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. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vTHc1T0nQ0&w=560&h=315]

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.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

Yanshan Zhang/Getty Images
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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.