76ers

Don't overlook Billy Cunningham when debating all-time Sixers greats

Don't overlook Billy Cunningham when debating all-time Sixers greats

Professional basketball is, by and large, a nomadic occupation.

Even if a player, coach or executive has a prolonged stint in a city, there’s persistent movement from place to place. You win in New York, then ship up to Boston. Lose in Boston, then catch some sleep on a flight to Los Angeles. You wake up and try your best, yet again, to perform well for a few hours. There are a lot of business trips that blend together.

Billy Cunningham, a Brooklyn native, was not exempt from this life of perpetual motion, but it’s easy to feel like he was. The “Kangaroo Kid” was a fixture of the Sixers organization, a figure who overlapped eras and stood for excellence and competitiveness. He leaped high for rebounds, paced up and down the sidelines and won a lot of basketball games. 

“I was blessed to have been involved in the Russell-Chamberlain era and then the Bird-Erving era,” Cunningham told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff in a recent interview. “Just two great eras of the game of basketball.”

In the nine seasons Cunningham was with the Sixers as a player, the team went 439-296. The season after he left for the ABA — he won 57 games in 1972-73 with the Carolina Cougars in Larry Brown’s first year as a professional head coach and took home the league's MVP award — the Sixers went 9-73. As a head coach, Cunningham’s record was 454-196. That’s a .698 winning percentage, the fourth-best in NBA history.  

Shifting from playing success to coaching success is not always easy. Intelligence is inevitably one part of a great player's arsenal, but instinct usually is, too. There are exceptions, but evidence of deliberate thought on the court often coincides with inaction and slowness. You also can’t teach how to block shots like Wilt Chamberlain or dunk like Julius Erving.

An NBA champion as a 23-year-old player in the 1966-67 season and as a 39-year-old coach in 1982-83, Cunningham was clearly cut out for both jobs. The memories of his playing days weren’t too distant. As his Sixers were attempting not to squander another 3-1 series lead to Boston in the 1982 playoffs, Cunningham thought back to 14 years earlier, when he’d watched glumly as Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and company lost three straight games for the first time all season at the worst possible moment. 

“That’s right there with winning the championship,” Cunningham told Zumoff of the Sixers’ Game 7 win over the Celtics. “I sat on the bench in the ’67-68 season — I’d broken my wrist against the Knickerbockers in the playoffs. We were up 3-1 and lose, and then the Celtics go on to beat the Lakers. Then I experience [losing after being up] 3-1 in [1980-81], when the Celtics came back and beat us. And here we are. 

“The media was questioning everyone’s heritage the day before. … It was just one of those games where we played flawless basketball. It was just a beautiful game from a coaching standpoint — every button you pressed, it worked.” 

The Sixers fell to the Lakers in the Finals that season but returned the next year and, thanks in no small part to MVP Moses Malone, pulled off a sweep. (NBC Sports Philadelphia is re-airing that series this weekend.) They haven’t won a championship in the 37 years since, of course, and Cunningham regrets that he couldn’t personally deliver another one. 

“One thing I’ve always been a little disappointed with myself about," he said, "is I couldn’t find a way to get us back to that level of playing that we did in [1983]. … Every button and anything I tried to do, I wasn’t able to get them back there mentally, more than physically, to the level we were the previous year.” 

The Sixers franchise has three titles in 71 years. With Cunningham involved, they had two championships in 17 seasons. 

Even though he traversed the country on many occasions, Cunningham will be remembered as a Sixer, Brooklyn accent and all. That sure seems fair enough. 

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Sixers release hype video of sorts before NBA restart at Disney World

Sixers release hype video of sorts before NBA restart at Disney World

NBA teams don’t usually release hype videos 65 games into the regular season.

The Sixers did on Thursday, however. That seems an appropriate way to label the video the team put out on social media ahead of its departure for Orlando for the NBA’s planned resumption. It contains footage of players working out at the team’s practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, during the NBA’s Phase 2 protocol, as well as some of the more confident remarks from players during video conference calls with reporters over the last week. Tobias Harris chucking a medicine ball against a wall is an especially striking image. 

“The way that I look at it is we have another opportunity,” Al Horford says over footage of him sinking a jumper. “I believe that our group is built for the playoffs.”

Horford is among the players who noted the NBA’s hiatus was beneficial in terms of health. He’s also far from the first Sixer to insist this season that the team is constructed to succeed in the postseason.

The 39-26 Sixers are sixth in the Eastern Conference. They’re scheduled to resume play on Aug. 1 against the Pacers (see game-by-game predictions).

Though the video is a bit less energetic and more reserved than the typical hype video — which makes sense as the NBA attempts to play through a pandemic — it does convey a belief that the team’s inability to meet expectations before the hiatus is no longer relevant. 

If the league’s health and safety measures are effective, we’ll get to see if that’s actually the case. 

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Sixers may be counting on youth in a big way at Disney World

Sixers may be counting on youth in a big way at Disney World

Normally once the playoffs start, coaches will look to players with experience. They want battle-tested veterans that have been through the rigors of an NBA postseason.

For the Sixers, there is a chance that they’ll be counting on three players 23 years old or younger. Two of them have never played a single playoff game while the other has played less than 40 career postseason minutes.

Yet Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton have all played significant roles for the Sixers at one time or another this season. Will they be ready if their numbers are called in the playoffs?

The Sixers will have to hope their young contributors don’t think too much about the situation they’re in and just play basketball.

You don’t know — no team knows what they look like as a team,” Thybulle said. “I know what I’ve been doing individually in my workouts, I know that I feel good, my shot looks good, I feel like I’m in shape, but in terms of what that means for the 76ers or for any other team in the league, I think it’s fairly unknown. I think for us, for me, it’s all about the challenge of hitting the ground running.

Throughout the course of his rookie year, Thybulle has done well to take things as they come. Whether it was being asked to guard Kemba Walker on opening night or start for a stretch when Joel Embiid was out, Thybulle has been thrown into the fire more than once this season.

Though he’s had his ups and downs and his playing time has fluctuated, Thybulle proved to be a strong and disruptive defender. He’s one of only eight players in the league to have at least 80 steals and 40 blocks. If a guard or wing is giving the Sixers an exceptionally hard time in the playoffs, Brett Brown could look to Thybulle to help mitigate the damage.

If the Sixers are in need of shooting, Brown would likely turn to Korkmaz. The Turkish wing has had somewhat of an improbable season. After the Sixers struck out on signing veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver this summer, GM Elton Brand circled back to Korkmaz, who was reportedly on the verge of heading back overseas to play. 

Korkmaz has rewarded the organization by providing some ridiculously hot shooting that has bailed the Sixers’ sometimes clunky offense out of jams. He leads the team in threes made and is shooting 39.7 percent from three, the second-best mark on the team.

We were having this conversation every time with Coach Brown,” Korkmaz said. “Every time he just keeps telling me I just need to keep doing what I did all season and keep doing it for the playoffs in Orlando. Nothing changed. Also, we know playoffs in Orlando is going to be more physical than the regular season. We all expect that and we’re all ready for that and we’re all working for that. And Brett said to me just keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to be an important piece, and I’m trying to get ready for it.

Brown had a similar message for Milton, who may have the upper hand on Thybulle and Korkmaz because of his diverse skillset. If Brown is truly interested in unleashing Ben Simmons as a screener and roller, Milton could be key in tapping into that look as the primary ball handler.

Unlike Thybulle and Korkmaz, Milton’s true opportunity didn’t come until later in the season. After a few solid performances before the All-Star break, Milton was told by Brown that he wasn’t going to be in the rotation with everyone healthy and the additions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III.

Milton simply waited for his next chance to play and got it when Ben Simmons went down with a nerve impingement in his lower back. The second-year player took over as the team’s starting point guard and crushed the opportunity, averaging 17.8 points and shooting a blistering 60.4 percent from three over his last nine games.

I definitely feel more confident,” Milton said. “I’d say it’s probably stemming from the fact that playing those last nine games or whatever with all those guys out, it gave me the opportunity to kind of go out there and test things and see what could work, and really explore my game. I feel like for any player, when they’re given an opportunity to do something like that, to see what works and have freedoms, I feel like you’re going to see growth anywhere. I definitely feel good, I feel confident, and I’m excited.

None of these players have a rotational spot locked up. Burks, Robinson and Mike Scott have the advantage of experience. Newcomer Ryan Broekhoff may even force his way into the mix. Brown has said he'd like to have his playoff rotation down to nine, which should create healthy competition and perhaps another "quiet tournament" during the eight seeding games.

In an unprecedented situation at Disney World, the Sixers hope this trio of young players doesn’t concern themselves with going into uncharted territory and focuses more on doing the things that got them here. 

At the end of the day, it’s still basketball.

“We’re finding ourselves in a situation where [the playoffs will be different than usual],” Thybulle said, “so I think it’s going to be new for everyone, even vets who have been part of the playoffs, trying to get a feel for what this is going to be like. But I’m open to the challenge and I’m excited for what’s in store.”

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