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Extra Pass: How Brett Brown and his 76ers have embraced their youth

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BOSTON – “Do we have young-guy film today?” a player calls from the corner of the 76ers locker room.

Curious, I ask the 76ers’ media-relations official what that is.

“What do you think it is?” he replies.

“I’d guess its film young guys have to watch,” I say. “But, on this team, isn’t that everybody?”

“Pretty much,” Thaddeus Young chimes in.

The 76ers, carrying an average age of 23.4 (weighted for playing time and holding a player’s age constant as of Feb. 1 each season), are the NBA’s youngest team. Their youth permeates through their organizational culture, maybe even defining them more than losing has – though it’s not as if those traits are mutually exclusive.

They have the sixth-youngest team of all-time. By comparison they have the relatively non-descript 51st-worst win percentage of all-time, and even if they lose out, that would drop only to 33rd-worst.

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Philadelphia has only one player older than 26 – 33-year-old Jason Richardson, who has missed the entire season due to injury. Every other team has at least three players over 26.

So, when the 76ers hold young-guy film, it’s essentially team film. Only Young and James Anderson, a fourth-year pro, are exempt.

Rookie 76ers coach Brett Brown implemented the film sessions as a way to provide extra tutoring for young players during an NBA season that includes little practice time, and he personally decided who must participate. He likes the system and would have used it with any roster, though had he taken over certain other teams, maybe only a couple players would have been required to attend.

In Philadelphia, it’s become an essential tool.

Many coaches talk about loving the profession for the ability to teach above all else. But few competitors, which all NBA coaches are, would trade a good team (which requires fewer lessons) for a bad team (which requires more).

Brown doesn’t have that option, and if he did, there’s nothing to say he wouldn’t exercise it. However, he has remained enthusiastic through Philadelphia’s 17-60 season, demonstrating a real passion for serving the 76ers’ youth.

“I love coaching these guys,” Brown said. “They play hard. They play with their hearts on their sleeves.”

Philadelphia’s youngest player is 19-year-old Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in last year’s draft who has yet to play this season due to injury. League-wide, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Archie Goodwin are younger.

Of 76ers who’ve actually played this season, 20-year-old Tony Wroten is youngest.

“You would never realize that I’m the youngest guy playing right now,” Wroten said.

That’s because Wroten spent last season with the Memphis Grizzlies. The guard has played more NBA games than anyone in Philadelphia outside Young, Anderson and Byron Mullens. At times, Wroten feels he should help the 76ers’ six rookies, but it’s a tough balancing act.

“I’m still learning too every day,” Wroten said.

As are all the 76ers.

The players were recently discussing the oldest one on the team besides Richardson. Young thought it was himself. A lot of 76ers probably thought it was Young, too. Jarvis Varnado sure did.

But it’s actually 26-year-old Varnado, who beat 25-year-old Young into this world by a few months.

Varnado and Young actually graduated high school the same year, but Young left Georgia Tech after only one season, and Varnado played all four years at Mississippi State. Their professional careers have followed similar tracks. While Young is in the midst of a five-year, $43 million contract, Varnado is already with his fourth team in two seasons, trying to extend an NBA career that didn’t begin until two years after the Heat picked him in the second round of the 2010 draft. He signed with the 76ers on a 10-day contract before getting a rest-of-season-deal last month.

Never expecting to be the the oldest player on a team at this stage of his career, Varnado he likes the environment in Philadelphia nonetheless.

“We barely know the NBA,” Varnado said. “So, we’re just trying to go out there and trying to play hard. A lot of guys in here are trying to fight for jobs next year. So, we’re trying to impress everybody.”

And as far as his role as elder statesman?

“I haven’t really felt old,” Varnado said. “I’m around a lot of guys who are young guys, but I don’t feel old, though.”

Neither does Young, whom Brown calls the team’s grandfather.

“I’m still relatively young,” Young said. “It’s just I’ve seen a lot more than they have in this NBA structure.”

Including his veteran teammates traded.

The 76ers began the season with a few 25-year-olds – Evan Tuner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen – but they dealt all three at the trade deadline (Turner and Allen to the Pacers, Hawes to the Cavaliers). A separate deal with the Wizards netted Eric Maynor – who, at 26, is the oldest person to play for Philadelphia this season – but, per his request, Philadelphia waived him after just eight games.

That left Young as the only 76er with a history of quality NBA production, even generously counting a few small-sample seasons by his teammates.

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Philadelphia is not young by accident, and those trades and buyouts are part of a long-term rebuilding strategy. In place of veterans like Turner and Hawes, the 76ers have turned to younger, cheaper and less-productive alternatives.

“It definitely tested my patience a little bit,” Young said. “I was just dealing with so many young guys and them not knowing certain things.

“On any team, you want as many veterans as possible. It definitely helps out having a lot of veterans, because sometimes, younger players just don’t know certain things.”

But for all the downside, Young appreciates aspects of the 76ers’ youth movement. He enjoys going fast – Philadelphia plays at the highest pace the NBA has seen in four years – and he’s grown as a leader.

Though Varnado edges him by a few months in age, Young is the unquestioned face of the 76ers.

“He’s had to carry a young team that is in a total rebuild mode, and he’s endured that,” Brown said. “He’s found ways to compete and lead and not whine or cry about it. He’s dug in.”

Young has done so as the 76ers have gotten progressively younger, especially after the trade deadline. They were always headed toward one of the eight youngest seasons ever, but now they appear likely to close sixth.

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Perhaps, I’m overstating the 76ers’ youth. After all, I’m counting their age in human years. Like dog years, maybe another measure – Sixer years? – is more appropriate.

On Jan. 29, the 76ers won in Boston. Their next game began a 26-game losing streak. During it, they traded Turner and Allen, traded Hawes, traded for Mullens, traded for Maynor, waived Earl Clark, waived Danny Granger, signed Varnado, waived Lorenzo Brown, signed Darius Johnson-Odom, waived Maynor and signed James Nunnally.

Finally, they returned to Boston this weekend and won again. Brown recalled Philadelphia’s first victory over the Celtics, just 65 days prior.

“That,” Brown said, “seems like a thousand years ago.”

Pistons-Kings game delayed for smoke over court (video)

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DeMarcus Cousins, in his eternal battle with referees (and everyone else), retroactively won every argument he’s ever had when he had to alert the officials in last night’s Pistons-Kings game to the large cloud of smoke coming toward the court. It was only then that the refs stopped play.

But the best reaction to the mistimed fog machine was Sacramento coach Dave Joerger:

LeBron James tweets: I’m not mad at Cavaliers GM David Griffin

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers rallies his teammates in the huddle during player introductions prior to the game Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on December 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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After tearing into the Cavaliers’ roster construction last night, LeBron James said he’d tweet even more thoughts.

LeBron delivered, softening the point everyone amplified (that he wants roster improvements) and emphasizing the point that got overlooked (that he’s on board with Cleveland general manager David Griffin):

I’m guessing LeBron saw how his comments went over and wanted to quiet the storm he created. What he said sounds so much more resentful. These tweets read as much more constructive.

But the underlying point remains: LeBron is unsatisfied with the roster.

He won’t be a free agent until 2018, but remember, dissatisfaction with the Heat’s roster contributed to him bolting Miami.

Wizards wearing all black to Celtics game for a figurative funeral

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The Celtics and Wizards have a little rivalry brewing:

The latest chapter comes for tonight’s game, with the Wizards – imitating a commonly used fashion for closeout playoff games – wearing all black to the arena.

Kelly Oubre Jr.:

We’re wearing all black to the game. So you know where we’re going with that.

Round three. Let’s get it.

Wall (as Beal yells encouragement in the background):

All black everything. A funeral.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

When Jae Crowder was asked about the Wizards all-black gear, his initial response…“That’s cute!”

Isaiah Thomas, via Blakely:

“This is definitely not Game 7 or the playoffs,” said Isaiah Thomas. “But if they want to take it that serious, they can.”

Gotta agree with the Celtics here. This is an absurd level of motivational showmanship for a January game.

But I also love it! These petty feuds are fantastic and spice up a long regular season.

My favorite part of the Wizards’ funeral motif: Even if they “bury” Boston tonight, these teams meet again in March.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top 10 to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?