Celtics

NBA Notebook: It's not so sunny in Philadelphia these days for Sixers

NBA Notebook: It's not so sunny in Philadelphia these days for Sixers

BOSTON -- Having been around Al Horford for three years here in Boston, frustration was an emotion you seldom saw let alone heard him talk about when it came to his role on the team.

And yet here he is, just months into his new (and well-paid) gig in Philly which hasn’t gone quite how Horford thought it would in terms of his role or the team’s success.

Horford, 33, is shooting a career-worst 45 percent from the field and grabbing a career-low 6.5 rebounds per game which isn't that big a shock considering he's sharing the floor with Joel Embiid who is one of the league's better rebounders.

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But it's Horford's offense and his uncertain role that has him still trying to figure out exactly how he can best help the team with a role that's very different than what he had in Boston and, to a lesser degree, to his time in Atlanta, too.

“I’m out [there] for the team and doing what I can to help us,” Horford told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey. “But offensively, I’m very limited with the things that I can do. So I can’t control that stuff.”

And Horford’s comments come on the heels of another newcomer to the Philly family this season, Josh Richardson, speaking out about what he sees as issues inside the locker room.

"I don't think that there's enough accountability in our locker room right now, honestly," Richardson told reporters. "I think that we got some new guys, who don't want to step on toes, including myself. I feel like we kind of go play, and don't compete as much. There's been games that we have and it's been great. But when it's not going good, we got to hold each other accountable. I think that's where a lot of our problems start."

Currently sixth in the East, most envisioned Philadelphia looking down upon the rest if not most of the East this season based on the additions of Horford and Richardson.

There’s still a lot of games left to be played, but this Sixers team needs some kind of roster shakeup.

It could be something as simple as players becoming more accountable as Richardson points out, or something more drastic like a trade or firing of the head coach.

Multiple league sources that spoke with NBC Sports Boston this week have indicated the next couple of weeks are worth monitoring the situation in Philly.

“Bottom line, that team’s underachieving,” said one league executive. “But who do you blame for that? Is it the coach [Brett Brown]? [Joel] Embiid? [Ben] Simmons? They need to figure it out because you look at the teams in the East right now, everyone seems to be getting stronger as the season goes by except for them [Sixers].”

ZION RETURN IMMINENT?

The long-awaited regular-season debut of Zion Williamson looks as though it could happen any day now. The top overall pick in last June’s NBA draft went through his first full practice on Jan. 2 after having surgery on Oct. 2 to repair a meniscus injury in his right knee.

By no means will his return immediately turn around the fortunes of a New Orleans team that’s among the league’s worst record-wise.

But at a minimum, having Williamson on the floor will generate some much-needed buzz for the Pelicans in addition to elevating the interest level of fans in whatever city Zion takes his talents to during the regular season.

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No timetable has been announced for his return, which makes sense considering how important a healthy Williamson is to this franchise long-term.

"I know that's typical, but we really do have to take it a day at a time to see what kind of progress he makes," head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters. "See what happens after he goes through practices and things like that. Like we said and will continue to say, he'll play when the time is right for him to do that. When that is, I'm not real sure of. But I know he's making progress, that's the thing that matters most."

Williamson added, “I gotta pass the assessments. Once I pass those, [Pelicans GM David Griffin] will let me go."

REMEMBERING DAVID STERN

The tributes and condolences have steadily poured in since former NBA commissioner David Stern passed away on New Year’s Day at the age of 77.

Words don’t do just to the impact he made on the NBA on so many levels, from the uber-rich TV deals, player salaries and the game’s expansion in terms of the number of teams and its overall global impact.

Still, the NBA of today is a different game than the one Stern inherited, filled with players who have benefited greatly from his visionary work as commissioner.

It makes one wonder if this generation of players truly understands just how indebted they are to Stern’s work which spanned three decades - the longest tenure of any commissioner of the four major professional sports leagues in this country.

“I’m not sure how aware my generation is to, how David turned and transitioned the league to where it is at now,” said the Celtics' Jaylen Brown. “But definitely he was a tremendous leader, for sure, for the NBA.”

FIRST ROUND OF (BIZARRE) ALL-STAR BALLOTING

OK, so the idea that the Celtics' Tacko Fall was among the top 10 vote-getters among frontcourt players in the first round of All-Star balloting was a bit odd.

He’s on a two-way contract and will spend more time in the G-League than with the Celtics, but we get it. He’s a huge fan favorite wherever he goes, even on the road.

His first NBA game came at Madison Square Garden where fans began cheering for him to enter the game and continued cheering for him once he was on the floor.

So, we get why he garnered the sixth-highest number of votes in the frontcourt.

But that wasn’t the biggest head-scratcher.

That would be Alex Caruso of the Los Angeles Lakers garnering the eighth-highest number of votes (92,233) ahead of Phoenix’s Devin Booker (91,817) and Memphis’ Ja Morant (77,081).

I know it’s the first returns and Caruso remaining ahead of those two seems unlikely, but  … Alex Caruso? Seriously?

MICHAEL PORTER JR. ON THE RISE

The Denver Nuggets are starting to look like the Western Conference power many envisioned for them, and the play of Michael Porter Jr. is part of that ascension.

Because of Denver’s depth and MPJ’s draft-night slide due to injuries, he has been sort of the forgotten man for most of this season.

But lately, he’s reminding the world that it wasn’t that long ago when he was seen as arguably the best player in his draft class, a class that included Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, high-scoring guard Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks and former Michigan State star Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Porter Jr. has shot better than 50 percent from the field in each of Denver’s last four games which includes his first career start coming in a five-point win over Sacramento in which he scored 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting.

At 6-foot-10 with the ability to stretch the floor and score around the rim, his improved play of late makes an already talented Denver Nuggets team that much more dangerous going forward.

FAST BREAKS

*This was a historic holiday season for the Holiday family and the NBA. The three NBA-playing Holiday brothers - Justin, Jrue and Aaron - all played in the same game on Dec. 28 when Indiana (that’s where Aaron and Justin play) took on Jrue’s New Orleans Pelicans. It was the first time in NBA history when three brothers played in the same NBA game.

*Gary Payton Jr. is doing Gary Payton Sr.-like things these days for the Washington Wizards. Payton Jr. has appeared in just five games, but is averaging 3.2 steals per game which would be tops in the league if he had enough games played. The elder Payton was a nine-time All-NBA Defensive First Team member and Defensive Player of the Year (1996) who is also a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2013.

*The Lakers lost out on the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes to their co-tenants in Los Angeles, but they might have the inside track on landing  Darren Collison. Collison, who retired after spending last season with the Indiana Pacers, is apparently having a change of heart and is considering coming out of retirement to join one of the Los Angeles teams. Both are interested, but the Lakers - for now at least - appear to be the front-runner if Collison decides to return.

*Vince Carter will turn 43 years old on Jan. 26. When he plays Friday night against the Boston Celtics, he’ll become the first player in NBA history to play in four different decades. An eight-time All-Star, Carter was the fifth overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft.  

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Hawks, which tips off Friday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Tommy have the call at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Habershow Podcast: Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Luka Doncic, politics

Habershow Podcast: Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Luka Doncic, politics

When did Mark Cuban know Luka Doncic could be a franchise player?

The Dallas Mavericks owner sat down with Tom Haberstroh in a hotel lounge at NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago to discuss scouting, drafting and building around the 20-year-old All-Star.

Plus Cuban revealed what he learned talking basketball with Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as well as his own political aspirations. 

2:22 — When Cuban knew Luka could be a franchise player

8:53 — Why Cuban follows certain players on social media

11:34 — The need to monetize NBA highlights

24:12 — Will Mark Cuban run for president?

25:22 — Talking basketball with Obama and Trump

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE HERE:

 

Celtics' post-All-Star break storylines: Health, help, and Timelord

Celtics' post-All-Star break storylines: Health, help, and Timelord

The Celtics reconvene in Boston on Wednesday night for their first post-All-Star practice before heading out west for a four-game trip.

Two-thirds of the 2019-20 regular season is already in the rear-view mirror but there’s a lot for this team to figure out in the final 28 games.

Here are eight things we’ll have our eyes on over the final eight weeks of Boston’s 82-game schedule:

1. Can the Celtics get — and stay — healthy?

Boston’s preferred starting five of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis has played a mere 17 games (16 starts) and 188 total minutes together this season. That's an absurdly low number when you consider a team such as Cleveland has had its starting group together in 41 games and 649 total minutes.

The good news for Boston: Among lineups with at least those 188 minutes, Boston’s starters have the seventh-best net rating (plus-12.8) and the best overall offensive rating (121.1). The question is whether those numbers are sustainable, particularly against elite competition. 

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Last we saw the Celtics, Jaylen Brown was out with ankle sprains, Enes Kanter re-aggravated his hip injury and Robert Williams was still out due to his own hip issue (more on him in a bit). The Celtics could really benefit from a sustained run of decent health, especially while trying to assess whether they need to roll the dice and explore the buyout scrap heap. Speaking of which ...

 

2. Can the Celtics find surefire help on the buyout market?

Despite Boston’s 38-16 record amid their health woes, there’s still a lot of fans — and media bloviators — stomping their feet about Danny Ainge’s inactivity at the trade deadline. Don’t try reasoning with them about how there weren’t any moves that made sense for Boston; they’d prefer Ainge spend recklessly for a marginal upgrade.

They might still get their wish for an addition.

Ainge and his staff will comb through the bargain buyout bin to see if there’s a veteran piece capable of helping this team down the stretch and into the playoffs. Boston desires size but that’s not necessarily a center (though there will certainly be interest if the changes in Cleveland lead to Tristan Thompson shaking free). If healthy — a big “if" with this team — the Celtics are well-stocked on the perimeter but additional frontcourt size would help considering the sort of big-man talent they will almost certainly encounter in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Ainge said last week that there wasn’t anything available at the moment that Boston was lusting after but the team will have to think harder about what’s available as the March 1 deadline for playoff-eligible additions approaches. Adding a player would force Boston to waive someone on its 15-man roster, but the team is willing to swallow a contract for the right addition.

3. What becomes of Robert Williams?

Williams, the second-year big man out since early December with a lingering hip issue, is scheduled to engage in his first full-team practice activities on Wednesday night. Ainge has said the team is eyeing a return to game action around March 1.

Especially if Kanter’s hip soreness lingers with the recent aggravation, the Celtics have an obvious need for Williams. Even at full strength, Kanter has noted the Voltron-like possibilities for Boston’s diverse group of centers including starter Theis and rookie depth option Vincent Poirier. "If you combine us all together like Power Rangers we can go out there and pretty much do offense, defense, rebound, everything,” said Kanter.

Williams, though, gives the team an athleticism it simply can’t get elsewhere. He can run the floor, throw down lobs, and use his springiness to protect the rim. The question is how much rust is there after a two-plus month layoff? And can Williams shore up some of the inconsistencies that existed even before his injury?

If Williams can carve out a rotation role again, it limits Boston’s need for a potential buyout addition. And it gives coach Brad Stevens the chance to trot out mix-and-match lineups that could potentially aid matchups where Theis and Kanter might struggle. 

4. Will Kyrie Irving ever play against the Celtics?

Two weeks before the Nets' last visit to Boston, old friend Kyrie Irving has already been ruled out indefinitely with shoulder concerns.

Anyone taking bets on whether he’ll play March 21 when Boston makes its final regular-season visit to Brooklyn? It will be fascinating to see if Irving shuts it down, particularly with the possibility of a Celtics-Nets matchup in the playoffs.

Speaking of potential postseason pairings… 

5. Will Boston make a run at the No. 2 seed?

With 28 games remaining, Boston sits 1.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors for the No. 2 seed in the East. Being the first runner-up to the conference-leading Bucks means two things: 1) A likely more favorable first-round pairing and 2) homecourt advantage in the East semifinals. 

If the season ended today, Boston would earn the No. 3 seed and would draw sixth-seeded Indiana, a team that’s nine games over .500 and just getting back one of its best players in Victor Oladipo. A first-round victory would likely send Boston to Toronto for the East semis. 

Shimmying up to that second spot would likely mean a first-round pairing with a team such as Brooklyn (three games under .500 and possibly Kyrie-less) or Orlando. It would also mean potentially having homecourt in Round 2.

A trip to Toronto on March 20 should go a long way towards helping shake out the top of the East seedings, with Miami lingering behind Boston. It could also be a reminder of just how valuable that No. 2 spot could be.

The Celtics weren’t able to make up any ground on Toronto as it ripped off a 15-game winning streak before the break. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects Toronto to finish a game ahead of Boston, the Celtics hindered by the tenth-most difficult remaining schedule in the NBA per BPI (the Raptors have the 19th most difficult).

On the flip side, will the Celtics prioritize late-season rest if their seeding comes into focus before the finish line?

6. What is Boston’s closing time lineup?

Which five players are the Celtics going to lean on in close games? Boston’s most-used fourth-quarter lineup this season has featured Walker, Brown, Tatum, Theis, and Marcus Smart. Alas, that group has only played 22 minutes together. 

Boston’s so-called “best five” lineup — sub Hayward in place of Theis — has played only 15 minutes together in the final quarter in six games this season (and has a minus-0.8 net rating in that tiny sample).

Can the Celtics go super small and get away with it? Better health will be needed to find out over the final 28 regular-season games. 

7. Which rookies show progress?

The end of Boston’s bench is filled with first-year players, many of whom have played bountiful minutes with the team’s depth thinned by injury this year. The question is whether Stevens can trust any of those rookies when the postseason arrives.

Grant Williams has made encouraging progress, including some solid overtime minutes in the first-half finale against the Clippers. His playoff role could hinge on just how much confidence Stevens has in him by the end of the regular season.

If the Celtics are not at full health when the postseason arrives, Williams could see a good chunk of minutes on a big stage.

8. Can Jayson Tatum maintain his march to stardom?

Fresh off his first All-Star appearance, Tatum’s challenge is maintaining his two-way impact through the finish line of the season. Praise has come from all corners and Tatum has undeniably earned it with a recent impact that goes far beyond an increased scoring output. 

The question is whether Tatum can be the sort of player to take over late in a game on the playoff stage. He certainly showed himself capable of big moments in the postseason run in his rookie season, but it’s clear that even with all of the Celtics’ current talent, much of what this team accomplishes hinges on Tatum’s ability to continue to be a go-to option.

This Friday is Jayson Tatum Day here at NBC Sports Boston. Be sure to check out our exclusive content around Tatum throughout the day, both online and on the broadcast of Celtics-Timberwolves, which begins Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 8 p.m. You can also stream it on the MyTeams App.