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Sixers will find plenty of challengers in attempt to take over Eastern Conference

Sixers will find plenty of challengers in attempt to take over Eastern Conference

“Run it back.”

After striking out on the big fish in free agency, the Sixers essentially appear to be going this route for next season.

They have reportedly agreed to a one-year deal to bring back JJ Redick and a trade for Denver Nuggets swingman Wilson Chandler to help offset the departures of bench standouts Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. A little juggling to add a reserve center, and you will be looking at your 2018-19 Philadelphia 76ers (barring a blockbuster deal for Kawhi Leonard, in which case all bets are off).

And there’s no reason to believe that won’t be enough to take another leap next season. Think about it, from a personal standpoint the Sixers had Joel Embiid be named a starter in the All-Star Game and finish as the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. Despite all of the noise, Ben Simmons snagged Rookie of the Year in a landslide. Plus, the team had Robert Covington (first) and Embiid (second) each be named to All-NBA defensive teams.

All of those individual accolades helped propel the team to a 52-win campaign (24 more than the previous season), a playoff berth for the first time in six seasons and a first-round series victory.

With that level of production under their belt, there is no reason to believe the Sixers won’t continue climbing up the Eastern Conference ranks.

Just don’t think it will be easy.

Even with LeBron James’ exodus to the West, the Sixers’ path to the NBA Finals won’t all of the sudden become a cakewalk. Some other squads will have a say about that, starting at the top.

Toronto may have ditched its head coach, but the Raptors appear to be sticking with the core that won a franchise-record 59 games last season. That group beat the Sixers in three of the four regular-season meetings by an average of 18.3 points.

Of course, the Boston Celtics had the Sixers’ number all season long. Between the preseason, regular season and playoffs, the C’s won nine of the 11 matchups by an average of 9.2 points. Plus, you’ve likely heard they’ll be getting a couple All-Stars back in the lineup come next season in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

Even the teams a step below have reason for hope. The Indiana Pacers have faith in their own young core led by Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo. The Milwaukee Bucks have one of the game’s best players in Giannis Antetokounmpo and boosted their bench by swiping Ilyasova from the Sixers and drafting Villanova standout Donte DiVincenzo. The Washington Wizards (John Wall, Bradley Beal) and Detroit Pistons (Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond) have prolific tandems that could cause trouble for anyone.

It’s all wide open in the East now that the King’s throne has shifted to Hollywood. And the Sixers have to feel as good as any team about being able to secure the crown, but it definitely won’t be an easy task.

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Sixers trade No. 38 pick Khyri Thomas to Pistons; No. 39 Isaac Bonga reportedly to Lakers

Sixers trade No. 38 pick Khyri Thomas to Pistons; No. 39 Isaac Bonga reportedly to Lakers

Updated: Friday, 2:30 a.m.

The Sixers opened up their crop of second-round picks by opting for another trade.

The Sixers drafted Creighton guard Khyri Thomas and traded him to the Detroit Pistons for two future second-round picks.

They followed that up by selecting Isaac Bonga, a small forward from Germany, with the No. 39 choice. However, that pick had already agreed to be dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday in a transaction that netted the Sixers a 2019 second-round pick and cash, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski (see story).

“You go to 38 and we traded it. We got two seconds from Detroit,” Sixers head coach and interim general manager Brett Brown said. “You go to 39 and with Isaac, I can’t really comment on that until the end of the moratorium. You can read into that as you should.”

The Sixers also traded picks Nos. 56 and 60 to the Mavericks for the 54th selection, which ended up being SMU guard Shake Milton (6-6/207) (see story).

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Trio of veterans give Sixers boost they need for 12th straight win

Trio of veterans give Sixers boost they need for 12th straight win

BOX SCORE

DETROIT — When the Sixers brought back Ersan Ilyasova and signed Marco Belinelli this past February, fifth-year coach Brett Brown was simply hoping to add a boost to his team’s bench.

What he’s witnessed the past two months from both veterans, particularly in the wake of All-Star center Joel Embiid’s injury, has been above and beyond what Brown could have ever imagined.

“I love the foreign guys, as you know,” Brown said following his team’s 115-108 win Wednesday over the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena (see observations). “And to get them both in a single season, and to truly have a home for them, where you can give them 20 minutes, that is rare in March.”

And, without question, Ilyasova and Belinelli have taken advantage of their rare opportunity.

On the second night of a back-to-back, with playoff seeding up for grabs, the Sixers (48-30) put forth yet another dominant performance en route to their 12th consecutive win. And, once again, both Ilyasova and Belinelli played key roles in keeping the streak alive.

Six players finished the night in double digits Wednesday, including Belinelli, who put up 19 points off the bench — nine of which came in the fourth quarter. And Ilyasova? The 30-year-old forward supplied 13 en route to his third double-double in his past four games.

“They’ve just added so much,” Brown said. “None more important than the personal side of it. They’re good people.”

Another key veteran, JJ Redick, was undeniably the star of the night. He dropped a team-high 25 points, but Wednesday’s win proved to be a team effort, highlighted by a well-rounded offense and a tenacious defense.

“A lot of guys have just been playing well, knowing that we need a lot more from everybody as individuals,” said Ben Simmons, who finished with 16 points. “Everybody’s stepping up.”

Following the loss of Embiid, the Sixers were simply hoping to keep things afloat until he rejoined the team.

Thanks largely to a trio of veterans who have stepped up to fill the void, the Sixers now find themselves riding the team’s longest winning streak since the 1989-1990 campaign, and the fourth-longest streak in franchise history.

But in order to advance deep in the postseason, the Sixers will need a healthy Embiid. They know this.

“We are clearly a better team with Joel,” Brown said. “We have more potency with Joel. There is zero doubt about that. And we look forward to including an All-Star back in our lineup.”

Redick echoed his coach’s sentiment. 

“Look, we’re trying to hold down the fort while he’s out,” he said. “But we know for us to be able to win, and win big, we need Joel healthy, and at his best.”

The Sixers’ dominant success as of late may have come as a surprise to some, given the injuries to Embiid and Dario Saric, who has missed time with cellulitis. However, their win streak has highlighted two key strengths: team chemistry and a deep bench.

“This is a testament on how we’ve grown as a unit, and the way our team has grown overall,” forward Robert Covington said of the team’s 12-game win streak. “We’ve done so much and we’re making the right strides.”

And they’re making the right strides at the right time.

With clutch contributions from their contingent of veterans, the Sixers gained a half game on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and will now enter their highly anticipated matchup Friday in a tie for third place in the Eastern Conference standings.

It’s a chance for the Sixers’ veterans to, once again, put their leadership — and talent — on full display.

“That’s going to be a true testament of a playoff game,” Covington said. “And I know Philadelphia is going to be behind us.”