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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.

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

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tony Snell lead Bucks past 76ers, 112-98

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 24 points, Tony Snell had 18 of his season-high 21 in the first half and the Milwaukee Bucks never trailed in a 112-98 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton added 13 apiece for the Bucks, who won their third straight game to stay close in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Milwaukee began the day 1 1/2 games behind Detroit for the final playoff spot in the East. The Pistons hosted Chicago on Monday night.

Justin Anderson tied his career high with 19 points for Philadelphia, which has lost five of six. The 76ers were without big man Jahlil Okafor (knee) for the second straight game. They are so short of bodies that they received a hardship exception to sign Shawn Long to a 10-day contract on Monday. Long, in his NBA debut, had 13 points and seven rebounds.

Hall of Famers Allen Iverson and Julius Erving were present. The retired 76ers franchise greats probably could’ve helped, too.

It was the second straight lopsided loss for the 76ers, who had just nine players when they allowed a season-high 136 points in a 30-point loss to the Pistons on Saturday night.

The Bucks had lost both previous meetings to Philadelphia, including a 114-109 loss in Milwaukee on Jan. 25 in which the 76ers scored 72 first-half points.

Philadelphia didn’t reach 72 points until the fourth quarter in this one.

Snell shot 7 of 10 from the field, including 4 of 6 on 3-pointers, to help the Bucks to a 60-43 halftime lead. The 76ers shot just 23.5 percent from the arc before halftime, making 4 of 17 long-range shots.

And the Bucks just kept pouring it on after the break, extending their lead to as many as 26 points midway through the third quarter.

TIP-INS

Bucks: Michael Beasley (hyperextended left knee) missed his third straight game. . After scoring 16 points in 17 minutes in Saturday’s 101-94 win over Toronto, Spencer Hawes had two points in six minutes. . Snell topped his previous season best of 20 points on Dec. 26 at Washington. His career high is 24 on Feb. 10, 2015, at Sacramento while a member of the Bulls. . The Bucks shot 49.4 percent (41 for 83) from the field.

76ers: Long was averaging 20.2 points and 11.1 rebounds for Delaware 87ers in the D-League. . Gerald Henderson returned after missing two straight games with a hip injury and scored five points in 17 minutes.

 

Pistons set season high for points in 136-106 rout of 76ers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 13 of his 26 points in Detroit’s dominating third quarter, and the Pistons set a season high for points while rolling to a 136-106 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night.

The Pistons, holding the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, had lost two of three, including Wednesday’s 109-86 drubbing at New Orleans that resulted in coach Stan Van Gundy calling out point guard Reggie Jackson.

Van Gundy told reporters Friday that he wanted to see Jackson play with more energy and contemplated starting backup point guard Ish Smith over Jackson on Saturday. Jackson, though, did make the start and scored 21 points.

Marcus Morris scored 22 points, Tobias Harris added 20 and Andre Drummond had 14 points, 14 rebounds, four steals and three blocks, one game after getting ejected for swatting the Pelicans’ Tim Frazier in the back of the head.

Detroit shot a season-best 56.8 percent, making 54 of 95 field goals.

Already short-handed due to the loss of Joel Embiid (knee) for the season, not to mention the absence of No. 1 pick Ben Simmons (foot) all season, Philadelphia was without center Jahlil Okafor (right knee soreness) while playing the second game of a back-to-back set. Nik Stauskas had 24 points.

The Pistons put the game out of reach in the third quarter when they scored 39 points, the most they’ve scored in a third quarter this season, to expand their 67-52 halftime advantage to 106-82 entering the fourth.

Detroit led by as many as 30 points in the period and made 17 of 28 field goals, including 4 of 9 3-pointers. Drummond had eight points and six rebounds in the period.

Philadelphia was playing one night after a 105-102 home win over the Knicks. Justin Anderson tied his career high with 19 points and drew accolades for his defense on New York star Carmelo Anthony, who was 5 for 18 from the field. Anderson had five points against the Pistons.

The Pistons pulled away with a 19-4 run over the final 4:19 of the first half that broke a 48-all tie and gave Detroit a 15-point halftime lead. Smith had four points and three assists during the spurt, capping it with a high floater with 1.3 seconds left.

Smith, who played in 50 games for the 76ers last season, finished with 11 points and 13 assists.

TIP-INS

Pistons: After setting an NBA mark for futility by a team attempting 10 free throws with a 3-for-17 performance from the foul line on Wednesday, the Pistons were 18 for 21 from the line against Philadelphia. Smith started the first 21 games of the season in place of the injured Jackson (knee). Detroit’s previous scoring high was 125 in a 125-124 win at Portland on Jan. 7.

76ers: Gerald Henderson (hip) missed his second straight game. Philadelphia’s 15 first-half turnovers equaled the most in any half this season.

 

Three Things We Learned Thursday: DeMarcus Cousins puts up numbers, but will Pelicans keep up pace?

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The NBA got back to work on the court Thursday night after all the drama of the trade deadline day, but if you missed out on it because you were breaking down Donald Trump’s “clasp and yank” handshake we have you covered with the big takeaways from the day.

1) DeMarcus Cousins puts up 27 and 14 but Rockets expose question in rout of Pelicans. DeMarcus Cousins tried to give the people what they paid to see Thursday night — he got deep position and sealed his man inside for buckets, he showed his shooting range near the top of the key, and on the other end he blocked four shots. Cousins put up 27 points and 14 rebounds in his Pelicans debut.

However, the Houston Rockets ran the Pelicans out of the building in a 30-point win, a game where most of the second half was garbage time. The game made Chris Herring at fivethirtyeight.com look prescient — Cousins’ Pelicans couldn’t handle the pace of the Rockets. That’s maybe not a shock in the sense that the Rockets play at one of the fastest paces in the league and have played faster and faster as the season has worn on (fastest in the NBA in the past 10 games). What’s not as well known is the Pelicans play at a top 10 pace for the season. However, Cousins likes to hold the ball and has been having a career-best season in one of the NBA’s slower offenses. He can get out and run, he can play and play well in an uptempo offense, but it’s not where he’s at his best. How is Alvin Gentry going to find a balance between these competing forces?

Thursday night was not going to answer every question, particularly on a night when Jrue Holiday plays poorly at the point and turns the ball over against a team that thrives on live-ball turnovers. But how fast the Pelicans play with Cousins, and how much coach Alvin Gentry staggers Cousins and Anthony Davis, will be things to watch in the coming weeks.

As for the Rockets, just acquired Lou Williams had a team-high 27 points. He’s going to fit in just fine, thank you very much.

2) Who won the deadline day trades? Dallas. If you talk about which teams had the best last couple weeks in the run-up to the trade deadline, then the Pelicans (despite the loss Thursday) and Toronto Raptors are the clear winners.

However, who had the best Thursday? Who had the best trade deadline day itself? The Dallas Mavericks.

We’ve all watched them try to find their next center for a while, complete with the DeAndre Jordan drama and Blake Griffin barricading the door (not really). Now the Mavs got their guy — Nerlens Noel. He’s athletic, he rolls to the rim and finishes strong in the paint, and he’s just 22. Sure there are questions — Noel has a worrying injury history and a limited offensive game (but he stays in his lane) — but he was going to be a highly sought after restricted free agent this summer and the Mavericks just got his rights and now can match any offer. Which will likely be expensive ($100 million?), but he could anchor the Mavs inside for a decade.

The real reason this is a win for Dallas is all they gave up was Justin Anderson (a potentially nice “3&D” player), Andrew Bogut (who the Sixers will waive), and what was billed as a first-round pick but is top 18 protected this year so it will revert to two second rounders. That’s almost nothing.

3) Watch Kemba Walker and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope put on a show and force OT in eventual Pistons win. If you want the most entertaining game of Thursday night, it was the Hornets and the Pistons going to overtime as Walker and Caldwell-Pope exchanged buckets. Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.

Walker finished the night with 34 points, but Caldwell-Pope had 33 and his Pistons got the 114-108 win at home.