James Ennis won Brett Brown's 'quiet tournament' last season, but a new one could be coming for Sixers in 2019-20

James Ennis won Brett Brown's 'quiet tournament' last season, but a new one could be coming for Sixers in 2019-20

By early May, when James Ennis had outscored the Raptors’ bench through the first three games of the Sixers’ second-round playoff series against Toronto, Brett Brown’s “quiet tournament” felt like a distant memory.

About three months earlier, though, Ennis hadn’t left the Sixers’ bench in a game against the Celtics. Jonathon Simmons and Furkan Korkmaz instead combined for 25 minutes in a 112-109 loss to Boston on Feb. 13 as Brown experimented with the newest version of his team, searching for an adequate second-unit wing. Neither Simmons or Korkmaz are currently on the Sixers’ roster.

“It was tough at first because I was unsure if I was going to play,” Ennis said at his exit interview on May 13. “Me and Jonathon were play one game, sit one game, so it was kind of rocky at first. But I got more games under my belt, got more comfortable, and it just took off like that. I appreciate the staff believing in me, Elton Brand bringing me here and Coach Brown allowing me to play.”

Ennis’ spot seems secure for the upcoming season. The Sixers, as Brand noted at Friday’s press conference, are grateful he stuck with the team for less than his market value. Mike Scott is another known quantity off the bench, a player who gives you shooting, versatility, toughness and indelible quotes. Kyle O’Quinn will provide “much-needed depth at the center spot,” Brand said. When healthy, Raul Neto was a solid backup point guard for the Jazz, with three-point shooting ability (37.7 percent for his career) and a solid assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5 assists and 0.9 turnovers per game last season).

Thanks to those veterans, the Sixers should have a decent idea of what they’re getting from their bench. And, with 13 players on the active roster, the team could still add two more pieces. But don’t be surprised if another “quiet tournament” develops in 2019-20, with Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle at the center of the conversation.

Brown was bullish in May about Smith’s chances of factoring into his rotation this season, raving about everything from Smith’s “perseverance and love of basketball” to his defensive abilities.

Smith’s shot, Brown said, “will be the thing that ultimately makes his package whole.” The hyper-athletic 20-year-old made 5 of 16 three-point attempts in summer league (31.3 percent) and 6 of 16 (37.5 percent) in six games at the end of last season. Outside of his jumper, Smith has flashed the knack for making plays in transition, hunting offensive rebounds, cutting smartly and passing intuitively. It remains to be seen how well those other tools will convey in the NBA, though it’s worth considering Smith’s track record of learning new skills at a quick pace and his eagerness to put in the necessary work

Thybulle, selected 20th in this year’s draft and acquired by the Sixers in a trade with the Celtics, plans to play right away. Brand is on the same page.

“We need that piece that can step in right now,” he said on June 21.

There’s little uncertainty about what Thybulle can provide or the role he’ll play. His job will be to get his hands in passing lanes and detonate plays defensively with his impressive anticipation and closing speed. Offensively, he’ll be asked to convert spot-up threes at a respectable rate. The rookie did well in that regard during summer league, making 11 of 28 long-range shots (39.3 percent). 

Playing Smith and Thybulle together at times is an intriguing idea. The pair didn’t take long to form a connection. Thybulle mentioned at summer league minicamp that he was trying to “mimic” Smith, and the two shared some laughs in Las Vegas. There might be a “tournament” at times between the two for minutes, but there could also be an alliance if Brown is willing to tolerate a few youthful errors. As we contemplate the possibilities in July, plenty of options are on the table. Shake Milton could also be a factor at both guard spots.

We can say with plenty of confidence, however, that the 2018-19 edition of Brown’s “quiet tournament” was won in a landslide by Ennis. The 2019-20 version looks to be up for grabs. 

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Spoiler alert: Al Horford is a better teammate than film critic

Spoiler alert: Al Horford is a better teammate than film critic

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers’ most recent bonding experience was a screening of the movie Joker.

Don’t worry, no spoilers here.

Al Horford said he was “disappointed” by the critically acclaimed filmed about the DC comic book villain, but he was pleased with the experience being around his teammates.

While this might seem silly, it’s no small thing. JJ Redick mentioned on Zach Lowe’s podcast last month that he felt like the Sixers didn’t have enough team dinners. Those dinners on the road are often looked at as team bonding experiences.

Horford is easily the team’s most seasoned player at 33 years old and a veteran of 12 NBA seasons. He’s seen his fair share of changes and roster turnover now playing for his third team.

But it’s been two of the returning Sixers that have led the way when it comes to team bonding.

“I think the willingness of everyone trying to make that happen,” Horford said after practice Thursday. “Tobias [Harris] I think has been a big influence on all of us making sure that we're all getting together. Ben [Simmons] as well has taken that leadership role. So we're doing stuff — not all the time — but we're going to watch movies together, we're doing things as a team, as a group and that has been nice. I feel like those kind of things bring teams closer.”

It was Harris and Simmons who organized the Joker screening during the road trip in Charlotte and the paintball excursion a few weeks back before camp began.

And it’s not just the players that feel the chemistry growing. Their head coach has also seen the growth from the start of training camp until now.

“That they coexist well,” Brett Brown said when asked what he’s learned about his team. “That they seem to enjoy each other's company. That they have bought in in a significant way that we are a defensive-oriented team. That we are long — we can be disruptive. And there has been an unselfishness on the offensive end that hasn't been hard to extract. It's quite actually organic. The guys sort of think like that, which makes my job a lot easier.”

The idea that the Sixers will be a defensive-oriented team started with the way GM Elton Brand constructed his roster. Bringing in Horford and Josh Richardson to create a monstrous starting five is part of it. It’s also just having a bunch of players that have that mindset.

Both Embiid and Simmons have stated their goal is to win Defensive Player of the Year. Horford and Richardson have always been praised for their two-way play. Even Harris, who has shown signs of improvement on that end, went to Brown this offseason and told him he wasn’t going to be the weak link of the team defensively.

It’s quite a change from a team that took a huge step back defensively last season. Going into opening night against Boston next week, the Sixers want to be the best defensive team in the league.

“We know we certainly have the capability, but just guys giving multiple efforts gives me the sense we can be very special,” Horford said. “But it's one of those things that we have to be consistent with that every day in order to accomplish those goals, and we've been doing a good job of that. We just have to continue to do it.”

With just one more preseason game on the docket Friday night against the Wizards, there is certainly a vibe with the team of just wanting to prepare for next Wednesday. Brown admitted that he’s already begun his prep for the Celtics.

It’s an encouraging sign that his team appears to have come together so quickly but Brown knows none of that matters if it doesn’t translate to when the games count.

“I would say yes. I feel that if you looked at just the character of the people, I'd say no,” Brown said when asked if he was surprised with the team’s bonding. “But in general — and let's call it also what it is — we really haven't played legitimate, NBA basketball yet. …

“You roll into Wells Fargo against the Celtics on opening night, the rules change in significant ways. And that's when we're all going to have more meaningful conversations about like, 'Where are we at? What have I learned? Have they come together quickly and why?' It gets far more scrutinized when it's that type of environment than it does right now.”

Hopefully Horford enjoys his team’s performance on opening night more than he did Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal as the Crown Prince of Crime.

“Oh, a lot of the guys liked it,” Horford said. “I thought it was going to be different. I thought it was going to be more action. So it was one of those things, I was a little disappointed.”

Spoiler alert: Al Horford is a better teammate and basketball player than film critic.

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NBA GM survey: Sixers seen as a better team than last year, but Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons mostly fly under radar

NBA GM survey: Sixers seen as a better team than last year, but Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons mostly fly under radar

If you’re seeking to break outside the local bubble and understand the league’s view of your team, the NBA.com GM survey is a helpful tool.

John Schuhmann had the league’s general managers respond to 50 different questions about coaches, players, teams and more. GMs were, of course, prohibited from selecting their own team or members of their organization. 

Below are a few interesting Sixers-related takeaways.

What a difference a year makes 

On opening night last season, the Sixers started Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid. In the eyes of NBA GMs, replacing Fultz, Covington and Saric with Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford is a substantial upgrade. 

After being picked by zero GMs to win the Eastern Conference last year, 24 percent of respondents this season think the Sixers will be conference champions, with 76 percent taking the Bucks. 

Embiid is … flying under the radar? 

Embiid’s talents are widely recognized across the league, without a doubt. He finished second in the voting for best center in the NBA, behind Nikola Jokic and ahead of Anthony Davis.

That said, there were a couple of categories in which Embiid was perhaps overlooked. Embiid was not one of the six players to receive votes as best defensive player in the league, or one of the eight picked as MVP. 

More puzzlingly, no GM selected him as the league’s best international player. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the clear, uncontroversial winner with 86 percent of the vote. It’s a bit odd, though, that reigning Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic got 7 percent while the Cameroonian Embiid, an All-Star starter the past two seasons, got none. Simmons, a native of Australia, was also passed over again.

The Sixers aren’t so ‘young’ anymore  

The Sixers aged dramatically over the past year, at least judging by these survey results. 

They dropped from receiving 47 percent of votes for most promising young core to 7 percent this season, behind the Pelicans, Nuggets, Hawks and Kings. While Embiid and Simmons are indeed merely a year older, Richardson is 26 years old and Harris 27, the perception appears to be that the Sixers are no longer a youthful team on the verge of title contention — they’ve hit the next stage, or so it seems. 

No lone star  

Embiid was the Sixers player who got the most individual attention. Simmons and Harris received no votes of any sort, while Richardson showed up in the “also receiving votes” category for the question of the most underrated player acquisition this offseason. Horford received votes for the most surprising offseason acquisition and best basketball IQ. 

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