Sixers weekly observations: The case for three All-Stars, improved defense, painful loss to Thunder, more

Sixers weekly observations: The case for three All-Stars, improved defense, painful loss to Thunder, more

The Sixers went 3-1 this week, but their most recent (and most painful) memory is of the one that got away, Saturday’s 117-115 loss to the Thunder (see observations).

In the big picture, the Sixers are 30-17 and 19-9 in games in which Jimmy Butler has played.

Let’s get into a few observations:

• Ben Simmons told reporters he considered pulling up for a three-point shot on the Sixers’ final possession vs. Oklahoma City. Only Simmons can know his thoughts in that moment, but the notion that he deliberated attempting the first non-heave three-pointer of his career in the final seconds of a two-point game is dubious.

Even if he did think about pulling up for a jumper, his track record rendered his intentions irrelevant. The Thunder had no reason to believe Simmons was going to take a jumper and played him accordingly.

If Simmons isn’t going to attempt jumpers in those spots for the time being, faking the dribble handoff and attacking the basket or rolling to the rim after giving the ball to Butler are other viable late-game options off that action. He did what he felt was best in the moment Saturday, but forcing defenses to be wary of him doing something besides handing the ball off would benefit the Sixers’ late-game offense moving forward.

• The Sixers’ defense, a season-long concern, was much improved this week, and Simmons was especially impressive defensively. Victor Oladipo shot just 4 for 11 on Thursday when guarded by Simmons, and Russell Westbrook was 1 for 5

As a team, the Sixers posted a 103.9 defensive rating this week, fourth best in the NBA, and that’s not a difficult number to believe based on the miscommunications that are gradually disappearing and the improved overall effort. As we suggested, using Jonah Bolden as Joel Embiid’s backup appears to be effectively concealing the flaws of the Sixers’ subpar perimeter defense off the bench, though Bolden will at some stage need to eradicate his habit of committing bad fouls. 

• We’ve avoided All-Star voting discussion until now, but with fan voting set to close Monday at 11:59 p.m., it’s an unavoidable topic.

First, the relevant logistics: As of Thursday, Embiid had the third-most fan votes among Eastern Conference frontcourt players. Butler was fifth in that category, while Simmons was fourth among backcourt players in the East. 

Three frontcourt and two backcourt players from each conference will be named starters, with fan votes weighted at 50 percent, and media and player votes at 25 percent each. Head coaches will vote for the reserves of their respective conferences.

The Sixers should have three All-Stars this year for the first time since the 1986-87 season, when Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks and Julius Erving were selected. 

Embiid is a self-evident choice, by far the best center in the East. He’s averaging 27 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Defensively, he’s guarding more field goals than any player in the conference, and opponents are shooting just 44.3 percent against him.

Butler may be a divisive personality, depending on who you ask, but he's an excellent basketball player. He’s made two game-winners in his first 28 games with his new team and would have had a third on Saturday if not for Paul George’s heroics. Nineteen points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game with the Sixers isn’t too shabby, especially when you consider how little Butler turns the ball over (his 7.1 turnover percentage is lower than any rotation player besides Landry Shamet’s) and the fact that he usually defends the opponent’s best player.

Simmons should have removed any doubt about his All-Star case over the last month. Since Dec. 22, he’s posted 18.4 points per game on 60 percent shooting, 10.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists. 

Jump shot or not, Simmons has developed this season and is very worthy of an All-Star spot. 

After shooting an abysmal 21 for 70 on 254 post-ups last season, he’s already posted up 207 times this season and shot 39 for 75 on those possessions

Simmons is a unique player whose weaknesses (refusal to shoot jumpers and low efficiency when he does, turnovers, lapses in defensive effort) are easy to identify and criticize. He’s also a special talent who is doing a damn good job harnessing the skills he has.

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Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

Sixers pursued 'high-level, accomplished' executives before hiring Elton Brand as general manager

In the wake of the absurd scandal involving Bryan Colangelo and burner Twitter accounts, the Sixers searched for their next general manager and handed Brett Brown the job on an interim basis. Eventually, they promoted Elton Brand.

He was certainly not their first choice, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

“When they opened that job up, when Colangelo was gone and before they promoted Elton Brand, they went after any number of high-level, accomplished executives around the league,” Wojnarowski said on The Woj Pod. “They were willing to offer Daryl Morey, Bob Meyers, Dennis Lindsey, Sam Presti. There may have been more.”

Brand’s only previous executive experience was as the GM of the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats (formerly the 87ers). It makes sense that the Sixers would have preferred more established candidates.

The Sixers were “rebuffed” in their efforts to hire Morey, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported in July of 2018. A mentor to former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, Morey won the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award in 2018 and is still GM of the Rockets. 

Stein also reported the Sixers “commissioned a clandestine run at prying Myers away from the Warriors that was likewise rebuffed.” Myers has served as the Warriors’ general manger since 2012 and won three championships with the team.

Lindsey is the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Jazz, while Presti has been GM of the Thunder franchise since 2007. 

The Sixers had an interview with former Cavs and current Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin but, according to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, “felt he wasn’t a good fit for their front-office structure” and wanted to “make collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say.”

In July of 2018, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Amy Fadool, “It’s very consensus-oriented, there’s a lot of people in the dialogue, and we want to make sure we find the right fit for that.”

Wojnarowski noted on the podcast that Harris and the Sixers’ leadership above Brand remain influential.

“Ownership’s got a lot of say in Philly," he said. “You’ve got a group of owners that are involved, that are there. How many team have multiple owners courtside each corner of the arena, each night?

Brand has made several major moves since assuming the GM job in September of 2018, including trading for Jimmy Butler, shipping Markelle Fultz to Orlando, trading for Tobias Harris and then signing him to a five-year, $180 million deal this summer, and giving Al Horford a four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed. At 37-23 this season and 9-21 on the road, Brand’s roster has not performed the way he envisioned. 

Wojnarowski and Max Kellerman also talk about expectations for the rest of the Sixers' season, the history of Sam Hinkie’s Process and more on the podcast, which you can listen to here

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Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

Tobias Harris is blocking out outside noise about big contract, trying to carry Sixers

When you’re given the largest contract in the history of a storied franchise like the Sixers in the city of Philadelphia, you’re going to face scrutiny.

Tobias Harris has gotten his fair share since inking a five-year, $180 million near-max deal this past offseason. The 27-year-old hasn’t consistently provided the scoring needed to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Though at times, like Thursday night against the Knicks, Harris has looked like the player GM Elton Brand traded for and then chose to re-sign as a franchise cornerstone. 

With Embiid and Simmons both on the shelf, this is the version the Sixers need to see a lot more of.

“At the beginning of the game, had some good looks going,” Harris said. “We had good pop to our flow, to our offense, and was able to get some just in-the-flow plays. Once I'm able to get into the flow and the ball is able to move around, that's where I'm at my best. And I just carried that throughout the game.”

Harris, who was one off his Sixers high with 34 points, has said since he arrived before last season’s trade deadline that he flourishes in systems with good ball movement. That’s likely why he’s shot the ball better from three with Simmons on the floor (37.5) than off (29.5).

Simmons leads the NBA in assists on threes whereas with Embiid, his methodical approach in the post can make the offense stagnant at times. With both off the floor, Harris will have to do more to get his own shot.

Brett Brown admitted after Thursday’s game that he’s simplified the offense with his two All-Stars out. Against the Knicks, Harris just attacked mismatches all night, punishing smaller defenders in the post and driving on New York’s bigs.

“With those two out, we'll have to find our identity of how we're going to play,” Harris said. “You saw tonight, we had a lot of just wide-open looks out of the initial pin down action either between Al [Horford] and [Josh Richardson] or Al [Horford] and [Alec] Burks so we got a lot of easy ones going and just were able to go at different mismatches that we felt.”

The trio of Harris, Horford and Richardson struggled in Cleveland, going 12 of 35. They all had bounce-back games of some sort, but it was Harris who likely got the most heat and responded in the biggest way.

Does he feel like it’s his responsibility to carry the team right now because of the large investment the they made on him?

“I would be naive to think there’s not a hint of that,” Brown said. “I think he’s really competitive and if you paid him a nickel or $170 million, I think that you’re going to get a highly competitive player. ... He’s very prideful. That’s why he’s good. 

“He’s trying to do his part obviously to earn his keep, but I think it’s way deeper than that. I think he just wants to be on a winning team for a long time and try to help steer this program to trying to find, at some point, a championship.”

With the fans, there's a sentiment of Harris being overpaid, so not much is made when he hangs 34 on a bad Knicks team. It makes sense. Fans would rather root for an underdog like Shake Milton, who's come out of nowhere to earn important minutes.

Harris has become a leader and a respected player in the Sixers’ locker room. That’s his only concern.

“There's obviously outside noise that comes involved with [signing a big contract],” Harris said. “I always look at it like the only noise that really carries weight for me is noise in our locker room, and with the guys on our team and coaching staff. I truly believe that you can ask every single one of them in the locker room, the value that I bring to this team, on and off the floor, and they will vouch for that. That's the credibility that I go with. ... So I just try to do my job on a daily basis, be a professional every day and go to work.”

With 22 games left and the Sixers trying to claw their way up the East with their All-Stars banged up, Harris will have ample opportunity to show his value to everyone else.

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