Managing partner Josh Harris, Sixers 'using the pressure as motivation'

Managing partner Josh Harris, Sixers 'using the pressure as motivation'

It’s been almost six months since Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning jumper hung on the rim for what felt like an eternity and ended the Sixers’ season.

An awful lot has changed since then.

Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick are gone. Al Horford and Josh Richardson are here. The coaching and medical staffs have seen plenty of turnover.

But more than anything, the mindset has changed. Part of that can be traced back to Leonard’s quadruple doink, but this attitudinal shift has been a long time coming. It’s what managing partner Josh Harris envisioned when he bought the team back in 2011. 

The Sixers were mired in NBA purgatory during the Doug Collins era. A playoff run that only occurred thanks to Derrick Rose’s significant knee injury may have provided some false hope, but Harris knew things needed to change.

I always loved the team and so when I when I bought the team, obviously they hadn't really made a playoff run since Allen Iverson,” Harris said to NBC Sports Philadelphia last week. “And it wasn't as connected with the city in terms of the stands were a bit empty and people weren't showing up as much. What we wanted to do is rejuvenate the franchise, make it exciting again and get the city really engaged.

This is likely why so many fans embraced The Process.

Though the strategy was far from universally loved, it did make sense. It was going to be hard for the Sixers to add stars through free agency because of their salary cap situation and the fact that Philadelphia had not been seen as an NBA destination for an awfully long time.

So then-GM Sam Hinkie’s strategy was about stocking up on lottery tickets in order to find his superstars. The strategy ruffled feathers and led to some franchise turmoil.

We wanted to build in an elite franchise that was going to be deeply involved in the playoffs and ultimately winning championships over time,” Harris said. “In order to do that, we concluded that we had to build through the draft. And so we went through some lean years, as is much chronicled. That was hard. But we kept focused on our North Star, which is creating a team that was going to be really competitive and something that we can be proud of, and the city can be proud of.

Three GMs later — four if you count Brett Brown’s brief tenure — and here we are.

Not every draft pick was a hit. The team struck gold with franchise cornerstones Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons but swung and missed on the likes of Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Markelle Fultz.

But if the goal was truly “creating a team was going to be really competitive and something … the city can proud of,” then mission accomplished. The Sixers are coming off back-to-back 50-win seasons and two first-round playoff victories.

Now, it’s about building on top of that. GM Elton Brand went out and attempted to build a bully that he thought could compete for a championship.

Though Brand wasn’t the most experienced candidate when the team found itself in dire straits after the Bryan Colangelo burner account saga, there were plenty of qualities Brand possessed that no other candidate had — and frankly, that neither of the two true GMs before him had.

Brand famously signed the “Philly Max” in 2008, making him the biggest Sixers free-agent signing since … well, maybe ever up to that point. He built up good will with the fan base with that and by re-joining the team after unretiring as The Process was ongoing. 

He came back to the organization in 2016 as a player development consultant. A year later, he was named GM of the team’s G-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers (now Blue Coats). A year after that, he took over the Sixers job.

Fast forward to now and he’s trying to build a title contender.

When the Bryan Colangelo situation occurred, we went through a really long search to try to figure out who was the right person for the job of general manager,” Harris said. “Obviously, [Brand] hadn't been in the front office very long, but all of his strength as a leader and his intelligence and his ability to communicate and his history with the game and with our team and with our city. All those things really were very large in the decision. …

“… And he's increasingly putting his insignia, his imprint on the team, and it's really great. I mean, today's NBA is a player's league. He was an All-Star player not that long ago. He's a really unique person. So I'm really happy that we're working together.

The last couple seasons, the stands have been filled. A winning team has been a big part of that, but the connection to the fan base Harris mentioned is also a part of it.

Brown, who Harris and company hired in 2013, has seen all the highs and lows.

… What I will say is the 21,000 fans were coming long before we were mentioned as contenders,” Brown said pregame on Oct. 30. “For that reason, I think two things — the responsibility that we have to go perform and bring our hard hat and play — I never underestimate that. I never shy away from that with my team. It's an easy thing to say because I believe it intimately.

"Two, there is a sort of opportunity and responsibility — call it whatever word you want. They've been coming since [Robert Covington]. Go back when we had Ersan [Ilyasova] and Dario [Saric] and [Covington] and we were getting 21,000 people when we're just cracking it and being sort of considered as a playoff team. And so Philadelphia doesn't just show up because now all of a sudden we're contenders. They have been coming and come they will, and they come with a spirit, and it's a real treat playing in this city. And I understand that the more and more I travel.

It’s been a long road from The Process to “bully ball,” but the Sixers have arrived.

They were possibly a few bounces from a championship last season. They have a roster that many people think is good enough to make the NBA Finals. The players and fan base have bought in.

But none of that matters if they don’t deliver. There are still 75 games to go.

“There's an emotional endurance, there's physical endurance, there's a mental endurance that I've learned you have to have as an NBA coach, because this just doesn't go away,” Brown said. “And my sights are set on something larger. It's set on something that's longer coming and to get twisted in a streak is not even close to where my head is at.”

Harris is happy, but far from satisfied.

Look, it's awesome,” Harris said of the excitement surrounding the team. “I mean, particularly seeing people's faces when you win and hearing the buzz in the city, it's awesome, but on the other hand ... the biggest happiness or prize for me will be obviously when we do win that championship and helping to be part of delivering that for the city with the players and the front office and everyone. 

“But at the same time, I think we all realize that there's pressure on us to deliver. It is the NBA and there's 29 other teams, so we're not ready to declare victory yet. We're in the middle of this. We saw what happened last year and we were all disappointed at the end of the season. So we're really using the pressure as motivation to really keep our heads down and keep working hard. The players are really bought in. I see them — they stay late, they get here early, everyone is focused and locked in. So I think the feel of it is very different. But it's a long season. I think we'll be able to talk much more completely in May or June.

If Leonard’s shot falls off the rim, do the Sixers become champions?

You know, it's so hard to play the what if game,” Harris said. “I would hope so.

The hope is this year’s team leaves Leonard’s shot as just a footnote in a championship story.

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Sixers assistant coach Kevin Young remembers Ben Simmons, Sixers feeding of Heat's physicality in 2018

Sixers assistant coach Kevin Young remembers Ben Simmons, Sixers feeding of Heat's physicality in 2018

Aside from Joel Embiid ringing the bell before Game 1 as the Phantom of the Process and Meek Mill doing so after just being released from prison before Game 5, there was one thing that stood out during the Sixers-Heat series in 2018: It was physical. 

Luckily for the Sixers, they were prepared for it. 

“Two things really stand out from the lead-up to that series,” Sixers assistant coach Kevin Young told NBC Sports Philadelphia in a phone interview. “It was really the physicality that we knew Miami was going to bring, because that's kind of what they do, and then the physicality that the playoffs will bring, because that's what the playoffs do. … As that series played out, obviously a lot of that physicality came to fruition.”

And how.

The Sixers carried the momentum of a 16-game winning streak — led by rookie Ben Simmons — into a Game 1 drubbing of Miami in which they hit a team playoff record 18 threes. In Game 2, Dwyane Wade had a vintage performance in leading the Heat to a win to even the series.

Game 3 in Miami marked the return of Joel Embiid — and also when the series got ugly.

Embiid was playing his first ever playoff game in an “annoying” mask to protect his previously fractured orbital bone. Heat forward Justise Winslow, likely annoyed by Embiid’s brashness and caught up in the intensity of the series, stomped on Embiid’s mask at one point. This was also the game where Justin Anderson — remember him? — got locked up with Wade and the players were called for double technicals.

The physicality of the Heat and the NBA playoffs, just as the Sixers had planned for, had gotten real.

That also ignited Simmons, who had elevated his play during the Sixers’ streak and was having a coming out party during this series.

“Ben's a guy that thrives on physical play,” Young said. “Even that year and as we've moved forward since then, he's consistently been one of our best screeners. He loves using his strength to free teammates up, using his ability to rebound as a strong, big, athletic guy. So he fed off it. In that series, I think it fueled him a little bit and that type of environment is where he can really shine as opposed to sometimes when teams play off him and things like that.”

While the physical play and theatrics may have grabbed all the headlines, it was a series with plenty of momentum-changing shots. Whether it was Josh Richardson, then a member of the Heat, making “a lot of timely shots” or Dario Saric making a big three to help seal Game 3, those are the plays that stick out to Young.

One that stood out to Young above the rest was a shot in Game 4, which NBC Sports Philadelphia will re-air Tuesday night. For as physical and competitive as the series was at the time, this was truly the only close game.

The Sixers shot just 7 of 31 from three and Simmons and Embiid combined for 15 turnovers. They found themselves down four going into the fourth quarter and staring down going back to Philadelphia with the series tied 2-2.

Then, led by Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers took their defense up a notch in the fourth, opening up a six-point lead with a little over two minutes left. Just when it seemed like Wade may deliver the same magic he did in Game 2 by getting the Heat to within one, JJ Redick made a huge shot with 30.1 seconds left to put the Sixers back up three.

Though Simmons did turn the ball over a bunch in Game 4, he still finished with a triple-double and four steals. Throughout the five games, he was superb.

Watching Simmons in that series, you sort of forgot he was just a rookie.

“One thing with Ben that I think the whole group would probably say has always been impressive with him," Young said, "is he's never been a guy who really gets phased by much. Obviously, you guys see it from your seat, too. He's very stoic, and not a lot of things rattle him. With that kind of makeup, it's like he's kind of built for some of these moments, and I thought that kind of showed itself in his first series.”

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Practice? All Sixers' Matisse Thybulle has to work with is a mini hoop

Practice? All Sixers' Matisse Thybulle has to work with is a mini hoop

Matisse Thybulle’s life had been fixated on basketball. He’d studied film and scouting reports, attended shootarounds and practices, traveled on planes across the country with his teammates and played in 57 games as an NBA rookie. 

That’s no longer the case. With the NBA season suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, Thybulle explained Monday in a remote interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters that basketball is now a much smaller part of his life.

It’s really limited,” he said of his basketball activity. “I’ve felt guilty because I haven’t really been doing much of basketball at all, just because I don’t have access to a gym and I care about my neighbors enough not to pound a basketball through my apartment building. I’ve been looking at other NBA players, seeing what they’re doing, what they’re saying. It seems to be a trend, that a lot of guys, they don’t have access. And if they do, they’re too worried to be around people or be exposed to too much. It’s going to be interesting to see what we’re all looking like once we come out of this.

This season, Thybulle’s rookie campaign, has perhaps been the most bizarre one in league history. On Opening Night, he guarded the Celtics' Kemba Walker and admitted it was “intimidating,” remarking that he’d played before as Walker in NBA2K. In late March, Thybulle was back playing virtual basketball, falling to the Suns’ Mikal Bridges in a 2K matchup both teams streamed on Twitch.   

“It’s not my area of experience,” he said with a smile. “You want to get a Rubik’s Cube-solving contest? I’m pretty sure I’ll win. I’ll take any NBA player, I’m pretty sure I can win that. But in terms of video games, I’ll do it socially to talk with my friends and hang out with my friends, but I’m not good.” 

While he hasn’t been entirely separate from his teammates during this time — the players have stayed in touch through a group chat and a couple of team Zoom calls, he said — Thybulle has mostly been isolated in an apartment with his cousin. The 23-year-old had plenty of time to meditate, do yoga, read, workout and consider life outside of basketball (see story). 

When he’s had a chance to play a miniature version of basketball, though, it hasn’t gone very well. 

 “I ordered a little mini hoop that I put on my door,” he said. “If you saw my TikTok, you’ll see that I’m not too good at shooting on it. I think I went 9 for 100. … Not my best day.”

In the time he’s not bricking mini hoop jumpers, Thybulle said he has thought some about how the NBA might change moving forward. As a rookie, it’s an especially odd position to be in — considering how all the rhythms and habits you’d finally become comfortable with could change.

“I think about it, but I’d just gotten used to the NBA,” he said. “I was just starting to figure it out and be good, and then everything gets changed and uprooted. I don’t know what could work. But I think it’s an interesting opportunity for the NBA to make some changes that maybe they’d wanted to make or been meaning to make and hadn’t had an opportunity. 

“There could be some changes that could stick for a while, or there could be some changes that we don’t like, and then we just go back to the regular thing. But I think it’s an interesting opportunity to just try out some different things, because we’ll have to, honestly.” 

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