76ers

What if the Sixers had traded Julius Erving for Michael Jordan?

What if the Sixers had traded Julius Erving for Michael Jordan?

How would the world of basketball have been altered if Michael Jordan was a Sixer? It sounds like a ludicrous question at first, but there is a fascinating alternate reality in which Jordan enjoyed a long career in Philadelphia. 

In the book “Pat Williams’ Tales From the Philadelphia 76ers,” former Sixers owner Harold Katz said, “I thought I had a deal with Jonathan Kovler [then the principal owner] of the Bulls for the third pick” in exchange for Julius Erving. Rod Thorn, then the GM of the Bulls, seemed to confirm the essence of Katz’s story in April on ESPN 1000’s Kap & Company Show. He noted the Bulls had “really strong offers” from the Sixers and Mavericks on draft day in 1984, as well as lesser offers from other teams. 

Let’s begin by analyzing the clearest implications of this gigantic ripple in time. If we understand Katz correctly, Chicago would’ve acquired a 34-year-old Erving, while the Sixers would’ve owned the third and fifth picks, and the chance to take Jordan and Charles Barkley. With all due respect to Erving, who averaged 18.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists over his final three professional seasons, that’s a lopsided trade for the Sixers. Unless some tangential miracle occurred, the Bulls would not have been the “team of the 90s.”

As a rookie, Jordan would’ve played next to Barkley, Maurice Cheeks, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones. The version of that team with Erving on it won 58 regular-season games and fell to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Would a 21-year-old Jordan have been better than an aging Erving that season? What about in the series against Boston? “Yes” seems to be a safe answer to both questions. Erving struggled with his shot in the conference finals, shooting just 32.4 percent. When Jordan got his first playoff opportunity against the Celtics in the 1986 postseason, he scored 49 points in Game 1, 63 in Game 2. 

So, the conclusion that Jordan would’ve been better than any player you possibly could have traded him for is not a startling revelation. It is, however, worth considering that he didn’t win a title until his seventh season despite an almost immediate ascent to superstardom. How quickly could he have become a champion with the Sixers?

We’ll first assume that Jordan successfully returns from the fractured navicular bone he suffered in his second season with the Bulls, or that he never has that injury as a Sixer. The timeline in which his career is severely shortened is dark and obviously no fun to contemplate. His “title window” in Philadelphia alongside Barkley would likely have been nearly limitless, at least on the surface. But much of his career would have hinged on his partnership with Barkley, a very different No. 2 compared to Scottie Pippen.

Jordan and Barkley were good friends for a long time in the timeline we inhabit, but their relationship splintered after Jordan took offense to Barkley criticizing him as an executive. Barkley has said Moses Malone told him, “You’re fat and you’re lazy” when he first entered the NBA. We imagine Jordan would have communicated the same message, and that practices would’ve been stuffed with expletives and insults. The on-court fit shouldn’t have been a problem, since Cheeks would've made sure both players got their shots. 

The coaching situation is another factor to consider. After Kevin Loughery and Stan Albeck were fired in Jordan’s first two seasons, he only had two other head coaches with the Bulls — Doug Collins and Phil Jackson. During Jordan's time in Chicago, the Sixers had eight head coaches — Billy Cunningham, Matt Guokas, Jim Lynam, Doug Moe, Fred Carter, John Lucas, Johnny Davis and Larry Brown. There wouldn’t have been nearly as much turnover with Jordan around, although one wonders if any coach could’ve handled him as well as the eccentric Jackson. 

If Jordan was a Sixer, it's natural to think he never would've been crossed over by a brash, young Allen Iverson. Actually, that might not be entirely true. Iverson may have crossed over Jordan the way he did to so many players across the league, but he wouldn't have done it as a Sixer. There’s no way a Jordan-led Sixers team would’ve had any ping pong balls in the Iverson sweepstakes.

Before we get too deep in the weeds, one final scenario: In the summer of 1994, would fans have flooded to Reading, Pennsylvania, to see Jordan patrol right field for the Fightin Phils? Or, without Jerry Reinsdorf owning both a professional basketball and baseball team in his city, would Jordan have taken his hacks at a lower level in the Phillies system — perhaps Single-A Spartanburg, after a Spring Training circus in Clearwater, Florida — before eventually telling the world he was returning to the Sixers and renewing his single-minded quest for more NBA titles? 

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Bench celebrations were a highlight in fourth quarter of Sixers' game vs. Raptors

Bench celebrations were a highlight in fourth quarter of Sixers' game vs. Raptors

The starting lineups of two Eastern Conference playoff teams aren’t usually on the benches in the fourth quarter of a close game.

They were Wednesday night, though, as neither the Sixers nor the Raptors had anything to play for in a game that Toronto won, 125-121. That situation resulted in some exuberant celebrations and a mini-competition of which bench could bring the most energy. There was plenty of enthusiasm on both sides. (The photos below are from USA Today Images.)

Joel Embiid and Al Horford enjoyed Mike Scott’s shooting. 

A late Matisse Thybulle jumper was a big hit, too. 

And there were big smiles and incredulous reactions when rookie Marial Shayok blocked a shot and then chose a layup over a dunk on the ensuing fast break. 

“I don’t minimize that sort of vibe, that action, at all,” Brett Brown said. “There is a true spirit amongst our group. There is a sort of inherent, accumulated, relational side that we’ve all expedited because we’re in the bubble in buses and restaurants and gyms and dormitories together. … I think the guys on the bench, whether it’s bench players or our starters, showing that type of support, that type of attitude, how can that not be a good thing?”

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Can Furkan Korkmaz hold his own on defense vs. Celtics? Brett Brown weighs in

Can Furkan Korkmaz hold his own on defense vs. Celtics? Brett Brown weighs in

Furkan Korkmaz’s biggest weakness as a player is no great secret.

He is an improved defender but not a good one and so, with the Sixers set to face the Celtics in the first round of the postseason, it’s natural to wonder if the 23-year-old will be playable against skilled wings like All-Star Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward.

I do (have confidence). I think he’s made great progress this year,” Brett Brown said. “He understood well and truly that it was going to influence, clearly, how much he was going to play. Because we experienced some different things this year with lots of injuries, it opened up a door for him to take advantage of.

"He’s a great story, as we all know. This route from where he was to where he is needs to be told — I suspect that it will. And I think that his defense has improved enough to where you feel confident he can come in and play in an NBA rotation. 

That’s certainly an endorsement of Korkmaz’s defense. 

It’s not, however, as if Brown called Korkmaz a shutdown defender. “Play in an NBA rotation” isn't the same as “be on the floor in crunch time of a playoff game” or “take on the opposition’s top scorers,” or anything close to it. And, given Brown’s tendency to focus on the positive, it’s not stunning that he gave an affirmative response to a question about whether he had confidence in one of his players.

The formula for Korkmaz making the Sixers a better team has typically been high-efficiency shotmaking and passable defense. As Brown said, Korkmaz’s path — from having his third-year option declined last season, to signing with the Sixers on a minimum contract last July, to honing his conditioning and focusing on his defense, to leading the team in made three-pointers — is remarkable. Still, it’s rare for Korkmaz, who scored 21 points in Wednesday’s 125-121 loss to the Raptors, to be a positive-value player when he’s not hitting jumpers. 

Other Sixers on the bench are more well-rounded. If he’s not limited by a nagging left hip pointer injury, Glenn Robinson offers an attractive two-way skill set, a playoff-ready mixture of perimeter defense, outside shooting and cutting. Alec Burks is far from an elite defender, but he’s generally looked capable of stopping some dribble penetration and can single-handedly generate offense in a way few of his teammates can. 

Though Matisse Thybulle provides little offensively besides spot-up shooting and athleticism, he has special talent on the other side of the ball that the Sixers will need with Ben Simmons out after undergoing surgery on his left knee. 

It’s possible all of the players mentioned above will be in the Sixers’ playoff rotation, which Brown has said he expects will include nine players. Mike Scott is a name seemingly on the edge, and perhaps he’s the kind of perpetually unfazed veteran who could step in if Korkmaz or Thybulle are having trouble in a particular game or matchup. 

Korkmaz combines a supreme faith in his abilities with an earnest, humble personality that’s endeared him to his teammates. He understands that opponents will try to target him defensively.

“I was just trying to be solid on defense,” he said on July 21, “because the first (two) years, everybody was talking about my weaknesses on defense, but I think this year I made a big jump on defense. Also, I was talking to the coaching staff, talking to players, to improve myself. Still I am trying to improve myself, every part of the game — not just only defense or offense. But I think defense is key for me to stay on the court longer, I know that.”

Against Boston this season, Korkmaz played, in chronological order, 19, 8, 14 and 25 minutes. He actually held Celtics players to 1 of 6 shooting on field goals he defended on opening night, while Boston shot 4 of 5 on shots Korkmaz guarded on Jan. 9. Assuming he’s in Brown’s initial rotation, there will likely be fluctuations in both Korkmaz's performances and his playing time. The idea of giving him a few stints per game alongside Al Horford, a player he’s thrived alongside this year, might work if he’s shooting well and holding his own in a manageable matchup against Marcus Smart or Semi Ojeleye.

Consistency and reliability are not traits usually associated with Korkmaz, but it’s a logical area of focus at this stage. 

“Defensively, offensively, I’m just trying to stay consistent,” Korkmaz said Wednesday. “I know my role. It’s good to be playing good basketball. I’m feeling good. I wish we just won this game. … Just getting ready for the playoffs.”

Brown seems to believe the Turkish wing’s defensive deficiencies aren’t enough to eliminate the possibility of him helping in the postseason. We'll see soon if that's the case. 

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