76ers

NBA drama doesn't stop as Rockets reportedly trade for Russell Westbrook

NBA drama doesn't stop as Rockets reportedly trade for Russell Westbrook

The last two weeks have been not short on drama in the NBA.

The latest major move in the league came Thursday night as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported a trade between the Thunder and Rockets that will send Russell Westbrook to Houston.

According to The Athletic's Sam Amick, Paul might be on the move again soon, with Miami a possible destination.

As far as the Sixers are concerned, the immediate focus will remain on winning the Eastern Conference — a goal James Ennis is very confident they can achieve (see story).

Paul and Jimmy Butler teaming up in Miami would certainly be interesting, though it's difficult to analyze the threat they'd pose at this stage without knowing what the Heat would be giving up in a hypothetical deal.

If Westbrook and James Harden manage to gel along with Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela and company, the Rockets could be another contender in the West. However, the ball-dominant duo does not appear to be the most natural fit. The pair played together with Oklahoma City from 2009-2012.

A footnote for the Sixers is that the team owns the Thunder's 2020 first-round pick, which is protected 1 to 20. If the pick does not convey in 2020, it will become Oklahoma City's second-round picks in 2022 and 2023. Given that the focus for Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti seems to be more on building for the future than contending in the present, the latter scenario appears much more likely.

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NBA buyout market: Looking at possible options for the Sixers

NBA buyout market: Looking at possible options for the Sixers

The Sixers have yet to enter the buyout market this season. With Ben Simmons set to be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks after suffering a nerve impingement in his lower back, is now the time to act and pick up ball handling help? 

In order to add a player, the Sixers would first need to open up a roster spot. Kyle O’Quinn reportedly wants to be waived and, as the team’s fourth-string center, would the clear choice to let go. It might be a marginal upgrade, but the Sixers need to weigh whether there’s a free agent who could give them more than O’Quinn, who hasn’t played in a game close since Jan. 20.

There aren’t a ton of traditional point guards out there at the moment, but Tyler Johnson, Tim Frazier, Isaiah Thomas and Dion Waiters are four possibilities. 

Johnson’s career has gone downhill since he was traded to the Suns last season. He had surgery on his right knee last April and had a poor second year with Phoenix, shooting 38 percent from the field (28.9 percent from three) and falling out of Monty Williams’ rotation. Still, the 27-year-old can play both guard spots and, from 2017-19, averaged 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists. He also, before heading to Phoenix, graded out well in advanced statistics like defensive box plus-minus and defensive win shares and was a competent three-point shooter. For the Sixers, he’d seem to be the best option of the four names listed. 

The 6-foot Frazier, a Penn State product and Process era point guard (six games as rookie in 2014-15), was waived by the Pistons in February. Frazier is a pass-first player — you may recall he had five points and 11 assists in his NBA debut — who’s averaged 5.0 points and 4.0 assists in his NBA career.

In contrast to Frazier, the 5-foot-9 Thomas is a scorer. Defense is a major, obvious weakness and he’s clearly no longer the player he was during his prime with the Celtics.

A Philadelphia native, Waiters was suspended several several times this season by the Heat for off-court issues. He can score and has supreme self-confidence.

In order to be eligible for the playoffs, players must be waived by March 1, meaning there’s still time for other candidates to become available. The Sixers are free to sign someone at any point before the end of the regular season (as an example, they added Greg Monroe last April).

Simmons’ injury leaves the Sixers with some difficult questions. Is Shake Milton a viable starting point guard? How can the team get the most out of Alec Burks? What needs to change with their offensive approach outside of simply putting more on Joel Embiid’s plate? 

With the buyout market, the essential question is whether there’s a free agent who might be able to help the team more than O’Quinn. None of the names currently available are very attractive, but it at least seems that signing one and waiving O’Quinn would be better than doing nothing. 



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With a star down again, what should we expect from this year's Sixers?

With a star down again, what should we expect from this year's Sixers?

For the third straight season, the Sixers will be dealing with an injury to one of their stars after the All-Star break.

Ben Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back and will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks, a team source confirmed Tuesday to NBC Sports Philadelphia. That doesn’t mean Simmons will be back in two weeks. The Sixers will be without the All-Star point guard for at least that long with just 24 regular-season games left.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, this is nothing new. The last two seasons have seen Joel Embiid deal with injuries after the break. Now, they’ll be without the normally durable Simmons.

In the last two instances of missing one of their franchise cornerstones — though the Sixers are hoping this absence will be shorter — the team has had mixed success.

In 2017-18, Embiid suffered an orbital bone fracture after he collided with Markelle Fultz. Embiid missed the final eight games of the regular reason and the first two of the playoffs against the Heat. The Sixers won all eight of those games — part of a 16-game winning streak to close the season — and Game 1 against Miami.

Much like this year’s team, the 2017-18 squad benefited from a soft schedule. Just three of the 16 wins during that streak came against playoff teams — the LeBron James-led Cavs, the East’s seventh seed, Milwaukee, and the West’s eighth seed, Minnesota. As of this posting, this year’s team has the second-easiest schedule in the NBA over the last 24 games.

The team of two years ago had also acquired veterans Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova on the buyout market. While players of that caliber likely won’t be available this time around, GM Elton Brand already acquired a strong veteran duo in Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III. Belinelli and Ilyasova resurrected a bench that had issues scoring all season. The Sixers are currently 27th in the NBA in terms of bench scoring. Burks and Robinson likely won't have that profound of an impact, but they should help.

The biggest commonality that the 2019-20 team shares with the 2017-18 squad is that the star that was playing was doing so at a high level. Simmons nearly averaged a triple-double in those 16 games (14 points, 10.4 assists, 9.8 rebounds) and had one of the finest stretches of his career.

In his last five games — even when you include his rough night in Milwaukee — Embiid has averaged 31.8 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.8 steals. He’s also shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. His aggressive nature is obvious in the fact that he’s averaging 13.6 free throw attempts a game in that stretch.

While the team kept things afloat two years ago without Embiid, it didn’t go as well last season. In the 24 games after it was announced that Embiid was dealing with left knee tendinitis, he played in just 10. The Sixers went 7-3 in those games and 7-7 in the ones missed.

Like this year’s team, that squad also had issues with fit. They were trying to integrate Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris along with Simmons. It didn’t quite work out like the Sixers would’ve hoped. Embiid coming in and out of the lineup likely didn’t help the continuity problems. This season, Al Horford’s clunky fit offensively has forced the veteran big to become a reserve at times and forced Brett Brown to lessen his minutes next to Embiid.

The circumstances are more similar to two years ago than last year’s team, but there’s no question the Sixers face a huge new challenge without Simmons. They sit fifth in the East and have just 24 games to make up ground. Let’s see how this year’s version handles that adversity.

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