After exceeding expectations in November, Sixers' schedule lightens

After exceeding expectations in November, Sixers' schedule lightens

Thursday night's Sixers loss in Boston was one of their uglier games of the season. No Joel Embiid, jump shots didn't fall, Ben Simmons never really got his offensive game going.

But even though the Sixers closed out November with a bit of a dud, the first month was overwhelmingly positive. 

48-win pace
The Sixers ended November with a 12-9 record. No, that's not super impressive, but it's a 48-win pace. If I told you before the season the Sixers could win 48 games, you'd have taken that in a heartbeat, right?

It's not just the 48-win pace, though. It's the fact that the Sixers went 12-9 despite playing one of the league's toughest early-season schedules.

Mostly done with the top tier
The Sixers have already played the Warriors, Rockets and Celtics twice apiece. They've faced the Cavs once. Those are the four best teams in the NBA. They went 1-6, but the more important consideration right now is that the Sixers are finished with seven of the 12 total games against that quartet.

Those games alone against the Warriors, Rockets, Cavs and Celtics represented exactly one-third of the Sixers' first-month schedule. There were several other challenging games as well — at Washington (close loss), at Toronto (blowout loss), at Detroit (win), vs. Washington (win). 

The only real layup game the Sixers had in November was against the doormat Hawks. They handled their business, winning by 10.

Beating up on mediocrity
Another November storyline that stuck out was the Sixers' ability to dominate teams in that middle-of-the-pack tier. They beat the Jazz twice, by 21 and seven. They beat the Blazers by 20. They beat the Magic by 19. They beat the Pacers by 11. They beat the Clippers (who were healthier then) by four.

The wins against Portland and Utah stuck out, in particular, because those are two teams likely to finish around .500. The Sixers' pasting of them both is a sign that this team can indeed exceed .500 by a handful of games.

Moving forward
The Sixers play 15 games in December and seven of them are against good competition.

Those tough games are:

• Dec. 2 vs. Detroit
• Dec. 9 at Cleveland
• Dec. 10 at New Orleans
• Dec. 12 at Minnesota
• Dec. 15 vs. OKC
• Dec. 21 vs. Toronto
• Dec. 23 at Toronto

The other eight games — Suns, Suns, Kings, Lakers, Bulls, Knicks, Blazers, injury-ravaged Nuggets — are all very winnable. Anything less than 6-2 in these eight games would be disappointing.

December looks like another month in which the Sixers should go three or so games over .500.

If they do, they'll reach the New Year with a record around 21-15.

JJ Redick's first month with the Sixers might end up being his worst. He averaged 15.4 points but shot just 42.3 percent from the field, his worst rate in the last nine seasons. 

He also shot 40.3 percent from three, an impressive mark but one below his standard. The previous three seasons, he shot 44.6 percent from three. 

Redick's touch from three should improve, though it stands to reason Robert Covington's will regress the other way. Covington, who takes more contested threes than practically anyone in the NBA, was at 46.2 percent from three through 18 games but has gone just 1 for 14 in the last two. Overall, he's at 41.7 percent and will likely end up around 40. His previous career-best mark from beyond the arc was 37.4 percent in 2014-15.

There will be other ups and other downs from other players along the way. Theoretically, Markelle Fultz should at some point help the second unit, which is badly in need of some juice.

Simmons and Embiid
Simmons and Embiid obviously have high floors on any given night. 

In Simmons' worst game of the season, he had 10 points, eight rebounds, two assists and three steals in 35 minutes. He ended his first month in the NBA averaging 18.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists.

In Embiid's worst game of the season, he had 12 points, 7 rebounds, two assists, a steal, a block and seven turnovers. That was a clear outlier game for him. In his second-worst game, he had 11 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. 

Both players are locks to stuff the stat sheet every night and there's really no major regression to expect. If anything, the one facet that should regress (in a positive way) is Embiid's efficiency from three. He's just 13 for 51 (25.5 percent) from beyond the arc this season. He's been too strong on most of his misses. Given how many of them are open looks when the center defending him is slow to get to the arc, Embiid should have more success from three as the season goes on. He shot 36.7 percent from three last season and averaged 1.2 makes per game.

Give Brett Brown, Sixers credit for not playing NBA draft safe

Give Brett Brown, Sixers credit for not playing NBA draft safe

The Sixers had every reason to play it safe.

Selecting in the lottery without an actual general manager in the war room to make tough final decisions, no one would’ve rolled their eyes if Brett Brown and company simply sat at No. 10 and took a prospect that would fit and slide into the rotation right away.

At first, that’s exactly what it appeared they had done.

Mikal Bridges, who didn’t even look like he’d last until No. 10 a few weeks ago, fell right into the Sixers’ lap. And despite reportedly having discussions about taking high-risk/high-reward wing Michael Porter Jr., the Sixers ultimately selected the safest prospect and best fit on the board in Bridges.

But as the Malvern, Pennsylvania, native was making his media rounds wearing a Sixers hat and talking about continuing his basketball career in the Philadelphia area, Brown and the Sixers' front office didn't stop working the phones (see video). And just before the Suns were about to select fellow Villanova Wildcat Donte DiVincenzo No. 16 overall, the Sixers were faced with an offer they couldn’t refuse. 

Bridges was shipped out to Phoenix in exchange for Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech, who the Suns took at 16, and an unprotected 2021 Miami Heat first-round pick. Less than an hour after selecting a hometown kid whose mom worked for the team and could contribute to winning basketball from Day 1 as a three-and-D wing, the Sixers traded him for a raw, freakishly-athletic guard who attempted just 40 threes in college and a future first-rounder.

Look, this move was obviously surprising and sprinkled with some bad optics. There were rumors all week leading up to the draft that the Sixers had interest in trading up into the top five, but it just seemed unlikely they’d make that drastic a move for a prospect, especially without a GM in place. That narrative felt legitimized when the Sixers wound up staying at 10 and selecting a high-floor/low-ceiling player. And that’s what made flipping Bridges six picks later for a raw player like Smith and a future pick so surprising. It was an abrupt shift from a win-now move to a long-term, upside play.

But after the initial shock (and awkwardness of Bridges’ Philadelphia professional sports career not even lasting as long as Frank Gore’s) of the trade wore off, it was hard not to be impressed with the value that the Sixers came away with. Brown told reporters that Bridges was their “1A” and Smith their “1B.” If that’s indeed so, the Sixers got one of the top two players on their board, at least at the time of making their pick at 10, and added a potentially super-valuable pick in the process. Put aside how perfect a fit Bridges would’ve been or how concerning Smith’s shot is, that’s a great value deal in a vacuum.

Is it a sure thing that pick even lands in the lottery? Of course not. But the Heat’s pick was slated 16th this year and they’re projected to be over the cap for the next two seasons. Then, the only players currently under contract for the 2020-21 season are James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo for a total of $23 million. While they have a ton of projected cap space to still improve their roster in the 2020 offseason, that’s not too bad out of a current outlook for the pick.

And there’s certainly risk in swapping out Bridges for Smith as well. For starters, it’s not a reach to say it probably makes the Sixers worse in the immediate. And if Smith’s three-point shot doesn’t develop, it’s hard to see how he fits with Ben Simmons and the Sixers long-term, whereas Bridges would've been a perfect complementary player.

But the reason you make this deal is for the upside. Smith has a ways to go to be more than just a slasher in a half-court offense, but if he can improve his shot, which Brown seemed optimistic about, and handle he’ll become a dynamic two-way player. And remember, the Sixers surrendered an unprotected 2019 Sacramento Kings pick (which still conveys to the Sixers if it lands at No. 1) in the Markelle Fultz trade. While the Heat pick they acquired isn’t currently as valuable as the Kings pick, it gives them another future asset that could bolster their trade package for a star or just be used to draft a cost-controlled player in 2021, when the one-and-done rule could be abolished.

There’s no crowing a winner of this trade at the moment, that won’t come for a few years down the line when the actual value of the three assets in this trade is actualized. But give credit where credit is due to Brown, who is wearing two hats all of the sudden during the franchise’s most important offseason of this century and isn't shying away from it.

And while making his first major transactions as interim general manager Thursday night, Brown rightfully left his coach’s hat at home.

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Brett Brown admits human side of Mikal Bridges trade is 'disturbing'

Brett Brown admits human side of Mikal Bridges trade is 'disturbing'

CAMDEN, N.J. — As far as basketball is concerned, we’ll see how the Sixers’ move to trade Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith and an unprotected 2021 first-round pick works out.

From a human side, it was absolutely brutal to watch Bridges talk about playing for his hometown team with a huge smile, minutes after proudly putting on his Sixers cap and shaking hands with Adam Silver, unaware of the report that the seemingly perfect fit wasn’t to be (see video).

“She’s very, very excited,” Bridges said of his mother’s reaction, before he was informed of the trade. “She’s been wanting this. She’s probably more excited than I am. She’s about to cry and all that but she said she didn’t want to ruin her makeup, so she’s trying to hold it in. But she’s very excited. I’m her only son, momma’s boy, so she’s happy her son is right there around the corner again, and it’s just really cool.”

By now, you probably know Bridges’ story. His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, is the Global Vice President of Human Resources for Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the Sixers. Bridges went to Great Valley High and won two national titles at Villanova.

Coach and interim general manager Brett Brown knows Bridges’ story, too. When the Sixers took Bridges 10th overall, Brown was thrilled, and not just because he thought Bridges was a great basketball fit.

“I live in this city with you all," Brown said. “I watch Villanova. I love his mom. I love his college coach. There is a human side of this that’s really kind of hard to explain. And we all, I’m assuming, go from this level of excitement and coincidence, like you can’t make this up, to there’s this thing that involves our 1B, who we had targeted and brought back twice…”

That “1B” is Zhaire Smith. According to Brown, he felt obligated to do what could best help the organization win championships. To him, the high upside of Smith and a valuable asset in that future unprotected first-rounder outweighed the defensive ability, three-point shooting and winning mentality Bridges would have brought to the table. That doesn’t mean it was easy to pull the trigger.

“There’s a 20-minute, 15-minute window where you play text tag with the people involved," Brown said. "Everyone in that room knew how excited I was personally. As I said before, it really was 1A and 1B. And they’re really different, because Mikal could probably come in and play and embrace an immediate role now. And Zhaire is this thing that can definitely turn into something incredibly unique, I really feel that.

“Emotions carry over that it’s pretty cool, he’s from Villanova, it’s the city of Philadelphia, you can’t make this stuff up, his mom works across the street, all that stuff. And then the human side of, ‘Wow, look at this deal!’ Look at this incredible Godfather of a deal that can move our program forward in ways we couldn’t have imagined before this draft. So you’re caught. You really toggle between different emotions. Everyone here gets it. We all live here and understand the city and all that, and just at the end of the day, as time unfolds we’ll realize how important a decision [this was] and how unusual an opportunity that we had that we just didn’t feel comfortable [not] accepting. That’s the human side of tonight.”

Ultimately, Thursday night could work out just fine for everyone involved. Bridges could have a long, successful NBA career, Smith could fulfill his intriguing potential, and that 2021 first-rounder could be an important piece in the Sixers acquiring a star.

But it sure would have been cool for Sixers fans, 15 years from now, to be able to smile looking back on Mikal Bridges talking about how thrilled his mom was when he was taken by the Sixers. Instead, even if the Sixers form a dynasty thanks in part to Smith and that 2021 pick, they’ll probably still cringe watching a beaming, oblivious Bridges think he’s staying home.

“The human side of tonight is disturbing," Brown said, "but the process and how we grow the program and the thoughtfulness and the study that we put in, I feel like is wise for the program.”

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