76ers

Circumstances lead to new Sixer, rotation changes

Circumstances lead to new Sixer, rotation changes

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers' already-shorthanded backcourt will be down another key player against the Bulls.

T.J. McConnell will miss Wednesday’s game to attend his father-in-law's funeral. The Sixers, already down JJ Redick (leg) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist), signed guard Larry Drew II to a 10-day contract Thursday. 

There’s no easy substitution for McConnell, who has averaged 12.6 points, 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds off the bench in his last five games. So much of his contributions come from hustle.

“You’re especially going to hear us say that the energy and the sort of spark that he gives needs to be generated as a group through our defense,” Brett Brown said Tuesday. 

Brown plans to play starting point guard Ben Simmons more than his averaged 35.0 minutes. He also intends to utilize Drew, a familiar face who already has played on the Sixers through 10-day contracts and summer league. 

“I respect him,” Brown said of Drew. “He’s good. He’s solid. He’s a true point guard. He was a natural request from my side when these other injuries and circumstances, like T.J. is going through, happened.” 

Drew had been playing in the G League this season, averaging 11.3 points, 7.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals for the Heat’s affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. 

“[Brown] gave me kind of the rundown of what he was expecting from me and I told him he has the man for the job,” Drew said. “Come in, run the team, just be a leader, get guys shots and take open jumpers when you have them. No turnovers, just take care of the ball.” 

Turnovers a hot topic
That last item on Drew’s to-do list was at the forefront of topics for Brown when he addressed the media the day after the Sixers’ 105-101 loss to the Grizzlies (see story). The team committed 10 of its 24 turnovers in the decisive fourth quarter, a number further magnified when those 10 errors led to 20 Grizzlies points. 

“We can say let’s just dribble it up the floor, post Jo (Joel Embiid), and I bet we reduce our turnovers,” Brown said. “Or you can say, we play with a pace, we play with a speed, we lead the NBA in passes, we’re amongst the elite in assists, we like the style of play. But it needs to be filtered, it needs to tempered. All those things end up my answer to where we’re feeling some pain.”

Brown said the players have to “own” their turnovers. Embiid (4.2) and Simmons (4.0) lead the team in that category. Brown noted it is his job as the coach to keep emphasizing it game after game. The Sixers rank worst in the NBA with 17.6 turnovers per game. 

“I don’t want to overreact to Memphis,” Brown said. “I’m not discounting it. It’s not in my bucket of, ‘Oh, there’s 82 games.' It isn’t that. It’s a stinky loss. It’s a poor loss. But we’re going to move on.”

Injury update
James Young (gastroenteritis) is questionable Wednesday against the Bulls.

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

CAMDEN, N.J. — In some ways, Joel Embiid is a dream to coach. You can go to him in the post whenever you need a bucket, rely on him to erase defensive mistakes, sit back and watch as he takes over games.

But in other ways, coaching Embiid is not an easy job. Brett Brown has to constantly weigh Embiid’s health with the immediate desire to win. That balancing act has never been more difficult for Brown, who commented Wednesday on how he plans to manage Embiid with the playoffs in sight.

“Everything is still, and it should be, delivering him to a playoff round,” Brown said. “It’s not cramming for the exam and doing whatever you can to get home court, it’s not that at all. And so I feel like the path that we’re all on is both professional and responsible. So it’s that more than trying to cram for an exam.”

The Sixers have six back-to-back sets in their final 27 games. Embiid played his first ever back-to-back on Feb. 2 vs. Miami and Feb. 3 at Indiana. Since then, he’s had an injury scare with his right knee (on Feb. 10 vs the Clippers) and missed the Sixers’ final game before the All-Star break with a sore right ankle.

That said, Embiid’s obviously taken major steps forward. After being sidelined for his first two NBA seasons and playing just 31 games (and only 25.4 minutes per game) in his rookie year, he’s played in 44 of the Sixers’ first 55 games, and is averaging 31.4 minutes per game.

But the Sixers are 3-8 when Embiid doesn’t play. Without Embiid, the Sixers don’t look like a playoff team. With him, they look like a team which could earn home-court advantage. The Sixers are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference at 30-25, two games behind the fourth-seeded Washington Wizards.

When asked how he’ll generally manage his players’ minutes in the final third of the season, Brown referred to his time as a Spurs assistant, implying that the Sixers will approach things more aggressively than a championship contender.

“In my old life, when you felt like you were going to be in the finals and win a championship, you definitely started managing stuff differently in this final third,” Brown said. “That’s not where we’re at now. We are fighting to get in the playoffs.

“And we’re in a fist fight, we want a little bit more than that. And we’re going to play with that in mind, and when the opportunity arises when I can rest some of our guys, I will. But it’s not about being conservative right now or feeling like we’re entitled and we’re in the playoffs; we aren’t. So we’re still fighting to do that, and I’ll coach it accordingly.”

It might sound like there’s a contradiction between that desire to fight for the postseason and Brown’s goal of “delivering [Embiid] to a playoff round.” The Sixers probably need Embiid to play the majority of their final 27 games to make the playoffs in the first place. On the other hand, nothing in Embiid’s past suggests that he’s capable of playing all six remaining back-to-backs and suiting up fully healthy in Game 1 of the postseason.

The key for Brown is finding the perfect middle ground between riding Embiid hard every night and babying his 7-foot-2 star to the detriment of the team. With the playoffs finally in sight after five seasons of processing, that’s going to be one of Brown’s greatest challenges in the home stretch.  

Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' odds slipping

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Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' odds slipping

Donovan Mitchell continues to creep closer to Ben Simmons in the NBA Rookie of the Year race, and the gap in Bovada's odds for the two is as close as it's been all season.

Simmons is now -250 to win the award, meaning a $250 wager is required to win $100. 

Mitchell is at +170, meaning a $100 wager wins you $170.

In the most recent odds update in January, Simmons was at -650; Mitchell was +400.

It's a clear two-man race at this point.
 
Simmons is averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks this season. No player in recorded history has hit all five criteria in the same season.

Mitchell, however, has been on fire for the NBA's hottest team. The Jazz have won 11 straight games to test the Pelicans for the 8-seed, and over that span, Mitchell has averaged 21.3 points, albeit on 41 percent shooting.

For the season, Mitchell is at 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals. He's made 35.4 percent of his threes and 83.6 percent of his free throws.

Both are stars in the making, but it's worth noting that the Jazz are playing better than they have all season and Simmons is still the favorite. Where Utah ends up will be a determining factor in the Rookie of the Year race — if the Jazz can somehow end up the 7-seed in a loaded West, arguments for Mitchell will grow louder.

Both Simmons and Mitchell were two of five guests this week on NBA TV's Open Court: Rookies Edition. Interesting talking points from the special: 

• Mitchell referenced former Sixer Jrue Holiday as an under-the-radar tough player to guard, saying he watches film of Holiday every day.

• Simmons recalled LeBron attacking him frequently in the first quarter of their first meeting, saying he wasn't surprised LeBron wanted to send a message by going right at him.

• The Morris twins were mentioned by Simmons and Jayson Tatum when asked about the most imposing players in the league. Everyone cited DeMarcus Cousins.

• Simmons downplayed the importance of his NBA redshirt season, saying you don't really know what it's like to play back to back and deal with the hectic travel schedule until you're involved in it every day.