76ers

If Sixers can somehow land Kawhi Leonard long term, he's a star worth building around

If Sixers can somehow land Kawhi Leonard long term, he's a star worth building around

He’s a notoriously quiet guy, but there’s sure a lot of noise around Kawhi Leonard these days.

Leonard, who can become a free agent after next season, wants out of San Antonio, and while he’d reportedly prefer to return to his hometown of Los Angeles, the Sixers are among the teams willing to trade for the enigmatic player. Thursday, Sports Illustrated’s Jake Fischer reported the team has discussed a number of possible packages for Leonard, including a deal that would include Dario Saric, Robert Covington and the Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick (see story).

For just a single year of Leonard, it’s not worth giving up that type of haul. The Sixers might think adding Leonard would immediately make them a championship contender, and that being part of their culture would draw him back long term. Given the pieces they’d have to give up in a trade, that’s still too much of a risk.

The team might also might figure, quite reasonably, that Leonard would entice LeBron James. We do know Leonard reportedly wants to team up with James (see story). Yet if James knows Leonard will only be in Philadelphia for a year, that may not be enough to sway him. It could absolutely influence his decision, but there’s no guarantee that the possibility of playing with Leonard for a year would be enough to make James to alter his destination.

But, if the Sixers could somehow ensure that Leonard would re-sign with the team after next season (and that’s obviously a big if), he’s a star worth building around.

A common talking point in support of the argument that Leonard doesn’t make sense long term for the Sixers is that he’s some sort of a team cancer, and that the weird tension between him and the Spurs about the handling of his quad injury is indicative of larger issues with his character.

While it’s fair to note the breakdown in communication between Leonard and the Spurs, an organization that typically avoids these sort of awkward situations, it’s not rational to automatically label Leonard bad for team culture. He has a reputation of being an extremely unselfish, quiet guy. He’s absolutely made some mistakes dealing with a frustrating injury, but that’s no reason to write him off forever. Especially given his past relationship with Brett Brown, a change of scenery might be perfect for him.

The questions about Leonard’s health are a valid concern. It’s certainly not worth making a deal if the Sixers aren’t confident that Leonard can stay on the court. That said, Leonard has been treated by Sixers chief medical officer Dr. Jonathan Glashow, so you’d think they should have as good an idea as anyone of whether his quad injury could be a long-term problem.

If he’s healthy, Leonard is a special player. Let’s not forget he’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, or gloss over his averages of 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game in 2016-2017.

He’s also a star who would fit well with the Sixers. Like Paul George, who the Sixers are reportedly also interested in pursuing (see story), it’s not hard to imagine Leonard co-existing with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. His ability to score in isolation and make threes (38.6 percent for his career) would be especially valuable. 

Yes, Embiid and Simmons’ offensive roles would be somewhat diminished if the Sixers built around Leonard, though that’s not a unique issue. George (28.4 percent) and LeBron James (31.4 percent) both had higher usage rates than Leonard (27 percent) over the last four seasons. And on the Sixers, Leonard could be effective in a less ball-dominant role than on the Spurs. Embiid would still be able to get his share of touches in the post, with Simmons running the point and Leonard providing another go-to option on the wing.

Even if it took a little time for the Sixers to find the right role for Leonard on offense, it’s not crazy to think that he could immediately make the Sixers, who had the third-best defensive rating in basketball last season, the best defensive team in the NBA.

If Leonard would definitely stick with the team for the long haul (which, again, is a huge if), the reported package of Covington, Saric and the Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick is a very reasonable deal from the Sixers’ perspective. Leonard is clearly an upgrade in every way on Covington, a first team All-Defensive selection. And while it would be unfortunate to have to give up the beloved, gritty Saric, you need to make some sacrifices if you want to land stars. As for the 2021 unprotected first-rounder, it’s a valuable asset, but as we’ve seen with Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and others, top picks are far from sure things.

What is a sure thing, however, is that a healthy Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the game. All the off-court drama with the Spurs shouldn’t detract from that fact. A long-term core of Leonard, Simmons and Embiid is capable of winning championships.

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Sixers weekly observations: Joel Embiid's Hall of Fame prospects and Brett Brown's 'perfecting vanilla' philosophy

Sixers weekly observations: Joel Embiid's Hall of Fame prospects and Brett Brown's 'perfecting vanilla' philosophy

The Sixers took down the team with the best record in the NBA, pushed aside questions about the Celtics having their number and beat the Hornets behind JJ Redick’s first career double-double. Though the week ended on a low, with a loss Saturday to the 26-48 Hawks, the Sixers hold a three-game lead over the Pacers for the third seed in the Eastern Conference (see standings). 

Here are a couple of observations from the week:

• Joel Embiid averaged 34.7 points, 16.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game this week. His stats sometimes creep up on you, but it feels like his numbers don’t even properly capture his contributions, especially against Milwaukee and Boston.

After Friday’s practice, Embiid said he not only wants to be the best Sixer ever, but “the best to ever do it" (see story). He mentioned wanting to eventually shoot 90 percent from the foul line and later added he’s “sure he’s going to get to a point” where he’s a 40 percent three-point shooter. To have a realistic chance of being the best player ever, Embiid may very well have to reach those absurd marks. Dirk Nowitzki, the best big man shooter ever, only hit marks of 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line once, in the 2006-07 season.

Embiid’s ambition of being the greatest of all time might be a stretch (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with his drive to be great). The thought that he could one day be a Hall of Famer, though, is not anywhere close to delusional. If he can stay healthy — which, for the sake of the sport of basketball, let’s hope he does — the Hall of Fame looks downright probable. His consistent dominance and special skills suggest as much, and so do the stats. 

Our Reuben Frank found an incredible stat on Embiid. Only nine players in NBA history have had 3,500 points and 1,500 rebounds through their first 150 career games, per Basketball Reference. One of them is Embiid, and the other eight are Hall of Famers. 

• Brett Brown likes to talk about “perfecting vanilla” — sharpening the basics and avoiding overcomplication. The wins over the Bucks and Celtics are good arguments for his approach, illustrations of how the Sixers have the talent to beat elite teams without doing anything too exotic.

But perfecting vanilla doesn’t necessarily exclude incorporating subtle wrinkles. Brown told NBC Sports Philadelphia last week the Sixers are interested in more “slashing” around Embiid in the post, more off-ball movement against “blind” defensive players (see story). We’re also starting to see more pick-and-rolls between Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. For the most part, though, the offense has a few fundamental actions that work.

You can’t say the same about the defense. 

The strategy of putting Embiid on Giannis Antetokounmpo and living with the other Bucks taking threes was ultimately effective, though Milwaukee still put up 43 points in the fourth quarter Sunday. The defensive effort in the first half against Charlotte was mediocre, and the Sixers were fortunate the Hornets missed a number of open threes late. Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier had their way Wednesday for the first two quarters. And in Atlanta, the team’s pick-and-roll defense was not pretty — miscommunications, players getting caught on top of screens without much resistance, inconsistent help defense.

Though the Sixers’ offense appears to have the freedom to expand a little beyond the basics if they’d like, the defense doesn’t have that same luxury. 

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Jimmy Butler isn't freaking out over Sixers' loss to Hawks and neither should you

Jimmy Butler isn't freaking out over Sixers' loss to Hawks and neither should you

NBA teams don't go 82-0.

The Bucks lost their season series to the lowly Suns. The Raptors were swept by the Pistons. The Celtics have lost both of their matchups to the Magic this season.

So when the Sixers fell to 1-2 against the young Hawks this season after a 129-127 loss Saturday night (see observations), it was disappointing, but not completely surprising.

These types of games happen. The Sixers had finally beaten their boogeyman Boston, their sixth straight win. They were 7-1 with their new-look starting lineup intact. They couldn’t afford to rest on that and overlook a hungry Atlanta team.

But they did.

I think it’s the fact that we think we’re a really good team so we can just come in and do whatever we’re going to do and still going to win,” Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t think we can fall into that trap. I’m telling you, I think that’s what it was. Thinking, ‘Yo, we won [six] in a row.’ That’s from everybody. From top to bottom. I don’t think you can play like that in order to go where we want to go.

Give credit where it’s due, former Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce has his Hawks buying in and playing much better basketball recently. 

With their win Saturday, they’re now 7-8 since the All-Star Game. That may not sound like much, but when you consider they were just 18-40 before the break, it’s a stark improvement.

Rookie Trae Young abused the Sixers all night. He exploited their weak pick-and-roll defense in route to 32 points — including the game-winning floater with .01 seconds left —  and 11 assists.

Though Young was a handful, the Sixers didn’t offer much resistance. After going on a 15-3 run to close out the third to tie the game and eventually take the lead in the fourth, they were also sloppy down the stretch.

“The game at stages was bizarre to me, really,” Brett Brown said. “Some of the turnovers in the fourth period were head scratching. I think some of that, some of the defensive lapses we had in the first half, were head scratching. Then you put it into the melting pot of them playing good basketball — they had some offensive firepower to sort of punish those areas that I just mentioned.”

And before the #FireBrett crowd comes charging with its pitchforks, Brown did try to make adjustments. It wasn’t a matter of game plan. It was execution.

“We had probably three or four different things from blitzing to switching to hedging to dropping,” Brown said. “If you really dug in and looked at that you would have seen that. I can’t say that any of them were incredibly effective, but they did force us to try and make different adjustments in the pick-and-roll.”

These types of games are going to happen during an 82-game season. With just nine games left in the regular season, the Sixers have one of the easier remaining schedules in the league.

But as the Hawks proved Saturday, any team can beat you on a given night. For the Sixers, it’s just a matter of learning whatever you can from a disappointing loss and getting ready to take on Orlando in a couple days.

This game surely will not define their season or the potential of their new starting five.

“We’ll be alright,” Butler said. “We got nine more left. We good, man. Forget about it. We got another one coming on the road [Monday]. 

“So let’s go to dinner. Forget about it. I’m not drinking right now so I can’t have no wine, but I can damn sure eat.”

Yeah, the Sixers are going to be fine.

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