76ers

More questions than answers when it comes to Sixers' bench

More questions than answers when it comes to Sixers' bench

The trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris were blockbuster deals, but both hurt the Sixers’ depth.

GM Elton Brand did manage to get veterans Mike Scott and James Ennis, both of whom played significant roles during the Sixers’ playoff run. Still, the team had no viable backup for Joel Embiid and Brett Brown was essentially going with seven players by Game 7 in Toronto. 

By bringing back Scott and Ennis, trading up in the draft to acquire Matisse Thybulle and bringing in veteran big Kyle O’Quinn, Brand seemed to fortify the team’s depth.

So much for that.

We’re 42 games into the 2019-20 season and the Sixers are looking for answers off their bench.

We're trying to establish a little bit more consistency from that area,” Brett Brown said after practice Thursday. “And at times that you can't, you better have answers. And although we have the answers, not really anybody has just stamped their foot and said, 'This is mine.' And you hope over time, that happens. In the event that it doesn't, we're going to play this thing out and try to be wiser and smarter in the final third of the year as the run to the playoffs gets closer.

There have been times that we’ve seen flashes. 

Thybulle has shown elite disruption abilities at the defensive end, but still looks like a rookie every so often. Furkan Korkmaz’s hot stretches have helped carry the team at times, but he’s been inconsistent and has shortcomings on the defensive end.

Even the stable veterans haven’t been so stable. Though he hasn’t necessarily played poorly, O’Quinn is essentially fourth on the depth chart at center behind Joel Embiid, Al Horford and two-way player Norvel Pelle. Scott and Ennis, who gave the Sixers what they needed in the series against the Raptors, haven’t quite been the same players.

In fact, with Scott struggling so much recently, Brown opted to use Ennis at the four just a game after Ennis was a DNP-CD in Indiana.

Oddly enough, the rookie may be the one player that has a rotational spot locked up.

Wednesday night’s win was a perfect example of what you get when Thybulle is at his best. While he’s made momentum-shifting defensive plays, what stood out against the Nets was just his ability to defend.

He was tasked with guarding the super slippery Kyrie Irving and the sharpshooting Joe Harris. He did quite well as both players were victims of Thybulle’s four blocked shots.

It hasn’t always been a smooth process. Brown has admitted that he’s had to increase his tolerance level with the 22-year-old’s gambles. For his part, Thybulle understands why his playing time was so up and down early in the season.

Brown has rewarded him by allowing him to close out games and take on tough assignments.

It's kind of been a process of just earning his trust,” Thybulle said. “I think in the beginning I didn't deserve a lot of it. He's allowed me to play through a lot of mistakes, to make those mistakes, so that I don't have to make them at times like this in the fourth quarter of big games against talented players.

There’s no denying the impact Thybulle has had on this team. When he plays at least 14:29 this season, the Sixers are 20-4. Not the largest sample size, but a pretty decent one.

Part of Brown’s thinking for starting Thybulle Wednesday was to simply get him the experience. The other part of it is that he earned it.

“I felt like Matisse, two reasons,” Brown said, “would come in and give us a better base to start the game defensively, and second, it is most definitely on my mind to increase his role to give him more responsibility/minutes in whatever is a rational way to deliver him to the playoffs where he has an actual role. And I see that happening now.”

So Thybulle is in. But who else? 

Ennis? Scott? Korkmaz? A player not on the roster that could arrive before the Feb. 6 trade deadline?

Not even the Sixers have that answer right now.

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Shaquille O'Neal on playing vs. Allen Iverson: ‘I was such a fan … I kind of coasted that year in the Finals’

Shaquille O'Neal on playing vs. Allen Iverson: ‘I was such a fan … I kind of coasted that year in the Finals’

Shaquille O’Neal was at the height of his very substantial powers in the 2001 NBA Finals. He averaged 33 points, 15.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in the Lakers’ five-game series victory and was a simple choice for MVP.

However, the Sixers took a Game 1 that Philadelphia fans will remember for a long time, led by Allen Iverson’s 48 points. O’Neal revealed on The Adam Lefkoe Show podcast that he was perhaps a little lenient toward Iverson. 

I have a little confession. D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] probably knows this,” he said. “There were four guys that when we played them, I was such a fan, I would let them do what they wanted to do. White Chocolate [Jason Williams] — I wanted him to go to work — Vince Carter, AI and Tracy McGrady. Every time we played AI … I could have blocked his shot multiple times.

“I just didn’t want to. I kind of coasted that year in the Finals where we wanted to go 16-0. We let him hit us for [48]. Listen, Iverson, he had his heart on the line, he played hard, he did it his way. I was glad to go into the Hall of Fame with him. It’s unfortunate that a lot of these great players will be judged because they didn’t win [a championship]. But listen, he’s one of the greatest to ever do it.

Given O’Neal’s 44-point, 20-rebound Game 1 performance, the notion of him taking it easy on Iverson is difficult to buy. Still, it’s evident he has a deep respect for Iverson. Wade and Candace Parker are very much in the same boat — both players chose No. 3 for that reason.

At All-Star Weekend in February, Wade crossed paths with Iverson and the two shared an emotional moment weeks after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant.

“I couldn’t do anything but embrace and tell him how much I appreciate him, tell him how much I love him,” Wade said on the podcast. “As I’ve always said, it was [Michael] Jordan, Kobe and Iverson for me. Those are the three players that I modeled my game after — that’s who I wanted to be like. I wore No. 3 probably because of Allen Iverson. … I just thanked him. It was just a good embrace that we both needed at that moment.”

A two-time WNBA MVP and five-time All-Star, Parker had a unique story on the origin of her admiration for Iverson. Her older brother, Anthony Parker, began his professional career with the Sixers in the 1997-98 season.

“I remember one day my brother came home from a game and he handed me Allen Iverson’s finger bands,” Parker said. “I wore the Allen Iverson finger bands all the way through high school. … I was obsessed with him. I remember when I met him, he was the first person I met that he shook my hand and I had no words.”

Both Parker and Wade are convinced Iverson would have benefited from the way the NBA has changed since his retirement. They cited the load management movement as one factor — Iverson led the league in minutes per game seven times and played at least 39.4 minutes a night in each of his first 12 seasons. The two also believe that the league's shift away from big men and increase in pace would have suited Iverson’s game. 

“AI’s one of the greatest players of all time,” Parker said. 

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Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

NBC Sports Philadelphia is re-airing Game 3 of the Sixers-Heat 2018 playoff series Sunday night at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

At 26 years old, Joel Embiid has played 19 career playoff games. The lead-up to the first one was full of frustration, drama and angst.

Minutes after the Sixers’ 17-game winning streak ended with a loss to the Heat in Game 2, Embiid posted on his Instagram story, “F---ing sick and tired of being babied.” 

He’d been a glum observer from the sidelines that night, still out with an orbital fracture of the left eye he’d sustained in a collision with Markelle Fultz on March 28, and had seen his teammates cool off from three-point range and allow a 36-year-old Dwyane Wade to score 28 points. Embiid wanted to play, thought he should be permitted to and figured it couldn’t hurt to let the world know how he felt. 

Not for the first time — and certainly not for the last, either — Brett Brown found himself fielding awkward questions about how his players were being handled medically. 

“He just wants to play basketball," he said at the podium. “He wants to be with his team, he wants to play in front of the fans and he wants to see this through. When he’s not able to do that, he gets frustrated, and I respect his frustrations. … I do know the spirit he delivered that [Instagram story] you just talked about reflects my conversations with him.

"It’s completely driven by team, competitiveness, I want to play basketball, that type of feeling more than anything.”

Thanks to a high-tech, customized mask with goggles that was made of polypropylene and embedded carbon fiber filaments, Embiid was cleared for Game 3 in Miami, resembling the "Batman" villain Bane and the rapper MF Doom. The mask was an unavoidable nuisance — Embiid removed it from his face on free throws — but it allowed him to play basketball again, shifting the drama from social media to the court.

Embiid tossed the mask up in the air, spiked it on the floor and generally didn’t treat the device with much reverence. Head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson got a good amount of screen time as the Sixers’ medical staff ran repairs and ferried masks out to Embiid. Justise Winslow was not amused by the situation. When he saw the mask lying on the ground around the foul line at one point in the second quarter, he stepped on it, then unsuccessfully tried to break it with his hands.

"He kept throwing it on the ground. I don't know if he didn't like it or what,” Winslow, who was later fined $15,000 for the incident, told reporters. “I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

The back-and-forth with Winslow seemed to invigorate Embiid, though he probably didn’t require any additional fuel.

“Little do they know, I have about 50 of them,” he said to reporters in Miami. “It’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. It’s going to be a nightmare for them, too.” 

It was a casually bold prognostication, and also not an entirely outrageous one. The Sixers sprinted away from the Heat in Game 3, turning a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter into a 20-point win. They were, without a doubt, the better team when Embiid played.

We haven’t actually mentioned anything yet about how Embiid played. If he didn’t have a black mask shielding his face, the cliched (but accurate) description of his performance would be that he looked like himself. Embiid had 23 points in 30 minutes, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He made three threes, drew 15 free throws and protected the rim well, limiting Heat players to 4 for 14 shooting on field goals he defended. 

Mask on or mask off, regular season or playoffs, he was clearly going to be the main story more often than not. 

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