76ers

Sixers' Joel Embiid healthy but still feels sting of loss to Celtics

Sixers' Joel Embiid healthy but still feels sting of loss to Celtics

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid was his usual colorful self during Sixers media day Friday.

The charismatic Cameroonian, sporting a svelter figure, joked about dunking on his new GM (see video) and talked about his goals for this season.

The biggest thing for Embiid: he’s finally healthy and feeling good going into camp.

“I worked on everything,” Embiid said at the team’s practice facility. “This whole summer was more about working on my body and I feel like I’m a complete player. It was always about just perfecting everything because I’m not perfect. I still make a lot of mistakes and I’m still kind of young in basketball.”

While Embiid’s body is healthy, he still feels the sting of last season’s playoff loss to the Celtics. The issues that plagued Embiid during the regular season reared their ugly head. His tendency to force things created turnovers for Boston and his fitness level wasn’t high enough for a physical playoff series.

A slimmed down and more toned Embiid took the podium Friday, supremely confident that he had helped remedy some of his issues with the help of training guru Drew Hanlen. 

“I watched every game from this past season — playoffs included — probably twice,” Embiid said. “Especially that last game, I watched a lot. That game, the layup that I missed to tie the game … I watched it all and it was painful, but I have one goal in mind. Like I said, I was excited to go into the summer finally healthy and we’re going to see what happens this year.”

Embiid was active this summer. From dunking on random dudes on blacktops around the city to participating in the NBA Africa Game to trying to (unsuccessfully) win a fan $25K at a Drake concert, the All-Star center never stopped.

But all along, his focus was on basketball and taking his game to the next level. Sure, he was disappointed the Sixers couldn’t land LeBron James or another star-caliber player, but it’s just served as motivation. 

Embiid has already stated on more than one occasion that he expects to be an MVP candidate. With the goals he has set out for the team, he’ll need to be one.

“An appearance in the NBA Finals and winning it all,” Embiid said when asked of aspirations this season. “I feel like we’ve got the talent to make it happen. Last year was unfortunate, but it’s behind us. I think this year we’ll be much better and we added a couple pieces. It’s going to be exciting.”

Embiid’s huge personality is only outdone by his dominance on the court. He’s always talked a big game, even when he’s been sidelined with injuries. But the big man has always backed it up.

It’s easy to see why fans have fallen in love with Embiid and why he’s returned that admiration. From the time he was drafted out of Kansas and his two subsequent missed seasons because of injury, this fan base has, by and large, had his back.

“I always feel like I have a good connection with the fans,” Embiid said. “It’s not just on the court, it’s also off the court. I appreciate them, definitely, and I think they appreciate me a lot, too, so we both have a mutual respect. I love it. 

“I envisioned myself being in this situation when I got to Philly. That’s the place I want to be for the rest of my career. I’m excited. We’ve got a great connection. I’ve got a lot of love for the city and a great connection with the Sixers.”

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All of Brett Brown's decisions under more intense scrutiny than ever

All of Brett Brown's decisions under more intense scrutiny than ever

Now that the Sixers have completed much of the process, the pressure rests on Brett Brown to deliver the team to the promised land.

The arrival of Jimmy Butler has brought a renewed vigor to the Sixers' season and represents an important step in the Process. The roster is much better than it has ever been under Brown’s leadership, and a fan base excited for the young Sixers to compete for a championship is ready to see dividends from their investment.

For Brown, signed through the 2022 season, the pressure may never be greater for him to win and win now.

Brown’s time managing a subpar roster made him one of the master tinkerers in the NBA, oftentimes piecing together rotations with players never intended to win games. Now comes another test of his coaching acumen, making these pieces fit.

The concerns regarding the rotation came up in Jimmy Buckets’ debut last night. Despite a strong start from Embiid (4-5 shooting, 11 points, three threes), Brown kept to his regular rotation taking him out of the game halfway through the first quarter, seemingly stalling his momentum. And a hot shooting Wilson Chandler didn’t see the floor during critical moments of the fourth quarter. Those rotational issues will only get more complex as it seems GM Elton Brand isn’t finished making moves just yet.

For young teams in the NBA looking to make the leap from exciting lineups to competing rosters, it’s not unusual for front offices to bring in a different coach to continue the team’s growth. The Golden State Warriors replaced head coach Mark Jackson with Steve Kerr after three seasons in Oakland, even after Jackson took them from 23 wins to 51. Kerr was a major key, however, as the Warriors went on to win three of the next four NBA titles.

We're seeing this season the value new head coach Mike Budenholzer has added to the Bucks. The Raptors seem to be taking a forward step with Nick Nurse replacing Dwane Casey.

If Brown is unable to deliver significant progress this year for the Sixers, the new-look Sixers front office could look at some point to upgrade the position with a more win-now head coach.

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Robert Covington immediately impresses Tom Thibodeau, T-Wolves fans

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Robert Covington immediately impresses Tom Thibodeau, T-Wolves fans

It took Robert Covington all of one night to endear himself to his new franchise and fan base.

Covington started at small forward and played a team-high 41 minutes for the Timberwolves Wednesday night in a 107-100 win over the Pelicans. He had a typical RoCo stat line, stuffing the box score with 13 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block.

T-Wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau is known for playing his core guys huge minutes. It's regarded as one of the reasons Jimmy Butler has had trouble staying healthy for a full season — the dude averaged between 36 and 39 minutes for six straight seasons.

Covington got his first taste of that Wednesday night.

“I didn’t know," Thibodeau told reporters of the 41 minutes. "I knew we could use (Covington) right away because he brings so much defensively. And he goes so hard … if you go hard enough it’s going to make up for a lot of things, including being new to a team.’’

The 100 points scored on the T-Wolves were the fewest in 11 games and the second-lowest total all season. Some of that was because Andrew Wiggins actually used his athleticism and Karl-Anthony Towns actually played effective defense despite being plagued by foul trouble all game.

But a lot of it was the presence of Covington, who was all over the place, showing that his skill set can translate even before he knows the playbook. The Pels' leading scorer Wednesday was E'Twaun Moore, who was 3-for-10 for six points when guarded by Covington and 10-for-13 for 24 points when guarded by anyone else.

Dario Saric did not start. Thibodeau stuck with his favorite vet, Taj Gibson, who is still a solid four this deep into his career. Gibson played 28 minutes to Saric's 20. Expect that to move closer to an even split as Saric gets more acclimated. Saric is not as much a plug-and-play guy as Covington because his offense does require having the ball more. 

Saric finished with 9 points, 3 rebounds, an assists and 2 steals on 3-for-7 shooting.

Thibodeau was excited by the versatility of his two newest pieces, particularly because it can lead to more effective switching on defense.

"I thought Cov had a great game going," he said. "You get a feeling when you're coaching against players — I remember last year playing against (the Sixers) and those guys, I like their mental toughness. What they were a part of in Philadelphia, they went through some really dark days and they just kept going and going and going. 

"Even last year, they were 25-25 and they just clicked and took off. ... I love what Covington has done, to go undrafted and be first-team All Defense. That says a lot."

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