76ers

With James Ennis' return, Brett Brown makes successful shuffle with Sixers' rotation, while Boban Marjanovic proves he can shoot

With James Ennis' return, Brett Brown makes successful shuffle with Sixers' rotation, while Boban Marjanovic proves he can shoot

The question of whether James Ennis would return to the court Monday night for Game 2 of the Sixers’ series against the Nets was not quite as important as whether Joel Embiid would be active.

It says something about the state of the Sixers’ bench, however, that Ennis’ status was significant. Ennis, limited to 12 minutes in his first game back from a right quad contusion which he aggravated on April 3, had six points, three rebounds and an assist, and he played solid perimeter defense in the Sixers’ 145-123 win over the Nets (see observations). Perhaps more importantly, his return prompted Brett Brown to shuffle the roles in the Sixers’ rotation.

Jonathon Simmons and T.J. McConnell, who combined for 26 minutes in Game 1, didn’t play any until the outcome was sealed. With Ennis available, the decision to take Simmons out of the rotation likely was not too difficult. But Brown, always fond of McConnell, found the choice to remove him more challenging.

First, that's a difficult decision because T.J. has been sort of a part of our bloodline for awhile. The energy that he injects is contagious and we all get that. If you study that stat line from the game that we lost, [he was a plus-12], which is pretty good. So you started looking at the ripple effects of what can the others do from a spacial standpoint —  James' ability to stretch the court a little bit more, try to get Jimmy [Butler] the ball as a legitimate backup point guard when Ben [Simmons] wasn't on the court influenced that decision. I thought T.J. handled it as we all thought he would. He's a wonderful teammate.

The one reliable piece in both Games 1 and 2 for the bench was Boban Marjanovic. The Nets have been giving him space to shoot midrange jumpers and — often after glancing around for an open teammate and realizing he’s still free — he’s happily accepted. Marjanovic has 29 points on 13 for 21 shooting in 31 minutes this series.

“We already played one game and I figured out this is my thing,” Marjanovic said. “I didn’t take [jumpers] in my career a lot, but I can shoot, to be honest.”

The 7-foot-3 Marjanovic takes pride in his defense as well. He understands opponents are itching to make him defend on the perimeter, but he playfully took exception to a question about how he’s been able to guard quicker players.

"Somebody's quicker than me?” he asked. “I’m joking. Of course my advantage is my size, to be honest. I know I'm not fast, but I'm not so slow. I use my height. It's my advantage and helps me a lot.”

Marjanovic wasn’t even considering the possibility that he might be required to step into the starting lineup if Embiid’s left knee injury worsens.

"Why would he sit out? Nobody can defend him,” he said. “Why would he sit out?"

Another key part of the bench’s effectiveness in Game 2 was Mike Scott knocking down the shots he normally hits. After a 1 for 8 shooting performance in Game 1, Scott shot 5 for 7 (3 for 5 from three-point range) Monday night. He had 15 points, one of five Sixers to score between 15 and 23.

“That’s how it has to be — play together,” Scott said. “Everybody’s going to score, everybody’s going to eat. We have a talented group.”

The winner of the much-discussed “tournament” for backup wing minutes, Ennis said he “has no clue” whether he’ll still be on a minutes restriction for Game 3, noting that decision would be determined by the training staff. For now, he said he’s aiming to make the most of the time he gets. 

He enjoyed his 12 minutes on the floor and a stress-free fourth quarter.

“We just shared the game,”  Ennis said. “Everybody had a good time out there, everybody was cheering each other on, the bench was into it. It was a good overall team win.”

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Backup center near top of list for Sixers in NBA free agency, NBA draft

Backup center near top of list for Sixers in NBA free agency, NBA draft

The starting five was not the problem for the Sixers in their second-round loss to the Raptors. Their top two reserves, James Ennis and Mike Scott, were also strong.

The biggest issue was backup center … and it’s not even close. 

As we approach the draft and free agency, figuring out the situation around Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris is the priority. After that, finding a capable backup big is the most pressing need for GM Elton Brand.

“Definitely [backup center is] one of the priorities outside of free agency with the top guys,” Brand said at the team’s practice facility last Tuesday,” but I look forward to being the GM for the first time entering free agency to address certain needs of a backup center, certain depth, certain pieces that I feel needs to be in place.”

Joel Embiid wasn’t himself throughout the playoffs, but his impact was unmistakable. The Sixers were a plus-90 with Embiid on the floor in the Toronto series and minus-111 without him. In Game 7 alone, the Sixers were outscored by 12 points in the 2:49 Embiid was on the bench. 

The team certainly didn’t lack options. Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic, Amir Johnson and Jonah Bolden weren’t good enough. The three veterans just didn’t have the necessary athleticism and feet to hang in the series. Bolden’s inexperience showed up and discipline continued to be an issue.

So why didn’t the Sixers target that position sooner? Brand pointed out this will be his first real offseason as GM. While the role behind Embiid may not be what a free-agent center is looking for, Brand is confident he can convince players to come here.

Bolden will likely be the only one of aforementioned guys back next season. It’ll be up to Brand to find a capable five behind the team’s “crown jewel.”

“I had a voice and I didn’t speak up loud enough I guess, but there’s definitely some ways that we can sell Philadelphia,” Brand said. “We’re a destination team right now, we’re a destination city. Players want to be here. So if I say, ‘Hey, there’s going to be X amount of minutes for you, we’re going to have a deep playoff run,’ I’m confident we can get some talent in that backup center.”

Brand will scour the free-agent market for a veteran big. It’s likely not something he can address early. Butler and Harris will dictate what happens with the Sixers’ offseason. If they’re able to sign both, it could make filling out the bench a little trickier, but certainly not impossible. 

Brand will be able to use the mid-level exception, the amount of which we’ll find out later this offseason. He also has two trade exceptions ($2,339,880 from Markelle Fultz, $957,480 from Dario Saric) if he can swing a deal where the salaries don't match. Still, depending on what the Butler and Harris deals look like along with a possible Ben Simmons rookie max extension, Brand will have his work cut out for him in building his bench.

Former Process Sixer Dewayne Dedmon will be out there, though he may be out of the team’s price range. There are also players like Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee, though both players seem to prefer the West. Nerlens Noel would be a perfect fit on the floor, but that doesn’t seem likely. Going down the list, Kyle O’Quinn could give you something for a few minutes a night.

But the Sixers could also use an infusion of youth. The draft isn’t exactly flush with centers, but there are a few options. Daniel Gafford from Arkansas is a super athletic rim-running center that could provide energy and toughness. Nic Claxton of Georgia and Bruno Fernando out of Maryland are long, offensively skilled and also athletic. Mfiondu Kabengele from Florida State is another big to keep your eye on. 

All of these players will likely be available at pick No. 24 or with one of the Sixers’ four second-round picks. And all four players to an extent fit what Brand said he was looking in this year’s draft.

“Where we are in our trajectory, we need players that can play, players that can add to our team now,” Brand said. “We’re looking for maybe older players. For sure, defensive minded players and we always place a premium on shooting. But defensive-oriented players that can contribute now, we may look at, I don’t want to tip my hand too much, but that may be something we’re looking at.”

Through the draft and free agency, Brand will have to give Brett Brown more options to back up the team’s best player.

And those options need be a whole lot better than they were this season.

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Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Everyone was in shock when Elton Brand was able to acquire Tobias Harris before the trade deadline.

Harris was having an All-Star-caliber season, flirting with the elite 50/40/90 shooting line and on his way to a big payday this offseason. 

When the move was made, and after Harris’ red-hot start with the Sixers, bringing him back seemed like a no-brainer. But Harris stumbled to the finish line and had an up-and-down playoff run. 

Should the Sixers bring back Harris and see what this loaded team can do with a full season or let him walk and secure the team’s depth? The answer isn’t black and white.

Harris’ first eight games as a Sixer were remarkably good. He averaged 21.9 points and shot 55/42/83, looking every bit like the player they traded for. His clutch 32-point performance in the team’s first win against the Thunder in forever was a virtuoso performance. He was outstanding and played closer.

Over the last 19 games, Harris averaged 16.7 points and his line went down to 43/27/85. That is a precipitous drop off. His playoff numbers were OK and reflective of his uneven performances. What will stick out most to fans is his 7-of-23 performance in a pivotal Game 4 against Toronto. That series loss is still raw and that game very well may have swung the series, so it’s fair.

But who outside of Jimmy Butler was consistently good in the second round? Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both struggled mightily in just their second postseason. Even Butler himself had a rough Game 7.

It’s important to keep in mind the context of Harris’ career. This was his eighth NBA season, but he’s just 26 years old. He’s also improved markedly over the course of his career. He was pretty much a non-threat from three for the first six years of his career, shooting just 33 percent on less than three attempts per game. Over the last two seasons, he was over 40 percent on over five attempts while being traded twice.

Given that improvement, it’s also fair to project Harris’ playoff play will improve. Before playing in 12 postseason contests with the Sixers, Harris’ only other playoff experience was when the Pistons were swept in the first round in 2016. Like Embiid and Simmons, this taste of failure could fuel him. It’s also fair to believe that improved performances by the Sixers’ young All-Stars could open more things up for Harris.

When you start talking money, it gets exceedingly more complicated. Signing Harris and Butler to near-max deals and giving Simmons his first max extension would push the Sixers over the luxury tax. It’s something that Josh Harris has repeatedly said would not be a problem. At that point, you’d be looking at a bench full of young, cheap players  and veteran ring chasers. 

If you let Harris walk, you could look on the free agent market and perhaps sign a trio of Terrence Ross, Corey Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon, as an example. There’s also a greater chance you could bring back JJ Redick and/or James Ennis and/or Mike Scott. That could ultimately be the more attractive option if you’re able to sign Jimmy Butler. 

If Butler leaves, you almost have to keep Harris. While the loss of Butler would sting, you’d be in solid shape building around the trio of Embiid, Simmons and Harris, all 26 or younger. If you don't strike early enough with Harris, he's going to have other suitors. He may have a little patience, but he's not going to wait forever.

Brand’s intention at the time of the Harris deal was to keep all four star-caliber players. While Brand said he was happy with what he saw out of Harris and Butler, was it enough to bring both back? 

It’s as difficult a decision as Brand will face this offseason.

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