Extra Pass: How Brett Brown and his 76ers have embraced their youth

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BOSTON – “Do we have young-guy film today?” a player calls from the corner of the 76ers locker room.

Curious, I ask the 76ers’ media-relations official what that is.

“What do you think it is?” he replies.

“I’d guess its film young guys have to watch,” I say. “But, on this team, isn’t that everybody?”

“Pretty much,” Thaddeus Young chimes in.

The 76ers, carrying an average age of 23.4 (weighted for playing time and holding a player’s age constant as of Feb. 1 each season), are the NBA’s youngest team. Their youth permeates through their organizational culture, maybe even defining them more than losing has – though it’s not as if those traits are mutually exclusive.

They have the sixth-youngest team of all-time. By comparison they have the relatively non-descript 51st-worst win percentage of all-time, and even if they lose out, that would drop only to 33rd-worst.

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Philadelphia has only one player older than 26 – 33-year-old Jason Richardson, who has missed the entire season due to injury. Every other team has at least three players over 26.

So, when the 76ers hold young-guy film, it’s essentially team film. Only Young and James Anderson, a fourth-year pro, are exempt.

Rookie 76ers coach Brett Brown implemented the film sessions as a way to provide extra tutoring for young players during an NBA season that includes little practice time, and he personally decided who must participate. He likes the system and would have used it with any roster, though had he taken over certain other teams, maybe only a couple players would have been required to attend.

In Philadelphia, it’s become an essential tool.

Many coaches talk about loving the profession for the ability to teach above all else. But few competitors, which all NBA coaches are, would trade a good team (which requires fewer lessons) for a bad team (which requires more).

Brown doesn’t have that option, and if he did, there’s nothing to say he wouldn’t exercise it. However, he has remained enthusiastic through Philadelphia’s 17-60 season, demonstrating a real passion for serving the 76ers’ youth.

“I love coaching these guys,” Brown said. “They play hard. They play with their hearts on their sleeves.”

Philadelphia’s youngest player is 19-year-old Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in last year’s draft who has yet to play this season due to injury. League-wide, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Archie Goodwin are younger.

Of 76ers who’ve actually played this season, 20-year-old Tony Wroten is youngest.

“You would never realize that I’m the youngest guy playing right now,” Wroten said.

That’s because Wroten spent last season with the Memphis Grizzlies. The guard has played more NBA games than anyone in Philadelphia outside Young, Anderson and Byron Mullens. At times, Wroten feels he should help the 76ers’ six rookies, but it’s a tough balancing act.

“I’m still learning too every day,” Wroten said.

As are all the 76ers.

The players were recently discussing the oldest one on the team besides Richardson. Young thought it was himself. A lot of 76ers probably thought it was Young, too. Jarvis Varnado sure did.

But it’s actually 26-year-old Varnado, who beat 25-year-old Young into this world by a few months.

Varnado and Young actually graduated high school the same year, but Young left Georgia Tech after only one season, and Varnado played all four years at Mississippi State. Their professional careers have followed similar tracks. While Young is in the midst of a five-year, $43 million contract, Varnado is already with his fourth team in two seasons, trying to extend an NBA career that didn’t begin until two years after the Heat picked him in the second round of the 2010 draft. He signed with the 76ers on a 10-day contract before getting a rest-of-season-deal last month.

Never expecting to be the the oldest player on a team at this stage of his career, Varnado he likes the environment in Philadelphia nonetheless.

“We barely know the NBA,” Varnado said. “So, we’re just trying to go out there and trying to play hard. A lot of guys in here are trying to fight for jobs next year. So, we’re trying to impress everybody.”

And as far as his role as elder statesman?

“I haven’t really felt old,” Varnado said. “I’m around a lot of guys who are young guys, but I don’t feel old, though.”

Neither does Young, whom Brown calls the team’s grandfather.

“I’m still relatively young,” Young said. “It’s just I’ve seen a lot more than they have in this NBA structure.”

Including his veteran teammates traded.

The 76ers began the season with a few 25-year-olds – Evan Tuner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen – but they dealt all three at the trade deadline (Turner and Allen to the Pacers, Hawes to the Cavaliers). A separate deal with the Wizards netted Eric Maynor – who, at 26, is the oldest person to play for Philadelphia this season – but, per his request, Philadelphia waived him after just eight games.

That left Young as the only 76er with a history of quality NBA production, even generously counting a few small-sample seasons by his teammates.

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Philadelphia is not young by accident, and those trades and buyouts are part of a long-term rebuilding strategy. In place of veterans like Turner and Hawes, the 76ers have turned to younger, cheaper and less-productive alternatives.

“It definitely tested my patience a little bit,” Young said. “I was just dealing with so many young guys and them not knowing certain things.

“On any team, you want as many veterans as possible. It definitely helps out having a lot of veterans, because sometimes, younger players just don’t know certain things.”

But for all the downside, Young appreciates aspects of the 76ers’ youth movement. He enjoys going fast – Philadelphia plays at the highest pace the NBA has seen in four years – and he’s grown as a leader.

Though Varnado edges him by a few months in age, Young is the unquestioned face of the 76ers.

“He’s had to carry a young team that is in a total rebuild mode, and he’s endured that,” Brown said. “He’s found ways to compete and lead and not whine or cry about it. He’s dug in.”

Young has done so as the 76ers have gotten progressively younger, especially after the trade deadline. They were always headed toward one of the eight youngest seasons ever, but now they appear likely to close sixth.

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Perhaps, I’m overstating the 76ers’ youth. After all, I’m counting their age in human years. Like dog years, maybe another measure – Sixer years? – is more appropriate.

On Jan. 29, the 76ers won in Boston. Their next game began a 26-game losing streak. During it, they traded Turner and Allen, traded Hawes, traded for Mullens, traded for Maynor, waived Earl Clark, waived Danny Granger, signed Varnado, waived Lorenzo Brown, signed Darius Johnson-Odom, waived Maynor and signed James Nunnally.

Finally, they returned to Boston this weekend and won again. Brown recalled Philadelphia’s first victory over the Celtics, just 65 days prior.

“That,” Brown said, “seems like a thousand years ago.”

Three things to watch, plus betting tips, as Heat try to drag Nuggets into mud

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DENVER — Game 1 was what Denver fans wanted after waiting 47 years for the NBA Finals to come to town: Nikola Jokić was dominating with a triple-double, Jamal Murray was attacking downhill, Denver played to its size advantage and got out to a lead that was up to 24 at one point, then coasted in for a 104-93 win and series lead.

It feels like Game 2 will be different.

The Heat had a rough Game 1 (at least for three quarters) and know they need to be more aggressive in Game 2. The Nuggets played what felt like an average game for them, although coach Michael Malone didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” Malone said. “I watched that tape, and they were 5-of-16 on wide-open threes. As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes is problematic.”

Here are four things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) Can Miami force this game to be played in the mud?

As fans, we have been spoiled watching NBA Finals games over the last decade. There has been a lot of Stephen Curry and the Warriors with their off-ball movement, passing, shooting and beautiful game. There has been the GOAT-level brilliance of LeBron James (complete with his passing skills), the overwhelming athleticism of Giannis Antetokounmpo, There has been beautiful basketball played at the highest level.

If Game 2 is beautiful, the Heat are in trouble.

If Game 2 is free-flowing and up-tempo, it means Nikola Jokić is orchestrating another symphony. If the Nuggets’ off-ball-movement, transition game, passing and shooting run relatively unchecked, the Heat simply cannot keep pace.

The Heat need this to look like a 1990s rock-fight game against the Knicks. That is how Miami got here, by doing exactly that to Boston and Milwaukee, making those powerhouses play a grinding, defensive game. The Heat need to throw sand in the gears of the Nuggets’ offense and drag the game into the mud with their physicality and tenaciousness. Fewer jump shots, more shots at the rim and more trips to the free throw line (the Heat had just two free throws in Game 1).

Jokić only had to defend two shots at the rim in Game 1, the Heat can’t let that happen again.

“I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim,” Jimmy Butler said. “I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier. They definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.”

The challenge a more aggressive Heat team faces is part of what led to all the jumpers in Game 1 — Denver is just a physically bigger team. That size can deter trips to the rim. It can’t if the Heat are going to win this game and even the NBA Finals.

The Nuggets know what is coming. What appears to separate them from the teams the Heat beat before is Denver seems far less likely to get sucked into Miami’s game.

“You just can’t be complacent with this team. You can’t be lackadaisical,” Aaron Gordon said. “You can’t sleep on this team. This team has no quit. They will continue to fight through the entirety of the game. You’ve got to understand that about this team.”

2) Which team hits its 3s

. Much has been made of the Heat’s shooting struggles in Game 1` — Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin combined to shoot 2-of-23 from 3. As Malone noted, the Heat had 16 open 3-pointers in Game 1 (using NBA tracking data) and hit just five of them. Miami bounced back in the fourth and hit 6-of-12 3-point attempts, but finished shooting an unimpressive 13-of-39, 33.3% from beyond the arc.

That’s better than the Nuggets.

Denver was 8-of-27 from 3, 29.6% in Game 1. Michael Porter Jr. was a dreadful 2-of-11.

“I thought I had great looks,” Porter Jr. said. “Ball felt pretty good coming out of my hands, but yeah, I can’t worry too much about percentages. They were good looks. I’ve got to keep shooting those, work on my shots on these couple days off. Hopefully some more fall next game.”

It’s simplistic but true — whichever team can find its 3-point stroke will win Game 2. Miami is in the Finals partly because of spectacular shotmaking, particularly from their role players, throughout the postseason. A regression now dooms them.

Both coaches told their shooters not to hold back.

“Let it fly. Ignite. Once they see two go down, it could be three, it could turn into six just like that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers. “As long as we are getting those clean looks, that’s what matters.”

3) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations

Over 214.5: The Under hit in Game 1 thanks to a 96-point second-half, but more importantly, an NBA Finals record low two free-throw attempts from the Miami Heat. Dating back to 2002-03, Game 2’s are 43-25-1 (63.2%) to the over when Game 1 went under the total. With both teams struggling from three and Miami expected to be more aggressive, the over 214.5 is a good value play, especially since Game 1’s total was 219.5.

Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. props: With Denver having so many weapons, take a look at Nikola Jokic’s triple-double prop and Michael Porter Jr.’s three-point props. Jokic triple-doubled in Game 1, giving him a triple-double in six of the last seven games. With Jokic hunting for Finals MVP, take a look at Jokc’s triple-double prop yet again. Porter Jr. struggled from deep in Game 1, knocking down two three-pointers on 11 attempts. MPJ has now attempted at least 10 three-pointers in three-straight games and six or more in eight of the past nine. MPJ’s Over 2.5 made three-pointers also has value in Game 2.

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)

Malone’s message clear to Nuggets, ‘I don’t think we played well in Game 1’

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DENVER — Game 1 was a coach’s dream in some ways for Michael Malone and the Nuggets staff.

They got three-quarters of dominating play — the Nuggets were up by 21 entering the fourth quarter — and they got the win. But they also have one quarter of struggling, sloppy play that gives Malone a valid reason to call guys out and have a candid film session.

“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” Michael Malone said, despite his team picking up an 11-point victory. “I watched that tape, and they were 5-of-16 on wide-open threes. As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes is problematic, and if you think that Max Strus is going to go 0-for-9 again or Duncan Robinson is going to go 1-for-5 again, you’re wrong. The fourth quarter, we gave up 30 points, 60% from the field, 50% from three, 6-of-12 from the three-point line.”

Malone added he thought the Nuggets offense struggled in the fourth quarter because they didn’t get stops so they were constantly going up against the Heat’s set defense.

“That fourth quarter, you know, we came out in the flat,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We had a great looks at the basket, we just didn’t knock them down. But we want to get into our offense a little bit earlier than like :14 seconds on the clock and just play normal basketball, our basketball.”

It was all part of a theme Malone wanted to drive home: They are still three wins from a title and those will not be easy to get.

“I told our players today, don’t read the paper,” Malone said (do any of those 20-somethings get an old-school paper?) “Don’t listen to the folks on the radio and TV saying that this series is over and that we’ve done something, because we haven’t done a damn thing.”

There were positives for the Nuggets to take away from Game 1, particularly on the defensive end. Jokić, who does not have the reputation of a strong defender, played well on that end.

“I think when you see the last game, us against Miami, in the first three quarters, they score 65, 68 points [Ed. note: it was 63]. I think that’s really amazing,” Nikola Jokić said. “And then you can see the fourth quarter, they scored 30-something. When we are collectively really good, then I’m really good [defensively], too. But when we are collectively not good, I’m not really good.”

Jimmy Butler had praise for Jokic’s defense.

“He moves his feet well. He’s constantly making guys make decisions whenever they get into the paint. Then his outlet passes from a defensive rebound are very, very elite; that, he’s been doing his entire career,” Butler said. “As much as everybody looks at what he does on the offensive side of the ball, he’s a hell of a defender, as well.”

“I think overall, I think Nikola’s defense has been a real positive,” Malone said. “I think you have to get past the eye test with Nikola because I think most people just think of great defensive players as a guy who is blocking a shot or just making a great athletic play. Nikola does it differently. He has a tremendous IQ. He’s got great anticipation. He’s got unbelievable hands for deflections, blocks. He’s got unbelievable feet for deflections.”

In the postseason, the Nuggets have held their own in the non-Jokić minutes and that continued in Game 1 — the Nuggets were only -3 in the non-Jokić minutes in that game (-1 in the first half and -2 in the fourth quarter).

“Defense,” Aaron Gordon said of the focus in non-Jokić minutes. “So, when he’s sitting on the floor we need to lock in on defense. That’s probably the most important, crucial aspect of the non-Nikola Jokic minutes because that’s how we get our offense, as well.”

In its last couple of series, the other team had to be aggressive with adjustments because the Nuggets were forcing them to. The Finals may prove a little different, we could see some defensive tweaks early from the Nuggets.

Denver’s offense is going to get points, if its defense can be as good as Game 1, Malone is going to have to look hard to find things before the Game 3 film sessions.

Heat look for ways to make Nuggets uncomfortable in Game 2

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DENVER — One thing was clear from Game 1 of the NBA Finals: The Nuggets are not going to assist in their own demise the way the Celtics and Bucks did against the Heat. When Miami made their fourth-quarter run Thursday, the Nuggets showed poise, got the ball to Nikola Jokić, and got the comfortable home win.

If Miami is going to win Game 2 and, eventually, this Finals series, they have to make Denver a lot more uncomfortable.

The Heat need to be the team applying pressure.

“I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim,” Jimmy Butler said, echoing his comments after Game 1 when he didn’t get to the free throw line once. “I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier. They definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.”

Jokić only had to defend two shots at the rim in Game 1. The Heat want that number to go up exponentially in Game 2. To a man Heat players discussed playing with more “intention” or “force” on Sunday.

It would also help if they hit their jumpers.

The Heat as a team were 5-of-16 on open 3-pointers (using the Second Spectrum tracking data). Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin combined to shoot 2-of-23 from 3 in Game 1.

“We did see some things that we liked and we got some great looks, myself included,” Strus said. “We’ve got to knock those down.”

“In terms of the shooters, that’s pretty simple. Let it fly. Ignite. Once they see two go down, it could be three, it could turn into six just like that,” Erik Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers, when asked what he told his shooters heading into Game 2. “As long as we are getting those clean looks, that’s what matters.”

One of those shooters, Martin, was not at practice due to an illness on Saturday, but he likely plays on Sunday.

Another shooter the Heat could use is Tyler Herro, but his status remains “unchanged,” Spoelstra said. Herro has been out since fracturing his hand in the first round of the playoffs, although he is nearing a return. Spoelstra would not rule out Herro for Game 2, but he wasn’t making it sound likely.

The hard part of making the Heat uncomfortable is slowing Jokić, and just as important is not letting the Jokić and Jamal Murray pick-and-roll get flowing. Heat players across the board talked about needing to tighten up on the defensive end as they adjust the off-ball movement and the more untraditional style of play the Nuggets use.

“I think it’s an opportunity to learn,” Robinson said of going against the Nuggets offense in Game 1. “You watch the film, go to school on it, try to take away some things that you did well, and then certainly learn from some things that you can do better. I think in that sense there are some encouraging aspects of it.”

One thing the Heat have done better than their opponents in every round is adjust — Miami got better faster than the teams they beat along the way to the Finals. That won’t be easy against a Nuggets team with a strong coach and a high-IQ MVP in Jokić.

Expect a much more aggressive Heat team in Game 2. Whether that is enough to make the Nuggets uncomfortable remains to be seen.

Coach, front office moves update: Pistons make Williams hiring official, Borrego or Stotts to Bucks bench?

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There are far from settled across the NBA in both the coaching and front office circles, with news still leaking out daily. Here’s an update on things which have come to light in recent days.

• The Detroit Pistons made the hiring of Monty Williams official.

“A week ago, I was not sure what the future would hold,” Williams said in a statement, referencing reports he had planned to take a year away from coaching. “But, after talking with Tom [Gores, team principal owner] and Troy [Weaver, Pistons GM], I was excited hearing their vision for the Pistons going forward. They had a thoughtful plan and I am so appreciative of the emphasis they placed on the personal side of this business. They showed tremendous consideration for me and my family throughout this process.

“They also showed a commitment to success and doing things the right way,” he said. “As we discussed the team and expressed our collective goals, I realized that this would be a great opportunity for me to help a talented young team and build a strong culture here in Detroit. This is obviously a special place with a deep basketball history, and my family and I are looking forward to the opportunity to be a part of this city and organization.”

Williams has a six-year, $78.5 million contract with the team and that reportedly could grow to more than eight years, $100 million if incentives are hit. He was brought in to help build a culture of defense and discipline for a franchise with some nice young players but many questions.

• Kevin Ollie, the former NBA player and UConn coach who was in the mix for the Pistons’ job before Williams was hired, will be on the bench in Brooklyn next season.

• While Adrian Griffin has not officially signed his contract as the new Bucks head coach, he is sitting in on meetings running up to the draft and has essentially started the job, reports Eric Nehm and Shams Charania at The Athletic.

More interestingly, The Athletic reports the Bucks plan to put an experienced, veteran head coach next to the rookie Griffin, and are speaking to former Hornets head coach James Borrego and former Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. Bringing in an experienced staff to put around Griffin is the smart move, with what we saw this season with Joe Mazzulla in Boston as an example of why this is the smart path.

• The Wizards have hired former Hawks head of basketball operations Travis Schlenk to be the right-hand man next to new Wizards president Michael Winger. This is a quality hire. Schlenk was rumored to have questioned Atlanta’s trade for Dejounte Murray to put next to Trae Young — a move ownership wanted — and by mid-season he was pushed out the door. Having Winger and Schlenk in the Washington front office is a lot of brain power, the question remains will they be given true freedom by owner Ted Leonsis to make moves for the long term and not prioritize just making the playoffs? The Wizards have a big offseason coming up with questions about new contracts/extensions for Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis.

• Aaron Nelson, the training staff guru hired by the Pelicans away from the Suns in 2019 to help Zion Williamson and others, appears to be out of the mix in a restructured staff, reports Christian Clark at the Times-Picayune. Zion did not have a great relationship with Nelson, but the question is was Nelson the scapegoat for players issues beyond his control? From Clark’s article:

Williamson’s relationship with Nelson became strained during his rookie season. At different points, Williamson refused to work with him…

Brandon Ingram sat out 29 consecutive games with an injury the team described as a left toe contusion. Ingram kicked the back of a Memphis Grizzlies player’s foot in November. Two days after the injury, Pelicans coach Willie Green said Ingram was “day to day.” Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Ingram did not play again until Jan. 25 — exactly two months after hurting his toe…

Ingram has sometimes seemed unwilling to play through minor discomfort, to the point where some of his teammates have become frustrated with him over the past two years. The Pelicans thought they had solved their player care and performance problem by hiring Nelson. Four years later, Nelson’s time in charge of the department is over.

When the Pelicans have all their stars on the court, this is at the very least, a playoff team in the West and potentially a dangerous one. I’m not going to speculate on the internal dynamics of the Pelicans front office and training team, but after years of injury issues it’s fair to ask if this is a matter of the training staff, or is this on the players themselves?