76ers

You have to hand it to Joel Embiid

You have to hand it to Joel Embiid

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Joel Embiid was listed as “out” against the Spurs an hour before the game. He had other plans.

Embiid’s sprained right hand was tight and swollen so badly it had been preventing him from shooting. But as he went through pregame warmups, and still experienced discomfort, he decided he would play. 

Not just because he dislikes being sidelined. Because he wanted to get this victory specifically for Brett Brown. 

“I love my team,” Embiid said after the Sixers’ 112-106 win Wednesday (see observations). “I want to be right there with them. I don't want to quit on them. Then, also, I wanted to give Coach his first win against his former team and we did that for him.”

Brown spent 11-plus seasons on the Spurs’ coaching staff with Gregg Popovich. He had not defeated them since coming to Philadelphia in 2013. In fact, the Sixers’ struggles began before he arrived. They entered Wednesday with a 12-game losing streak against the Spurs, with their last win on Feb. 11, 2011. 

There was a clear opportunity for the Sixers to snap this skid. Rudy Gay (right heel bursitis), Manu Ginobili (rest), Danny Green (left groin tightness), Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker (both return from injury management) were all sitting out on the second night of a back-to-back. The Sixers would still have to deal with starter LaMarcus Aldridge, who ended up with a 24-point, 14-rebound double-double, and a well-coached squad, but the odds were greater with a shorthanded lineup. 

So Embiid played through the pain of the injury he suffered Sunday during a fall against the Suns. He battled for rebounds and blocked shots that “kind of hurt” him while hitting baskets with more ease than expected. 

He started off the game with six points, six rebounds, four blocks and three assists in the first quarter alone. Embiid finished with 21 points, 11 boards, four dimes and four blocks in over 35 minutes.

“To Joel Embiid’s complete credit, he came in and he surprised me — he actually made some shots,” Brown said. “If you saw the swelling in his hand, you wouldn’t have thought that would have been the impact. He would’ve blocked shots, he would’ve rebounded, he would’ve been physical defensively. But he actually still had some finesse and touch to his shot with a swollen right hand.”

Brown and the Sixers had been preparing throughout the day to play without Embiid, a situation they have found themselves in several times this season between injuries and medical restrictions. Embiid had been ruled “doubtful” at morning shootaround. Less than two hours before game time, Brown said Embiid was “very doubtful.” Prior to warmups, even Embiid himself said of his hand, “I can’t really use it.” 

The final determination period was those warmups, though, when Embiid made the eyebrow-raising decision to play. Brown was informed of the news during the team’s pregame meeting, about 35 minutes before tipoff. 

“It happened quick,” Brown said. “It was completely unexpected. I give him a lot of credit for playing through complete pain and trying to play in front of the Philadelphia fans and help his teammates. That’s a gutsy effort.”

The Sixers won their third straight game to improve to 18-19. Embiid was front and center when the team insisted Brown have the honor of the celebratory bell, a symbol of winning, in the locker room after the game. And with each ring, Embiid smiled at his mission accomplished (see story).

“It’s a team that didn’t have their full-strength roster, but in my eyes, it’s still the San Antonio Spurs,” Brown said. “You can put in whoever you want, they’re still going to play and compete and be organized. From that perspective, the win is satisfying.”

Sixers' NBA draft decisions should serve as a warning for Markelle Fultz

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Sixers' NBA draft decisions should serve as a warning for Markelle Fultz

The Friday after any NBA draft is a crowning moment for all of the league’s franchises. They trot out the previous night’s selections and hold introductory press conferences with smiles all around.

The Sixers were no different as they showed off first-round picks Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet at their training complex Friday morning.

However, make no mistake that this one was a little bit different. 

While the event was all about the new faces joining the organization, it also served as a direct warning shot to Markelle Fultz.

Brett Brown sat at the podium sandwiched between the two players he selected in the first round of his initial foray as Sixers interim general manager. Both guys happen to be bigger guards and each possess a particular top skill (athleticism for Smith and shooting for Shamet) that the Sixers thought they were getting right from the start in Fultz.

“The real reason they’re here is their talent,” Brown said. “Their ability to grow into NBA players, to play a modern style of basketball. The ability we felt that their base foundation had so much more room to grow. 

“The notion of how we play here in Philadelphia. The values that we have on defense, how we want to play offense. How we all look into a crystal ball and suspect the sport is going to be played in 2025. When you added those up, it made perfect sense and aggressively targeting these two players that sit on my right and sit on my left.”

It was just a year ago that the Sixers made an aggressive move to the top of the 2017 draft for Fultz. And while the franchise isn’t ready to give up on him after a rocky rookie season, it certainly sounds more and more like the team has settled on him becoming just a piece and not a cornerstone.

“When we started looking at the players available and I especially start looking at how we want to play and who can be sandwiched in between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, we’re looking for that modern-day type of player,” Brown said when asked whether taking two guards in the first round meant something about Fultz’s status. “To say position-less basketball, it’s really not that. To me, it might give you better vision of what I’m trying to say. I just think that the skill and things that we require, these two have, especially as you look sandwiched in between. And whether that’s Markelle, T.J. (McConnell) or Cov (Robert Covington), I would tell you the same thing. 

“When you look at the league, the league switches defensively a lot. When you look at the league, the league drives, dishes, needs three-point shot-makers and playmakers a lot. So whether it’s apples for apples is fine by me, but probably what you should hear the loudest is I don’t think there’s overlap. I think that they can play together.”

Playing together is completely different than playing around. It’s pretty clear the Sixers now reserve that status for Embiid, Simmons and whatever stars they plan to chase in free agency or via trade.

That doesn’t mean Fultz can’t reclaim the standing within the organization he was seemingly destined for when the Sixers called his name at No. 1 last year. After all, he just turned 20 years old last month (he’s actually 14 months younger than Shamet).

It all starts during this crucial summer for Fultz, which apparently is already going well (see story). But Smith and Shamet will have the chance to make impacts of their own coming up in the next few months as well.

“If you just base it on math and you look at percentages of what does a 10th player do and what’s a 26th player do, rarely do you see people immediately come in and claim a large role in rotations and heavy minutes. That historically isn’t the trend,” Brown said. “I say that from a factual base more than something that might be challenged. I expect these guys to challenge that. 

“Where this ends up, the expectations in relations to role and minutes and all of that, they’re going to tell me. We’ve got a summer league coming up. They will have ample opportunities to draw their own line in the sand.”

Fultz better be focused on drawing his too.

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Brett Brown embracing a difficult job as Sixers' interim GM

Brett Brown embracing a difficult job as Sixers' interim GM

Heading into the NBA draft, there was some uncertainty about how the Sixers would make decisions. Nobody seemed willing to say whether interim GM Brett Brown would have the final say, or whether it would be a truly collaborative process.

Thursday night, Brown confirmed he’s the man in charge.

“I was the one that approved the final decision,” Brown said after the Sixers’ first-round trade for Zhaire Smith and a 2021 unprotected first-round pick. “We have many people in that room that are aggressively speaking to people. We have information, we put it on a board and we discuss it. At the end of the day, (managing partner) Josh (Harris) looked at me and I did what I did. I approved the deal.”

Brown made sure to credit the people around him who made a difficult job easier. As Brown put it, “This has been a really different June” for him. There’s no way he could have expected he’d be pulling the trigger on draft night when the season ended, but he’s taken leadership of another team, this one in the front office.

“There is an incredible amount of teamwork that is required in that room,” Brown said. “You’re on the clock. I thought (vice president of basketball operations and chief of staff) Ned Cohen did a fantastic job helping organize this. The analytics side with Alex Rucker and Sergi Oliva, those guys were awesome. And then I think (vice president of basketball operations) Marc Eversley, delivering the group, you know, ‘These are the players with our scouts,’ it was a very collaborative process. It was a systematic process where you felt like you were a part of a team.”

Separating the head coaching part of his job from the GM duties he’s been thrown into hasn’t been painless for Brown. He acknowledged he felt the “human side” of trading away a high-character local kid whose mom works for the organization in Mikal Bridges (see story).

“The torment of trying to do my job in the very limited role I have for a moment as the general manager versus the role that I have as the head coach of this program, it’s a toggle,” Brown said. “And this is where we arrived.”

It’s obviously not a job Brown wants to do long term. At some point, he’ll be able to return his full focus to coaching. For now, though, he says he’s enjoying his new role. He’s always loved preaching about his program and cultivating a positive culture. Persistently optimistic, Brown looks at the aftermath of the Bryan Colangelo saga as an opportunity to fully embrace those passions.

“I said right when I accepted the responsibility that I have no intent of doing this,” Brown said. “I’m a basketball coach. When this came up, I felt a responsibility to do the best that I could under the circumstances to help move us forward. ... Down deep, I love it, because you just bleed for the program. You’ll do whatever you can to bring a championship to this city. That’s the bottom line. As we corral the analytics people, the scouts, my coaching staff and the people that work in the building and try to hold us together and move us forward and show daylight, that’s my job.”

There’s still no official timeline from the Sixers on when Brown’s tenure as interim GM will end. But free agency starts on July 1, and Brown is ready to recruit. He also sounded prepared to go all-out in pursuit of possible trades for stars (see story), including a hypothetical example that seemed to very closely resemble Kawhi Leonard, who wants out of San Antonio and has expressed his desire to return to his hometown of Los Angeles.

“When you talk about what are you going to do to show the program the way we want it to be seen, sometimes it’s in-house, sometimes you have to travel,” Brown said. “Whether we have to go mobile and, as an example, go to Los Angeles and deal with a family, an agent, the player. Whether we can attract him to come here to the city of Philadelphia.

“The whole strategy of how we do that, the presentation of information, we’ve been talking about that for a while. I feel completely that we will not miss a beat now that the draft is done, that we can focus in when free agency kicks in on July 1.”

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