ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Philadelphia 76ers

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Last season: The 76ers went 34-48, the 11th time in the last 12 seasons they won between 33 and 48 games. They made the playoffs most seasons during that span, but they only one two postseason series. With the emergence of the NBA’s second-youngest All-Star last year, Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia seemed like it had a player who could lead them into another dozen years of bland playoff contention. Oh, Andrew Bynum was on the team, too, but he had no relevancy to the 76ers’ season other providing a massive distraction.

Signature highlight from last season: Fittingly, this sequence began with a 76er missing a long 2.

Key player changes: New 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie was mum on his plan until he made a huge draft-night trade, sending Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans for the No. 6 pick, which Philadelphia used on Nerlens Noel. On a clear rebuilding path, the 76ers also let Andrew Bynum, Dorell Wright and Nick Young leave in free agency. Philadelphia replaced them with younger and cheaper players like Tony Wroten and Darius Morris, who will have opportunities to play on a tanking 76ers team.

Philadelphia also hired a new coach to replace Doug Collins, former Spurs assistant Brett Brown.

Keys to the 76ers’ season:

1) How athletic is Nerlens Noel? Noel, injury aside, was by far the best prospect in the 2013 NBA Draft. His shot-blocking and steals numbers at Kentucky were elite, and great indicators of star-level athleticism. Of course, that didn’t mean Noel would be a guaranteed NBA success, especially in this draft, which was relatively weak at the top. But he was the best bet.

His ACL tear changed all that and was certainly the driving factor for his surprising draft-night tumble. At some point (though it might be 2014-15), the 76ers must assess whether the injury has any lingering effects for Noel. If not, they likely got a steal. If it does, Noel’s athleticism-dependent game might come apart.

2) Can Michael Carter-Williams become a starting point guard on a good team? Carter-Williams will be handed major minutes, because the 76ers are tanking, but he must develop to keep a starting job when Philadelphia actually gets good. That starts with his notoriously shaky jump shot, but transitioning to NBA defense after playing in Syracuse’s zone will also be an issue. Plus, Carter-Williams’ passing really fell off against quality opponents last season.

His size makes him an intriguing prospect, but Carter-Williams is very much a work in progress. Philadelphia will be looking for clues to his long-term outlook.

3) How much trade value do Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes have? Sam Hinkie must want to build this team in his image, and it’s unclear any of those three fit the blueprint. Turner and Hawes are free agents after the season, so if Hinkie doesn’t trade them, he risks losing them for nothing. Young is under contract for two to three more seasons, but he’s also a good player, someone who might help the 76ers win too much. If Young, Turner and/or Hawes play well, that means both they’ll have more trade value and they’ll help Philadelphia win more. Because the 76ers want to avoid wins, there’s a good chance they trade any of these three who play well.

Why you should watch the 76ers: If you’re a fan of Philadelphia’s opponent, it will be fun to watch your favorite team win.

For 76ers fans… um… hmmm… every loss stick it to David Stern. So, there’s that.

Prediction: 19-63. It’s difficult to project a team to finish much worse than this, but the 76ers will try. A better pick in the loaded 2014 draft means more to Philadelphia than a few extra meaningless wins, and newly hired Sam Hinkie has the job security to go that route. The 76ers are inexperienced, and there will be growing pains, but a high pick next summer would heal a lot of wounds.

James Harden is playing with a bruised right knee

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James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Houston Rockets are on a 13-game winning streak. They have a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. But it’s not all rosy in Space City.

Harden suffered a bruised right knee against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, and almost had to sit out the Rockets’ win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters after the win over the Bucks, Harden said that he was in some pain but a doctor told him he would be able to play and that he would not make the condition worse.

Via ESPN:

“I wasn’t feeling well at all, but the doc came in and just told me that there’s going to be pain for a bit, but you can play through it,” Harden said. “It can’t get worse, but it’s going to be pretty painful until obviously you give it some time. Once he said that, I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”

“I wasn’t moving like I usually move, but we won,” said Harden.

If Harden wasn’t feeling well, it sure didn’t show. He had 31 points, although on 8-of-21 shooting against Milwaukee. Chris Paul chipped in with 25 points, six assists, and five rebounds.

It doesn’t sound like Harden will be missing a game any time soon, which is par for the course for him. He’s played in a minimum of 89 percent of his team’s regular season games since entering the league in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are blasting their way into 2018. They play the Warriors next on January 4.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: ‘It would mean a lot’

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).