Alec Burks

2020 NBA restart: How Sixers think they'll adapt to 'weird,' fan-less games

2020 NBA restart: How Sixers think they'll adapt to 'weird,' fan-less games

There is no good comparison for playing competitive basketball games away from the outside world during a pandemic.

That didn’t stop a handful of Sixers over the last week from putting the NBA's planned resumption in familiar terms, though.

“It’s going to be like the AAU tournament of the century, kind of,” Josh Richardson said.

“I think it’s the richest summer camp in the history of basketball,” Alec Burks said. 

Of course, AAU tournaments and summer camps aren’t played with NBA championships at stake, and players there don’t usually have to adhere to stringent health and safety rules. If everything progresses smoothly at Disney World, the Sixers will transition from an in-room quarantine in which their neighbors’ identities were a mystery to high-stakes competition in a three-week span.

The Sixers’ first practice is scheduled for Saturday, and they have scrimmages set for July 24, July 26 and July 28. Their first game after the league’s hiatus is scheduled for Aug. 1. 

While there’s a chance to adjust, it’s not a ton of time to acclimate to the isolated, fan-less atmosphere. 

“I think the first games will just be weird,” Matisse Thybulle said. “I think a lot of the energy that we’re used to getting from the fans will have to come from the bench. We have amazing guys on our team across the board so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. … I think with this, it’s going to be a cool challenge and it can also help us.”

Several teammates agreed with Thybulle’s view that the bench would need to inject energy. Richardson even thought the competition might be something like a lethargic regular-season game — a December matchup against the Wizards, as an example — where the playoffs are far away and it’s difficult for players to find motivation. 

I feel like that’s the same in a regular game ... because teams can come out flat and there’s always got to be a guy or a few guys to get guys’ heads in the game or to rev everybody up a little bit,” he said. “I think we’ll definitely have to bring our own energy. It’s going to be like scrimmages, I guess, the whole time. … But I’ll be one of those guys trying to bring energy. I know (Kyle O’Quinn)’s going to be a big energy guy for us. So hopefully some guys will step up, get a little uncomfortable and be able to help us in a different way.

The Wells Fargo Center crowd won’t be behind the Sixers, which they'll surely miss after going an NBA-best 29-2 at home. The roar of the fans when the Sixers are on a run and taking control won’t be there anymore. But the grumbling, tension and boos when the team is playing below its best and on the verge of letting a game slip away won’t be either, and it’s possible that will be the greater loss. The Sixers often seemed to respond to that collective demand for better effort by sharpening their focus. 

How will that in-person pressure from thousands of people no longer being present affect the players? If it feels like one’s playing a scrimmage or a pick-up game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see certain players operate with a little more looseness, a little less apparent knowledge that the game they’re playing in matters. That could mean a higher willingness to fire jumpers for players sometimes reluctant to take them, or a bit more flash and bravado from someone who gets hot and is having a good time without as strong an awareness of the score and situation as he might otherwise have. 

So, while the notion of energy exclusively coming from the bench sounds like it could be great for the Sixers for their “road” games, given how much the team struggled away from Philadelphia this season (10-24), the bench also may need to provide somewhat of a moderating influence, along with strategic input. We should be able to clearly hear everything, from coaches and players shouting out adjustments in pick-and-roll coverages to instructions that a player should keep a tighter handle on the ball. 

The bench obviously won’t be a single, homogeneous entity. Norvel Pelle won’t be shouting out the same things to his teammates as Thybulle. 

“Everybody’s bringing their own energy in a different manner,” Pelle said. “I know I’m a little out there with the (air) guitar and all the extra stuff. It just brings smiles to people.”

In these odd circumstances, the Sixers might appreciate a little levity. 

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Figuring out what roles Sixers' Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III will play in NBA restart

Figuring out what roles Sixers' Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III will play in NBA restart

Alec Burks has become used to bouncing around the country for business purposes. He’s played for five teams over the last two seasons.

Though he traveled from Kansas City to Camden, New Jersey, to participate in mandatory individual workouts at the Sixers’ practice facility and will head with the team to Orlando on Thursday for the planned resumption of the NBA season, he considered staying in one place for a little while longer. For a very good reason.  

“I think when I found out my wife was pregnant, that’s when maybe I wouldn’t play,” Burks said Monday in a video conference call, “but she’s not due until December. I feel like if … the majority of the team (was) going to play, then I was going to play. If the majority of the team wasn’t going to play, then I probably would’ve thought more about it. I want to go to war with my teammates. Let’s just hope for the best and everybody stays safe.” 

Burks and Glenn Robinson III, his former Warriors teammate, have had especially bizarre stints with the Sixers. Both players had been enjoying career-best seasons with Golden State. The Sixers agreed to acquire them early on a Thursday morning in February, and the pair learned about the trade on a red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York. Robinson didn’t play until Sunday, while Burks waited until the next Tuesday to make his Sixers debut as he attempted to ease into yet another career transition. 

In late February, Robinson made comments in an interview with Basketball Insiders about not understanding his role, which he later said “got a little blown out of proportion.” A 40 percent three-point shooter this season with the Warriors, Robinson missed his first 10 threes after the trade, then made 6 of his next 11. Burks, who arrived with a reputation as a streaky player, scored in double figures six times off the bench but also had 2 for 7, 2 for 10 and 3 for 13 shooting performances. 

Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson were all injured at one stage during Burks and Robinson’s initial spell with the team this season. With all starters available to play, where do the two fit in now? 

“I don’t think I’ve played a game where everybody was healthy and playing,” Burks said. “So I don’t know. I guess we’ll just see how that goes. Coach has a lot of time, he’s going to game plan the rotations going into this. I guess we’ll all just see.” 

Burks did mention that Brown “hinted” to him what his role might be. Brown employed Burks often as a primary ball handler before the league's hiatus, a job he did well. In 47 pick-and-roll possessions as a Sixer, Burks created 52 points. That level of production likely isn’t sustainable, but it’s not an extreme outlier either. He produced 0.92 points per pick-and-roll possession with Golden State, which is in the 68th percentile in the NBA. 

Though Burks frequently started off the ball, Brown liked looping him up to the top of the key, giving him a high ball screen and letting him make something happen. Even in lineups where Shake Milton or Richardson bring the ball up the floor, Burks’ apparent comfort in that basic “Loop” action should mean he’s still viable as a ball handling option.

“I was used in a lot of different roles … because of injuries,” Burks said. “I still don’t know what’s going to happen with the playoffs. We’ve gotta get down there and get around each other, and see how it plays out in training camp and into the games. ... I think I built some chemistry up with a couple of the guys. I think that’s the most important thing I’m probably going to bring, because I only played 10, 11 games.”

Robinson talked with Brown on his journey from Gary, Indiana, back to Philadelphia and got an idea of where he stands.

I’m not a risky person at all, so I drove from Indiana back to Philly, nine hours,” he said last Thursday. “I gave Coach a call while I was riding back, while I was kind of listening to music and just thinking about some things. So I got a chance to catch up with him. It was good to have that talk. I think it was great for everyone to have a couple months where you watch film and we all got a chance to kind of reset and restructure.

“I watched a ton of myself from the time I was here. … What can I do to help the team get better? Talking to Brett, I obviously know that we have a lot of wings and we’re all going to come in competing, just like every other training camp. I’ll leave it to him to see what happens, but I’m definitely doing my job and going to be professional, and come in ready for training camp.” 

Burks and Robinson will now try to impress at training camp — in Disney World, during a pandemic — play well in eight seeding games and, should everything still be running smoothly, help the Sixers win playoff games. If all goes well, they’ll likely accrue more experience in Orlando than their current combined 23 games as Sixers.  

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2020 NBA playoffs: What should the Sixers' playoff rotation look like?

2020 NBA playoffs: What should the Sixers' playoff rotation look like?

We’ve done plenty of looking back while the NBA season has been suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic. With the NBA’s Board of Governors approving a return-to-play format Thursday, we can now look ahead.

With eight regular-season games on the docket in the owners-approved plan, Brett Brown would have a short amount of time to answer several questions. One of the bigger ones will be about what he does with his playoff rotation.

Going into the 2019-20 season, the Sixers’ gargantuan starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford was supposed to play “smash mouth offense and bully ball defense," according to Brown. Because of injuries and a clunky fit, that hasn’t come to fruition.

Though Brown brought Horford off the bench for three games, the head coach has been insistent on wanting to give the Embiid-Horford pairing a chance to work. He’ll have serious work to do if he wants to make that happen before the team reaches the playoffs.

A more likely scenario would seem to be the offensive fit proving to be too awkward and Brown moving in a different direction. In that case, Shake Milton may be the team’s best option as the fifth starter. Filling in for Simmons, Milton had an outstanding run as the team’s starting point guard. Adding him to the mix would give the Sixers another ball handler and shooter in the starting five.

Glenn Robinson III, Furkan Korkmaz and rookie Matisse Thybulle could also be candidates. If Brown is searching for more of a veteran presence, Robinson could be a solution. Korkmaz, Thybulle and veteran Alec Burks all seem to be better options off the bench.

It’s not an easy thing to ask a five-time All-Star to come off your bench for the playoffs, but Brown may be left with little recourse.

Horford could prove to be a valuable sixth man. Brown likened Horford’s situation to that of Manu Ginobili’s in San Antonio. Ginobili, a two-time All-Star, was still a huge part of the Spurs’ run of dominance as an elite sixth man. 

Arguably the Sixers’ finest hour was a win over the Clippers before the All-Star break. On that night, Embiid and Simmons clicked more than ever before, mostly with Horford on the bench. Horford did help close out the game and put a lid on L.A. defensively in an impressive win.

Beyond Horford, Brown has something he didn’t have during last season’s playoffs: Options.

Throughout the 2019 playoff run, Mike Scott and James Ennis were the only reliable reserves. Ennis is gone and Scott has been inconsistent. That’s part of what prompted GM Elton Brand to make the move to acquire Robinson and Burks from the Warriors.

Basically, Brown is looking at three veterans and three young players. Robinson and Burks lack playoff experience but have much more NBA experience than Korkmaz, Thybulle and Milton.

Though he's struggled since arriving, Robinson has had an excellent shooting season and is a solid defender. Burks is instant offense off the bench and provides another ball handler and shot creator. Korkmaz has had an improbable bounce-back season and allows the team to run its “JJ Redick” package. Thybulle has proven to be a disruptive — albeit at times a little reckless — defender.

You also can't forget about Scott. He was beginning to come on before the season was suspended. He brings toughness and has hit big shots in the past, two important things in playoff basketball.

Brown likes to play 10 guys in his rotation during the regular season. He said back in February that he'd like for that number to go down to nine for the postseason. Well all know Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Richardson and Horford will play big minutes. That leaves four spots and six players vying for them.

If nothing else, the bench “tournament” over the last eight regular-season games could provide drama for a team that never seems to be lacking in that department.

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