Sixers snap 26-game losing streak with blowout win over Pistons

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PHILADELPHIA — The Sixers came into Saturday night’s contest against the Pistons riding a 26-game losing streak, tied for the longest in NBA history. But this is a unique team in an almost unprecedented situation, so it wasn’t weighing on them in the way you might expect.

Feeling no pressure, Philadelphia came out with an energy level much higher than its opponent, and quickly jumped on a Pistons team in a downward spiral of its own. The Sixers led by double digits in the first quarter, had put up 70 points by halftime and built a lead of as many as 32 points before settling on a 123-98 victory, the team’s first since January 29.

This was the plan all along in Philadelphia — maybe not to this extent, and probably not set in motion with the intent of entering the record books. But rebuilding and all that goes with it was going to be not only the way the team chose to go about handling its business this season, but would become a rallying point of sorts through what have been some unusually tough times.

“When you look at it, Sam Hinkie was hired (as GM) in May, and came in and was extraordinarily transparent about the direction that we were going to take on,” head coach Brett Brown said. “The draft happened, and an All-Star was traded in Jrue Holiday. I was hired in August. We inherited a team that was the youngest in the history of the game. On trade deadline, we traded three of our top six players to reconfirm our position that we are here to rebuild.

“And now we find ourselves here,” he continued. “And you know, it’s something that we’ve admitted, that losing is difficult, that the pain of a rebuild is difficult. And so here we are, and it doesn’t change our message — we’ve been transparent from day one. We’re here to try to build something unique.”

While the commitment to a plan has been evident in Philadelphia despite all the losing, there’s been nothing of the kind visible in Detroit. The Pistons replaced their head coach midseason with one who continually trots out lineups that have been statistically proven to be ineffective, and who appears to have little control over his players.

Brandon Jennings wanted no part of this one early, and picked up two quick technical fouls and an ejection for arguing a relatively pedestrian call in the first quarter. Josh Smith picked up a technical of his own a little later, and appeared to try to get tossed after not getting a whistle of his own, but the officials chose to let his actions slide.

Detroit lost to a Heat team playing without two starters in Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers on Friday by 32 points at home, and then followed that up by getting waxed by a team that hadn’t won a game in nearly two full months.

Saturday’s lopsided result was perhaps a visual representation of the jarring difference between the place each franchise finds itself in. The Pistons, on paper, have more talent now. But they don’t have a long-term solution at head coach, and they have a general manager that could be gone once the season is finished.

The opposite is true in Philadelphia, where Brown has already taken some positives from what everyone knew would be a losing campaign from the start.

“I look out and I see Thaddeus Young, who’s expanded his game and expanded his leadership (albeit in a losing season) in significant ways,” Brown said. “I look out and see James Anderson, a gypsy wingman that’s come on and really shown he belongs, and is arguably a starting two guard in the NBA. You have Tony Wroten, a 20-year old kid who’s come out of nowhere and can get to the rim when he wants. You have Nerlens Noel, who would have been a shoe-in for the first player chosen in the draft had it not been for the injury, that we’ve been able to break down his shot this entire year. He would have been the number one pick in the draft. And we have, in my opinion, the rookie of the year (in Michael Carter-Williams). So that’s not a bad start to move forward with.”

Winning wasn’t in the plan for this season, but neither was losing 27 straight. Now that the team has avoided making the wrong kind of history, it will continue to do what it’s done all year long — work hard, and focus on the future.

“I see daylight,” Brown said. “It allows me to sleep at night, to feel good that the path that we’ve put ourselves on, albeit hard now, is the correct one. And we do not want to accept and wallow in mediocrity. Winning 34-42 games every year for the past decade is not what we want to do. We aspire to do something better. And to do that, you have to take risks. You’ve got to put yourself out there. We have. Here we are. I’m proud of our guys, and we’ll continue to stick with the formula that we said we were going to in the summer.”

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.