Tom Haberstroh

Sixers Talk podcast: Tom Haberstroh joins to talk Ben Simmons' being a bargain, schedule makers helping team

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NBC Sports Philadelphia/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: Tom Haberstroh joins to talk Ben Simmons' being a bargain, schedule makers helping team

Paul Hudrick is joined by NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh to talk about Ben Simmons' value and why the Sixers' schedule lines up very nicely on this edition of Sixers Talk.

1:17: Tom's thoughts on the Sixers' offseason.

9:49: Is Simmons' extension a bargain? Is he a long-term fit with Joel Embiid?

19:50: Why the schedule benefits the Sixers.

29:51: Are the Sixers the best team in the East? How about a championship contender?

34:20: Sixers' great opportunity for growth.

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Kevin Durant's Achilles casts cloud over Warriors' present and future

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NBC Sports

Kevin Durant's Achilles casts cloud over Warriors' present and future

TORONTO -- When Kevin Durant went down grabbing his right Achilles tendon early in the second quarter of Game 5, Scotiabank Arena fans didn’t seem to know what to do. 

First, they cheered for the injury, mocking the Finals MVP as he laid on the floor in pain. But Raptors players Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry immediately motioned for the crowd to quiet down in solidarity of a fellow player. The arena quickly fell to a deafening silence. Then, they cheered for the human being on the ground. 

“K-D, K-D,” the home crowd shouted as Durant limped off the floor under the assistance of Warriors director of sports medicine Rick Celebrini. 

It was a confusing, perplexing and bizarre turn of events. Medical and performance sources around the league that spoke with NBCSports.com were just as befuddled as those sitting in Scotiabank Arena.

“This,” one longtime NBA trainer said, “is just unheard of.”

To be clear, the Warriors have the most information in this situation, both medically and personally. They have access to Durant’s medicals over the last three years. In consultation with Durant after the morning shootaround, the team decided to clear him ahead of Monday’s Game 5, the first time he’d suit up to play since May 8 when he suffered what the team called a mild calf strain. The team repeatedly denied it was an Achilles injury despite public speculation.

But Durant still hurt his Achilles on Monday night. Every time a player ties up his shoelaces and plays in an NBA game, he is exposing himself to injury. Perhaps this was a fluke play that could not have been prevented, no matter the precautions. 

But this statistic was repeated by multiple league sources outside the Warriors organization to NBCSports.com: 12 of 14. As in, Durant’s workload, playing 12 of the first 14 minutes of a Finals game after not playing a game in over a month due to a soft tissue injury.

Durant’s minutes stunned many across the league who expected Durant to play “short bursts,” as coach Steve Kerr said just before the game.

However, Durant played the first 6:11 of the game but did not remain on the bench for the rest of the quarter. Instead, he re-entered the game at the 3:33 mark and played the rest of the first quarter. He finished with 11 points, more than any player in the game not named Stephen Curry. 

Rather than sit Durant for the start of the second quarter and buy some extra time, Durant started the frame alongside three bench players and Klay Thompson. Draymond Green and Stephen Curry sat after playing the entire first quarter. And then, Durant’s leg buckled on a non-contact play.

“Just seems unacceptable,” said one longtime director of performance. “Doesn’t make any sense.”

Said another rival training staff member: “They may have said, once the leg is warm, ride it. But I can’t imagine (Durant) did enough work to determine 12 minutes out of 14 was appropriate.”

Did Kerr play Durant too much, too soon? Did they stick with Durant an extra few minutes because he was playing so well? 

These are reasonable questions, especially when the stakes are so high. Internally, some Warriors staffers felt that being second-guessed on this injury is fair in this industry; it’s impossible to have all the answers. 

Some insiders around the league feel that the Warriors’ medical staff has been overwhelmed by injuries this postseason. Durant, Curry (dislocated finger), Thompson (hamstring), Iguodala (calf), DeMarcus Cousins (quad) and Kevon Looney (chest/shoulder) have all suffered injuries during what is this team’s fifth Finals run. Many around the league see that as plain old bad luck. Others believe medical staffs shouldn’t be absolved from scrutiny while players, coaches, front offices and ownership groups are nationally and locally criticized on a regular basis.

As for the circumstances around the Durant injury, sources told NBCSports.com that the plan going into the game was to take Durant out when he felt tired. However, that didn’t happen as early as they expected going into the game. Durant hadn’t shown any signs of fatigue and, according to sources close to the situation, the decision to play more minutes was described as a collaborative one, agreed to by both Durant and the medical staff.

This medical staff is a new one by league standards. The Warriors have undergone significant changes to their medical staff in recent seasons, which is a bit unusual for a dynasty. Celebrini, a highly-regarded physiotherapist from MLS circles, replaced Chelsea Lane as the director of sports medicine last year. Lane left the Warriors last summer to lead the Atlanta Hawks' medical staff. Before Lane, the team parted ways with its former director of sports medicine, Lachlan Penfold, after just one season. Keke Lyles, who helped the Warriors with the 2015 NBA Finals as the team’s director of player performance, left that summer to join the Hawks in a similar position. 

That’s a lot of new faces. And a lot of winning, nonetheless.

But is the current medical staff at fault? Golden State general manager Bob Myers got out in front and pointed the finger at himself during an emotional impromptu postgame press conference.

“I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to (blame someone), you can blame me,” said Myers fighting back tears. 

“He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person, it’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him. I don’t know -- I don’t have all the information on what really the extent of what it all means until we get a MRI, but the people that worked with him and cleared him are good people, they’re good people.”

Myers then reiterated that the initial injury suffered in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against Houston was indeed a calf strain.

“This is not a calf injury,” Myers said. “I’m not a doctor, I don’t know how those are related or not, but it’s a different injury.”

You don’t have to have a medical degree to see how a calf strain and an Achilles injury to the same leg may be related. Jeff Stotts, a certified athletic trainer and operator of injury tracker InStreetClothes.com, explained earlier this month why calf strains are so tricky.

“The calf is not an isolated muscle but a dynamic muscle complex,” Stotts wrote. “Playing through a strained calf can increase the chances of a secondary injury occurring somewhere else along the kinetic chain. The hamstring muscle group is particularly susceptible to injury when the calf is limited due to their synergistic relationship.”

In this case, Durant’s hamstring was fine; it was the Achilles that broke down. Multiple sources around the league have long believed that Durant’s initial injury in May was consistent with a partial Achilles tear, which would explain why Durant needed more than a month to get back onto the court. Mild calf strains usually take a week or two to return to play, not more than a month.

Durant’s timetable to return has been a moving target. After Game 3 against Portland on May 16, about a week after the initial injury, NBCSports Bay Area’s Monte Poole asked Kerr for his reaction to the news that Durant would be re-evaluated the following week. Kerr acknowledged that the team had underestimated the severity of the injury.

“It’s a little more serious than we thought at the very beginning,” Kerr said. “So we’ll see where it all goes. But he’s in there all day long getting treatment. He’s done a great job committing himself to that process. Rick (Celebrini) and his staff are in there all day. Hopefully, he’ll be back at some point.”

That point happened to arrive at an opportune time. Down 3-1, a loss away from the season ending, the Warriors announced that Durant would start Game 5 in Toronto just minutes before tipoff. 

The Warriors have been declarative throughout this process that this was not an Achilles injury. The injury suffered on Monday night is something new.

“It sucks, man,” Curry said after the game. “Not much else to say about it.”

Making matters more complicated was that Durant was absolutely sensational in his time on the floor. He showed almost no rust, scoring 11 points in just 12 minutes, making three 3-pointers and not even touching the rim on his field goal attempts and free throws in the first quarter. 

But those good feelings came to a crashing halt. Durant left the game with a five-point lead and Curry followed to the locker room, along with Andre Iguodala, the team trainer and Myers.

The team quickly rallied and jumped out to a 13-point lead with 6:05 remaining in the first half. Curry finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists while Thompson scored 26 points of his own. Green was two assists short of notching a triple-double. Cousins did his part, scoring 14 points off the bench after not playing the first 14 minutes of the game, appearing out of the rotation before the Durant injury.

Before the game ended, Durant was seen leaving on crutches in a walking boot on his right leg. He posted on Instagram shortly after the game. 

“Dub nation gonna be loud as f*** for Game 6,” Durant posted late Monday night. “I’m hurting deep in the soul right now, I can’t lie, but seeing my brothers get this win was like taking a shot of tequila, I got new life lol. #dubs”

Durant can be a free agent this summer if he opts out of his contract. He holds a $31.5 million player option for next season, which becomes an intriguing option if he has indeed ruptured his Achilles. Though many speculated that Durant has already decided to leave the Warriors this offseason, there are three reasons why he might be inclined to return.

For one, the Warriors have just successfully rehabbed one superstar back from an Achilles tear in Cousins, who is contributing at the highest level of the game. Secondly, outside organizations would have to build Durant’s trust and medical information from scratch. In that sense, the Warriors are operating in a position of informational strength compared to teams outside the Bay. Lastly, exercising the player option and revisiting next summer may be the most stress-free option at his disposal.

Undoubtedly, if Durant misses next season with an Achilles tear, it would cause a seismic shift in free agency and the landscape of the league as a whole. Durant was considered by many to be the top free agent available this summer in a loaded free agency class potentially featuring Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and other stars.

Just as it was for Cousins, Durant’s rehabilitation from an Achilles injury will require attention to the smallest of details and tremendous mental strength. Weight loss is a strong positive indicator of rehab success from Achilles tears, but that will be tough in the case of Durant, who is as thin as they come in the NBA.

But for now, the Warriors fly back home to the Bay for Game 6 and wait for the MRI results scheduled for Tuesday. The Warriors organization is aching despite an incredible series-saving win on the road. They are fearing the worst as are medical sources around the league who watched from afar. But by rallying around Durant, the Warriors fought back to extend the series. 

“We’re going to give everything we got,” Curry said of Game 6.

The champs may be hurting, but they got new life. The entire NBA waits to see what happens now.

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

Key to unlocking Ben Simmons? Follow the Giannis model

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NBC Sports

Key to unlocking Ben Simmons? Follow the Giannis model

Ben Simmons looked like a future MVP in Game 2 against the Brooklyn Nets. A blur in transition. A wall on defense. A magician in space. Heck, he looked like Giannis Antetokounmpo out there. Simmons whirled his way to 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in just 30 minutes of action. So why can’t he do that all the time?

It’s a question we have all thought when watching the 22-year-old. The key to unlocking that Simmons isn’t necessarily about him or his mindset. More likely, it’s about who’s around him. The Game 2 supernova is what you get when you surround Simmons with guys who can shoot. 

It’s the Giannis model.

With Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick struggling in Game 1, coach Brett Brown could have moved away from floor-spacers and given T.J. McConnell more minutes to help set up teammates. Instead, Brown doubled down on shooting and dropped McConnell from the rotation, handing Jimmy Butler the backup point guard duties. The result: the Sixers set a franchise record for scoring in a playoff game (145) and tied the NBA record for scoring in any quarter (51 in the third, tying the 1962 Lakers). With spacing prioritized, Simmons thrived.

That gamble is more or less what the Milwaukee Bucks have done this season with Antetokounmpo, who might win MVP without having a reliable 3-point shot, and their stretch five, Brook Lopez. The Bucks have proved you can win the regular season playing that way, with their older, longer version of Simmons. But the larger question lingers: 

Can you build a champion in today’s NBA with a non-shooting superstar?  It’s a riddle the Oklahoma City Thunder are still trying to solve with Russell Westbrook and it will follow both Simmons and Antetokounmpo throughout this year’s playoffs.

* * *

Elon Musk may be the only person with a larger obsession with space than Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. About a month ago, the frontrunner for Coach of the Year award joined The Habershow podcast (subscribe!) and humored me with my half-sarcastic question. 

Is your offense simply to give Giannis the ball and get out of the way?

“I do believe there is something to be said for simplicity,” Budenholzer said with a laugh. “Sometimes, things that are the simplest tend to be the best. I know it’s a little bit of humor, but there is certainly a kernel of truth in that. We wanted to give him as much space [as possible] and get out of the way.”

Budenholzer happily lets his 7-foot center, Lopez, stand 35 feet away from the hoop and launch it. Same goes for forwards Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova (a former teammate of Simmons). The Bucks literally took a thousand more 3-pointers than last season -- or 1,110 to be exact. They also won more games than any other team during the regular season.

On Monday, Brown took a page out of Budenholzer’s book and evened the series at one by putting a premium on space. Brown dropping McConnell from the rotation is telling. McConnell is many things; the most tenured Sixer, a talented tablesetter, the team’s “heart and soul” according to Jimmy Butler. But he is not a 3-point shooter.

Because of that weakness, defenses could sag off both McConnell and Simmons in the halfcourt, loading up on precious real estate in the paint. This season, Simmons’ field-goal percentage dropped from 57.8 percent to 50.5 percent with McConnell saddled up next to him, per NBA.com data and the Sixers were minus-72 with the duo playing together. Conversely, when Simmons was on the floor without McConnell, the Sixers outscored opponents by 188 points. There’s a reason Simmons’ most-efficient lineups are when he’s paired with an effective 3-point shooter. Spoiler alert: Markelle Fultz and Simmons did not work.

Neither did the Lakers. 

Prioritizing space is a lesson former Lakers president Magic Johnson didn’t seem to take into account when building around LeBron James. In fact, Johnson went the other way, loading up on non-shooting playmakers -- on purpose. During a July conference call with reporters, Johnson said added ball-handlers like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson so that James “doesn’t have to make every play.” He later went on an ESPN broadcast during Summer League and explained that he and his staff did their homework and “we saw all the teams in the playoffs that had shooting, they got beat.”

As I detailed on the BIG Number recently, Rondo turned out to be LeBron’s kryptonite. Like McConnell and Simmons in Philly, the healthiest offenses in LakerLand were units that didn’t feature James alongside a ball-dominant non-shooter. Though Rondo had taken more 3s this season, his defender rarely got a hand up, if he guarded Rondo at all. That crippled the LeBron-led Lakers as much as the injury bug. One wonders what the Lakers would look like if they kept Lopez instead of signing Rondo for nearly three times his salary.

Take a look at what’s happening with Oklahoma City, which is 0-8 in road playoff games since Kevin Durant left in 2016. Like James, Simmons and Antetokounmpo, a Westbrook-led offense needs sharpshooters to unclog the paint in a slowed-down playoff setting. Unfortunately for the Thunder, those players are in short supply. Alex Abrines, a solid wing shooter the last three seasons, was waived in February with undisclosed personal issues and Patrick Patterson has had trouble cracking the rotation, often leaving Paul George as their only respected 3-point shooter. 

While Milwaukee exclusively plays 3-point shooters -- Lopez, Mirotic and Ilyasova -- at the center position next to Antetokounmpo, the Thunder have chosen the polar opposite approach with Westbrook. Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are two paint-dwellers who haven’t even attempted a shot outside 20 feet this season.

Respect is key. By the percentages, OKC’s stretch-four, Jerami Grant, has developed into a pretty strong 3-point shooter with a conversion rate of 39.2 percent this season, but defenses still don’t respect him. According to NBA.com data, a whopping 89 percent of Grant’s 3-pointers this season were termed “wide-open,” which is right up there with Draymond Green’s league-leading 93 percent. In this series, the Blazers have been parking Grant’s defender near Westbrook, George and Adams, choosing to live with the results. Grant, with little gravitational pull to begin with, has missed all eight of his 3-point attempts. 

Without effective spacers, the Thunder are on the verge of their third straight first-round exit. Outside of George, the Thunder are shooting 4-of-39 from deep and Westbrook is shooting 6-of-27 in the halfcourt, with zero of his signature Earth-shaking dunks. It’s no wonder why Philadelphia targeted bigs who can shoot -- Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic -- at the trade deadline.

* * *

Yes, I said Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3 center who can practically dunk without jumping. 

One of the great revelations of the Philadelphia-Brooklyn series is Marjanovic’s jumper. The Nets are ignoring Marjanovic on the perimeter in this series to a comical degree, his defender often standing under the rim while the Serbian tower stands at the top of the key. Marjanovic has made six of his nine jumpers this series, each bucket sending the Wells Fargo Center into a gleeful frenzy. Marjanovic has sneaky range, making nine of his nineteen 19 long 2s this season and four of his 10 3-pointers in the regular season. Bobi can shoot. Respect may soon follow.

Marjanovic’s emergence reminds me of what Aron Baynes did during Boston’s surprising playoff run last season and what Lopez has done over the last couple years. We’re not used to seeing 7-footers launch from deep. Four seasons ago, 7-footers took 1,966 three-pointers, per Basketball Reference data. This season, 7-footers fired up more than twice that amount, taking 4,425 3-pointers as a whole, the most in NBA history. What’s more, those giants made 34.7 percent, a few ticks below Kevin Durant’s 35.3 percent mark. It’s not a gimmick anymore. It’s a weapon.

For Philly, the implications are clear: If Marjanovic can reliably knock down jumpers and pull his defender out of the paint, it’s one less big man that Simmons has to hurdle en route to the rim. 

* * *

It’s obvious that Simmons would be much better with a reliable jumper. There’s still plenty of time. He’s only 22 years old but is already facing criticism as if he’s deep into his career. Magic Johnson didn’t win his first MVP until he was 27. When he started regularly taking 3-pointers in his age-29 season, he won his second MVP and then his third. It’s not hard to see Simmons following a similar path. 

It’s also why Joel Embiid’s 3-point stroke is so intriguing. Embiid is a career 31.5-percent 3-point shooter -- not sharp enough to demand a hard close-out every time he stands back there. He’s the most efficient post-up big man in the game, per Synergy tracking, but pulling his defender out to the 3-point line can have its advantages. In the impressive 130-125 win over the Bucks back in March, Embiid took 13 three-pointers, making four. In that game, all of Simmons’ basket attacks came in transition with either Embiid trailing or on the perimeter. Simmons’ lone jumper in that game came when Embiid was parked under the basket (he missed).

Embiid and Marjanovic may have the potential to be spacers for Simmons, joining the East’s superpowers who are already loading up on stretch 5s. The Raptors snatched up Marc Gasol, who has made over 300 3-pointers in his last three seasons. The Celtics have stretched Baynes to join Al Horford as as a shooting big. The Bucks have Lopez spacing for Antetokounmpo and that formation might seal Antetokounmpo’s MVP. It could also win them a title.

Simmons and Embiid aren’t a perfect fit in the halfcourt. Hardly any star pairings are. But we can see what Lopez has done for Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and the distinct limitations of the Thunder’s approach around Westbrook. If Embiid or Marjanovic can pull their defender away from Simmons’ path a few more times a game, it may be the difference between a great team and a champion.

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