Amir Johnson

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Three questions the Philadelphia 76ers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 28-54, most wins in four years

I know what you did last summer: The 76ers cashed in some of their immense assets, extra draft picks and cap space. They traded up for the No. 1 pick to get Markelle Fultz and signed J.J. Redick ($23 million) and Amir Johnson ($11 million) to one-year contracts.

THREE QUESTIONS THE 76ERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Joel Embiid stay healthy? The 76ers found their first sliver of success in years around Embiid. Of the 45 players to play at least 250 minutes for Philadelphia in the last five years, Embiid is the only one with a positive plus-minus:

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Embiid looked like a star when on the court. He was the best defensive rookie in years, and he was relentless on offense with his inside-outside game.

Of course he played just 25.4 minutes per game in only 31 contests last season, his first on the court after sitting his first two professional seasons due to injury. His injuries issues clearly aren’t completely behind him.

There’s a direct link between his health and Philadelphia’s chances of making the playoffs. It’s the team’s biggest variable, but it also leads to a smaller one…

2) How will the 76ers handle Embiid-less time? Not only did Embiid miss most of Philadelphia’s games last season, he played just about half the minutes in the ones he played.

There’s going to be a lot of time the 76ers must manage without him on the court. The better they do that, the more margin for error they’ll have for him missing games/having a minute limit.

They have enough centers to throw at the problem – Richaun Holmes, Jahlil Okafor, Amir Johnson. The key will be improved production from perimeter players, who’ll be tasked with greater roles when is Embiid is out.

Redick will help with his floor spacing, and Robert Covington‘s 3-point shooting regressing to his mean after a down year would compound the effects. But Philadelphia really needs at least one of its younger players like Dario Saric, Nik Stauskas, T.J. McConnell, Justin Anderson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to step up.

3) Is Philadelphia’s rookie starting point guard ready to win? Whether it’s Markelle Fultz or Ben Simmons, the 76ers will probably start a rookie point guard. Teams with rookie point guards usually struggle.

Maybe Fultz and Simmons can lean on each other, Simmons running the transition game and Fultz leading the half-court offense. Together, they might not face as large a burden as one rookie point guard would alone.

But neither Fultz nor Simmons is experienced in the nuances of NBA play, and while it’s generally fine for them to learn through their mistakes, Philadelphia is trying to make the playoffs this season.

T.J. McConnell is a nice safety blanket, but his upside is limited. It’s clearly better for the 76ers if they can get Fultz and/or Simmons going – particularly if they don’t have to balance present-vs.-future with that choice.

Report: Celtics leaning toward starting Al Horford at center

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Al Horford is the Celtics’ best center, and he’s best at center.

But that was also true last season, when Boston primarily started Amir Johnson at center.

Many – myself included – expected Aron Baynes to start at center this season with Johnson joining the 76ers. The burlier Baynes could battle opposing starting centers, allowing Horford to avoid wear and tear. Horford could still finish close games at center, play far more minutes than the start and play the position more in the playoffs, as he did last season.

Alas, the Celtics apparently have a different plan.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

I do think they’re going to start Horford at center, which is interesting. I think, organizationally, that’s the way they’re leaning.

This is the Celtics’ ticket to starting with their best lineup on the floor. They can now start three, rather than two, of Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris between Horford and Kyrie Irving.

Why the change from last year’s approach?

Perhaps, Boston wants to give its new players – 11 of 15 – a better chance of jelling in their optimal lineup construction. Maybe the Celtics just want to acclimate Horford to center as much as possible before he plays the position nearly exclusively in the playoffs.

Or maybe they’re simply not overthinking it.

Though I am concerned about Horford handling that load all season, Boston is clearly best in the short term this way.

76ers take 1 big step (and a couple smaller ones, too)

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Even the NBA’s worst team has only a 25% chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the lottery.

The 76ers made their own luck.

Philadelphia finished with the league’s fourth-worst record, fell to No. 5 in the lottery, swapped picks with the Kings to move up to No. 3 thanks to a two-year-old trade then traded up to No. 1 by enticing the Celtics with a future draft pick (another pick acquired in that heist of Sacramento, a Lakers pick or one of the 76ers’ own).

Whew, that’s some Process.

No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz is the latest prize in the 76ers’ reverse engineering of the NBA’s system, joining Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That’s an exciting young core that might be ready to lift Philadelphia from years of tanking to playoff contention.

To that end, the 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a one-year, $23 million contract. The 33-year-old has already shown signs of decline, but he’s an upgrade over any shooting guard on the roster. If their other young players are ready to make the leap, the 76ers didn’t want to learn the hard way they were a starting shooting guard short of reaching the postseason. In securing an immediate boost, Philadelphia essentially paid extra for flexibility. Redick’s salary will almost certainly outpace his production, the 76ers ensured no lasting negative effects beyond this season.

The same logic could apply to Amir Johnson, who signed a one-year, $11 million contract. But Philadelphia’s frontcourt depth and the dreary market for bigs make that deal less defensible – especially if Johnson’s salary could have been reappropriated for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who surprisingly became an unrestricted free agent) or paying Robert Covington more up front (as opposed to in future seasons, when the savings might matter more) in a renegotiation-and-extension.

With about $15 million in cap space remaining, the 76ers will likely still renegotiate-and-extend Covington once they can in November. He fits well into a deep crop of solid assets beyond the big three: Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jahlil Okafor, Justin Anderson, T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Furkan Korkmaz (the No. 26 pick last year who signed this year), all Philadelphia’s own future first-rounders plus one extra (from either the Kings or Lakers – or both, if if Philadelphia’s own pick is conveyed to Boston). The 76ers even added to the pool this summer with a couple draft-and-stash selections – No. 25 pick Anzejs Pasecniks and No. 36 pick Jonah Bolden (who I’m personally quite high on).

That grouping alone would be envy of many teams. And then there are still Embiid, Simmons and Fultz – the trio that will determine how quickly the brighter days ahead arrive in Philadelphia.

The 76ers’ revival is built on Embiid’s back – and feet and knees. He could be a generational player, but injuries have already cost him 215 games in three years and limited him to just 25 minutes per game in the 31 he has played.

Though it’s the one that looms far beyond, Embiid’s health isn’t the only potential pitfall this season. Rookie point guards – whether it be Fultz or Simmons – rarely lead good teams. It’s a position that typically requires fine-tuning.

Still, this is just the start in Philadelphia. Making the playoffs this season would be nice, but bigger goals down the road appear attainable either way.

The 76ers were in great shape entering the summer. They’re in even better shape now.

Offseason grade: B

Report: Celtics signing Shane Larkin to guaranteed contract, still plan to sign Guerschon Yabusele

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The Celtics lost their third-string point guard (Demetrius Jackson) and plenty of big men (Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller and Jordan Mickey)  in their quest for Gordon Hayward.

That paid off in a big way, but it’s time for Boston to restock its depth.

Enter Shane Larkin and, as previously expected, Guerschon Yabusele and Daniel Theis.

Jay King of MassLive:

The Boston Celtics have agreed to sign Shane Larkin for point guard depth, league sources confirmed to MassLive.com.

The one-year contract, which pulled Larkin away from bigger money in Europe, will be fully guaranteed for the coming season, a source indicated.

Despite adding another guaranteed contract in Larkin, the Celtics still plan to sign 2016 draft pick Guerschon Yabusele

Theis:

Theis signed a two-year deal with the first-year salary fully guaranteed, according to Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe. Yabusele will be on a rookie-scale contract for a No. 16 pick.

They, with Larkin, give Boston 16 players on standard contracts – one more than the regular-season limit. All those deals apparently include guaranteed 2016-17 salaries, but the Celtics can always eat (or trade) a contract. It costs only money. This just increases the likelihood Boston fields the best possible roster after the preseason.

Larkin showed promise early in his career, opted out of a $1.5 million Nets contract then fell out of the NBA. He adds another viable point guard behind Isaiah Thomas, joining Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. Smart and Rozier can spend time off the ball, but the 5-foot-11 Larkin probably can’t. Fortunately for Larkin’s chances of making the regular-season roster, the Celtics likely need Smart and Rozier to spend time at shooting guard after trading Avery Bradley.

Report: Celtics signing Aron Baynes

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After letting Kelly Olynyk (Heat), Amir Johnson (76ers) and Tyler Zeller walk to clear cap space for Gordon Hayward, the Celtics – armed with just the $4,328,000 room exception – needed another big man.

Enter Aron Baynes.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Baynes declined a $6.5 million player option with the Pistons. So, he’s taking a $2,172,000 loss this year without gaining any long-term security.

At least he joins a better team.

Baynes might even start at center. He or rookie Ante Zizic would allow Al Horford to spend more time at power forward, a less physically demanding position. Boston’s best lineup still projects to be Horford at center with Hayward and Jae Crowder at forward. But teams still tend to start big, especially in the regular season.

At minimum, Baynes provides a beefier alternative to Horford – a more skilled, but more finesse, big. Baynes should help with the Celtics’ long-standing rebounding problems. Unlike Zizic, Baynes also plays much more reliable defense.

The Pistons have already moved on, signing Boban Marjanovic last summer with the intent he’d assume Baynes’ job as Andre Drummond‘s primary backup this season.