Elton Brand

Sixers reflect on the life of Kobe Bryant

Sixers reflect on the life of Kobe Bryant

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers will play a basketball game tomorrow, at 7 p.m. against the Golden State Warriors.

They understandably didn’t field questions about that game Monday. The team instead was focused on the tragic deaths on Sunday of 41-year-old Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.

After meeting as a team and sharing their personal stories about Bryant, a few Sixers also talked about Bryant with the media following practice. 

GM Elton Brand on the tragic crash and on Bryant

“My condolences to [his wife] Vanessa, his family, all the families that lost their loved ones in the tragic accident yesterday. Kobe meant a lot. Kobe meant a lot to us all. It wasn’t just what he accomplished but how he accomplished it — how he worked, his tenacity, his passion, getting the most out of his talent. … We all lost someone that was special to us, special to this area, special to the league. We’ll try to commemorate him tomorrow and hopefully show how much this area loved him and continue to do so. It’s a tough time for the area, tough time for the organization, and he will certainly be missed.”

Al Horford on his memories of Bryant

“With Kobe, the two things that really stand out to me are his competitiveness on the floor, and I told this to the group, just that fear that he used to put in his opponent's eyes. The only way you would know that is [if] you got to go and play against him. Very few players have that. He had it. He was just such a competitor and it was something that I always admire and respect. I don't want to make this about anything but to honor him. At another time, I'll share things about me and him, but right now it's just remembering him and his greatness.”

Horford on his reaction to the news

“Just disbelief. I didn't think it was true. Coming to grips with that, it's something hard to grasp. Right away, I was with my family at the time and my wife said to me, putting things in perspective, imagine how his wife feels right now, his family, so that just had us in a very tough place yesterday just thinking about that.”

Head coach Brett Brown on a story he told the team

“I had the chance a few years ago in his farewell tour to sit in my office [with him] for 45 minutes alone and just talk Philly hoops. Ironically, my son goes to Lower Merion High School, he plays for [Bryant’s] high school coach, [Gregg Downer]. The thing that came out of that for me, just sitting there talking with him, it was an easy, real conversation. He cared, he was engaged — it wasn’t something he had to do. He came back and we just talked. 

“We had some friends and experiences in the Olympics and so on that we could speak about, but he talked lots about his family. He blew me away talking about — I said, ‘What’s life for you afterwards now?’ And he started talking about animation. He was really involved with animation and he had this desire to get involved with kids’ literacy, and the connections he would have had with his Hollywood and Los Angeles life. He just was in the game. Even when he was about to leave the game, he was in life, he lived it. You could see in his face, he had a glow. It was a genuine, transparent conversation.”

Brown on game planning against Bryant 

“You would see, it was with like six minutes in the third period, he was just like, ‘I’m going to grab the game.’ He’d come out and be Mr. Unselfish and facilitator and kumbaya, and all of a sudden the game’s on the line … and he would just grab games. You could just see it in his face.

"So, game planning for him was as difficult as for any of the great players you’ve had to do it for. It just all goes back to that amazing mental toughness, amazing laser, assassin-like, ‘I’m going to go win this game. I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win games.’ And he really acted and played like that.”

Elton Brand hasn't made Sixers any better, which makes you wonder about his job security

Elton Brand hasn't made Sixers any better, which makes you wonder about his job security

New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero was fired over the weekend, as the Devils spiral towards the worst record in the NHL's Metropolitan Division. Shero, a vaunted GM with a Stanley Cup to his name and roster-building experience, was expected to oversee the Devils' next few years of building towards something larger. Instead, he's out of a job mid-season.

Josh Harris, who is a managing partner of both the Devils and the Sixers, didn't mince words on Sunday when explaining the decision to move on from Shero.

"We're very committed to winning," Harris said in a press conference over the weekend, per ESPN. "We weren't winning enough."

If the Devils, who weren't expected to compete for anything significant this year, weren't winning enough for Harris, it's hard to imagine the Sixers are currently scratching his itch for wins. And it makes you wonder: is Elton Brand's job in danger?

After Monday night's loss to the Pacers, the Sixers are squarely the No. 6 team in the Eastern Conference. They've lost six of eight, are on pace for just 50 wins, and have by far the worst road record of the six actually worthwhile teams in the East.

Like the Phillies of last season, the question becomes how to parcel the blame between the front office, the coaching staff, and the players. Ben Simmons still can't shoot, Brett Brown has shown an inability to turn a team rife with talent into a consistent winner, and Elton Brand built the clunky, inelegant monstrosity you see in half-court sets each night.

It feels, right now, like Brand deserves the finger-pointing.

Night in and night out, the Sixers look like a jammed-up team without an offensive identity in a league obsessed with scoring, and that problem falls on the man who constructed this roster in the first place. It's not a surprise that the Sixers need shooters and players who can create their own offense — those problems existed last season — and yet, after a very expensive offseason, the same needs remain.

Brand has been GM for roughly 16 months. He traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, offloading picks and lesser pieces in the process, then moved Butler and brought in Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Whether Brand's moves have actually made the Sixers any better, though, isn't apparent.

They've been better against important teams — regular wins over the Celtics and the Bucks can paper over most problems — but they haven't been good enough in between the marquee matchups, including losing 14 of 21 road games this season, to put themselves in a good spot come playoff time. We know the Sixers can beat the Bucks and Celtics on a given night. Can they do it four times, without home court advantage?

With 10 games before the NBA's Feb. 6 trade deadline, Brand has one more chance to make a move (or two), which he likes to do, and possibly save the Sixers' season. 

If the Sixers aren't in the East's Top 4, they will lose in the second round again, and someone will finally have to answer. A player like Davis Bertans could help, and a player like Bogdan Bogdanovic certainly would. But if they don't arrive, or if they aren't enough, it's because Brand waited too long to fill his team's most glaring holes.

It feels unlikely that Harris would let Brand loose after a year and a half, but it also feels unlikely that he's OK with watching the capital he invested in the Sixers' win-now build go to waste.

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Al Horford has a chance to make Elton Brand look very smart

Al Horford has a chance to make Elton Brand look very smart

The Sixers have a tradition at the end of every home win. They select a player of the game and that player signs a basketball and sends it into the crowd.

Al Horford, having earned the honor Thursday night, opted to punt the ball into the seats, a popular move among the Sixers. When Horford kicked the ball into the sellout crowd, an unsuspecting fan was hit. The veteran big man waved his arm to the fan as if to say, “my bad.”

Not much else went wrong for Horford.

Starting at center in place of Joel Embiid, Horford had one of his better games as a Sixer against his former team. He helped the team start a stretch of games without their “crown jewel” on a strong note with a 109-98 win (see observations).

This was the kind of night GM Elton Brand had in mind when he signed the 33-year-old to a four-year deal this offseason. This is the type of stretch where Horford will have to earn his money.

“I think coming here I expected to play a little more at the four,” Horford said, “but I also know that one of my strengths as a player is to be able to play inside, play outside, play the four, play the five, guard different positions on the court. I was expecting it. I knew wherever I'm needed — I feel like that's one of the strengths that I bring to a team, that I'm able to do different things.”

With Embiid out, this is exactly the type of performance the Sixers needed. Horford played bully ball, scoring in the post (17 points) and protecting the rim (two blocks). He also showed off his skill, dishing out six assists and going 2 of 3 from three. The versatility is part of the reason Brand signed Horford. Stealing him away from the rival Celtics was another.

But what you saw tonight — and what you’ll see over the next few games — is the real reason he was brought here.

Embiid will have surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament of the fourth metacarpal on his left hand Friday in New York. The team said he will be re-evaluated in 1-2 weeks. 

In his young NBA career, Embiid has played in 189 of a possible 448 regular-season games, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It was a given that Embiid was going to miss time this season — whether it be because of load management or an injury.

For most of the season, Horford’s offensive issues haven’t been with Embiid out of the lineup. Five of his top seven scoring games have been when Embiid hasn’t played. Finding his role playing alongside Embiid hasn’t been smooth. Brett Brown has been steadfast in saying that Horford’s role is to space the floor next to Embiid.

That’s different from what Horford has done throughout his entire career. When he was the third overall pick for Atlanta, he became one of the focal points of the Hawks’ offense. Even during his time in Boston, he was a huge part of what Brad Stevens liked to do despite his scoring numbers dipping a bit.

While Embiid is out, he’ll get to do some of the things that made him so good at his other stops.

“I don’t know, I don’t pay much attention,” Brown said pregame, “but I feel like the questions I get asked, people have to understand in that old world as of 24 hours ago with Joel, he’s not featured as much. It’s just part of being on a good team. And he accepts it. To now play him and feature him more in things that we all know he’s quite good at, capable at, just in a more frequent environment, then I think positives can come out of this. When we do get Joel back in the mix, hopefully we got some good things to look at [with] Al Horford in the rearview mirror.”

Defensively, it’s been a struggle for Horford at times as well. A big concern when Horford signed was his age and the basketball mileage he has on his body. At times, he’s looked every bit of 33. Other games, like Christmas Day against the Bucks and Thursday against the Celtics, he’s looked like a defensive stalwart.

Horford admitted after the win over Boston that the team has changed the way he’s defended pick-and-rolls and it’s helped. Against the Celtics, he was impressive when he got switched out onto wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. He looked as spry as he has all season.

There was plenty of inherent risk in signing a 33-year-old big man to a four-year deal. There were plenty of people questioning Brand's decision and the criticisms seemed fair during the four-game losing streak. But Horford could make Brand look awfully smart over the next several games.

There’s no doubt it’s been an up and down season for Horford. The version we saw Thursday is what the Sixers paid for.

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