Al Horford inspired by former teammate Elton Brand, Tobias Harris stepping into new role, more from new and returning Sixers

Al Horford inspired by former teammate Elton Brand, Tobias Harris stepping into new role, more from new and returning Sixers

CAMDEN, N.J. — The dais was so packed, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris had to crane his neck as he tried to find the latest in the pack of new and returning Sixers he was introducing at Friday’s press conference. 

“Where’s James?” Harris asked, looking for James Ennis. 

The 29-year-old Ennis was one of eight Sixers on stage Friday, along with Harris, general manager Elton Brand, new additions Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Kyle O’Quinn and Raul Neto, and the returning Tobias Harris.

We’ll do our best to highlight the most interesting tidbits from Friday's press conference: 

Defense first 

Brand’s moves over the past few weeks largely spoke for themselves, but he removed any possible doubt Friday about the Sixers’ identity, saying the Sixers should be “one of the top defensive teams in the league.” 

That doesn’t seem like an especially controversial statement when looking at the team’s massive starting lineup led by a frontcourt with NBA All-Defensive Team credentials in Joel Embiid and Horford.

“We’re doing everything we can to bring another NBA championship to the city of Philadelphia,” Brand said. “So believe that. That’s our goal. This group up here is putting us in place to reach that goal. As we reach the summer, we wanted to solidify our team identity — versatility, size, length, athleticism, leadership, great, high-character players. And that’s what we have on the dais here.”

The offensive side of the equation is “going to take some time,” Brand acknowledged.

“I look forward to training camp,” he said, “and figuring all that out. “

'I'm hype'

For Sixers fans, seeing a former nemesis representing their team might be a little odd.

For Horford, it sounded like the shift from the Sixers to the Celtics felt natural. He said his relationship with Brand played a significant role in his coming to Philadelphia. The two played together from 2013-2015 with the Atlanta Hawks, in the later years of Brand’s playing career. Brand expects Horford to play both alongside Embiid and as a backup center. 

He's eager to have his former teammate in the lineup, and Horford feels the same way. 

First of all, this view gets me excited. See out there, the city? I hadn’t seen any of this before. I’m hype. I’m ready to go. I’m just letting you guys know right now. I have a lot of respect for Elton. I got to watch him as a younger player and see how professional he was, how he took care of his body. Really respected him. I’ll tell you a quick story about him: We were getting ready to go to dinner one night, some of the guys and I. We’re about to get into the elevator. ... He was just in the elevator going to his room, but he was coming from the gym, sweating. He’d just done like an hour of cardio and he was just drenched. His commitment to wanting to win and do the right things inspired me back then. 

Mike Scott, who did not attend Friday’s press conference, also played with Horford and Brand on the Hawks.

Harris stepping into a new role 

Speaking with a small group of reporters after the hubpub of the press conference had somewhat subsided and everyone had posed for their photos — Harris with his new No. 12 jersey — the 26-year-old reflected on the “sacrifices” required from himself and his teammates last season.

“I just wanted to adapt,” he said. “Not to be complaining about comfort or whatnot. I just wanted to be that guy who puts everything to the side and it’s about winning. Was that hard for me? Not hard for me with who I am, but for my own game, it was hard.”

Harris is going to have greater responsibility this season. In addition to more time with the ball in his hands late in games, that also means his personality can be a more prominent part of the team, not just a steady, selfless figure in the background.

With Brand and the Sixers committed to him long term, we’re already seeing a little more of Harris’ sense of humor and confidence.

He showed both of those qualities in a story about a recent workout with Ben Simmons in Los Angeles, noting with a smile how he’s working to encourage his All-Star teammate to expand his game. 

He's in the gym religiously every day — grinding, getting better. He's in great shape. Everyone was trying to figure out why I was guarding him at the three-point line. It was really because he hit two of them. I dared him to hit two of them and he hit two in a row — that's why I was there. He's made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good. He has confidence to shoot it. I just kept telling him there, even in these workouts when you're playing, have the confidence to shoot them and don't get discouraged when you miss … 

Still growing 

Though Brand is determined to compete for a championship this season, he also touted how the Sixers are built well for the future.

A major reason for his confidence in the team beyond this year is the growth he projects in Harris and Richardson.

Richardson, whose scoring, rebounding and assists numbers have increased in each of his four NBA seasons, doesn’t expect his upward trajectory to stop anytime soon. 

"Over the last four years in the NBA I attribute my growth and my progression to how I was kind of molded in college,” he said. "I didn't come into college like a five-star [recruit]. I was like a two-star out of high school. I had to work for everything at every level so coming here with these guys, it's going to be easy, I think, to continue that growth.

"You see how Tobias, you see this whole team, this whole roster is full of guys that have progressed a lot over their careers. I think it'll be fun to almost compete — almost see like who can be in the gym the most, see who can beat who or see how much better we can get over these seasons."

Simple goals

Each of the new Sixers have their own reasons for choosing to play in Philadelphia, but one dominant theme echoed throughout the press conference. O’Quinn, who’s with the Sixers on a one-year, veteran minimum deal, might have summarized it best.

“I'm going into my eighth year,” he said. “I can't look at a role that's bigger than the picture that I need. I need to win. I like to win. I can't really think of anything other than winning. When the games start rolling, the season's long, you have to step in and I think that's when you really earn your respect and you really get a tap on the back from yourself — stepping in when you need to be ready. That's been my career. 

“I don't shy away from it. I never say a role is too small for me. I embrace it. I really enjoy that. Whether it's a 10-game stretch or two-game stretch, minutes up and down, I'm ready for that. I heard Elton [Brand say Al Horford is Joel Embiid's backup] just like you, but that's just a vision. When you're trying to win you'll do anything to win and I think that part of it is more important in my career right now.”

Ennis, as Brand was sure to note, left money on the table because he believes the Sixers can win a title. 

All the buzzwords about culture and team may be attractive, but it’s hard to beat the basic draw of having a real opportunity to win a championship.

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2 NBA players tested positive for COVID-19 in Orlando; Richaun Holmes breaches 'bubble'

2 NBA players tested positive for COVID-19 in Orlando; Richaun Holmes breaches 'bubble'

Former Sixer Richaun Holmes breached the NBA’s health and safety regulations by picking up a food delivery, he said Monday afternoon. 

Holmes will now have to quarantine for eight additional days. 

Earlier Monday, ESPN reported that the Rockets’ Bruno Caboclo unintentionally broke quarantine. 

Shortly after Holmes released his statement, the NBA and NBPA announced that two players of the 322 tested in Orlando since July 7 were positive for the coronavirus. Those players never cleared quarantine, according to the joint statement. 

All-Star Rockets guard Russell Westbrook announced Monday that he tested positive for COVID-19 before Houston’s departure and is quarantined. New Sixer Ryan Broekhoff said Sunday he didn’t travel with the Sixers to Orlando so that he could focus on his family after his wife tested positive.

Joel Embiid was skeptical last week that all players would follow the league’s protocols.

“Some guys like to go out and some guys like to do stuff, (there are) some guys that like adventure,” he said. “So that’s the way I’m thinking. I know myself. I know I’m not going to put everybody else at risk, but the question is, is everybody else going to do the same? And just being around this business, I surely don’t think so.”

A second-round pick of the Sixers in 2015, Holmes played the first three seasons of his career in Philadelphia as an athletic, high-energy backup big man. He’s had the best season of his career with the Kings, posting 12.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game this year. 

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Why now is the right time for Ben Simmons to change positions

Why now is the right time for Ben Simmons to change positions

When the Sixers drafted Ben Simmons first overall in 2016, Brett Brown told the assembled media that night that asking the Australian to play point guard with no previous experience was “borderline cruel.”

Brown didn’t rule it out but wasn’t 100 percent sure where Simmons would play. We ultimately know what happened. Simmons has been a two-time All-Star as a point guard but has limitations in the half court.

As the team continues its training camp at Disney World, the ultimate solution for Brown and the Sixers may be to take the ball out of Simmons’ hands.

The last few days I played him exclusively as a four man,” Brown said in a video conference with reporters Monday. “He’s so dynamic. … Let’s just talk about running: There’s nobody faster in the NBA. And so to always have Ben have to have the ball and dribble it up against five guys … I think dilutes some of his potent weapons.

The decision for Brown is multi-faceted. The “clunky” fit of Al Horford and the emergence of second-year guard Shake Milton — who Joel Embiid revealed has been running the point with the starters — were factors. 

But the main purpose is to make the most out of Simmons’ skill set. His unwillingness to shoot is well documented, but there is little Simmons can’t do outside of that. We’ve seen Brown deploy Simmons as a screen and roller plenty this season. Though the results have been mixed from an analytics standpoint, Simmons’ physical traits lend themselves to that role.

Brown at one point compared Simmons to Blake Griffin, one of the more dangerous rollers in the league in his prime. It’s not hard to imagine Simmons playing that role in the half court while still being elite in transition with the ball in his hands.

So, why did it take Brown so long into Simmons’ career to make the change? The answer is simple: Necessity. Brown made Simmons the Sixers’ point guard initially because he was best suited for the role at the time.

With a player like Milton emerging and Simmons’ limitations continuing to be exposed, now is the right time to make this move.

We were young and really not that good so it was my decision, ‘You take the ball. We’re going to make you the point guard,’” Brown said. “It’s not like he came in and there was an established point guard that you had to bump out. And so there are zero regrets on doing that.

“But it’s important to understand the segue into where he was and where he is. And so now you fast forward it and it’s not like you’re looking over your shoulder and there’s Damian Lillard or Chris Paul. That isn’t true, that’s not where I’m going, but you realize the value that he has in many other areas.

The other way Simmons can be utilized in the half court is by putting him in a “snug” pick-and-roll in the post with Joel Embiid. While the action hasn’t always produced great results, Brown has continued to use it. The best example Brown has pointed to is the home win against the Clippers before the All-Star break.

It’s an action that both players have needed time to get a feel for, but if they can execute it, the duo’s combination of size and skill could be difficult to defend.

I feel like this role is actually going to be even better than being the starting point guard,” Embiid said, “because he’s so great defensively, and offensively, when he has a chance, he’s probably one of the fastest guys in the league, so just getting the rebound and pushing it in transition and find the shooters. And then in half-court play, we can use him in a lot of ways. He can roll or he and me, we can play out of that pick-and-roll out of the post. So I think we’re going to be great.

While it might be the end of Simmons as a point guard, you won’t hear the soon-to-be 24-year-old sulk about it. Simmons said last week that he’s comfortable in any role and that he “love(s)” playing in the pick-and-roll.

After all, this move isn’t just right for the Sixers and their chances to go on a deep playoff run. It’s also about the evolution of Simmons and the best way to use his dynamic skill set going forward.

Watching him fly up the floor, watching Joel and him play off each other has been a really good look. I think they’ve been fantastic together,” Brown said. “And most importantly, how has he responded to [not being the point guard]? Like a star. Just a mature, whatever it’s going to take to get this team to be the best that it can be with the pieces that we have that can be designed into a smooth thing, something that’s not clunky. That is one of the pieces he has to offer, and I think he’s been great at accepting that and really killing it in practice in the environment that I just said.

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