76ers got too young. Then, they got Elton Brand

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The 76ers signed Elton Brand in January to mentor a young roster and provide veteran perspective. The organization wanted someone to guide the team’s numerous millennial players, including the one who one day asked Brand:

How did you talk talk to girls before social media?

“We went outside,” Brand said with a chuckle, declining to name the teammate.

The 37-year-old Brand – nine years older than all but one of his teammates and 13 years older than most of them – has proved an intriguing fit in Philadelphia. The 76ers have an average age – weight by playing time, holding a player’s age constant on Feb. 1 – of 23.3. That’s the youngest in the NBA:

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Philadelphia was the NBA’s youngest team two years ago, got even younger last season and was headed toward record-setting youth this season. Even 76ers coach Brett Brown acknowledged the team might have gotten too young, calling a pre-Christmas stretch – including Jahlil Okafor‘s off-court problems – the team’s “dark days.”

“There was six games maybe where you really scratch your head, and you worry, because we got punched hard in the stomach and the wind was taken out of us,” Brown said.

The 76ers hired Jerry Colangelo, traded for 27-year-old Ish Smith and signed Brand. Carl Landry – who, at 32, is easily the team’s second-oldest player – got healthy. Philadelphia’s youngest player, 20-year-old Okafor, got hurt.

Gradually the 76ers’ average age climbed out of record-breaking territory. With just five games left, Philadelphia appears set to finish with the fifth-youngest team of all time – ahead of only the 2005-06 Hawks, 2000-01 Bulls, 2009-10 Thunder and 2015-16 76ers. Here’s how this year’s Philadelphia team’s average evolved through the season:

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The 76ers are so young, 21-year-old Nerlens Noel – in only his second season of playing – is expected to lead. Though he’s in his third NBA season after missing the first due to injury, Noel is still Philadelphia’s third-youngest player (ahead of only Okafor and Christian Wood).

“Honestly, I feel a veteran right now,” Noel said. “I try to help all the younger guys.”

Brown could use the help.

“The magnitude, the volume of that task is significant beyond anything you could’ve sort of guessed,” said Brown, who previously worked as a Spurs assistant coach. “I was spoiled with Ginobili and Parker and Duncan and veterans and gold medalists and NBA All-Stars and MVPs. And it’s a whole different planet that I’m on right now. And I love it. I love it.”

Just because Brown loves it doesn’t mean it’s never challenging.

The 76ers will become just the third team to stand as the NBA’s youngest three straight seasons, joining the 1965-67 Pistons and 1984-86 Pacers. That means three straight seasons of teaching basics. And re-teaching… and re-teaching…

“It happens – and I mean this – it’ll happen 20 times a day,” Brown said.

That’s why Brown is so happy to have Brand around.

Brown can handle practices and games, but he worries about times coaches aren’t around – in the locker room, on the bus, on the road. In those moments, Brand’s voice is key.

The 76ers were 1-24 when word leaked they were interested in Brand, and they bottomed out at 1-30. Brand did his best to shut down any petty griping.

“When I first got here, I kind of felt a little bit of that, ‘Oh, they’re picking on us,” Brand said. “One of my quotes, I told them, I said, ‘Man, we’re last place in the world.’ I was like, ‘We’re last place in the whole world.'”

Though Brand went two months without playing in a game after signing, Brown praised his contributions.

“The power that he wields now, the power that he shares information with the team, is an A-plus,” Brown said before Brand made his season debut. “And if you said that’s all you’re going to get for the rest of the year, I’d give him a big hug and say thank you.”

Brand initially focused on playing hard in practice. As part of Team USA for the 1999 Tournament of the Americas, Brand watched NBA veteran teammates Tim Duncan, Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta and Jason Kidd. When Brand finished practice, he’d leave to get a sandwich. They stayed for extra workouts.

That made an impression on Brand, who was just drafted No. 1 by the Bulls.

A year later, Chicago would be the second-youngest team of all time. Brand laughs about how he’s come full circle, though he’s quick to note how much veteran leadership he received as a rookie before the Bulls committed more fully to rebuilding.

Brand wants to pass on the lessons he learned, including training hard between games – even when his 37-year-old body isn’t the most cooperative.

“I kind of have to. That’s my role,” Brand said. “Extra treadmill, extra – when we play full court, I’m trying to kick ass. Some days, I am. Some days, eh. But I’m going hard – took a charge in pickup, dove for a loose ball in pick up.”

Brand differs from most veterans, because he’s not worried about a younger player taking his job. He already announced his semi-retirement once. He doesn’t sound like someone who’d mind his career ending here and returning to picking and dropping off his children at school.

This is not the same Brand who became an All-Star with the Clippers.

“Whoever was behind me wanted my spot,” Brand said. “He wanted my spot. If he didn’t play, he was sulking kind of. That guy would be like, ‘I should be playing.’

“I don’t want to take an opportunity from the young guys to grow. Me playing 12, 15 minutes, Richaun Holmes could’ve had that 12 or 15 – you know what I mean? – and really got NBA action.

With the 76ers facing frontcourt injuries, Brand has moved in the rotation. But his mission remains similar: Helping the team’s young players grow. He beams when talking about the progress of Okafor and Holmes.

Brand might be a positive influence, but he alone has not changed Philadelphia’s identity. This team is too young for one player to do that.

The 76ers know who they are, and they embrace it.

“It’s a great experience, being able to have so many guys around the same age, very common goals and common understandings. We all listen to the same music and all that,” Noel said. “So, it’s great. We get a long great.”

Short offseason, uncertain financial outlook may mean fewer coaches fired

76ers coach Brett Brown
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Already this season, Kenny Atkinson was out in Brooklyn, the New York Knicks fired coach David Fizdale, and John Beilein was shown the door in Cleveland (with J.B. Bickerstaff hired to replace him). That was just the tip of the iceberg in expected NBA coaching changes this offseason, the buzz around the league was between four and up to 10 more coaches would be fired.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Now those same teams are looking at a shortened offseason, while at the same time the owners have taken a financial hit and aren’t thrilled about the idea of paying two coaches at once, and suddenly it looks like a lot more coaches are safe. Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps touched on that in their story about next season at ESPN.

After much chatter before the stoppage of changes in the coaching ranks, several league executives told ESPN that teams might be more likely to hang on to coaching staffs longer than planned to avoid paying out millions to coaches fired in current market conditions.

A lot front office sources around the NBA are speculating about the same thing.

Expect a few changes. Mike D’Antoni’s contract is up in Houston and few around the league expect him to return next season. Jim Boylen is considered the walking dead in Chicago where there is a new front-office regime. New York and Brooklyn still have to hire their guys.

However, other guys considered almost certainly gone — Brett Brown in Philadelphia or Scott Brooks in Washington, for example — may keep their gig another year because of the uncertain waters of the NBA right now. Maybe not, there could be firings, but don’t expect the tidal wave of coaching changes to wash over the NBA that everyone expected back in February.

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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Built for this 💪

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.