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NBA Sunday: Will the Sixers Turn It Around?

In 2012, the Philadelphia 76ers opted for an all-out rebuild. When will they turn it around?

Moke Hamilton



It’s amazing how long ago 2012 seems. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo were all still members of the Boston Celtics and LeBron James was still looking for his first NBA championship.

We still thought that James Harden was not a max player and that the Golden State Warriors—who were built around David Lee and Monta Ellis—would improve upon the 23-win season that they turned in.

And yes, back then, the Philadelphia 76ers seemed to be a team on the rise.

Seems like so long ago, doesn’t it?

With a new ownership group purchasing the team in July 2011, people immediately started questioning the core that the team had assembled. Elton Brand, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams all seemed to be productive players in their own right, but how far could that group really go?

A quick start to the lockout-truncated 66-game season assuaged concerns in the immediate term, and scoring the “upset” over the Derrick Rose devoid Chicago Bulls in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs seemed to be a promising omen. But since losing to the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs that year, the Sixers began a slow and steady decline and a rebuilding project which is now entering its fourth year.

Now, it is fair to wonder when, or perhaps if, Sixers fans will begin to see dividends from the great divestment.

* * * * *

On the day of the 2012 NBA Draft, Moe Harkless let it be known that he wished to be referred to by his birth name—Maurice. When the Sixers selected him with the 15th overall pick in the draft, he was seen as a sensible selection that would help the team get younger and deeper in the immediate future.

Little did we know that his selection was the first of many moves that would alter the course of many careers and the course of the franchise, as a whole.

Shortly after the 2012 draft, the Sixers amnestied Elton Brand, ultimately deciding that they would rather pay him to walk away than pay him to play. The decision was certainly justifiable, but the free JahlilInsideOnly1agency departures of Lou Williams and Jodie Meeks were eventually followed by the Sixers opting to stake their fortunes on Andrew Bynum.

Shortly after Williams and Meeks left the franchise, the Sixers opted to send out the aforementioned Harkless, as well as Nikola Vučević, franchise mainstay Andre Iguodala and a future first round pick in exchange for Jason Richardson and Andrew Bynum.

The core of Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, the recently acquired Bynum, Richardson and Nick Young (who was signed as a free agent), didn’t amount to much. Head coach Doug Collins resigned at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season when the Sixers finished 34-48. It was shortly thereafter that Sam Hinkie—who was installed as general manager in May 2013—opted to trade Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for the pick that eventually became Nerlens Noel.

In the two seasons that have passed, the Sixers have won a total of 37 games and, on many nights, have failed to even resemble a respectable NBA team. After seeing Michael Carter-Williams come and go, the franchise seems to finally be putting together some semblance of a nucleus, but to all fans and franchises that advocate for tearing a team down and starting all over, at least to this point, the Sixers should be considered a cautionary tale.

Stockpiling assets and draft picks can certainly be a catalyst to winning in the NBA, but a team still needs prudent and diligent scouting and talent evaluators if it is to have any hope of eventually emerging as a contender. In this regard, the San Antonio Spurs are truly unique.

Over the years, without undergoing as dramatic or seismic of a rebuild as the Sixers, the Spurs have consistently acquired young pieces with late draft picks and sometimes, as free agents, who have proven to be difference makers on the NBA level. A non-exhaustive list of active players who fit the description are Gary Neal, Danny Green, George Hill and Cory Joseph.

As the Sixers look back at the failed experiment of Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson and marvel at how seamlessly the 2015 Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Andre Iguodala fit into and contributed to a winning culture as a member of the Golden State Warriors, it is only fair to question whether the brain trust in Philadelphia made the best choice in opting to tear down what was a competitive team.

The situation is eerily reminiscent of the crossroads that Masai Ujiri and his Toronto Raptors found themselves at, though Ujiri ensured that the franchise took a different course of action.

* * * * *

In May 2013, Ujiri was named the NBA Executive of the Year for his part in assembling the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets who managed to put together a 57-25 season, even without Carmelo Anthony.

Ujiri would eventually be hired to replace the departed Bryan Colangelo as the general manager of the Toronto Raptors and as Sam Hinkie had done in Philadelphia, many were expecting Ujiri to replace head coach Dwane Casey with a coach of his choosing. Nobody would have been surprised if, like Hinkie, Ujiri had gone on an all-out fire sale, shipping DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valančiūnas to the highest bidders and tanking the 2013-14 season in order to give the Raptors the opportunity to win the draft lottery and select Andrew Wiggins with the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

As the team arrived in early December, some chemistry issues had arisen. Rudy Gay would play his final game for the franchise on December 6, 2013 and was traded to the Sacramento Kings on December 9. At 6-12, the Raptors seemed to be missing something, so Ujiri opted for addition by subtraction. The team responded by going 10-3 over their next 13 games and would prove that the winning streak was no aberration.

With a newfound dedication to attacking the basket and wise shot selection, Ujiri would resist overtures from other NBA teams looking to poach his talent and, instead, build. The Raptors would go on to finish the season as the Atlantic Division Champions and, at 48-34, accomplish the best regular season record in franchise history. The next season, they would again repeat as division champions and break the record set the previous year by winning 49 games.

Now, as we embark upon the 2015-16 NBA season, the Raptors are still managed by Ujiri, still coached by Casey and are still built around Lowry, DeRozan and Valančiūnas. Now, with DeMarre Carroll in the fold, it should not surprise anyone for the Raptors to continue their dominance of the Atlantic Division and set a new regular season win record.

Whether or not the Raptors can contend for the NBA Championship is up for debate, but do recall that you would be hard pressed to find someone who believed that the Golden State Warriors would be entering this season as defending champions, as well.

To put it simply, you have to be in it to win it. Ujiri saw potential in his roster and opted to commit to it and build with it. Even if Toronto does not have a championship, it at least has a championship contender, and in the world of professional sports, that’s worth something.

As we look back at the past three seasons, ask yourself: what have the fans in Philadelphia gotten?

* * * * *

To Sam Hinkie’s credit, with Jahlil Okafor, the Sixers seem to have gotten their hands on a “can’t miss” prospect who I expect to emerge as the Rookie of the Year. If Nerlens Noel can remain healthy and if Joel Embiid can ever get healthy, then the franchise would certainly have a formidable triumvirate patrolling JoelEmbiid_InsideOnly1the paint. Whether the pieces fit or whether those three could actually flourish together is another question for another day.

The question for today, for me, is whether the Sixers are any closer to being a contender than they were when they pulled the plug back in 2012 and at what point they will take a step forward? Certainly, the treasure chest of draft picks and copious amounts of cap space are good assets to have, but at some point, the talent needs to begin to mesh and the cap space needs to be wisely utilized to augment the pieces on the roster.

As I look at the 2015-16 Sixers, I see a talent-laden team that should finally show some signs of returning to the status of legitimate NBA competitor.

Isaiah Canaan flew under the radar for most of last season and the sharpshooting Canadian Nik Stauskas should have no issues playing with and off of Okafor, so long as Stauskas recovers from the right tibia stress reaction that is expected to keep him out for a few weeks.

For the first time since these Sixers upset the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, there is some reason for optimism.

At this point, though, it is still fair to question whether the franchise is better off. What we see transpire on the court this season may go a long way toward answering that question.


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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz



We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca



It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John



The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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