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.

Bob Myers says he initially told DeMarcus Cousins’ agent Warriors couldn’t afford center

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If the Warriors signed someone to a salary greater than the $5,337,000 taxpayer mid-level exception or acquired someone in a sign-and-trade, they would have been hard-capped at $129,817,000 this season.

That was obviously untenable for Golden State with its star-studded roster.

So, the idea of the Warriors adding DeMarcus Cousins seemed far-fetched – even to Golden State general manager Bob Myers.

Myers, as transcribed by Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“It was early in the morning — I spoke to his agent. We had been preserving our taxpayer mid-level exception for somebody that might fall through the cracks and not get paid in a very tight free agency market,” Myers explained to Greg Papa and Bonta Hill on 95.7 The Game. “But mostly we were thinking wings. I figured if something like that were to happen it would happen July 8th, 9th, 10th.

“But we got the call and I just said, ‘Look. We don’t have anything more,’ because we’ve talked about other high-level free agents and the thought from their agent was, ‘Can you do a sign-and-trade? Can you get to a bigger number?’ And I kind of said, ‘Look, our roster is what it is. To move that many pieces around, to create $10 million in room, or $15 (million), it’s just prohibitive, I don’t want to waste your time.’

“So I thought that’s where the conversation was going … and I said to him, ‘We don’t have the money that you’re probably commanding out there.’ And this is the moment it became real — he said, ‘We understand what you have.’ And I said, ‘Well we only have the taxpayer mid-level.’ And then when he said, ‘I know,’ that’s when I knew it was real.

“They were very serious about it and they never really wavered.”

We’ve seen free agency from Cousins’ perspective. It’s interesting to blend Golden State’s into the story.

The Warriors are always eying stars. Their ambition might be unmatched. That not even they forecasted the possibility of signing Cousins – who accepted the taxpayer mid-level exception – speaks to just how much colder than expected his market was.

DeAndre Ayton draws himself dunking on Joel Embiid on trading card (photo)

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Joel Embiid issued a warning to pundits after the Suns drafted Deandre Ayton No. 1 overall: “Don’t compare Ayton to me either… I play DEFENSE.”

Ayton envisioned a response to the 76ers star while drawing on a trading card:

Embiid:

I’m impressed with Ayton’s artistic skills.

I’d be even more impressed if he dunks on Embiid, who does play quality defense – so far a hole in Ayton’s game.

Dwight Howard’s trainer: ‘He wants to evolve into Anthony Davis, into Kevin Durant, but his own version of that’

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In 2015, Dwight Howard said he wanted to play 20 seasons in the NBA. He also later admitted he considered retiring the same year.

After that career crossroads, Howard is back on the longevity track.

Entering his 15th season, the 32-year-old Wizards center is focused on getting into shape and developing his game.

Justin Zormelo, via Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“He wants to evolve into Anthony Davis, into Kevin Durant,” Zormelo says, “but his own version of that.”

This sounds silly at first. Durant and Davis are far more skilled than Howard. But those superstars provide reasonable goals for Howard.

Durant – who has expanded his game the other way, going outside to inside – shows how to blend playing different styles. Davis provides an example of how to work off the ball as a modern big man.

Howard shouldn’t want to lose his strengths as an elite rebounder and interior defender, but he can move in the direction of Durant and Davis.

After getting pretty big with the Hawks, Howard slimmed down with the Hornets and excelled in transition. He also improved significantly as a ball-handler, allowing him to put even more pressure on the defense in advantage situations and attack with face-ups.

Howard hasn’t shown proficiency as an outside shooter, but that could be his next step. The concern: Howard falls in love with shooting the way he did with post-ups, and he takes too many inefficient shots.

But there’s still something encouraging about someone working so hard to improve this far into his career.

Of course, on-court improvement won’t be enough for Howard. He has quietly produced or near star level in Atlanta and Charlotte. The problems came in the locker room. Howard’s attitude must improve, too.

Maybe it’ll all come together for him, and he’ll thrive through the rest of his 30s. He’s saying all the right things.

But we’ve also been here before.

Carmelo Anthony writes thank-you note to Oklahoma City: ‘I wanted nothing more than to make it work here’

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After last season, Carmelo Anthony summed up his time with the Thunder: “It wasn’t no strategy to me being here.” He waived his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade to and buyout from the Hawks, allowing him to join the Rockets – his preferred destination ever since his time with the Knicks was ending.

But he’s leaving Oklahoma City emphasizing the positive.

Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

This is a nice letter, especially for someone who was there only one year. Thunder fans are extremely supportive, and I believe Anthony truly wanted it to work in Oklahoma City. He changed his game plenty to complement Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

It just wasn’t enough.

Of course, there’s more to the story. That’s self-evident in Anthony choosing to leave the Thunder rather than trying to solve their problems next season in a less-rushed situation.

But this isn’t an analysis of Anthony’s Oklahoma City tenure. It’s a thank-you note that seems pretty genuine and heartfelt – right until it’s signed “STAYME7o,” which is par for the course for Anthony.