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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 the tough, bold decisions and two franchise players already in place, not many would’ve rolled their eyes if Brett Brown and company simply sat at No. 10 and took a safe prospect that would fit and contribute 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 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 a 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. A concern with coaches also acting as general managers is whether they're able to keep their natural desire as a coach to win in the now out of their executive decisions. 

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

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Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Updated: 5:47 p.m. 

Before Saturday night’s game against the 10-3 Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler, the Sixers (9-5) have a good chance Friday to extend their winning streak to three games.

Here the essentials for tonight’s game against the 5-10 San Antonio Spurs:

When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Game 1 of Embiid’s first back-to-back 

Joel Embiid is expected to play both tonight and Saturday vs. Miami, his first back-to-back of the season. According to Brett Brown, keeping Embiid in a rhythm was a key factor in the decision.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” Brown said. “This whole thing is very, very scrutinized, discussed, studied with a handful of people. Really, I’m not saying led by Joel, but with a significant voice in all of it — an opinion. It had been discussed a while ago that this was going to be one of the first back-to-backs that we were going to look at. We hope that’s true. We hope that’s the wise thing to do. I’m looking forward to getting as much of Joel Embiid as I can.”

After this one, the Sixers’ next back-to-back set is a week from now, next Friday at the Knicks and Saturday vs. the Pacers. 

Richardson out again 

Josh Richardson missed the Sixers’ win Wednesday over the Knicks with right hip flexor tightness and, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, will be out again tonight. Trey Burke (left knee and ankle soreness) is questionable. 

Without Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz started against New York and shot 1 for 5 in 16 minutes. Burke has gotten minutes over Raul Neto in the Sixers’ past two games and gave the team a needed jolt in the second half Wednesday playing alongside Ben Simmons (see story).

‘I don’t care about that number’ 

The Spurs enter Philadelphia with a seven-game losing streak, their worst since the 1996-97 season, when Gregg Popovich took over the job. 

Brown, a former Popovich assistant, sees that streak as meaningless.

I didn’t even know that number. I don’t care about that number. They’re coached by Gregg Popovich. I know the large majority of their coaching staff that still exists, not as many of their players. I don’t even pay attention to it. I really don’t. My fondness and affection for Pop, and friendship with Pop, has extended two-plus decades. I just don’t care what they’ve been doing. If they’d won 15 in a row, I’d give you the same answer. All I’m doing is looking down there and it's the San Antonio Spurs, and I know we better bring our A-game or we’ll be in for a long night.

Led by DeRozan (21.7 points per game) and LaMarcus Aldridge (17.9 points), San Antonio has the fifth-best offensive rating in the league despite shooting and making the fewest threes in the NBA. However, the Spurs are No. 28 in defensive rating and have allowed 100 points or more in all but two games. 



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Would Ben Simmons making 3s help with any of the Sixers' spacing issues?

Would Ben Simmons making 3s help with any of the Sixers' spacing issues?

Ben Simmons’ first made three-pointer in a regular-season NBA game Wednesday night did not suddenly solve the Sixers’ spacing concerns. In fact, the Sixers didn’t score for the opening 5:34 of the third quarter in their win over the Knicks, and Brett Brown and Al Horford were both frank Thursday about the state of the Sixers’ offense.

“I’m prepared to be patient and try to fix spatial things, more than anything,” Brown said. “It’s not like a magic bean — here it is, here’s the play — it ain’t that. Space in pick-and-rolls, space in post, space in early offense — space.”

Horford described the issues as stemming from a team-wide desire to play aggressively.

“I just think that we have the mentality that we want to attack, we want to get in the paint, we all want to get in there and score,” he said. “Whether I have a mismatch or Ben has a mismatch, and we’re all in there. It’s just recognizing in the middle of the game if you see someone else, then you kind of find your place and re-space. I think it’s all good intentions. That’s why I keep saying, the more games we play, I feel the better that things will get."

The play below illustrates Horford’s point.

The sequence starts with Embiid rolling to the rim, then setting a down screen for Horford. When the high-low between Horford and Embiid isn’t available, Horford comes out to the left wing and hands it off to Tobias Harris, who attempts to drive to the rim. Julius Randle, though, leaves Horford to help, and Taj Gibson muddies the paint as well.

Gibson sneaks into the lane because he’s guarding Simmons, who sets a weak side flare screen for Shake Milton inside the arc on the right wing instead of planting himself in the corner. 

The idea of Simmons freeing up a teammate on occasion by catching an opponent with a surprise screen is fair enough, but that’s not where Brown typically prefers him to be placed.

Brown wants Simmons to either be in a corner or in the “dunker spot,” hovering in the region near the low block and behind the backboard. When Simmons is in the dunker spot, that tends to relegate his teammates to the perimeter.

On the play above, Simmons starts in the left corner while Harris and Embiid run a middle pick-and-roll, but he leaks down into the dunker spot. Once he's rolled, Embiid discovers the dunker spot is already occupied, meaning he needs to retreat to the corner. An unsightly possession ends with a fadeaway three-point attempt by Embiid at the end of the shot clock. 

Simmons situating himself in the corner more regularly could, in theory, leave that space open for Embiid and create more room for the offense.

“For the obvious space reasons, it helps,” Brown said of how Simmons taking and making threes might benefit the Sixers. “To have him grow to a different floor spot — we’ve talked lots about getting him out of the dunker into a corner. His current world is you will either be in two places — an extreme corner or playing peekaboo behind the backboard in a dunker, because he’s still very good at that. And I think that he’s growing those two areas. 

“He understands when he’s not on the ball, this is my home, this is my world, along those areas. … I think he’s been fantastic at embracing that and I believe that if he can continue to work in that world, that side of it will certainly help us as time unfolds.”

How many threes would Simmons need to hit — and at what rate — in order to merit consistent respect from opposing defenses? 

Even now, defenders will often stay in his vicinity when he’s behind the arc. The play below goes wrong because of Furkan Korkmaz’s drive into trouble, but notice that RJ Barrett guards Simmons close to the way one would play an average outside shooter. He doesn’t entirely abandon a player who’s yet to make a single NBA three from where he’s standing on the left wing.

The court is generally more congested and the distance required to send a double team is shorter when Simmons is in the dunker spot. 

With Simmons deciding to go to the dunker spot on the play above, Randle didn’t have far to travel to wrestle the ball away from Horford. If Simmons had been in the corner and if he’d established himself as something beyond a novice as a three-point shooter, would Horford have had more time and space to post up? Perhaps.

“I think it will open things up even more,” Horford said of Simmons adding a three-point shot. “It will make us more dangerous because teams won’t be able to help as much and clog the lane and things like that. I was just happy to see Ben — he’s been doing it every day in practice. And in different situations I’ve seen him, he’s shooting it comfortably. I was just glad that he took a shot, got it to go down and now we can kind of move forward.”

For the time being, the Sixers’ offense looks most fluid and makes most sense in transition, where one player's instinct to score in the paint tends not to butt heads with another’s insistence on posting up a smaller defender.

There was nothing complicated about the Sixers’ first points of the second half Thursday. Simmons threw the ball ahead to James Ennis, who dropped it off to Horford in an area where he could attack Randle.

Half-court spacing is currently less comfortable. Simmons’ outside shot — were it to become a regular threat — and him permanently shifting to the corners might change things. At the moment, the notion that both those things will happen seems highly hopeful.

We can predict with more confidence, however, that more minutes for this group of players together will help. Time won’t magically make a supersized lineup work offensively, but it should allow teammates to grow a better understanding of each other. 

“As a coach, the first thing I go to is space,” Brown said. “How do you help with space? And then at that point on, you create a gym that can breathe, and their skillsets should be able to shine. And then from that point on, it’s on them.”

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