76ers

Sixers have 'championship aspirations,' and Elton Brand narrowed options to reach them through NBA draft

Sixers have 'championship aspirations,' and Elton Brand narrowed options to reach them through NBA draft

A year ago, Brett Brown proudly declared after overseeing the NBA draft as interim general manager of the Sixers that his team was “trying to win a championship.”

At approximately 1 a.m. Friday morning in Camden, New Jersey, Elton Brand, in the wake of his first draft as general manager, came close to echoing those words.

The Sixers had “championship aspirations,” he said. 

While the Sixers ended the 2018-19 season closer to title contention than the year prior, their pathways toward accomplishing that lofty goal have shrunk, in part as a result of Brand and the front office’s draft-night moves. 

Brand didn’t end the night distraught or empty-handed. He acquired Matisse Thybulle, whom he called “the best defensive wing” in the draft, via a trade with the Celtics (see story). He got Marial Shayok, a player Brand described as “tough, gritty” and a “great three-point shooter" (see story). He added a few future second-round picks, got rid of the $1 million guaranteed on Jonathon Simmons’ contract, and brought home some cash.

“We need flexibility,” Brand said. “I need every dollar that I can get, so that’s what a lot of those trades are about — making sure we have enough money so we can go into free agency and get the players we need. We need talent, and we actually pushed picks into the future that are very valuable."

The notion that the Sixers improved their flexibility is difficult to buy. Brand was optimistic about the Sixers’ “optionality” entering the draft, yet he seems to have limited the possibilities for his team.

First, Brand is banking on Thybulle having a meaningful, positive impact immediately. Brand characterized the price of the No. 24 and No. 33 picks in exchange for the selection of Thybulle at No. 20 as “the market rate.” Whether or not that assessment is accurate, passing up on the opportunity to select players like Dylan Windler, Mfiondu Kabengele and Carsen Edwards — all of whom fell between 24 and 33 — is a significant sacrifice. You can’t help but wonder if the Sixers will regret allowing the Celtics to snag a tremendous scoring guard in Edwards at No. 33.

Thybulle has a very high bar to meet to prove he was worth what the Sixers gave up to get him.

Second, Brand is counting on himself to have a near-flawless free agency. If he does manage to bring back Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, he likely won’t have much room under the tax apron to fill out the remainder of the roster — you’d presume he’ll have to lean heavily on salary-cap exceptions. At the moment, with Thybulle and Shayok yet to sign their contracts, the team has four players on the roster.

For the Jonathon Simmons one, it’s about cap space,” Brand said. “We can put them into the [traded player exception], now we have an extra million dollars that we can use during free agency and I feel like I’m going to need every dollar. … I know we can’t add five young players to this established team — 50-plus wins two years in a row, a few bounces away from going to overtime and maybe the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond. Five young players wouldn’t have worked for that. 

Simmons being traded felt like an inevitability — he wasn’t a regular part of the playoff rotation and there was no reason to hold on to his salary. But the decision to deal the 34th pick to the Hawks for No. 57 and two future second-round picks, then to swap No. 57 for Miami’s 2024 second-rounder and cash, appears to have accomplished little at the moment. Because NBA teams do not have to sign second-round picks to guaranteed deals, none of those selections would have counted against the salary cap for the Sixers until the picks signed contracts.  

There’s a middle ground between five young players and three or four NBA-ready players that the Sixers could have found. The exercise of listing all the names available in the second round that made sense for the Sixers is useless, but there were legitimate future NBA bench players out there. Eric Paschall, Admiral Schofield, Terance Mann and Bruno Fernando are several who fit that description.

Instead of taking one or two, the Sixers allowed picks 33, 34 and 42 to disintegrate. 

That doesn’t mean the Sixers’ summer is already a failure or that Brand made mistakes beyond repair. 

But Brand went from having ample “optionality” in his first draft to backing himself into a corner. The pressure on Brand come June 30 at 6 p.m. was going to be high regardless, and now he’s given himself little margin for error.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Will Kyle Korver return to Sixers? Elton Brand drops an interesting hint

Will Kyle Korver return to Sixers? Elton Brand drops an interesting hint

Elton Brand’s busy offseason is not over.

The Sixers’ general manager acknowledged Tuesday morning in an interview on 97.5 The Fanatic’s “Farzetta and Tra in the Morning” show that he’s still working to fill out the Sixers’ roster. The team currently has 13 players on the roster and could add two more. 

When Marc Farzetta asked Brand about adding a player with similar shooting abilities to the departed JJ Redick, Brand dropped an interesting hint.

We’d love to have that. Spacing is key. We’re going to hang our hats on defense, but when it’s crunch time you’re going to need spacing to operate. So we are looking for players that can space the court. We are in talks with a few of them, so we’ll see how that goes. Hopefully the city will have someone that they know and can receive them well. 

He didn’t use his name, but Brand sure seemed to be talking about former Sixer Kyle Korver. Some Sixers fans might be familiar with available free agents like Thabo Sefolosha and Jose Calderon, but Brand has to be aware that fans know all about Korver.

The Sixers are reportedly a frontrunner to land the 38-year-old, who’s an unrestricted free agent after being waived by the Phoenix Suns. Korver is a career 42.9 percent shooter from three-point range and has made the fourth most threes in NBA history. 

Given the Sixers’ salary cap situation, Korver would need to be willing to accept a veteran minimum deal to come back to Philadelphia. 

A return to the city where he started his professional career would make a lot of sense for both parties. As Brand said, the Sixers could use some outside shooting. And for Korver, you’d think the chance to play for a team that looks poised to contend for a championship would be appealing. 

You can listen to the full interview with Brand here

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

What Al Horford’s unique development as a shooter can tell us about Ben Simmons

What Al Horford’s unique development as a shooter can tell us about Ben Simmons

Al Horford hasn’t always been good at everything.

As a 33-year-old with 12 seasons of NBA experience and five All-Star appearances, Horford is skilled in most aspects of the game. Interior defense? He’s excellent at it and was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2017-18. Passing? The big man averaged 4.6 assists per game in his three seasons with the Celtics. Setting good screens, marshalling the defense and generally making smart, winning plays? It’s his trademark.

But it took a while before Horford added outside shooting to his long list of tools. Looking back at the early history of Horford’s career, his stats give you no indication that he’d eventually be a “stretch five” type of player, someone who’s shot 37.1 percent from three-point range on 927 attempts over the last four years.

He made no three-point shots in his three college seasons at Florida and was 0 for 6 from long range in his first two NBA seasons. Horford was named to his first All-Star Game in 2009-10, a season in which he made his one and only three-point shot, and he hit 9 of 22 over the next four years. He took a small step forward in 2014-15 for the 60-win Atlanta Hawks, converting 11 of 36 threes.

It wasn’t until the 2015-16 season, at 29 years old, when Horford started to let it fly with regularity, attempting 256 threes — 220 more than the season prior — and making 88.

Ben Simmons, like Horford, had no three-point makes in his first two professional seasons. According to Tobias Harris — a player who also has improved remarkably as a shooter over his career — Simmons was knocking them down from the perimeter during a recent workout in Los Angeles. 

 … He's in the gym religiously every day — grinding, getting better," Harris said at a press conference Friday. "He's in great shape. Everyone was trying to figure out why I was guarding him at the three-point line. It was really because he hit two of them. I dared him to hit two of them and he hit two in a row — that's why I was there. He's made big improvements on his game. His jump shot is looking really good. He has confidence to shoot it. I just kept telling him there, even in these workouts when you’re playing, have the confidence to shoot them and don't get discouraged when you miss …

The Sixers have committed $170 million to Simmons over the next five years in spite of his lack of a reliable shot and because, as was the case with Horford, he didn’t need one to be a deserving All-Star. Horford’s development as a jump shooter is unique, but it helps provides context for Simmons’ situation.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that there’s no shared path — jump shots don’t all evolve at the same pace. Improvement is contingent on factors like fixing flawed form, natural touch and, as Harris alluded to, the confidence to take jumpers in games and the go-ahead to do so from teammates and coaches.

It’s also not blindly optimistic to review Horford’s past, consider Simmons’ future and conclude that the 22-year-old All-Star is likely only going to get better as a shooter. After hitting 25 of 99 shots from 10 feet and out last season (25.3 percent), it would be very surprising to see Simmons regress.

It would be stunning if Simmons followed Horford’s trajectory, too. You’d imagine his form will have to undergo significant remediation before he’s a good three-point shooter — players with flared elbows and inconsistent mechanics don’t typically fit that description.

However, two seasons is far too small of a sample size to judge Simmons’ shot a lost cause.

As we noted on the night he agreed to join the Sixers, Horford shared that same opinion a little over a year ago. 

“He’s already difficult to guard,” Horford told NBC Sports Philadelphia during the Sixers’ 2018 playoff series against the Celtics. “Like all players, we all make progressions. When I came in the league, I wasn’t shooting much outside the paint. And over the years, I’ve expanded my game — you can say that about a lot of guys. And I feel like with him, it’ll just be another weapon in his arsenal, that he will continue to develop that [jumper].”

His perspective is one worth listening to. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers