76ers

Sixers fans need to relax about team's offseason

Sixers fans need to relax about team's offseason

Here’s a brief message that some Sixers fans can use right now: relax.

Remember that you have a team with two budding superstars that reached the Eastern Conference semifinals just last season and should only be headed upward from here.

Sure, there’s going to be some level of disappointment when Brett Brown proclaimed the Sixers were going “star hunting” this summer only to come up empty on the free-agent market outside of re-signing their own players.

But, more than anything, how things transpired for the Sixers over the past few weeks should let you know that much more goes into landing a free agent than simply basketball.

Look at the first major domino to fall in free agency, Paul George. The five-time All-Star didn’t hesitate to make his decision and announced he was rejoining the Oklahoma City Thunder at a Russell Westbrook party shortly after midnight on July 1.

Despite the Sixers being in the mix for George, the Thunder always had the upper hand. The Thunder had George in the fold for a full year after acquiring him from Indiana last summer and used every day to convince him OKC was the right place to move forward.

“They honestly check the boxes where I needed those boxes to be checked from what a player wants and needs out of a front office, out of a medical group, out of teammates, out of coaching staff,” George said during exit interviews. “I mean, honestly, they can't say it anymore [than] that. They checked the boxes on what needs to be checked.”

Even with George on the market, the Sixers always had their top focus on the biggest available fish in the game: LeBron James. They even secured a meeting with James’ camp, albeit only with agent Rich Paul and not the three-time champion himself. 

Still, the Sixers, with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid leading the way, were serious contenders for James as Paul confirmed.

"The teams that he looked at, he looked at for guys like Ben Simmons,” Paul, who is also Simmons’ agent, said on NBA TV during a summer league game. “There's a reason why he looked at Philadelphia, but ultimately he chose the Lakers.”

And what ultimately made James join the Lakers, no matter what his representatives say to the contrary, had little to do with basketball. James has turned himself into an entertainment mogul, so who better to learn from than Magic Johnson? 

After all, King James reportedly already had dinner in Los Angeles last week with Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio

We all love Philadelphia, but those types of Hollywood power brokers aren’t exactly making reservations for restaurants on Broad Street.

So the Sixers swung and missed on George for familiarity and James for off-court opportunities. 

Perhaps you can swallow missing out on two of the game’s best players, but now role players are spurning the franchise too? That’s enough to push a Sixers fan over the edge … until you dig a little bit deeper.

Nemanja Bjelica had his qualifying offer with the Minnesota Timberwolves rescinded and immediately jumped to the best situation for him when he reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the Sixers.

However, Bjelica informed the team he was backing out of the deal and returning to Europe. That was until fellow Serbian and Kings general manager, Vlade Divac, came calling. Now the two sides are apparently deep in discussion on a multi-year contract.

Once you push through the initial wave of confusion, you find out that Bjelica simply didn’t want to move his family to Philadelphia for a year and be back on the hunt next summer. He was seeking what most of us do in a new job, which is stability. 

While that may seem a bit unreasonable for an NBA reserve big man, you can’t blame a guy for trying. And now it appears he may find some of what he desired in Sacramento.

Back here in Philadelphia, the Sixers are surely second-guessing what happened to their star hunt this offseason. While it came up empty-handed, the Sixers — and their fans — have to understand that so much more factors into securing a free agent than what actually takes place on the court and is not a red flag on the franchise.

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Markelle Fultz's jumper overshadows dominant nights from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid

Markelle Fultz's jumper overshadows dominant nights from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid

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Ben Simmons had a triple-double. Joel Embiid scored 30 points. But Markelle Fultz took the most shots — including his first made regular-season three-pointer — and that’s what made his head coach the happiest.

“He ended up taking the most shots out of anybody on our team,” Brett Brown said Thursday night after the Sixers’ 127-108 home-opening win (see observations), “which, in itself, is to me a statement. … But I say that as a complete positive. I felt when he was shooting the ball, they kept going under middle pick-and-rolls. He shot it to mean it, he didn’t look afraid of anything.

“He missed the shots, but they looked good, and I think in general, we played him quite a bit of minutes, he took the most shots out of anybody on the team, I thought his defense was very good. It’s a big night for that young man.”

If you didn’t watch the game, you might think Brown was talking about a player who scored 20 points and knocked down a few clutch shots. Fultz shot 5 for 15 with 12 points.

Of course it’s not just as simple as the numbers with Fultz. As Brown said, the fact that Fultz was at least willing to take the jumpers the Bulls were giving him is important. He’s not the rookie whose rare attempted jumpers were broken, clunky ordeals that never had a real chance of going in.

On a human level, it’s easy to root for Fultz, to urge him to shoot and go crazy when he knocks one down from long range.

“Anytime you work really, really hard for something, it just makes the reward that much better,” Fultz said. “When you finally get the results you’ve been working hard for, it’s just that much better. So for me, it’s just more fire to work even harder and keep on improving.”

On a basketball level, the questions about Fultz and his jumper didn’t disappear the instant he hit that three-pointer. He made 3 of 11 jumpers (one a half-court heave at the end of the third period) against a bad defensive team who dared him to shoot, again and again. Seven of his 12 points came in the fourth quarter, after the Sixers had already sealed a win. This is nothing close to the player the Sixers thought they took with the No. 1 pick.

It will take a lot more than one made three-pointer for defenses to stop sagging off Fultz. But the Sixers believe that, over time, he’ll knock down enough jumpers that giving him space is no longer the obvious scouting report. 

“I want him to be confident,” Brown said. “I want him finding some level of swagger. I’ll try to get him the ball and put him in middle pick-and-rolls and try to find a way to help him. Tonight I thought he helped himself, he took what the game gave him. Given the incredible sort of groundswell after one game, good for him.”

Embiid, the man whose 30 points and 12 rebounds were rendered a footnote, has faith in Fultz’s growth.

“It’s like what I’ve always said, he’s going to be really good,” Embiid said. “I know it. Everybody always gets excited when he shoots a three. He’s going to make those, he’s worked on his shot the whole summer, so that’s nothing to worry about. I think the way he can help us is just being a playmaker. When I’m on the floor with him I really feel comfortable. He really knows how to find guys and understands when someone needs the ball, that’s where he’s going to help us a lot.”

At some point, maybe the fans at the Wells Fargo Center won’t go wild every time Fultz takes a three. That day doesn't seem like it will come anytime soon.

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Sixers 127, Bulls 108: Markelle Fultz's 1st regular-season 3-pointer and Ben Simmons' triple-double headline win

Sixers 127, Bulls 108: Markelle Fultz's 1st regular-season 3-pointer and Ben Simmons' triple-double headline win

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When Markelle Fultz got the ball, it felt a little bit like the Flyers were on the power play — there was a chorus of “shoot!” from the Wells Fargo Center crowd. Two minutes into the game, despite the Bulls' Cameron Payne playing well off him, Fultz turned down a generous invitation at a wide-open three-pointer from the left corner and dribbled into traffic instead.

It wasn't what the crowd came to see, and it wasn't an encouraging sign for Fultz or the Sixers. To Fultz's credit, however, he didn't stop shooting.

The fans went wild when he made his first regular-season three-pointer early in the fourth quarter.

He finished with 12 points on 5 for 15 shooting after an extended fourth-quarter stint with the game out of Chicago's reach.

Fultz was the man in the spotlight Thursday night, but the Sixers' two dependable stars led the team to a home-opening win, 127-108. Here are some observations from the first victory of the season:

• Ben Simmons recorded his first of what will be many triple-doubles this season, posting 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, and it almost doesn't feel worthy of more than a cursory note — that's how easy he makes it look. Outside of his reliable stat-sheet stuffing, Simmons' defense has been incredibly impressive. Brett Brown's preseason goal of Simmons making an All-Defensive team seems very attainable.

• Joel Embiid attempted only five free throws in the opener against the Celtics. That’s not going to happen very often this season. Embiid was his usual dominant self in the low post against the Bulls and rookie Wendell Carter Jr., posting 30 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. He made 12 of his 14 free throws. 

• The Sixers' best five is still clearly last season's starting lineup. The 18-0 run that group went on early in the third quarter turned a surprisingly close game into the blowout most expected.

• Bobby Portis and Zach LaVine were on fire early for the Bulls. The two combined for 28 points on 11 for 12 shooting in the first quarter, as the Bulls posted 41 points in the period. The Sixers didn’t allow 40 or more points in a first quarter all of last season. 

• Brown’s usage of Fultz against the Bulls was much closer to the plan he outlined at the beginning of the season, with the emphasis on getting Fultz as many minutes as possible at the point. Brown mostly either played Fultz when Simmons sat or put Simmons at the four when Fultz was in the game. Fultz ran the point late in the first and early in the second quarter for an intriguing lineup with shooters JJ Redick and Landry Shamet on the wings. 

• Brown told reporters pregame he expects to be without new acquisitions Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala “for a while.” Chandler is out with a hamstring strain suffered in the Sixers’ first preseason game, while Muscala is sidelined with an ankle sprain. 

Those absences have opened up a spot for the rookie Shamet, who played well against the Bulls after scoring just one point in 12 minutes in his NBA debut. Shamet had 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting from three-point range on Thursday.

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