After Raptors' championship, Kawhi Leonard trade could redefine NBA

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USA Today

After Raptors' championship, Kawhi Leonard trade could redefine NBA

For over a decade, the biggest swing in Toronto’s sports history came from Blue Jays slugger Joe Carter to win the 1993 World Series.

But not even that iconic home run can compete with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s swing for Kawhi Leonard, the first NBA Finals MVP in franchise history.

On July 18, Ujiri traded franchise-leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green.

The result was an image that Raptors fans couldn’t have ever dreamed of this time last year: Leonard, in Toronto red, standing on the Larry O’Brien presentation platform with his hands raised in the air. After a controversial load-management strategy during the regular season, Leonard capped off one of the greatest postseason runs ever, culminating in one of the biggest Finals upsets ever.

Going against the two-time defending champs, the Raptors were the underdogs of underdogs. On the Sunday before the Finals, with Kevin Durant’s health status still in the air, Golden State opened as a minus-275 favorite at the Westgate SuperBook and even reached as high as minus-300 before settling in at minus-270, according to sports-betting trackers. Since 1969, NBA Finals series favorites of at least minus-200 are 26-3 and a 25-2 since 1976. Favorites of at least minus-300, where the Warriors peaked before Game 1, are 13-1 all-time.

The only upset more stunning by Vegas standards was the 2004 Finals, when the Detroit Pistons took down the minus-700 Los Angeles Lakers, a juggernaut that also came up short of its fourth championship in five years.

The Warriors were battered and worn down. But Leonard outlasted them all, winning a Finals MVP in his first season with the Raptors. But the Leonard trade didn’t just precipitate a championship. The real lasting power is that it may forever alter how NBA power-brokers think about deal-making.

By rewriting the Raptors’ crestfallen history in just one season, the Leonard acquisition may redefine the league as a whole.

* * *

A LeBron James autograph, written on a crumbly piece of paper, stills hangs above Stephen Pike’s bed in his childhood home in St. John’s, the capital city of the remote Newfoundland-Labrador province in Canada. It’s laminated now and has been taped to his bedroom wall for the last 15 years, a reminder of when Pike and so many Canadians got hooked on the NBA.

This is what was on Pike’s mind when he trekked from his hometown in North Canada -- geographically closer to Greenland than Toronto, in fact -- to watch his beloved Raptors try to clinch the 2019 NBA Finals in Game 5 at ScotiaBank Arena. For the better of the last two decades, the ill-fated day that Pike got James’ autograph has stood as a symbol for the at times thrilling, yet mostly tortured existence of being a Raptors fan.

Fresh off being selected No. 1 overall in the NBA by the Cleveland Cavaliers, an 18-year-old James visited St. John’s -- a community of barely 100,000, or one-seventh the population of Winnipeg -- to play the Raptors on Oct. 23, 2003 in a preseason game. It was there, outside a small hotel in a far-off corner of Canada, that a 12-year-old Pike waited in line for a chance to see the biggest high school phenom the game had ever seen.

This was the Beatles playing a concert in Anchorage, Alaska, if Anchorage was half as populated. As James passed through a sea of screaming Canadian fans, Pike snuck James a piece of white paper, and The Chosen One scribbled down his signature as he hurried along. Pike kept the memento in his pocket when he showed up with his twin brother and father for the highly anticipated Raptors-Cavaliers game scheduled for later that night.

“We absolutely fell in love with the game after seeing the NBA players -- Vince Carter and LeBron James,” said Pike, now 28 years old, of what would be a memorable night for multiple reasons. “It’s been a love affair ever since.”

Prior to the 2003 NBA lottery that gave the Cavs the No. 1 overall pick and the Raptors the No. 4 overall pick, MLSE, the Raptors’ ownership group, struck a momentous deal to host a preseason game at Mile One Stadium (now Mile High Centre), the home of MSLE’s minor league hockey team. The arena, which had a 5,000-person capacity at the time, gets its namesake because St. John’s marks the starting point of the TransCanada highway that snakes across the vast country for 5,000 miles.

“The town was very excited," Pike said.

Only one problem.

“They never dealt with a basketball game before,” Pike said.

Actually, two problems: Oct. 23, 2003 was an unusually humid day in St. John’s, a dreaded weather outlook for a hockey arena. A thick fog ominously blanketed the entire town.

The Pike family showed up early to the sold-out arena, but condensation from the humidity and the rink below began to pool atop the court. An hour before the game, stadium officials asked attendees to help dry the playing court. So Pike and his brother grabbed towels handed out by the officials, got down on their hands and knees and began wiping down the hardwood in hopes that they could let James and Carter play.

Minutes later, the Raptors’ GM at the time, Glen Grunwald, walked out to the center of the damp court and announced the game was cancelled due to unsafe playing conditions.

"I will make you one promise," Grunwald told the fans in attendance. "The Toronto Raptors will return to this arena and play a game within two years."

“It was pretty sad,” Pike said. “But just to be close to the players was neat.”

Over the next year or so, Carter was traded from the Raptors and Grunwald was fired. The hockey team left St. John’s in 2005. To this day, Newfoundland-Labrador hasn’t hosted an NBA game.

“It was a one-time thing and hasn’t come back since,” Pike said. “I don’t know how it happened. I don’t see it happening any time soon ever again.”

Before Game 5 at ScotiaBank Arena, Grunwald told NBCSports.com that the canceled game was “a tragedy” and “the strangest night of my NBA career.”

But attending that canceled game still sparked a passion that will last a lifetime. After seeing James and Carter, Pike began practicing basketball regularly, and he ended up playing at the national level for his province Newfoundland-Labrador against some Ontario prospects named Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. In 2011, Thompson became the highest Canadian born draftee as the No. 4 overall pick, and Joseph was selected 29th by the San Antonio Spurs. Both grew up watching the Raptors and later became NBA champions.

“The Vince Carter effect,” Pike said.

Fifteen years after getting James’ signature, Pike traveled eight hours on two flights from his hometown in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a town of 8,000 people on the banks of Labrador Sea in Northern Canada, to be at ScotiaBank Arena to watch the Raptors win the NBA championship. All in all, Pike estimates he spent 3,000 Canadian dollars to attend Game 5, including an $860 seat in the upper deck and a $1,600 flight that took off in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and connected through Halifax’s airport.

“I’m pretty much in the janitor’s closet, but that’s OK,” Pike said. “As long as I had two feet in the building, I was happy with that.”

For a science teacher and varsity basketball coach at the local high school, the trip to Game 5 chewed up nearly all his savings. And that doesn’t count the cost of the Kyle Lowry jersey that he wore to the game, the “We The North” undershirt, the “We The North” flag he wrapped around his waist, the Raptors hat or the blue-yellow-red Newfoundland-Labrador provincial flag he brought to Jurassic Park so he could wave it proudly with thousands of Canadian fans.

Pike, like thousands of others who gathered in downtown Toronto on Tuesday night, will never forget that moment, which he began planning for immediately after the Eastern Conference finals.

“I knew as soon as they beat Milwaukee,” Pike said, “I was going to spend the money and make this once-in-a-lifetime trip.”

Sitting from his seat in Section 313 with his Labrador flag draped around his shoulders, Pike watched with his twin brother beside him as the Raptors came within 30 seconds of Canada’s first NBA title. They envisioned the hoisting of the Larry O’Brien trophy and a joyous celebration back home in Newfoundland-Labrador. The dream was becoming a reality.

Instead, the Raptors let it slip away, and the Pike brothers went home empty-handed again.

* * *

Masai Ujiri had seen enough. For the third straight year, the Raptors’ Finals chase ended prematurely at the hands of James and the Cavaliers. The defeats were so devastating that the city of Toronto had been dubbed “LeBronto” by ESPN and the NBA community at large.

As the team’s general manager since 2013 and team president since 2016, Ujiri has never shied away from reinventing the Raptors’ place in the NBA.

One of his first transactions with the team was trading away the team’s former No.1 overall pick, Andrea Bargnani, to the New York Knicks for three draft picks. Before his first postseason game against the Brooklyn Nets, Ujiri visited Toronto’s pre-game pep rally in Maple Leaf Square and blared into the microphone: “I got one thing I want to say before we go into the game … F*** Brooklyn! Let’s go!”

Four years later, after the winningest season in Raptors history, which capped the winningest stretch in Raptors history, Ujiri fired head coach Dwane Casey and promoted his top assistant coach, Nick Nurse, to take over. It was Nurse’s first head-coaching job in the NBA.

Fortune favors the bold. At the time, the decision to promote Nurse to the head coaching position seemed like Ujiri’s boldest gamble yet. But it was a pull at the penny slots compared to what he did a month later, trading for San Antonio’s injured small forward.

In a span of two months, Ujiri had gotten rid of two of the franchise’s most beloved members in order to deploy a player who played just nine games in the prior season.

The Leonard deal may go down as the biggest trade in NBA history. Only one other time has a team traded for a player that won a Finals MVP in his first season with the team. That came in 1982-83, after the Houston Rockets traded Moses Malone to the Philadelphia 76ers for Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first-round pick (which ended up being No. 3 pick Rodney McCray).

But that one comes with the caveat that it was functionally a sign-and-trade when Malone made his intentions clear that he wanted to sign in Philadelphia, and the two sides later agreed to facilitate a deal. Malone went on to win a regular season MVP and Finals MVP in his Philly debut season, uttering the iconic  “Fo’ Fo’ Fo’” phrase along the way.

The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Ujiri made the deal even though Leonard reportedly didn’t even want to play in Toronto initially.

In June of 1992, Philadelphia traded Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. Barkley won the league MVP over Michael Jordan the following season, but His Airness got the last laugh by beating Sir Charles in the NBA Finals.

The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Leonard delivered a title.

For trades with a longer tail, you can look at the time the Los Angeles Lakers snagged a teenaged phenom named Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets by trading for his draft rights at pick No. 13 in exchange for Vlade Divac, who only played two seasons for the Hornets. Bryant won five titles with the Lakers.

The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Bryant didn’t win a Finals MVP or regular season MVP until a decade after the initial trade, and the Lakers, the antithesis of the Raptors, had already established themselves as one of the most successful franchises in sports.

Leonard occupies the rare space of a cult hero turned global superstar. He last posted on social media in 2015, wrapping it up after his fourth tweet on his verified Twitter account. He wears New Balances and hasn’t changed his cornrow hairstyle in over a decade. His most culturally-relevant moment came when he laughed at a press conference.

And yet, an MSLE official told NBCSports.com that Leonard jerseys have become the No. 1 selling jersey in franchise history over one season, outpacing Carter, DeRozan and Lowry’s best in one-season sales.

“Kawhi Leonard jerseys sales,” the MLSE official said, “have exceeded all expectations.”

* * *

All NBA champions need a little luck to go their way. For the Raptors, it must be noted, not as a slight, but as a matter of fact, that the Warriors literally began to fall apart this postseason, the fifth Finals run for the franchise.

In fact, five of the Warriors’ top seven players missed at least one game due to injury this postseason. Kevin Durant missed 10 games with a calf injury and torn Achilles; DeMarcus Cousins missed 14 games with a torn quad; Andre Iguodala labored through a calf strain that knocked him out for Game 4 of the Western Conference finals; Kevon Looney suffered a chest injury, sidelining him for Game 3 of the NBA Finals; Klay Thompson pulled his hamstring in Game 2 and then hobbled off the court in Game 6 in heartbreaking fashion with a torn ACL.

All in all, the 2019 Warriors encountered the same fate as the 2015 Cavaliers that played much of the postseason without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, except this Warriors team suffered more injuries from a total-missed-games standpoint. The 2018-19 Warriors saw 27 games missed due to injury by their top seven players in minutes per game. The 2014-15 Cavs suffered 25 games lost due to injury (Love missed 16, Irving seven and J.R. Smith two).

The legacy of this Warriors team has to be its resilience. It fought to the final seconds in Game 6 despite being battered to the bone. In the fourth quarter, as the Raptors recovered offensive rebound after offensive rebound over a laboring Cousins, who could barely jump off the ground, Looney could only look on from the bench with a heating pad strapped to his right shoulder. No Thompson, no Durant. That image will be forever stained in the minds of Warriors fans.

But to say the Raptors were lucky is an insult to their training staff, led by director of sports science Alex McKechnie. The Raptors were one of the healthiest, strongest teams we’ve seen in this sport. The Raptors’ top seven in minutes per game in the regular season -- Leonard, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka -- missed a grand total of zero games due to injury this postseason. VanVleet lost a tooth and needed seven stitches to repair his face at one point, but he played well enough to earn a Finals MVP vote.

After losing the first game of the postseason to Orlando, the Raptors just bulldozed their way to the title. They swept the Magic after that first loss, took down the mighty Philadelphia 76ers, who sported the best net-rating of any starting lineup in the East. They mowed down the expected MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks after going down 0-2.

To top it all off, they swept the Warriors on their home floor in the NBA Finals, winning all three games in the sendoff to Oracle Arena. The Raptors don’t care about your sentimentality, MVPs or Process. They mean business.

Yes, an NBA champion needs a little luck. But the Raptors damn well created their own as well.

* * *

By swinging the Leonard trade and then acquiring Gasol at the trade deadline, Ujiri made himself into one of the most coveted executives in the NBA.

But his Midas touch wasn’t limited to this season. Keep in mind that Poeltl, the second player that Ujiri sent to San Antonio for Leonard, was selected with the No. 9 pick in the 2016 draft. How did the Raptors pick in that slot? Because Ujiri nabbed a first-rounder from the New York Knicks in exchange for Bargnani, who was out of the league three years later.

The Washington Wizards are expected to offer Ujiri an annual $10 million deal, according to ESPN, and for good reason. But it likely doesn’t get into the eight-figure annual zone unless he makes that trade for Leonard.

The NBA is a copycat league, and executives around the league expect more teams to try to emulate the Leonard blueprint, encouraging more teams to be more aggressive this summer when chasing stars like Anthony Davis. See what Leonard did in Toronto? Go all in for Davis.

That’s what happens when a traded player wins Finals MVP in his debut season. That’s what happens when you win a franchise’s first ever championship and make fans from the remote corners of the world make a pilgrimage to ScotiaBank Arena. That’s what happens when you make the biggest trade in NBA history to land the best player in the world.

“I wanted to make history here,” Leonard said after winning the 2019 Finals, “and that’s all I did.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

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NBC Sports

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers agreed to trade Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, the 2024 second-round pick and the 2025 second-round pick to the Sacramento Kings for Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.

For Portland, Trevor Ariza isn’t impactful enough for this to be seen as more than a cost-cutting move. Ariza, at 34 years old, has struggled to find the same level of play that made him a key player on the Houston Rockets that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in 2018.

Ariza has bounced around the league in his twilight years. In the last two seasons, Phoenix, Washington, Sacramento and now Portland have hoped he can help lead a middling team to the playoffs, but none so far have had much luck in that department. In his prime, Ariza represented the 3-and-D standard. But his mobility isn’t what it once was, leaving him as best suited for a bench role.

In Portland, he’ll be thrusted into the starting lineup by default, with Rodney Hood (Achilles) out for the season and Bazemore going to SacTown. With only a $1.8 million of $12.8 million guaranteed for next season, the Blazers can let Ariza go this summer for a small price if they’d like to change direction. The cost savings will be substantial for a 18-25 team with the largest tax bill in the NBA; The Blazers will slice their luxury tax bill to $7 million and save $12.5 million in salary overall. 

In basketball terms, this is mostly a sideways move for both sides. Neither Bazemore nor Ariza ranked higher than seventh in minutes per game on their respective teams. Ariza had found a larger role for the Kings recently, but inconsistent production made him expendable from the Kings’ perspective. 

The Blazers were wise to cut back their 2019-20 spending, given that their playoff chances have been dwindling. FiveThirtyEight.com’s latest projection has them at a 26% chance of making the postseason in the West. Most execs I’ve spoken to expected Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside’s expiring deals to be flipped before the deadline. One down, another to go?

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

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NBC Sports

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

No team wants to see its star player get hurt. But the best teams turn adversity into opportunity. That’s the hope for the Philadelphia 76ers right now.

Star center Joel Embiid has been sidelined for the past 10 days recovering from hand surgery to repair his torn ligament in his left hand and will be reevaluated at a further date. It’s the latest blow to a reloaded Sixers team seeking redemption after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors at the last second in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Just about every NBA champion dealt with what the 26-16 Sixers are facing right now. When the Raptors outlined an aggressive load management program for Kawhi Leonard last season that planted him on the bench on back-to-backs, they used that absence as an opening to launch Pascal Siakam, who had been, at that point, merely a role player.

The loss of Leonard was Siakam’s gain. In the 21 games that Siakam played without Leonard last season, he flourished with the extra oxygen on offense, averaging 19.1 points on 55 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Siakam’s stat line in the Finals against Golden State? An eerily similar 19.8 points on 51 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Leonard missing 22 games in the regular season may have derailed other teams, but the Raptors used it as a growth opportunity for the surrounding talent. Would they have known they could count on Siakam on the biggest stage if it weren’t for Leonard’s time on the bench? Perhaps, but the regular season certainly accelerated Siakam’s basketball glow-up.

The Raptors aren’t the only champion that turned an injury into a positive. The Miami Heat didn’t embrace their title-winning pace-and-space and small-ball style until they lost Chris Bosh for weeks in the 2011-12 playoffs. The Golden State Warriors weren’t the juggernaut Golden State Warriors until David Lee’s hamstring injury opened the gates for Draymond Green. For years, Gregg Popovich deliberately sidelined his stars to facilitate the growth of the supporting cast. Kawhi Leonard himself is a shining example of what strategic resting and moving a future Hall of Famer (Manu Ginobili) to the bench can yield.

The Sixers have the same chance for growth with Embiid sidelined. There are plenty of silver linings with Embiid’s injury. For one, as nauseating as it looked, the injury is not considered a long-term issue. To quote Embiid himself in a heartfelt letter on The Players’ Tribune, “It’s just a finger. It’s nothing. Compared to what I’ve been through. It’s nothing, man.” It’s also not another leg-related injury, which is good news on its own, but it also allows him in the meantime to work on his conditioning.

But the real silver lining is about the seeds the team can plant now. Here are three ways the Sixers can grow from Embiid’s absence and keep their championship hopes alive:

1. Make Ben Simmons a crunch-time scorer

Fresh off of an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, Josh Richardson was a supernova down the stretch against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, scoring 17 points of Philly’s 26 points in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Sixers came up short while Simmons and Al Horford were held scoreless in the final frame.

In Wednesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, it was Tobias Harris’ turn to cook, outscoring the Nets 9-2 over the final three minutes of the game. But Simmons was held scoreless yet again in the fourth quarter, missing both of his free throws early in the quarter and setting up teammates the rest of the way. 

These fourth quarters, even without Embiid, are emblematic of a lingering related issue: Simmons’ tendency to fade in the final frame. In his last three fourth quarters, Simmons has zero points on 0-for-4 shooting and 10 assists in 29 minutes of action. This season, here is Simmons’ usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by a player via shot attempt, free throw attempt or turnover) by quarter:

Simmons’ Usage Rate by Quarter in 2019-20
 
First quarter:
21.4 percent
Second quarter: 20.5 percent
Third quarter: 20.5 percent
Fourth quarter: 15.4 percent

That’s not ideal for an All-Star who functions as the team’s primary ball-handler. Simmons’ usage rate in clutch situations -- where the score is within five in the final five minutes -- shrinks to 14.4 percent compared to Embiid’s 38.6 percent, Tobias Harris’ 20.8 percent and Richardson’s 17.6 percent, per NBA tracking.

Simmons’ performance down the stretch was a big talking point in the playoffs last year and rightfully so. In 18 minutes of clutch situations in the playoffs, Simmons was 0-for-2 from the floor with three assists and no points. He also didn’t have any turnovers and helped lock up opponents on the defensive end. The Sixers as a team actually outscored the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors by a score of 43-33 in clutch situations in the playoffs, all with Simmons on the floor.

But the Sixers’ advantage in those minutes could certainly be wider if Simmons shows the same attack mentality as he does earlier in the game. Sure, Simmons needs to conserve energy for the defensive end where he becomes the Sixers’ uber-stopper, but there are plenty of opportunities for Simmons to attack the rim in pressure moments where he instead passes out or dribbles away from the paint.

Simmons has the physical tools and requisite skills to be a crunch-time weapon. At the same age as Simmons is now, a 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo took eight clutch shots for the Bucks in their lone 2018 playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Seven of them were inside two feet, per NBA.com shot tracking. Simmons can do the same. For those that doubt his abilities to take over games down the stretch, now is the time -- without Embiid and Jimmy Butler soaking up late-game touches -- to prove them wrong. Simmons can use this opportunity to gain some confidence and establish a base with which to work off of in the playoffs.

2. Make Al Horford a focal point of the offense

You could make the argument that as long as Embiid is out there, the Philadelphia 76ers are a full-throttled title contender. The Sixers were plus-143 with Embiid on the court last postseason, third-highest of any player last postseason. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they were minus-107 with him off the floor.

A gap that wide is basically unheard of in NBA postseason history. 

Even the most top-heavy teams aren’t that dependent on one player. Remember the LeBron James-led 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers squad that suffered injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but still made it to the Finals? Here was the scoreboard with LeBron on the bench that postseason: Cavs 260, Opponents 260. An even score. Again, the Sixers were outscored by 107 points with Embiid riding the pine last postseason.

You need stars to win championships. But they can’t play every minute. The Sixers learned that the hard way last year, crumbling into pieces with Embiid going to the bench.

The Horford acquisition was supposed to change all that. And so far, so good. Embiid yet again has the best plus-minus on the team, registering a plus-133 in his minutes this season. But instead of bleeding points to the other team in Embiid-less minutes, the Sixers have stayed afloat, even narrowly outscoring opponents by seven points on the whole this season.

That might not seem worth celebrating, but that’s a remarkable achievement for the Sixers considering how much they’ve struggled to keep up without Embiid on the floor over the years. 

Here’s how the Sixers fare depending on Embiid’s presence since 2016-17:

Sixers with Embiid on and off court (Data: NBA)

2019-20: plus-133 on, plus-7 off
2018-19: plus-373 on, minus-152 off
2017-18: plus-486 on, minus-117 off
2016-17: plus-67 on, minus-534 off

Horford has seen better seasons, but that data alone should be seen as a huge win for Sixers GM Elton Brand and coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have at least stayed competitive without Embiid, which isn’t something they could have said in years past. Embiid’s backups last season were virtually unplayable in the postseason. Greg Monroe, Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson were fixtures of the Sixers’ playoff rotation; only Bolden has played in the NBA this season and he has logged five minutes total.

The Sixers should approach this section of the season as solidifying their Embiid-less system to the point that they can tread water in the postseason. Brown has opted to keep Simmons and Horford paired together almost exclusively this season, a decision that should pay dividends come playoff time. You often hear that a team will only go as far its superstar will take them. But in the Sixers’ case, the opposite is true: They will only go as far as the non-Embiid minutes will take them.

3. Give Matisse Thybulle all the minutes he can handle

My two sleepers in the NBA draft were 23-year-old Brandon Clarke and 22-year-old Matisse Thybulle. These were two prospects whose stats and skills jumped off the screen at the college level, but they fell in the draft because, well, they weren’t teenagers. By draft standards, they were ancient.

And here we are. Clarke has been sensational for the surging Memphis Grizzlies and a perfect fit next to fellow rookie Ja Morant. And Thybulle? He’s ready. Yes, he’s a rookie and typically rookies don’t contribute at a high-level to championship contenders. But Thybulle is turning 23 years old in early March. The guy was born within four months of Jamal Murray, Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo. He’s not your typical rook.

Thybulle is a special, special talent. He’s everywhere defensively. Right now, he’s averaging 3.7 steals per 100 possessions and 2.2 blocks per 100 possessions while playing 18.3 minutes per game. Here’s a list of players, via Basketball Reference, who have achieved those block and steal rates while averaging at least 15 minutes per game in a season: Michael Jordan, Kawhi Leonard, Gerald Wallace and Thybulle.

I loved seeing Brown insert him into the starting lineup on Wednesday night even though he had struggled with his shot since his knee injury. Thybulle has offensive limitations, but he’s a fast-break machine and a perfect co-pilot next to Simmons, who is at his best when he’s driving in the open court. Thybulle gives him the keys to ignition.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.