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Sixers weekly observations: Jimmy Butler and the starting lineup

Sixers weekly observations: Jimmy Butler and the starting lineup

If the Sixers hadn’t traded for Jimmy Butler on Saturday, there’s a good chance we’d be talking in these weekly observations about Dario Saric finally breaking out of his slump and Robert Covington continuing to prove he’s one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball. However, those players are, of course, no longer on the Sixers.

• Not only does Brett Brown have to integrate Butler into the team, but he also has to find out his new-look team’s best rotations around Butler. The decision that will get the most immediate scrutiny is his starting lineup.

Saturday, Brown went small, starting Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, JJ Redick, Landry Shamet and Joel Embiid. Especially with the Sixers’ two offseason acquisitions currently out — the team is still slowly easing back Wilson Chandler from the left hamstring strain he suffered in the first preseason game, and Mike Muscala has a broken nose and facial laceration — that lineup was likely derived more from necessity than being any sort of telling signal for what things will look like once Butler arrives.

• Projecting ahead, Brown has a ton of options. As our national NBA reporter Tom Haberstroh suggested, this would be a good time to have Redick replace Fultz in the starting lineup. While Fultz has had some promising moments, he’s currently a below-average NBA starter, one that hasn't attempted a three-point shot in six games.

In terms of volume, the Sixers lost 11.3 three-point attempts per game combined from Covington and Saric. Starting Redick would help replace that missing three-point shooting, end all the consternation about the subpar spacing when Fultz and Simmons share the floor, and allow Fultz to exclusively run the point for the second unit.

• When Chandler is finally unrestricted, starting him at the four seems like the logical choice. On Friday, Chandler told NBC Sports Philadelphia that he feels “very comfortable” playing as a small-ball four since that’s what he did for most of his career under George Karl and Mike D’Antoni. He’s also started 447 of 593 career games, so that wouldn't require any adjustment.

Chandler is a versatile, switchable defender who can capably guard just about every position besides center. He even did a serviceable job in limited action Friday night against Kemba Walker. 

If an opponent decides to go big, the Sixers would be able to handle it defensively with the 7-foot Embiid, the 6-10 Simmons, the 6-8 Chandler and the 6-8 Butler in the lineup.

• There are plenty of details Brown will have to work out about how to best employ Butler, but there are two simple, invaluable qualities Butler has that should make Brown’s job much easier.

Late in the game, Brown can say, “Stop [insert name of opponent’s best player]" and Butler will get the job done. In crunch time, he can tell Butler, “Create your own offense,” and Butler will do it.

Butler has been in the top-10 for each of the past three seasons in clutch scoring (with clutch situations defined as the last five minutes of a game with a point difference of five poinys or less). While Joel Embiid is still growing in those situations, Butler has thrived in them for years. He’s shot 89.3 percent from the foul line in the clutch over the last three years.

• The Sixers’ third-quarter struggles finally cost them a game Saturday night in Memphis.

It’s officially a trend, one they’ll eventually have to fix. 

• Covington’s departure means T.J. McConnell is the lone survivor from the 2015-16 Sixers, the team that went 10-72 and lost 28 straight games. As usual, McConnell stepped up when called upon for a Sixers team that had just nine active players against Memphis, with 16 points and seven assists.

“For all of us back in Philadelphia, when you just sort of look at him not play and you watch his body language and his mannerisms on the bench, you can see instantly that he’s a leader, he’s selfless, he’s an incredible part of this fabric,” Brown said. “He’s a huge part of our culture. To see him come into a game tonight and do what he’s done a lot when he’s on the floor playing, I’m proud of him and he deserved that performance.”

The Sixers lost two other key parts of their culture in Covington and Saric. The dynamic of this team has changed entirely, both on and off the court. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this new version of the Sixers develops. 

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Who will be Sixers' backup point guard in 2019-20 season?

Who will be Sixers' backup point guard in 2019-20 season?

With training camp getting closer, there are plenty of topics to discuss involving the 2019-20 Sixers. Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick.

In this edition, we ask: Who will be the Sixers' backup point guard this season?

Hudrick 

This a tough call and should be a legitimate competition.

I like Trey Burke’s game and his ability to get his own shot. It’s a strong NBA skill and not one many of the other Sixers have. He also doesn’t turn the ball over — he’s averaged less than a turnover a game in 17.3 minutes a game the last three seasons combined. He also shot 37.4 percent from three during that span, meaning he could also play next to Ben Simmons. If it were me, Burke would get the first crack at the role.

But Raul Neto seems like the more likely candidate to get backup point guard duties. Neto is a pure floor general who will bring a calming influence that should delight Brett Brown. He started playing professionally overseas when he was 16 and has 20 games of playoff experience under his belt. Neto’s only issue the past couple seasons has been durability, but when healthy, he’s a decent offensive playmaker and shooter (37.7 percent for his career from three).

It should be nice for Brown to have options for once. I still like Shake Milton’s game and would like to see him get a little time as the backup point this season — despite a tough summer league experience. I could also see Josh Richardson getting a few minutes as the team’s primary ball handler. He had the most ball-dominant season of his NBA career last season and averaged 4.1 assists.

Whichever player gets the role will also be aided by Al Horford, an outstanding passer for a big man (4.6 assists per game the last three seasons) who can run some point forward.

Levick 

This is an interesting sequel to the Jazz’s starting point guard competition in 2015-16, when Neto won the job over Burke. I expect that to happen again, but for Burke to still be in the mix and even preferred over Neto in some matchups. Here’s my thinking:

Neto was signed before Burke and his contract is fully guaranteed, whereas Burke’s deal is partially guaranteed, according to reports. Those details don’t indicate the spot is automatically Neto’s, but they do suggest the competition might be slightly tipped in his favor to start.

Burke is a positive in several areas offensively. He’s excellent in the pick-and-roll, has a good assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6 assists to 1.3 turnover for his career) and can create offense out of nothing. Defensively, he’s poor, to the extent that you’d be worried whether he can be picked on in a playoff setting. The 6-foot-1 guard has a defensive box plus-minus of minus-3 or lower each of the last three seasons.

Neto isn’t great defensively, but you figure Brown would be inclined to trust him over Burke. He doesn’t have Burke’s “I’ll get you a bucket” sort of game, but the Brazilian can also put pressure on a defense. In just 12.8 minutes per game last year, he averaged 7.1 drives, shooting 51.9 percent on those possessions.

It’s a luxury to have someone like Burke who can explode for 42 points in a game or go on a solo scoring run, and he could become a necessity if Neto deals with injuries, as he has the last three seasons. Even in the event both are healthy, if the Sixers are struggling to score from the perimeter and/or facing a small point guard who’s a weak defender, Burke might be the guy.

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Uh Oh: Stephen A. Smith is predicting HUGE things for Sixers this season

Uh Oh: Stephen A. Smith is predicting HUGE things for Sixers this season

Stephen A. Smith's track record of predicting things is suspect to say the least.

So it's with great trepidation that Philadelphia 76ers fans should watch the below clip in which he predicts an NBA Finals appearance for Brett Brown's club this coming season.

Smith made the prediction on ESPN's First Take on Friday morning while sitting alongside NBA legend Magic Johnson (the joke about tampering with Giannis may have been the highlight of the segment).

"The Philadelphia 76ers are going to the NBA Finals," Smith declares. "I'm going to defer to my man Jalen Rose when he points out that Boston arguably has the best perimeter shooting team. We can't ignore that. Toronto lost Kawhi, ain't nothing to discuss. The Greek Freak, as phenomenal as he is, the combo of not having a reliable perimeter shot combined with Malcolm Brogdon being in Indiana..."

"My attitude is, I don't like the fact that Philly lost JJ Redick, that's a big loss to me," Smith continues. "The fact that Boston no longer has Al Horford and the Sixers do, not only somebody to pair with Embiid but to spell him whenever he's out. I'm going to believe Ben Simmons has been working on his shot. I'm going to believe Tobias Harris doesn't have to worry about co-existing with Jimmy Butler and that's a plus. I'm going to believe Josh Richardson can play at both ends of the floor..."

"I'm a little suspect on their bench, but I think the Sixers are going to be playing in June."

On the bright side for Philly fans, it's not like Smith is making some bold proclamation here. FiveThirtyEight's prediction model actually gives the Sixers the best chances of making the Finals of any team in the NBA given the East's weaker make up than the West. In fact, they give the Sixers almost twice as good a chance of doing so than the next closest Eastern contender the Bucks (54% vs. 27%).

So Stephen A. isn't going out on a limb, but it never feels great when he picks your squad in anything.

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