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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 stumble without Joel Embiid, turn in a clunker against Nets

Sixers stumble without Joel Embiid, turn in a clunker against Nets

BOX SCORE 

The Sixers were due for a clunker.

With Joel Embiid out because of an upper respiratory infection, they lost Sunday night in Brooklyn to the Nets, 109-89, ending a five-game winning streak and stretch of 13 wins over the past 15 games. The 20-point loss is the Sixers' worst margin of defeat this season.

Al Horford returned from a two-game absence with left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness but did not have his finest performance, posting 10 points on 5 for 15 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.

As a team, the Sixers shot just 5 of 26 from three-point range. They’re 3-3 this season without Embiid. 

Now 20-8, the Sixers will return home for the next three games, beginning Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. vs. the Heat. 

The rust factor 

Both Horford and Josh Richardson struggled with their shots. Horford couldn’t hit the open jumpers the Nets presented him, missing his first five three-pointers, and Richardson started 0 for 4. 

Richardson in particular looked a step behind offensively, playing his fourth game after sitting out the previous six because of a right hamstring injury. He made a handful of belated decisions and didn’t seem to trust his instincts. The absence of his regular pick-and-roll partner in Embiid also played a factor as he didn’t look as comfortable with Horford or Norvel Pelle.

Richardson likes to cross back on the pick-and-roll, changing directions after his initial drive, which can cause problems for big men who aren’t accustomed to playing with him. He was forced to leave after picking up his fourth foul early in the third quarter on an off-ball whistle that Richardson and Brett Brown couldn’t believe. 

To his credit, Richardson played hard when he returned and began to have a bit more offensive success. 

The Sixers felt several aspects of Embiid’s absence. They took hits with their rim protection, post scoring and ability to create offense when possessions stagnated. Horford is obviously a strong replacement, but Embiid is central to the Sixers in so many ways. 

Spencer Dinwiddie (24 points) and Brooklyn’s guards attacked Horford time and time again in the middle pick-and-roll. The Sixers’ perimeter players consistently failed to work over the screen, leaving Horford in a vulnerable position against quicker guards who had momentum. He didn’t fare well in those situations. 

Mixed results for Simmons vs. Nets' sagging defense

This was a game where it would not have been difficult for Ben Simmons to fulfill Brown’s request for a minimum of one-three-point attempt per game as the Nets sagged well off him. The Sixers countered by having Simmons use the open space with drives and dribble handoffs to his teammates, and by looking to get Simmons the ball in the post. 

That approach, a familiar one for the Sixers, had mixed results. Simmons finished with a team-high 20 points, five rebounds and three assists but was rarely able to break free in transition. The Sixers had just eight fast break points. 

Turnover issues resurface 

In the first half, the Sixers turned it over 10 times. 

With no Embiid and Horford and Richardson’s shooting woes, they couldn’t afford those lost possessions.

Tobias Harris had 17 points on 8 for 17 shooting, but he gave it away a team-high four times and couldn’t sustain any offensive rhythm after scoring six of the Sixers’ first eight points.

A tough night for the bench 

Matisse Thybulle had a poor opening stint. He wasn’t as sharp as usual defensively and was indecisive on the other end, passing up open shots and committing a bad turnover that led to a Theo Pinson and-one which capped a 17-4 Nets run that put Brooklyn up 26-16.

The rookie was ruled out early in the fourth quarter because on an upset stomach.

It was a tough night for the Sixers’ second unit overall, with Brooklyn’s bench outscoring the Sixers’ 40-23. Much of that output for the Sixers came late in the fourth quarter.

The Norvel Pelle Experience 

Norvel Pelle might have the highest rate of attempted “poster” dunks against in the NBA. DeAndre Jordan added one in the second quarter Sunday in Pelle’s fourth NBA regular-season game, taking off with a head of steam on a fast break. Pelle went up with Jordan and the ball clanked off the back rim.

Jordan tried again late in the third quarter, and Pelle met him well above the cylinder. 

The two-way player was the Sixers’ backup center for the second straight game and posted two points, four rebounds and two blocks in 21 minutes. 

He generally needs to make an impact defensively because he doesn’t have many offensive attributes outside of screening and rolling, lob catching and offensive rebounding. A First Team All-Defensive selection last season in the G League, Pelle definitely has a track record of doing that at lower levels.

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NBA trade deadline: 6 trade targets for the Sixers

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USA Today Images/AP Images

NBA trade deadline: 6 trade targets for the Sixers

We've reached Dec. 15, a significant date in the NBA calendar. It's the first day that most players who signed this summer are eligible to be traded

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick look at six players who might make sense for the Sixers to target. The trade deadline is Feb. 6. 

Josh Hart, G/F

Most basketball fans in Philadelphia will be familiar with the name. Hart had an impressive career at Villanova, helping the Wildcats to a national championship. After starting his career with the Lakers, he was part of the Anthony Davis trade and wound up in New Orleans. With a Brandon Ingram extension likely, it would be a cost-cutting move for the Pelicans

Hart can do a little bit of everything. He’s athletic, has a decent handle, is a strong rebounder at 6-foot-5 (7.8 per 36 minutes) and is shooting the ball decently (36.5 percent on 6.1 attempts). He’s still just 24 so it’s reasonable to suggest he could get better — especially if he’s surrounded by players like the Sixers’. His defensive versatility and ability to hit shots are likely the most attractive qualities he has.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, G

The 2014 first-round pick is playing some of the best basketball of his young career over the last few weeks. He can create off the dribble and navigate pick-and-rolls well as a ball handler and is even better moving off the ball. While the jumper will stand out (38.6 percent on 6.9 attempts a game), he’s also an excellent passer, averaging 3.9 assists a night.

The defensive end is where you worry about Bogdanovic, but there are signs he may be improving in that regard. He has good length at 6-foot-6 and decent feet. With the Sixers’ defensive prowess, it could help mitigate those concerns. 

So, why could such a useful player be available? Money and fit. Multiple players on the Kings have gotten paid and De’Aaron Fox is up next. With Fox and Buddy Hield, it's hard to see his long-term fit.

Alec Burks, G/F

As a low-risk/high-reward signing, Burks was expected to add a scoring punch to the Warriors’ bench as they looked to cost effectively retool their roster. Instead, Golden State has been crushed by injuries and finds itself with the worst record in the NBA. Burks has been solid in stepping up into a larger role. He looks recovered from the injuries that plagued him over the last several seasons.

Still just 28, Burks can flat out score. He hasn’t been the most efficient player (43.2 percent from the floor, 35.7 from three), but just has a knack for creating and scoring — not skills prevalent on the Sixers’ roster. Though it’s not the sexiest skillset in today’s NBA, Burks excels in the midrange and is an excellent free throw shooter (89.7 percent). Like Bogdanovic, Burks isn’t the best defender, but offers good size and length.

Davis Bertans, F

Bertans was involved in a complicated situation during free agency in which he was dealt from the Spurs to the Wizards with the understanding that San Antonio would then sign Marcus Morris. At the last minute, Morris reneged on his agreement and decided to sign with the Knicks. 

“That was an unfortunate situation that was handled unprofessionally on a couple of different levels,” Gregg Popovich told reporters in September. “We made that move to make the signing that we did and got blindsided. Davis was a special player, as we all know. He’s young and getting better and better. We hated losing him.”

In his fourth NBA season, the Latvian forward is having an elite shooting year. He’s averaging 15.7 points per game, is ninth in three-point percentage among players with at least 45 attempts (45.6 percent) and is 12th in three-point shots taken per game (8.5).

Outside shooting hasn’t been a significant problem for the Sixers, at least in terms of efficiency — they’re hitting 37 percent from three. Bertans, though, would provide some of the off-ball movement, respect from opposing defenses and ability to hit tightly contested jumpers that the Sixers lost in JJ Redick. 

Bertans’ salary for this year is $7 million, and he’ll be a free agent after the season.

Jordan Clarkson, G

According to SI.com’s Sam Amcico, the Sixers are “supposedly among those with interest” in Clarkson.

The 27-year-old Clarkson is averaging 14.3 points and 2.5 assists in 22.6 minutes per game for the 6-20 Cavs. He’d be able to give the Sixers scoring and shot creation off the bench.

However, it seems like it would be difficult for Elton Brand to acquire Clarkson for an appropriate price because the 6-foot-4 guard has a salary of close to $13.5 million for 2019-20.

Langston Galloway, G

Galloway, the No. 2 scorer in St. Joe’s history, could be a decent fit with the Sixers.

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press reported during the preseason that the Pistons were “very open” to trading Galloway

Through the Pistons’ first 26 games, Galloway, who’s in the final season of a three-year, $21 million contract, has boosted his value a bit. He's averaging career highs in points (11.9), field goal percentage (44.8) and three-point percentage (42.9). 

“Langston is a pro," Pistons head coach Dwane Casey said, per The Athletic's James L. Edwards III. "He’s a security blanket. He’s always doing the right thing, whether he makes a shot or misses a shot. He’s always making the right play. The other side of Langston (is) his defensive ability. If you notice, we put him on the hot players because he’s a tough guy, he’s consistent and persistent. His shooting is the ultimate crown on top.”

Sounds like someone who could help a contender.

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