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NBA free agency preview: Shot creators

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NBA free agency preview: Shot creators

With the NBA’s free agency period beginning on July 1, the star-hungry Sixers are expected to chase LeBron James and Paul George. If James and George sign elsewhere though, the Sixers, who will start with around $26 million in cap space, will likely only be in the market for one-year deals, similar to last year, in order to preserve cap space for next summer (see story). With that said, they don't project to be players in the restricted free agency market.

Whether the Sixers sign a star or not they'll still have other needs on the roster, so what other unrestricted free agents could they target? After looking at potential upgrades from Amir Johnson at backup center and power forward options off the bench beyond Ersan Ilyasova, we continue our free agency preview by looking at potential shot creators.

Shot creators

Under contract: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, T.J. McConnell

Pending free agents: None

Position overview 
During the regular season, the Sixers played with the third-fastest pace and compiled the second-highest assist percentage. But what that fast, high-movement and unselfish style of basketball hid was their lack of individual, perimeter shot creators in a halfcourt offense.

The Celtics brought that into the spotlight in the playoffs.

Boston slowed the game down, played their strong guard and wing defenders up on the Sixers' perimeter players (besides Ben Simmons) and dared them to put the ball on the floor and make a play. And the only one that could take advantage of it was T.J. McConnell. Suffice it to say, the Sixers need to improve in this category.

Now, if Simmons works in a jumper to make defenses honest, he'll become a more effective player in the halfcourt. If Markelle Fultz regains a reliable shot, he'll turn into the secondary ball handler alongside Simmons that the Sixers dreamed of when they traded up to the No. 1 pick to draft him. And if the Sixers land one of the three big stars on the market this summer in James, George or Kawhi Leonard, they'll have an elite scorer. If those three things happen, they'd obviously be set.

But if they miss out on a star, adding someone that can break down a defender off the dribble and create a shot, either for themselves or others, should be high on the to-do list.

Potential free agent targets

Tyreke Evans 
The Tyreke Evans from a few years ago wouldn't have been a fit on the Sixers. The Chester, Pennsylvania, native was a downhill point forward without an efficient outside shot. But Evans is now an off-ball threat as he hasn't shot lower than 35.6 percent from deep over the past three seasons and hit a career-best mark in 2017-18 at 39.9 percent on 286 attempts. 

Not only was it Evans' best three-point shooting season of his career, but his best overall season as well. He averaged 19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field in 52 games with Memphis. He managed to shoot this efficiently despite 77.4 percent of his two-point makes and 51.8 percent of his three-point makes being of the unassisted variety.  At 6-6, Evans can pose matchup problems on offense and while defense isn't his strong suit he's passable on that end. Leading up to the trade deadline, the Sixers reportedly had interest in Evans but the Grizzlies decided not to deal him at all. The Sixers could've used him in the playoffs and could still use him moving forward.

Will Barton
Barton reportedly turned down a four-year, $42 million deal from Denver before last season and went on to have a career year. He averaged 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 33.1 minutes per game. The explosive, bucket-getting guard shot 45.2 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond on 422 attempts. While the 6-6 Barton received a vote for second-team All-Defense, he's average at best as a defender.

There's a chance Barton, 27, doesn't get that kind same of a contract offer from the Nuggets, or anyone else, this offseason. With Nikola Jokic's max contract reportedly agreed upon, Denver will be into the luxury tax unless it can shed some salary. With only a few playoff teams having significant cap space and most of the league with their eyes toward the summer of 2019, Barton could be a victim of a depressed market. If that's the case, the Sixers could be an option on an expensive one-year deal so Barton can try again for that lucrative, long-term contract next summer.

Rudy Gay
It was surprising when the Spurs signed Gay, 31, last offseason. He was coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and didn't seem like he'd be a fit in San Antonio's system. But, when he was healthy, he enjoyed a nice season in the most limited role of his career since he was a rookie. In 57 games, Gay averaged 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game off the bench and shot an efficient 47.1 percent from the field. As a career below-average shooter from deep (34.3 percent), he connected on just 31.4 percent of his triples but thrived from the midrange in. On the other end, the 6-8 Gay can check either forward spot.

Before last season, he had a 10-year stretch where his scoring average ranged from 17-21 points per game. He can't act as a primary ball handler like Barton and Evans and isn't a great outside shooter, but Gay has a proven track record as a scorer and could be an option as a backup power forward.

Isaiah Thomas
At the end of the 2016-17 season, Thomas looked like a lock to receive a max contract this offseason. Not anymore. Following his magical performance with the Celtics two seasons ago when he averaged 28.9 points per game, the 5-9 guard was traded to the Cavs for Kyrie Irving, wasn't able to make his debut until January while rehabbing from a hip injury, played 15 games for Cleveland before being dealt to the Lakers, and played 17 games off the Los Angeles' bench before having arthroscopic surgery on his hip. His final 2017-18 stat line: 15.6 points on 37.3 percent shooting from the field and 29.3 percent from deep in 32 games. Yikes.

Thomas' value is so hard to gauge. He didn't look himself last season and there's always a chance he returns to All-Star form if he can get that hip right. But hip issues for an undersized player that relies on his quickness and is set to turn 30 next season is a pretty big red flag. It's hard to predict what his offers will look like because it will all come down to the medical report.

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Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle come up large in Sixers' win over Raptors

Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle come up large in Sixers' win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

It may be early in the NBA schedule, but this wasn’t just another game for the Sixers.

In a game that had a playoff-like atmosphere, they held on to beat the Raptors, 110-104, at the Wells Fargo Center Sunday night.

Ben Simmons played composed, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle came up large and the Sixers’ defense imposed their will on Toronto.

Josh Richardson missed his sixth straight game with right hamstring tightness.

With the win, the Sixers remain unbeaten at home at 12-0 and improve to 17-7 overall. They host the Nuggets Tuesday night.

Here are observations from the win.

Steady Ben, Jo struggles

Joel Embiid was not doubled on his first touch … so he naturally turned it over. To Embiid’s credit, he didn’t let a tough start get to him. He was under control, handling double teams and taking what the game gave him. When Marc Gasol picked up his second foul, it allowed Embiid to get some looks against Serge Ibaka, which opened things up. With the Sixers out to a big lead in the fourth, Toronto used full-court pressure and Embiid struggled with it.

While a lot of attention has been paid to Embiid’s struggles against Toronto, let’s not forget that Simmons had his issues in the last matchup — even with Kawhi Leonard gone. Simmons also got off to a shaky start, looking like he was playing a little rushed. He started to let the game come to him a bit and settled in.

Embiid’s numbers weren’t mind-blowing (10 points, eight rebounds, six assists), but up until that weird fourth-quarter stretch, he didn’t force anything and his teammates made the Raptors pay.

Despite the five turnovers, Simmons had a strong overall game, flirting with a triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and  nine assists.

In general, the Sixers just seemed to handle the Raptors’ ball pressure significantly better — fourth quarter excluded — than they have in games past. A strong game from three-point range (14 of 32) also helped that cause.

Tobias makes Raptors pay

The Sixers have constantly talked about exploiting mismatches this season with their size. With the Raptors starting two smaller guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, there was bound to be a matchup they could exploit. 

Early on, it was Harris who was by far the Sixers’ most aggressive player in attacking Lowry. In a game where the Sixers did a lot of over-passing, Harris did not. The most impressive thing about Harris’ start was the way that he attacked the rim — even when Ibaka was in the game.

With head coach Nick Nurse’s game plan to take Embiid and Simmons out of the picture as much as possible, it was on the Sixers’ supporting cast to make them pay. Harris did just that with a game-high 26 points on 4 of 8 from three and 10 of 22 overall.

Bully ball defense

The most impressive thing from the Sixers was their defense, using their length to frustrate and challenge Toronto.

Brett Brown switched up the matchups, starting the game with Al Horford on Pascal Siakam and Simmons on Kyle Lowry. Still, it was Simmons’ defensive versatility that stood out. He did well in his matchups against Siakam, who is playing at an elite level (the Sixers held him to 16 points on 7 of 18). He was also the one that was able to draw Gasol’s second foul after he was switched onto the center in the post.

You’d be hard pressed to find many — if any — players that are better than Simmons when it comes to switching one through five.

The Sixers’ defense was also big in leading to offense and easy transition looks.

This play by Horford, where the Raptors essentially had a 3-on-1 fast break, was mighty impressive and led to a transition bucket.

In general, Horford was strong in this one. With how unequipped the Sixers were at the backup center position against Toronto last postseason, it was evident the impact Horford had Sunday.

The rook continues to pass every test

Thybulle was questionable heading into this one with a sprained right ankle, but there was nothing questionable about his play.

He frustrated Lowry at every opportunity, continuing to excel at his “rearview” contests and making life miserable for his opponents. He also drew an offensive foul on Ibaka while he was screening for Lowry. The 22-year-old is getting better at walking that fine line defensively.

And what Thybulle game would be complete without a steal highlight? This was one of his three on the night.

He also continues to make shots, like this one he hit at the buzzer at the end of the first quarter which turned into a four-point play.

He also nailed two big threes in the third quarter to extend the Sixers’ lead to 18. He made a rookie career-high 5 of 8 from three and set a new high mark with 20 points. This may have been the biggest test for Thybulle this season, and he passed with flying colors.

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Sixers vs. Raptors: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

Sixers vs. Raptors: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

The Raptors (15-6) return to the Wells Fargo Center for the first time since Game 6 last postseason to take on the Sixers (16-7).

Joel Embiid (left hip contusion) will return to the lineup and look to overcome his previous struggles against Marc Gasol and Toronto. Rookie Matisse Thybulle is listed as questionable after rolling his right ankle in last night's win over the Cavs. He will go through pregame warmups before determining his status, per a team source.

The Sixers will again be without Josh Richardson, who will miss his sixth straight game with right hamstring tightness. Richardson did participate in full-court activity Saturday, but the team continues to exercise caution so early in the season.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 6 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch for tonight's game:

Embiid’s boogeyman

Embiid has struggled mightily against Gasol and the Raptors in his career, but nothing compared to the first scoreless game of his NBA career back on Nov. 15 in Toronto. In six career regular-season games against Gasol, Embiid is averaging just 11.7 points a game and shooting below 30 percent. 

Head coach Nick Nurse deployed a different strategy last month than he did during the seven-game series between these two teams. Embiid faced double teams fairly often in the postseason, but in the last matchup, the Raptors had an extra player on Embiid on every single post touch. Nurse was daring the other Sixers to beat them — and they didn’t.

Embiid has done better handling double teams in general this season. This will be an interesting test.

Simmons shooting

For the first couple years of Ben Simmons’ career, Brett Brown has been fairly diplomatic when discussing his All-Star point guard’s shot.

After Simmons hit his second career three Saturday night, Brown was much blunter.

This is what I want, OK — you can pass this along to his agent, his family and his friends and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whenever he's open but I'm interested in the three-point shot. And the mentality that he has where he's turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most — those two things. And when you say, 'OK, what's the number?' I immediately throw out eight [free throws]. For whatever reason, I'm not sure, but that's a number that I think is attainable.

It was against a bad basketball team, but it still provided a blueprint for how Simmons should be playing and attacking. Embiid needs all the help he can get.

Looking to stay perfect … but it won’t be easy

The Sixers are a sparkling 11-0 at home, but they’re facing an opponent that’s played well on the road. The Raptors are 6-4 away from Scotiabank Arena.

Philly native Kyle Lowry has returned to the lineup. While Toronto has lost the two games since, Lowry has been playing well. Kawhi Leonard is in L.A. but this Raptors team is still mighty dangerous in general. Pascal Siakam is playing at a superstar level while Fred VanVleet has put up career-best numbers as a starter.

The biggest thing will be slowing down Toronto’s three-point shooting. The Raptors are the second-best team percentage wise in the league while hoisting a healthy amount beyond the arc. Six of their regulars are shooting 37 percent or better from distance. Meanwhile the Sixers are allowing the fewest threes per game.

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