NBA Season Preview: Philadelphia 76ers

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Today begins PBT’s team-by-team season preview, going through all 30 squads. We are starting in the deep Atlantic Division that could well send four teams to the playoffs, and we will move West from there. First up, your Philadelphia 76ers.

Last season: They were a slightly better than .500 team (35-31) that played great defense but struggled to score consistently. Their record got them the 8 seed in the east and they were doomed to another early first round exit until Derrick Rose blew out his ACL. With that gift they got past Chicago and pushed Boston to 7 games in the second round.

Key Departures: After years of rumors, the Sixers finally did trade Andre Iguodala, finding their way into the four-team Dwight Howard trade. As part of that trade, they did nave to give up Nikola Vucevic, who the franchise liked. They also amnestied Elton Brand, who played pretty well for them but was not worth the cost. Jodie Meeks took his outside shooting to L.A.

Key Additions: They added the second best center in the NBA in Andrew Bynum as part of the Howard/Iguodala trade, radically reshaping the roster and setting up some fun Bynum/Roy Hibbert battles in the coming seasons. They also added Jason Richardson and Nick Young to provide scoring at the two spot. They also added Dorrell Wright and No. 27 overall pick Arnett Moultrie.

Plus, this year the Sixers fans get to become the group that tries to convince themselves Kwame Brown can really help them if they just use him in the right situations. It’s a study in cognitive dissonance.

Three keys to Sixers season:

1) Andrew Bynum grows to handle the pressure of being the franchise guy. There is no doubt Bynum is talented and has been blessed with a body few in the NBA can deal with on the block (even if it is a bit fragile at times). In Los Angeles, he wanted a bigger role and was vocal about it while still being a good teammate most of the time. He is bright, he is thoughtful. But now he does not have Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol drawing the attention of defenders on the court and the media off it. This is his team, his spotlight. It is what he wanted.

Bynum is going to have to be the anchor on defense — he is going to have to be more active on the high pick-and-roll, his rotations will need to be consistently sharp not spotty. On offense, he’s going to have to recognize and pick apart teams when the double-team comes, and do it quickly. There is more, but the fact is Bynum can do all those things, he just hasn’t had to in the past for his team to have a shot at winning every given night. Now he does. There can’t be the lapses of effort when he doesn’t get involved early, there can’t be the moments of immaturity. It’s on him to step up. He can, but he has to prove it now. It’s that simple.

2) Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner need to take the next step. Together. The Philadelphia 76ers have potentially two of the best young perimeter players in the NBA. Holiday has been a good point guard — able to run the offense, set guys up — but needs his shot to finish better in the lane (he shot just 53.6 percent inside the restricted area and 37 from 3-9 feet) and maybe not take as many long two pointers (although he shot 40 percent on those). This is a contract year for Holiday, he needs to make a leap forward to really get paid.

Evan Turner’s showed flashes of looking like the No. 2 overall pick as the season wore on — he had solid rebound numbers and he moved the ball well. But he got outclassed in the playoffs, he’s got to hit threes at better than a 22.4 percent clip, he’s got to be consistent.

Turner had Iguodala and Meeks out taking shots and making plays on the wing, now they are gone and it is his job. He will start at the three and play some backup point, coach Doug Collins has said. The table has been set for him to make the leap, it is up to him.

3) Their defense cannot slip much. Last season the Sixers had the third best defense in the NBA, allowing just 96.6 points per 100 possessions (only Chicago and Boston were better). That is why they made the playoffs at all. With Andrew Bynum as a focal point in the post and growth from Turner and Holiday (plus Nick Young in the Lou Williams gunner off the bench role) we are expecting more from them on offense. But if the Sixers want to really take a step forward they need to still be a top 5 defensive team. Which is not going to be easy with the loss of Iguodala, one of the best perimeter defenders in the game today.

Andrew Bynum will help being a big presence in the paint (again, see point No. 1 about consistency) but guys on the perimeter have to step up and the team defense has to be there. If the offense gets better but the defense sags there will not be much improvement.

What one thing should scare Sixers fans? Andrew Bynum not re-signing with the team after this season. But, it shouldn’t scare them that much, I think he will. (He is not going to sign an extension, under the new CBA it makes far more financial sense for him to become a free agent then re-sign with a team, as Deron Williams did in Brooklyn.)

Bynum wanted to be the focal point of a major franchise, he is now. His ego will get fed and he’s closer to home (he grew up in New Jersey). Bynum is also a financially motivated guy and the Sixers max deal offered next summer will be one year longer and have larger raises than anyone else. But it is possible for this year to go sour, for the fans and tabloids to turn on Bynum and for him to decide he wants out as a free agent. If that happens, the Sixers essentially will have gotten nothing for Iguodala. It’s a concern, but not a huge one.

How it likely works out: After the Miami Heat in the East things are pretty fluid and a number of teams think they can be the two seed — Indiana, Boston, New York, Brooklyn. And you can put Philadelphia in that mix.

The question is, how much better are they now than the slightly above .500 team of last season? Is Bynum in the middle that much better than Iguodala on the wing (and Lou Williams off the bench). Can their defense hold while all their players take the steps forward expected of them?

I’m not convinced the Sixers are dramatically better short term, but I like what Philly did. Standing pat they might have improved to a six seed (probably 7-8) and would get bounced in the first round. Now there is a real chance for a Holiday/Evans/Bynum core to be very good and grow together over a few years.

I like the idea of going big with Bynum at the five and Spencer Hawes starting at the four in a conference where powers Boston and Miami are going small. Last year the Sixers were far, far to much of a jump shooting team that never got to the free throw line. Bynum will change that, he will score in the paint and draw fouls.

But I’m not convinced the success is instant or as strong as some in Philly expect. Bynum must adjust to his role and move the ball — the Sixers got off to a fast start last season in part because Spencer Hawes did a great job as a fulcrum moving the ball from the strong to weak side quickly. When Hawes got injured, they started to struggle. Now it’s on Bynum to do that job and it’s an adjustment.

Teams that expect a lot of guys to step up in the same year tend to have more fits and starts than a smooth, fast ride to the top.

I like what Philadelphia is doing, they are certainly a playoff team in the East and one that should have a goal of having their first-round series start at home. But I have a feeling their best years are two or three down the line, not this season.

Prediction: 47-35, which could be a four to six seed in the east. They are a team to watch, a team that might well be much better in April and May than November as they grow together. Last year they got out of the first round of the playoffs because of a fluke, if they get to the second round next season it’s because they are that good. And getting better.

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.

Report: Momentum building toward ending one-and-done rule

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“My sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that during the NBA Finals last year about the one-and-done rule for players trying to enter the NBA — they can’t be drafted by NBA teams for one season after their high school class graduates, so the best players go to college for one season (and most go to classes for less than that). As Silver said, nobody really likes the system, but it was the compromise struck between the owners (who would like to raise the draft age to 20 or higher) and the players’ union (who want the draft age at 18, as soon as guys come out of high school).

However, momentum is building to change the rule, something we have written about before and now is gaining more traction, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With momentum gathering to reshape the one-and-done draft entry rule, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts met with the new Commission on College Basketball in Washington on Thursday, league sources told ESPN….

Nevertheless, there’s a growing belief within the league that Silver’s desire to end the one-and-done — the ability of college basketball players to enter the NBA draft after playing one year in college — could be pushing the sport closer to high school players having the opportunity to directly enter the league again. For that change to happen, though, the union would probably need to cede the one-and-done rule and agree to a mandate that players entering college must stay two years before declaring for the draft.

While the NBA and players’ union will talk to the NCAA about their plans, ultimately the college body has no say in what the NBA draft and eligibility rules are.

The best players of their generations came straight to the NBA out of high school — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and others —  however, what bothered owners were the misses in the draft. There were busts, and owners/GMs want to reduce as much risk as they can in the draft (even though there are busts on guys who they saw plenty of in college, hello Michael Olowokandi).

NBA teams are now better suited to develop players than they were a couple of decades ago — every team has an assistant coach focused on just that. The best teams in the NBA right now — Golden State, Boston, San Antonio — are the best at developing players. That’s not a coincidence, and it has teams copying (or attempting to) what the successful ones do. Combine that with the growth of the G-League and teams growing their understanding how to use it, and they are better positioned to draft a player out of high school and develop him over time than they ever have been.

 

There are still a lot of questions and hurdles. If a player declares for the draft and has an agent, but isn’t drafted (or even isn’t drafted in the first round, so no guaranteed contract) will he have the option to come to college for two (or three) years anyway? Will the NCAA allow that? And Silver has talked before about the changes in the draft needing to reflect changes in how we develop players down to the AAU level, which is its own complex set of problems.

It’s not moving quickly, but these are steps in the right direction. One-and-done doesn’t work well for anyone. The college baseball style rule (go straight to the pros or spend three years in college in that sport’s case) isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the system in place. There seems to be momentum toward change. Finally.

Watch James Harden, Rockets drop 90 on Suns — in first half

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This game had all the drama of The Last Airbender. Which is to say none. It was essentially over when the Rockets went on a 21-6 first-quarter run — unlike Boston in the earlier Thursday game, Phoenix isn’t built to come back against elite teams.

When the 15-1 Rockets run came at the end of the first quarter, it was clear Houston could do what it wanted on offense, and by half the Rockets put up 90 points. The Rockets were putting on a show (and eventually won 142-116).

James Harden had 33 points on 12 shots in the first half (he finished with 48 points for the night). Ryan Anderson hit four threes on his way to 18 before the break. Eric Gordon had 10. As a team, Houston shot 62.2 percent, and 60 percent from three in the first half. They got to the line 25 times. I could go on, but you get the picture.

If you want more highlights, here is Harden’s 48 for the night. Enjoy.

 

Paul George getting comfortable with new Thunder teammates

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George couldn’t find a rhythm on offense his first few weeks with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The four-time All-Star struggled to fit in with fellow All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony after he was traded from the Indiana Pacers. He settled for jumpers too often, shot too quickly at times and didn’t get to the free throw line as often as usual. As he adjusted, the Thunder started the season with a 4-7 record.

Once George broke out, the Thunder turned their fortunes. George erupted for 42 points in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers last Friday, then scored 37 points in a victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. He scored just 13 points in a win over Chicago on Monday, but his shots were higher quality and flowed with the offense better.

The Thunder take a three-game win streak into Friday’s game with San Antonio.

“I’m just staying in attack mode, playing downhill, being aggressive when I have the ball, being aggressive off the ball,” George said.

George leads the Thunder with 21.9 points per game. It’s quite a feat to be the top scorer on a team with Westbrook, a two-time scoring champion and the reigning league MVP, and Anthony, the No. 24 scorer in NBA history. But George has that kind of talent, and he gets to play off the other two stars.

“It’s hard because they have so many options,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “A lot of times you have the one-two option, but they have the one-two-three option. It’s tough.”

George said during the preseason that he was adjusting to how fast Westbrook moves in transition. Now, he’s in better position to attack because he is prepared. That has led to easy baskets and more free throws. He has shot 26 free throws the past three games after shooting just 27 in the previous 11 games.

“I think just trying to get out ahead of him as much as possible, I think, is key,” George said. “That way, when he’s making plays in full court, I’m already in position ready to receive the ball instead of catching up, getting my feet ready, trying to decide what to do. I’m ready to shoot or attack at that point.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said George is starting to figure out how to use his shot selection to keep defenses guessing.

“I think he’s just been balanced,” Donovan said. “He’s an elite scorer. He can do it a lot of different ways. He’s done it off the dribble, he’s done it off of catch and shoot, he’s done it off the drive. I think it’s just his balance of getting more comfortable with what we’re doing offensively and trying to figure out spots where he can be aggressive.”

Donovan said the best part of George’s performances against the Clippers and Mavericks was his efficiency – he only took 22 shots in each contest.

Even when George doesn’t shoot well, he’s effective as both an on-ball and off-ball defender. He leads the league with 2.4 steals per game.

“Honestly, defense is the part that I lock in at,” George said. “Offensively it is going to come, defensively is where I like to leave a mark and really try to be special on that end. It’s just sticking to the game plan personally in matchups, sticking to the gifts that God has given me.”