76ers

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

Now that the dust has settled on the NBA's All-Star festivities, the Sixers will reconvene this week and turn their attention back to the playoff push.

With 27 games remaining in the regular season over a 49-day stretch, it will be a sprint to the finish.

So how can the Sixers capture their first postseason berth in six seasons? Let's take a look at what the team needs more and less of down the stretch.

More: Healthy Embiid
What injury? Joel Embiid shook off right ankle soreness to participate in three events during All-Star weekend as a shining representation of the up-and-coming Sixers.

"There was never really a thought about missing out on any of these events," Embiid said Friday after the Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars game. "It's my first time, so I'm going to have fun."

The big man is always about having fun, but now it's time to get down to business. Even though the Sixers' competition appears to lighten up after the break, the schedule does not (27 games with six back-to-back sets).

The Sixers are 27-17 when Embiid plays and just 3-8 when he doesn't suit up. They need the center healthy and on the court.

Less: Turnovers
Way less, actually. 

As you know by now, the Sixers have a bit of an issue holding onto the basketball. They simply don't respect each possession enough, evidenced by their 17.5 turnovers per game. That's good enough for dead last in the NBA and it's a full 1.5 turnovers more than the closest team (Los Angeles Lakers).

And it's not just the miscues. Teams are capitalizing, too — the Sixers also rank 30th in opponents' points off turnovers (19.4).

Of the "Four Factors" statistic on the offensive end, which breaks down weighted factors that help a team win a game — shooting (40 percent), turnovers (25 percent), rebounding (20 percent) and free throws (15 percent) — the only category that the Sixers rank outside of the NBA's top 10 in is turnovers.

If they can cut down on the giveaways just a little, it will go a long way toward their goal.

More: Early execution
However, not all of those possessions end up with the Sixers running back on defense after a turnover.

With more legit scoring options on the roster this season than any previous time during Brett Brown's tenure, they have shown the ability to execute a play to perfection for a bucket.

It's a stark contrast to the days when they couldn't even get the ball in on an inbounds play.

That level of scoring punch has been particularly evident at the start of games. The Sixers are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for fourth in the league in first-quarter points per game (28.7) and are even with the L.A. Clippers for seventh in first-half points a night (55.2).

The Sixers must continue to apply that pressure on teams at the outset of games, especially if their woes finishing off opponents is going to persist.

Less: Bad Covington
Ah, the curious case of Robert Covington.

Has any player in NBA history ever looked like they could make a push for an All-Star spot for two months only to appear as if they belong in the G League the next few months?

Covington has always been a streaky shooter, but this season has been extreme. He shot 44.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range in October and November to help secure his multiyear extension. 

Since that point, the swingman has connected on just 37.6 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from long distance.

Whether it's the weight of the big contract or the nasty spill he took against the Cavs in December, Covington hasn't looked the same on the floor in several months. The team needs him to get it together and the sooner the better.

More: Killer D's
While Embiid's presence on both ends and Ben Simmons' wizardry at the point have put the Sixers in position to snag a playoff bid, the team didn't really hit its stride until a certain pairing found its footing: Dario Saric and defense.

Much like his rookie season, Saric struggled to find his role at the start. But that's long in the rearview mirror now. The second-year forward has increased his production each month and has been rolling so far in February (18.6 points, 51.7 percent field goals, 46.3 percent threes, 6.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game).

That surge has coincided with the Sixers' tightened grip on defense. In seven games this month, they've allowed 96.1 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting.

The type of balance Saric offers offensively and the overall lockdown defense won't only make the Sixers a postseason team, it will also make them a tough out. 

Less: Fultz speculation
This is a big deal that the Sixers could make very small with a clear decision on the No. 1 pick's immediate future.

Markelle Fultz reportedly continues to ramp up his rehab workouts for his ailing shoulder, even after team president Bryan Colangelo said earlier this month that the guard could return soon or be shut down for the season.

The franchise should obviously give Fultz every chance to come back and contribute, but that ruling should be made at the first opportunity.

It's after the All-Star break and having that type of deliberation hovering over the team isn't exactly fair to the other players. Not to mention, for a guy that has apparently dealt with questions regarding his confidence, possibly dropping him into the thick of a playoff race doesn't really do him any favors either.

NBA draft profile: Bosnia F Dzanan Musa

NBA draft profile: Bosnia F Dzanan Musa

Dzanan Musa

Position: Forward

Height: 6-9

Weight: 190

Team: Cedevita Zagreb (Croatia)

You hear stories all the time about what prospects in different sports sacrificed to chase their dreams. Few of them can match Dzanan Musa.

At 11 years old, the Bosnian Musa moved from his hometown of Bihac to capital city Sarajevo (a nearly five-and-a-half-hour drive) to attend a basketball academy. Musa lived in an apartment by himself and trained several times a day until he turned professional at age 16.

“I know how to manage myself,” Musa said after a recent workout with the Denver Nuggets. “Especially when you’re from a small town as I am and you go in the main city, you have people looking at you like you’re nothing. You have to fight through that, so I fight. I fight all the time.” 

That hunger has placed the offensively-gifted wing among first-round talents in the 2018 draft class even if it takes a couple more years for Musa to suit up in the NBA.

Strengths
Musa has been getting buckets since he picked up a basketball. Look no further than his prolific scoring numbers with the Bosnian national team. 

In the 2014 FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship, he put up 23.0 points a game and followed that up in the 2015 FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship with 23.3 points a contest. Musa took it up a notch in the 2016 FIBA Under-17 World Cup when he racked up 34.0 points a night en route to being named tournament MVP.

Of course, that was against players his own age. But Musa has held his own against grown men in the professional ranks as well. In 71 total games for Cedevita Zagreb this past season across the Croatian Leagues and EuroCup, the 19-year-old averaged 12.3 points on 47.0 percent shooting from the field and 31.3 from three-point range in addition to 3.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 23.1 minutes (see highlights).

Overall, Musa is an offensive-minded player that can score in bunches at all three levels when on his game and handle play-making duties as a point-forward.

Weaknesses
Like plenty of European prospects before him, Musa has two huge areas to focus on if he wants to make it in the league: physique and defense. 

“In Europe, we don’t have people around here who are these kinds of athletes,” Musa said after a recent workout with the Indiana Pacers. "I have to develop myself into that kind of player to finish through contact.”

Notice he didn’t mention bulking up to help play defense. That’s because Musa apparently isn’t all that concerned with that end of the floor, which will be a major problem when the talent level spikes in the NBA.

Also, Musa apparently has a competitive side that boils over on the court and gets the best of him at times. That works when you’re someone like Draymond Green, an All-Star and multiple-time champion. Not so much when you’re a young player from overseas trying to find his way.

NBA comparison
While Musa would love to be compared to idol Manu Ginobili, we’re not about to make that link. Sorry, kid. 

However, another recent European prospect that was versatile offensively and was confident in his ability to the point of being cocky is Magic forward Mario Hezonja. That seems like a much better pairing. Like Hezonja, it will take time for Musa to adapt his body and game to the league before he is ready to contribute.

How’d he fit with Sixers
Offensively, Musa would appear to fit in pretty well with the Sixers. He likes to get out on the break and can knock down shots. He also would be able to take over ball-handling duties at times if needed.

On the defensive end, the Sixers have studs in Robert Covington and Joel Embiid that can cover up some deficiencies from others, but even they can only do so much.

Draft projection
Musa is projected to go anywhere from the late teens to near the end of the first round. With the Sixers holding the No. 26 pick and already having 11 players under contract for next season, he could be a serious candidate for a draft-and-stash selection.

More on the Sixers and the NBA draft

Despite Brett Brown connection, Sixers should steer clear of Kawhi Leonard trade

Despite Brett Brown connection, Sixers should steer clear of Kawhi Leonard trade

Brett Brown knows only one way to go about his business in the basketball world: attack.

That is evident from his pace-and-space style of play the Sixers have displayed since he took over as head coach. Now he has vowed to do the same thing as the team’s interim general manager.

“We are completely exploring aggressively all options, and I think we just know we need a little bit more,” Brown said Friday.

It’s evident the Sixers need help to become a championship-level team, but we’re not so sure it should come in the form of a man wearing black and silver hitchhiking his way out of San Antonio.

Kawhi Leonard sent shockwaves around the NBA when he reportedly made it clear he wants a split from the Spurs. Per the reports, Leonard has Los Angeles — specifically the Lakers — as his top destination for a trade.

And while there’s no guarantee the Spurs send the former Finals MVP and two-time All-Star to Hollywood, the Sixers would be better served to stay out of the hunt. That’s because if the quiet superstar has proven anything over the past year, it’s that he can do a lot of damage to an organization without saying a word. 

Leonard missed the first 27 games of 2017-18 with a right quad injury. He returned on a heavy-restriction plan only to play seven contests before suffering a tear in his left shoulder. The swingman played one more game before being shut down indefinitely because of the nagging quad. 

After more rehab and eventually being cleared by the Spurs’ medical staff, Leonard opted to leave the team for a second opinion in New York. He stayed away from San Antonio while getting treatment, which allegedly caused friction within the organization that eventually blew up in a players-only meeting.

That didn’t deter Leonard from his plan. He didn’t suit up again nor did he show support for the squad in its first-round series against the champion Golden State Warriors. (Oh, by the way, Leonard has missed time in three straight seasons because of his right quad and reportedly still isn’t 100 percent).

Now if that’s enough to shake up the locker room of arguably the most stable franchise in all of sports, what impact do you think Leonard’s methods would have on the Sixers’ impressionable roster?

Could it be that Leonard just reached his tolerance level with the legendary head coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs and simply needs a change of scenery? Of course.

But that’s not a risk the Sixers should be willing to take. Not for virtually the only player in recent memory to ever clash with the highly-respected Spurs. Not for a guy that’s willing to potentially walk away from a $219 million supermax extension for a $188 million maximum just to escape to his hometown of L.A.

Certainly not when it could mean parting with key pieces of your core (Dario Saric, Robert Covington and/or Markelle Fultz) in addition to the No. 10 overall pick in the draft. All for what could be a one-year rental player, as Leonard is able to opt out of his current deal after next season.

Surely the Sixers would want a guarantee Leonard plans to stay before pulling the trigger on a trade, but that’s not a handshake agreement they should be willing to trust. Even if old buddy Brown is the one shaking hands with “The Claw.”

“He’s a great guy,” Brown said. “I’ve spent years with him, as you know, in San Antonio. I’m reminded of the recruiting process we went through to identify him and the sort of pain we went through to give up George Hill to move up and target him. He’s good people, he’s obviously an elite talent and I enjoyed my time with Kawhi in San Antonio.”

Things could be even more painful for Brown this time around if he’s not careful.

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