The 2 unheralded Sixers driving 17-game win streak

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The 2 unheralded Sixers driving 17-game win streak

It was the shot that symbolized the Sixers' 130-103 Game 1 win over the Heat.

Marco Belinelli fading away, nearly falling into the high-priced courtside seats, but somehow, someway, still managing to bury the shot. He hit 4 of 7 from long range on the night, none tougher than that one. The Sixers, after trailing at the half, outscored the Heat 74-43 in the final two quarters. A nail-biter turned into a rout real quick.  

Belinelli and his partner in crime off the bench, Ersan Ilyasova, combined for 42 points, shooting 7 for 11 from downtown. As a team, the Sixers set a club playoff record hitting 18 three-pointers on 28 attempts. They say necessity is the mother of invention. When Joel Embiid was concussed and fractured his orbital bone on March 28th, Brett Brown had a decision to make. He decided the best course for his team without his all-star big man was to push the tempo. 

They’ve since won nine straight without Embiid and 17 overall. The lion’s share of the credit rightfully will go to Brown, the scintillating play of Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. But the trade deadline additions of Belinelli and Ilyasova have proved to be season-altering for this team.

The Sixers bench is the best of any team still playing. When J.J. Redick exits, there’s barely a beat skipped with Belinelli’s range and skill coming off screens. Ilyasova's ability to stretch a defense while also scoring inside and rebounding has been invaluable. Saturday evening vs. the Heat, Ilyasova scored 17 points on 3 of 4 shooting from three, to go with 14 rebounds in 32 minutes. 

The pair's versatility allows Brown to go small and run the other team out of the building. And the long-range marksmanship can get you back in a game real quick. That was on full display in front of a raucous Wells Fargo Center Saturday. It’s also allowed the team to sustain without Embiid. Make no mistake, the pillars of the Sixers' success going forward are Embiid, Simmons, Saric, Redick and Markelle Fultz. But they are not having this kind of success without Belinelli and Ilyasova.

Sam Hinkie laid the foundation but Bryan Colangelo deserves major props for these additions. They may not have been splashy at the time but the moves were exactly what this team needed. Bringing Belinelli, Ilyasova, now Fultz and Richaun Holmes off the bench provides the Sixers with major firepower on that second unit. That kind of balance is what makes the Sixers a very scary team in the Eastern Conference. And it’s the newcomers who could be the difference makers for a deep playoff run. 

Nemanja Bjelica spurns Sixers, reportedly talking deal with Kings

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Nemanja Bjelica spurns Sixers, reportedly talking deal with Kings

What exactly is going on with the Sixers?

After missing out on LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and any and all superstar free agents this summer, even their bench, fill-out-the-roster type of guys are dodging the Sixers like a plague.

The latest being forward Nemanja Bjelica, who was in Philly (but not really) for just a bit longer than Eagle-for-a-second Frank Gore.

Bjelica, 30, reportedly agreed to a deal with the Sixers on July 5, providing a boost off the bench and an upgrade over Ersan Ilyasova. 

That was all grand until Tuesday, when news broke that Bjelica had spurned the Sixers and was going back to Europe, a source confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia's John Clark.

But in the greatest (or lamest) twist in a strange and sad offseason for the Sixers, Bjelica is now looking to stay in the NBA and is working toward a deal with the Sacramento Kings, according to a report by Yahoo! Sports' Shams Charania. That can't be right. No one would willingly sign with the Kings.

Bjelica posted career bests in points (6.1) and three-point percentage (41.5) last season. While he would have been a nice bench addition, it's not the end of the world. But it sure isn't a great look that the Sixers were toyed with and lost out to a lowly team like the Kings. 

After the Bryan Colangelo debacle and the star-hunting strikeout, we're officially at the "Player X would rather sign with the Kings" stage of the offseason.

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What now for Sixers after Kawhi Leonard trade to Raptors?

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What now for Sixers after Kawhi Leonard trade to Raptors?

LeBron James is a Laker. Kawhi Leonard is a Raptor.

The Sixers went star hunting and came up empty. So now what for a team that won 52 games but is likely one more superstar away from winning a title?

You may not like this answer, but the correct course of action is … nothing — at least not this offseason.

The only star that could possibly be available is the Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler — if you choose to believe the rumors. Butler, who is an outstanding two-way player, will be 29 entering next season and has an expiring deal. He already forced his way out of Chicago and reportedly wants to force his way out of Minnesota. How much are you giving up for that?

On a smaller scale, the Sixers lost Nemanja Bjelica, who reportedly agreed to sign with the team for the mid-level exception. The Serbian forward decided instead to take his talents back to the EuroLeague. Bjelica certainly wasn’t a star but he appeared to be a solid bench piece that might’ve actually been an upgrade from Ersan Ilyasova. So what should the Sixers do with their MLE?

Nothing — again, at least this year.

Who do you want that’s left? Joe Johnson? Michael Beasley? Jamal Crawford? That’s three hard no’s for me.

The Sixers should go into camp with what they have and let the competition play out. Maybe they’ll figure out what to do with Jerryd Bayless’ deal or waive Richaun Holmes or sign Jonah Bolden or make a small trade, but this roster is mostly set. And that’s fine.

This team, that again won 52 games, should be better. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons should only improve. Markelle Fultz can only go up. Dario Saric took a huge leap in Year 2 and we know the kind of worker he is. Wilson Chandler is an upgrade over any player the Sixers had on the bench last year, especially when you factor in defense.

They’re not the favorites to win the East, nor should they be. But that’s fine. With the Warriors continuing to load up and James now out West, what chance does any team in the East have? (Zero is the answer, by the way). 

Fast forward to next offseason. Leonard, Butler, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving are among a loaded free-agent class. Any one of those players would be a fit and a huge upgrade for the Sixers and they’d be joining the team at the right time. Embiid and Simmons will both be a year more mature and developed and the Warriors will be a year older with their cap situation tighter.

As for the MLE, if the Sixers go star hunting again next offseason and wind up with someone like Leonard, they could use it on a ring-chasing, veteran mercenary. That’s much more valuable than one year of Johnson, Beasley or Crawford on a team that doesn’t have a realistic shot at a title next year.

Brett Brown may have set a tough bar for the offseason. When he did his now infamous star-hunting presser, it raised expectations from the fan base. Since the Sixers came up empty in their quest, most look at the offseason as a bad one.

There’s no nice way to put it: Missing out on James and Leonard sucks for the Sixers. But all is far from lost. Name another team in the NBA that has two superstars the caliber of Embiid and Simmons both under the age of 24. You can’t because such a team does not exist.

Would the Sixers have been better off if they landed a star this offseason? Of course. But now knowing that they swung and missed, their best course of action is inaction — for now.

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