76ers

2020 NBA return format: Why NBA's return format is a blessing for Sixers

2020 NBA return format: Why NBA's return format is a blessing for Sixers

The NBA's Board of Governors has agreed on a format to return to play, but here’s an unfortunate reminder that the Sixers weren’t in an advantageous spot when play was suspended on March 11.

They sat sixth in the Eastern Conference, likely out of reach of anything better than the four seed. What’s worse is they were beset by injuries, baffling road woes and underperformance from some of the team’s high-priced talent.

The league announced on Thursday it will play eight more regular-season games starting on July 31 — and that’s great news for the Sixers because they need all eight of them.

Let’s begin where everything begins with the Sixers: Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

Before the stoppage of play, Simmons had missed eight games with a nerve impingement in his lower back. Prior to us finding out about Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 and the league’s decision to suspend the season, Simmons addressed the media that night. He said he had “no pain” and seemed to have a positive outlook on his injury overall.

On May 5, GM Elton Brand said he was "optimistic" Simmons would be ready if a return to play happened. Brand did admit, though, that Simmons’ ramp-up period may be a little different from other players since the All-Star point guard hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 22. These eight games will be invaluable for Simmons to get his feel back.

While the rest may have been good for Simmons, it may have been a bit of a mixed bag for Embiid. Sure, the break likely gave Embiid time to rest his body, but the All-Star center has admitted in the past that he can get out of shape easily with too much time off. At 7-foot and 280-plus pounds, Embiid will need these eight games to get his fitness level up so that Brett Brown can play him “about 38 minutes” a night in the postseason.

Then there’s Josh Richardson, whose first season with the Sixers has been mired by injuries. Multiple hamstring injuries and a concussion have cost Richardson 17 games. He also had a wrist issue in his right shooting hand that he played through. We’ve seen Richardson struggle to get his shooting touch back after long layoffs. He’s hit just 32.7 percent of his threes this season, which would be the lowest mark of his five-year career. When healthy, Richardson has had a couple excellent stretches. Perhaps he can use those eight games to find his form.

But all the health in the world won’t mean much if the Sixers don’t get the best out of their high-priced starting five.

The struggles of Al Horford have been well documented. Brought in to space the floor with Embiid and be an elite backup center, Horford has really only provided half of that equation. The five-time All-Star is on pace for his worst shooting season since 2014-15. While Horford is a clear upgrade over Boban Marjanovic and Greg Monroe, the pairing of Embiid and the veteran big offensively has been plain bad.

The duo of Embiid and Horford has an offensive rating of 100.6. That’s almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). It doesn’t take an analytics wizard to see that it hasn't worked.

Brown has been hellbent on making the pairing work despite fairly strong evidence that it does not. The best blueprint for the Sixers was their win over the Clippers right before the All-Star break. Horford did not start but closed the game out in an impressive win. Perhaps these eight games will allow Brown to get the duo going or, more reasonably, see that it won’t work and go in a different direction.

Last but certainly not least is the man who signed the richest contract in Sixers history. Tobias Harris has not been bad by any stretch. In fact, you could make the argument that he's been the team's most reliable and consistent player this season. But is that worth over $32 million this season?

Harris was re-signed to be a leader — a role he's filled well — and to be a scoring complement to Embiid and Simmons. During that trio's time together, they've all scored 20 points in the same game once. These eight games are crucial for them to figure out how to coexist.

There will be several teams that will benefit from getting eight more regular-season games. Teams like the Pelicans and Trail Blazers have a legitimate shot to earn a playoff spot.

But there's no doubt the Sixers need every regular-season game they can get.

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Brett Brown is 'shocked' his pitch worked on Ryan Broekhoff, who had a lot to consider

Brett Brown is 'shocked' his pitch worked on Ryan Broekhoff, who had a lot to consider

Brett Brown didn’t think Ryan Broekhoff would buy his recruiting pitch. 

“I was shocked that he agreed to come,” Brown said Wednesday on a video call with reporters. 

Yet the 29-year-old Broekhoff decided to join the Sixers for the remainder of the NBA season, signing the substitute contract the team had available because of its vacant two-way contract spot. He’d been a free agent since February, when he was waived by the Mavericks so Dallas could make room for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Broekhoff, who played 59 games over two seasons with the Mavs and converted 40.3 percent of his three-point attempts, has a connection with Brown through the Australian national team. Brown recalled Wednesday that he’s known Broekhoff since he was around 17 years old, while Broekhoff couldn’t recall the exact date of their first meeting. 

He's known Ben Simmons, a fellow native of Melbourne, Australia, since Simmons was about 16. 

“He’s had a lot of influence down in Australia,” Broekhoff said of Brown, who’s the current head coach of the Boomers and also held that position from 2009-2012. “I do remember he cut me from the 2012 Olympic squad, so that’s one thing that I can joke about now. Over the last couple years and especially now, with him being announced as the national team head coach again, we’ve had more conversations.

"I see this as a way to sit up close and personal and get some extra time to learn his philosophies and how things may work, not just with the Sixers but also with the national team.”

The odds of Broekhoff emerging as a vital piece for the Sixers don’t appear high, which Brown said he emphasized in an honest conversation. 

To mislead him about, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of opportunity here,’ that’s not true,” Brown said. “I told him that. You’ve got, what, six people? We all could look at each other and say, ‘What about Matisse (Thybulle)? And Glenn Robinson, and Furkan (Korkmaz) and Alec Burks?’ You could go on and on and on. 

“This isn’t an opportunity where it’s clear there’s a runway and a pathway at all. And that was the flavor of my talk. I downplayed it more than anything. He’s out of contract, I don’t want to mislead him. And I believed when I hung up the phone, he was either going to go to Europe or maybe somebody else could recruit him a little bit better than I did.

The large handful of wings on the Sixers didn’t deter Broekhoff. He said he had an identical offer from one additional NBA team, along with interest from several others. His goal is to find a “steady” spot in the NBA, though, and he thought the fit with the Sixers made sense. 

“They’ve been able to utilize shooters and guys that play off the ball to complement their stars,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m in JJ Redick’s category, because he’s been an unbelievable player and unbelievable shooter for so long, but it’s just being able to prototype myself around that style of play. He had great success here and hopefully I can find the opportunity to be able to deliver similar sort of performances.”

It's a somewhat generous assessment to classify the Sixers' system as conducive to outside shooting, given that the team this season is 14th in three-point percentage and 22nd in three-point attempts. In contrast, Dallas is eighth and second in those categories, respectively.  

Basketball wasn’t the only factor Broekhoff had to weigh.

“It hasn’t been an easy decision, by any means, to come back,” he said. “I have a wife and a one-year-old son, and my wife has an autoimmune disease, so she’s at higher risk for COVID. It’s taken a lot for us to be able to get to this point where we signed.

"We spoke to Elton Brand and we spoke to Coach, just wanted to get some more information about how the bubble is going to be down in Orlando. If anything happens, what are my options to get back and take care of my family? That was important to me.”

For the time being, Broekhoff wants to be sharp for the Sixers’ training camp in Orlando, which Brown described as “huge” in determining competitions for minutes and roles. Mandatory workouts at the Sixers' facility in Camden, New Jersey, started Wednesday, while the team is set to arrive in Disney World on July 9 and resume play on Aug. 1 against the Pacers (see schedule).

By knocking down some jumpers and playing with the "Australian toughness" Brown praised, Broekhoff could remind his head coach why he made that hopeful recruiting pitch.

“Anything can happen during camp and I’m going to try to put my best foot forward,” Broekhoff said, “and not just rely on shooting, but just show everything — try to defend and rebound and be an energy sort of leader, a veteran kind of guy.

"Even though I’ve been in the league only a short amount of time, I feel like I have a lot of experience, both internationally and overseas in Europe. Just being able to help the team in any way is my goal at the moment.” 

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The latest on Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and how the Sixers plan to use them

The latest on Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and how the Sixers plan to use them

In what has truly been one of the most unprecedented times in sports — and really the world — an unexpected nugget of news has emerged: The Sixers are (relatively) healthy.

None of their players tested positive for COVID-19 during the NBA’s Phase 2 protocol. The only player that will not be joining the team in Disney as of now will be second-year guard Zhaire Smith, who is dealing with a bone bruise in his knee.

But of all the health updates the team could provide, none are more important than the statuses of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, head coach Brett Brown had all positive news when it came to his All-Star duo.

In an interview just last month, Brown didn’t seem nearly as optimistic that Simmons would be 100 percent by the time play resumed. The team’s point guard had been dealing with a nerve impingement in his lower back which caused him to miss the last eight games before the NBA season was suspended.

In the time since that interview, several images — and a video of a couple acrobatic dunks — have shown Simmons working out in L.A. with his trainer Chris Johnson and LeBron James with the 23-year-old looking healthy.

You’re always trying to be responsible of not always being a cheerleader or delivering stuff that maybe you’re going to regret,” Brown said. “My comments on Ben [are] because you’re trying to walk that line of protecting him and not sort of jumping out of your lane where people’s hopes get a little too high. And so my decision to choose the words that I chose of we’re going to try to bring him along — I don’t backpedal from that — but the fact is he’s doing way better than that phrase would indicate. So I think the group should hear probably mostly now that you’re going to treat Ben like you’re going to treat Shake [Milton] or Matisse [Thybulle]. 

“He’s good to go. He’s put in a tremendous amount of work for me to able to confidently say that. I think when you search for silver linings with this pandemic and the way things have shaped up, it would be hard-pressed for me to find something more obvious than this. It’s enabled Ben to reclaim his health, but I think inching along from maybe a month ago that we spoke, that is not true. He’s good to go and we look forward to watching him with what I’m told is effectively 100 percent health.

While Embiid has dealt with a few injuries this season, the most pertinent question is whether he’ll be in top physical shape. It’s an issue Embiid has dealt with throughout his career and that Brown has been asked about ad nauseum.

Embiid recently said that he’s been working out six days a week in order to be ready for the league’s resumption. 

Let’s just start with the respect and applause I give him for putting in time,” Brown said. “There is nobody on our team that has put in more time than Joel Embiid. ... I’m proud of him, I respect him — he needed to do it. We understand the impact he can have on our team. I think that once Joel has that fitness base that I’m talking about and we get a three-week runway to deliver him to the regular season, I’m looking for Joel to come in as good as shape as he has been in since I have coached him.

As for how the pair fit on the court, Brown has mentioned on more than one occasion that the Feb. 11 win over the Clippers is the best version of his team. A big part of that was the success Embiid and Simmons found playing together.

For years, Brown has used Embiid and Simmons in a snug pick-and-roll — basically just a low post pick-and-roll with Simmons as the ball handler. While it hasn’t been particularly effective throughout their time together, it was on that night.

Brown sees it not only as a pathway to making them better, but to possibly being one of the biggest pick-and-roll threats in the league.

When you look at that particular game, that action, they ran it quite a bit in flow and lot of that was just those two guys playing together,” Brown said. “It wasn’t anything where you’re sort of stomping your foot from the sideline and calling the play. They found it organically. … Maybe the most prolific pick-and-roll partnership that I remember is [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone, and I think that [Simmons and Embiid] have a chance to hook up in the environment that you’re speaking about and grow that part of their game and just the coexisting as teammates and relational side. And that is a crunch-time look for sure. …

“But it was significantly run against the Clippers. I do believe it helped us, and I am excited to develop that part of those two players’ world. I think you’re going to see more of it in the regular season and based on its success, see more of it in the playoffs.

Stockton wasn’t 6-foot-10 and Malone wasn’t chucking up threes, but if Simmons and Embiid can be anywhere near that effective in that action — and stay healthy — the Sixers could be mighty dangerous in Disney World.

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