that have been attached to the Sixers all summer since they made the trade for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft and the right to select Fultz.
Philadelphia is a passionate city, a place where hard work meets play at the highest of levels. To experience it, take a lap around any South Philly block. You’ll see Eagles, Sixers, Phillies, and Flyers flags hanging from just about every window and flagpole on every house. The spectacle of it is encapsulating for a native of the city and an outsider. As this season is creeping up on patrons of Philadelphia, the excitement seems to be as blatant as ever.
And almost every Sixer who’s made themselves available to the public eye has taken notice.
“I love the city of Philadelphia, they’re the best fans,” Embiid said. “I went to the (Eagles) game and it was probably the most love I’ve gotten in the city yet. Because I was in the VIP section, and then I had to go through basically the whole city to get back to Wells Fargo to go see somebody, and the love I got just walking around, people were screaming my name and, ‘Trust the Process,’ it was crazy.”
Embiid is a staple of The Process. In fact, he embodies the whole idea of it. For the fans to love him is almost expected. But they’re not the only ears who the well-wishes of Philadelphians are falling on. New additions are being met with the same response, and they’re eager to deliver what these fans so badly want: success.
“I’m hungry to win, just like the city is,” Johnson. “I feel the buzz, just going to Target or Wal-Mart, people are yelling, ‘Trust the Process!’ it’s awesome man. This team is definitely on the rise, and hungry to win.”
To no surprise, this year’s prized draft pick has felt the same affection.
“I love it,” Fultz said. “Just walking around, just having the fans here. Just walking around hearing, ‘Trust the Process.’ This team is just so young, so open. We’ve got some good vets here. Just coming here, I feel welcomed. It almost feels like I’m almost going back to college, just being welcomed. Just having everyone being around all the time. I love it.”
What the Sixers have going into this season is more than they’ve had since Allen Iverson was taking the team to the NBA Finals, pure hope. Actual expectations that one day, maybe sooner rather than later, this team can rattle some cages. The fans can sense it, and so can the players.
“It just shows you that they love basketball so much, they love the Sixers,” Embiid said. “You gotta show them that I can be a winner too. Because at some point they’re going to expect us to win. To do that I gotta stay healthy.”
There are still questions, however. Embiid mentioned it more than a few times during his 12-minute stint with the media: the team needs to stay healthy. That’s easier said than done, as the health problems of the Sixers’ core players have been well-documented. On top of their health concerns, this Sixers team is very young, even with their newly-signed veterans. Even the players who have been around the block, despite their own excitement, are trying to keep the young guys in check the best they can. They’re aware of the process it takes to actually make the playoffs in this league, and they want that to be vocalized.
“It’s very, very hard to get to the playoffs,” Johnson said. “I tell the guys all the time, let’s just take it one game at a time.”
With the combination of love from the fans, upgraded talent and what appears to be the right direction from coaching and management, the Sixers are in a good — yet skeptical — spot. The pieces appear to be there, but there are obvious hurdles in the way.
Though skepticism is still very much alive, the eagerness to play in front of Philadelphia fans has set the fire off for the newcomers, Redick especially.
“I’m going to offend some people in L.A. and Orlando, but I don’t know that I’ve played for a sports town,” Redick said. “I’ve never played in a sports town. There are sports towns, right? New York is a sports town, Boston is a sports town, Chicago is a sports town. Those are sports towns. Philly’s a sports town. For me, I’m excited about that.”
The conversation around the Sixers will be dominated by their potential playoff chances in a weakened Eastern Conference. The noise of it will be loud enough that it will be hard for players to ignore, especially given their youth. As the season approaches, though, the veterans aren’t taking the bait — at least not on the record — despite the different message the grin that comes across their faces deliver.
“I hope so,” Jerryd Bayless said when asked if the Sixers are a playoff team. “What do you think? We’ll see, I hope so.”
NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact
Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.
Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts.
Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason.
- Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard).
- DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place.
- New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
- Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
- Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.
One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.
NBA Daily: Will Philadelphia Struggle From Downtown?
Do the Philadelphia 76ers have enough outside shooting talent to spread the floor on the offensive end? Jordan Hicks takes a look.
It’s only been one game, and this could likely be an overreaction, but will the Philadelphia 76ers struggle this season from beyond-the-arc? With the departure of two highly capable shooters in Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, it might not be insane to say this could turn into a large problem throughout the season.
Last season for the 76ers, Belinelli finished 38.5 percent from three and Ilyasova finished at 36.1 percent. While neither of those percentages is staggering, both sit above the league average, and those players shoot and make threes at a consistent pace. Neither player was necessarily streaky from downtown, so you knew what to expect from them on a nightly basis.
What the two players brought more than anything was gravity. Each game, teams had to strategically plan how to stop them from making three-point shots. Players had to maintain certain spots on the floor defensively, which in turn left offensive players in advantageous positions. Losing both Belinelli and Ilyasova allows defenses to suck in closer to the paint so they can better defend Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at what they do best – attack the rim.
This is precisely what the Boston Celtics did to the 76ers on Tuesday night, and the final score definitely told the tale. The Celtics ended up winning, 105-87. Boston is a talented squad, and playing at the TD Garden is never an easy task, but the 76ers are too good to lose by high double-digits.
Apart from Boston’s stellar defense, Philadelphia’s mark from the perimeter paints a clear picture of what they might struggle with throughout the season. They finished 5-for-26, good for 19.7 percent.
It’s not like they don’t have any help from three. Robert Covington led the NBA in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage last season and J.J. Redick shot a scorching career 41.5 percent from deep. Their third option from three is likely Dario Saric, who finished last season at 39.3 percent. But after those three the drop-off is significant. Embiid might come in next, and he shot a poor 30.8 percent last season.
By the end of the season, the top three scorers for Philadelphia could likely be Simmons, Embiid and last year’s first-round pick, Markelle Fultz. Not one of those players can shoot the three consistently, certainly not at an efficient mark. Simmons and Fultz have never even made a three-point field goal in their young careers.
All three of those players have the ability to score efficiently around the rim, and they’ll likely get their buckets. But with fewer players on the roster to worry about as a deep threat, teams will mirror Boston’s success and crowd the paint.
If Brett Brown continues to play Saric, Covington and Redick in limited minutes – they played just eight minutes together on Tuesday – most of their lineups will only ever feature two above average three-point shooters. This can begin to get highly problematic for the 76ers as the season progresses. As previously mentioned, teams will just stuff the area around the hoop with great rim protectors and only worry about crashing the boards when mid-range jumpers clank off the basket.
Teams that had the most success last season, à la the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, had at minimum three high-level deep threats on the floor at all times. This allowed them to spread the offense, keep defenses guessing and find an open shooter after throwing the ball around from player to player or cutting to the basket. With the fact that multiple shooters on the court can spread out the defense and essentially keep them on their toes, all it takes is an intelligent cut or a crafty pass to find someone open at the rim. If teams don’t have enough efficient shooters on the floor, defenses can just suck in and stop players going to the hoop.
But when there are three or more plus shooters on the court, defenders have a really difficult decision to make. Do you try and play help defense by attempting to stop the shot at the rim? This can leave your opponent open for an easy three. Will help defense get there in time to defend the three? Maybe, but then another quick pass can find another open shooter. So do you stay on your man? Sure, but then you give up an easy basket at the rim.
That last paragraph was elementary. Most teams and fans understand this concept. The importance of efficient shooters in today’s league is at an all-time high. The 76ers have a very talented, young team. Simmons and Embiid are a phenomenal duo to build around. But their lack of players that hold any sort of gravity from three-point land could really give them struggles.
Alas, we are only one game into the season. A handful of teams have yet to play, so there is still plenty of basketball to be had. The 76ers are still monstrous on defense and can obviously generate baskets on the offensive end. Thanks in part to Simmons, they are one of the most electric teams in transition, and can often score with ease around the hoop.
Are the 76ers a playoff team? That’s essentially a lock. Can they go deep in the playoffs? It certainly appears so. But in order for them to make a legitimate run to the Finals, they’ll need to find more efficiency from the three-point line. Not simply because they could use those points, but because they need that spacing for their offense to function at an elite level.
NBA Daily: Warriors Depth Shines on Opening Night
The Warriors have lost some key veterans but opening night showed they still have the depth to reign supreme, writes David Yapkowitz.
With the Golden State Warriors emerging victorious on ring night behind big performances from Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, and the summer addition of DeMarcus Cousins, it’s easy to see why many have penciled them in for a three-peat.
When Cousins returns to the court, the Warriors will be able to play a lineup of five All-Stars with Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. With all of that star talent they possess, it’s easy to overlook the surrounding depth that they’ve managed to accumulate.
A successful organization like the Warriors becomes successful because they have a great front office in place who can identify talent and a good coaching staff who can develop that talent. Having superstars in place certainly helps, but all championship teams need to have that key depth.
Last night, the Warriors showed that they don’t just consist of their superstars, they’ve got some weapons on the team that are very capable of having big nights of their own.
The past few seasons, the Warriors depth in the frontcourt consisted of older veterans such as Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West. Pachulia and McGee signed elsewhere while West retired. With Cousins still recovering, that leaves the majority of the frontcourt minutes to younger, more inexperienced players such as Damion Jones and Kevon Looney.
Neither Jones nor Looney has seen much action during their first few seasons in the league. Looney had his fourth-year contract option declined a year ago, and this summer he received very little interest in free agency before re-signing with the Warriors. Prior to last night, it seemed as if Jones would follow the same fate as the team has until Oct. 31 to pick up his fourth-year option.
If last night was any indication, however, the Warriors would be wise to keep both around for as long as possible.
Making his first ever career start, Jones passed his initial test. He looked like a perfect compliment to the Warriors All-Stars. He ran the pick and roll to perfection, finishing with 12 points on 6-7 shooting from the field. He can finish around the rim, and he also had three assists.
Defensively, he blocked three shots and matched up well with Steven Adams all night.
Coming off the bench, Looney had a productive game of his own. He had a double-double with ten points and ten rebounds. Eight of his rebounds came on the offensive end, helping the Warriors gain extra possessions. He also had two assists and two blocked shots.
Both big men, Jones in particular since he’s the starter, will have a few more tests coming up as the Warriors travel to Utah and Denver. Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic await them. It will be interesting to see how they respond to that. For the duration that Cousins remains out, the Warriors will be relying quite a bit on their young big men.
Should either one falter at any point, the Warriors still have Jordan Bell waiting in the wings. Bell proved to be a second-round steal last season, but only saw six minutes of action on opening night. Bell brings a bit of a different skill set to the table than Jones and Looney. He’s a versatile big who can guard multiple positions.
As the season goes on, what was once thought of as an area of weakness for the Warriors, might turn out to be a position of strength. And if that occurs, that bodes ill for the rest of the league.