76ers

Raptors have had Sixers' number but not this version

Raptors have had Sixers' number but not this version

There’s having a team’s number and there’s what Kawhi Leonard has done to the Sixers.

In the 13 games he’s played against the Sixers since he entered the league, he’s a spotless 13-0. It’s fair to point out that he played against a lot of awful Sixers teams while playing for a couple outstanding teams.

Before this season, his numbers were fairly modest against them. After joining the Raptors in an offseason trade, he tormented the Sixers this season, averaging 30.3 points in three games.

Toronto, as a team, has given them fits recently. Kyle Lowry and company were not kind to The Process Sixers. Scotiabank Arena has been a house of horrors. The Sixers haven't won there since Nov. 10, 2012, losing 13 straight.

But that was then and this is now.

"Sixers 3.0" moved on to the second round to face the Raptors after a dominant Game 5 performance to end the Nets’ season. The team that was on the floor Tuesday doesn’t resemble the team Toronto faced in four games this season.

The Sixers suffered a deflating loss to the Raptors on Feb. 5. Then in the wee hours of the night, GM Elton Brand struck a deal with the Clippers to acquire Tobias Harris.

They aren’t putting much stock into the matchup’s history.

“We all understand what the math says with our success in Toronto and it’s not flattering. But it’s also not directed to the team that we have,” Brett Brown said. “You can credit or you can discredit it. I’m discrediting it. I think that we have a new group, we have a new opportunity …

“It’s going to be an incredibly tough series. I think that Toronto is as good as there is in the NBA. We will be tested immediately when we get up into Toronto.”

Not only do the Sixers feature a new-look starting five with Harris, they also have a completely different bench. Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott and James Ennis also didn’t play against the Raptors as Sixers. Brown has shrunk his rotation down to eight with those three playing the biggest roles.

Sure, those three players are not likely to swing the series, especially with the depth of Toronto, but they’re still upgrades across the board.

Marjanovic is a tough matchup against any team. He’s incredibly efficient offensively and, though slow footed, did an excellent job challenging shots at the rim against the Nets. As for Scott and Ennis, they bring a toughness and represent an upgrade defensively over anyone the Raptors saw off the Sixers’ bench this season.

But it all begins and ends with the starting five. They outscored Brooklyn 31-2 in the first half Tuesday. Of all the five-man lineups that have played at least 40 minutes together this postseason, the Sixers’ starting unit has the best defensive and net rating.

Brand was candid about his team needing more before the season and he went out and got way more. He wasn't going to sit on his hands after his team was beaten soundly in the second round last season by the Boston Celtics.

Again, that was then, this is now.

“We feel pretty good about what we can do,” Embiid said. “There is definitely a difference from last year. I feel this year’s team is better than last year’s team. Last year we had a great momentum going into the playoffs and then Boston just smacked us, but go into this series it’s different because I’ve seen it. It’s my second time being here. Last year we were kind of, I would say, overconfident, but this year it’s just about respecting everything about the game of basketball and just putting the work in.”

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James Ennis will decline his player option but could very well still return to Sixers

James Ennis will decline his player option but could very well still return to Sixers

James Ennis will decline his player option and become a free agent, his agent, Scott Nichols from Rize Management, confirmed Monday morning.

The news was first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. Ennis’ player option was for $1.85 million.

According to Nichols, Ennis is seeking a more lucrative, multi-year deal. Nichols said Ennis, after being acquired by the Sixers in February in a trade with the Houston Rockets, enjoyed his stint in Philadelphia, and it’s possible he could return to the Sixers. 

“He’s built good relationships within his short time there with his teammates like Ben [Simmons] and Joel [Embiid] and has found a quiet leadership role there, too,” Nichols told NBC Sports Philadelphia.

Ennis talked at his exit interview last Monday about the close friendship he’s developed with Simmons, mentioning that Simmons talked him into getting a Cane Corso dog, the same type of dog Simmons has. 

Ennis boosted his stock during the postseason as a key member of the Sixers’ bench, averaging 7.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 11 playoff games. During the regular season, Ennis won the “tournament” for wing minutes off the bench in a landslide, beating out Jonathon Simmons and Furkan Kokrmaz.

“It was tough at first because it was unsure if I was going to play,” Ennis said. “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 [Brett] Brown allowing me to play.”

At 28 years old, Ennis has already played for six teams. The Sixers, if they’re willing to offer a deal that Ennis and Nichols like, may offer the stability that’s been lacking during his career.

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The spotlight is on Elton Brand for his first NBA Draft, free agency as Sixers general manager

The spotlight is on Elton Brand for his first NBA Draft, free agency as Sixers general manager

Last year, the Sixers’ pre-draft process was, for some time, a mystery. As the team investigated then-president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo’s alleged use of burner Twitter accounts, the typical pre-draft routine was interrupted. Then, with the search underway to replace Colangelo, the Sixers took on the NBA Draft with Brett Brown as the interim general manager at the head of a collaborative leadership structure.

Elton Brand was a part of that group that helped shepherd the organization through the draft — and came away with a commendable haul of Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet and Shake Milton. 

Now, Brand is the man in charge. He attended the team’s first pre-draft workout on May 6 in Camden, New Jersey — the team will hold their second group workout Monday — and was at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago this past week. The draft is a month away and then, soon enough, the Sixers will shift into free agency mode.

Brand said at his end-of-season press conference Tuesday that he’s looking forward to it all. 

I’m excited. We have a great group. Dynamic core. I look forward to being the GM for the first time going into free agency, going into the draft. We were in [Game 7] until the last shot to go into overtime and win and get to the Eastern Conference Finals. Disappointed we didn’t get there, but highly optimistic and I’m proud of what we've done. I look forward to this offseason. I know we’re going to grow and get better.

Things change rapidly in professional sports, but let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that, even by the warped standards of the Sixers, it’s been quite a year.

Brown famously proclaimed on draft night that the team was “star hunting, or star developing.” The “star hunting” part ended up falling on Brand, since the Sixers’ two biggest summer acquisitions under Brown were Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler. Brand later traded away both players in the early-morning, pre-deadline deal for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic that confirmed, if there was any lingering doubt, his willingness to be bold.

Though Brand didn’t hold much back in his first attempt at lifting the Sixers to title contention, he gave himself ample flexibility this offseason. The Sixers have more free agents than players under contract for next year, and they have five draft picks, tied with Atlanta for the most of any team. There’s no undoing the moves he made in his first season, but Brand has the choice to fundamentally reshape the Sixers again if he’d like.

Another path Brand could take is paying what’s necessary to bring back Harris and Butler and figuring out the rest at the margins. (Regardless, upgrading at backup center will be a priority.) It’s also very possible Brand tries to find a middle road.

Owner Josh Harris said Tuesday he’s comfortable going into the luxury tax, though Brand added, “We’re going to be fiscally responsible. We’re not just going to be jumping into the luxury tax with the moves we make.”

Brand will, of course, have a team to support him with all the minutiae of the salary cap — trade exceptions, the mid-level exception, you name it — in his first offseason. After experiencing a bizarre last summer in a peripheral role, Brand is in the limelight. 

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