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.”

Historic Jokić, Murray too much, Denver handles Miami in Game 3

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MIAMI — Denver can point to a lot of things it did right in Game 3.

This was the Nuggets’ best defensive game of the series, holding the Heat to 37% shooting and a 102.2 offensive rating (12.8 below their playoff average). The Nuggets held their own in the fourth quarter for the first time this series, winning it by one. Then Christian Braun came out of nowhere to have a night with 15 points, and the Nuggets scored 60 points in the paint.

But it all starts with Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray — they became the first teammates ever to have 30-point triple-doubles in the same game. Ever. Let alone in a critical Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

“By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

They led Denver to a comfortable 109-94 win on the road to take a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Game 4 is Friday night in Miami, and it’s basically must win for the Heat.

Miami will have to come up with better answers for the Nuggets stars, which is what every team has been saying since the playoffs started.

Jokić finished with 32 points (on 21 shots), 21 rebounds and 10 assists — Jokić had the first 30-20-10 game in NBA Finals history. In fact, there have been five such games in NBA playoff history, and he has three of them.

“I don’t care, it’s just a stat,” Jokić said in maybe the most Jokić statement ever.

“What he does, man, he makes it look so easy,” Murray said of Jokic. “You know, you’ve got 21 boards and everybody talking about how he can’t jump, and he’s out there battling everybody, physically strong. They say he doesn’t want to doesn’t want to score, he gives you 32. And 10 assists. He just makes the game look easy throughout the game, and like I said, his free throws his touch, creativity, the no-look passes, his IQ. I could go down the line, he’s a special player.”

Then there was Murray, who led the Nuggets with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. While he shot 3-of-6 from 3, the big difference was Denver changed their screen angles in this game, it threw the Heat off and Murray got rolling downhill early. He finished with 14 points in the paint plus he got to the line eight times. With Murray attacking and being deadly from the midrange, the Heat were overwhelmed.

“They just pummeled us in the paint,” Erik Spoelstra said. “They didn’t really have to shoot threes. They had, whatever, 60 in the paint. They probably shot over 65% in the paint at the rim there [it was 69% in the restricted area]. Wasn’t a need to space the floor. We didn’t offer much resistance.”

Murray was getting downhill from the opening tip. The result of that and Jokić being Jokić was Denver getting 20 of its 24 points in the paint. The game was tied 24-24 after one quarter despite the Nuggets missing all of its 3-pointers (0-of-5) and Miami shooting 9-of-23. Jimmy Butler was aggressive with 10 in the first quarter (he would finish with 28 points on 11-of-24 shooting).

The second quarter had little flow because of all the whistles — it was a Tony Brothers statement game at points — and the Nuggets’ defense.

Denver was just sharper on defense than they have been all series and that started with their activity level — it was extremely high. They were swiping at the ball, being physical and bothering the Heat. The Nuggets also were much better on their low-man help rotations, getting in front of Bam Adebayo more and taking away some easy buckets.

Miami was not making Denver pay from beyond the arc in this game, as it shot just 11-of-35 (31.4%) from 3 on the night.

The first 24 minutes were played on the Heat’s terms, but that didn’t knock Jamal Murray off his game. Murray shot 8-of-13 in the first half on his way to 20 points, including 3-of-5 from 3. Throw in 14 first-half points from Jokić and the Nuggets took a 53-48 lead into halftime. Jimmy Butler put up stats, 14 points, but on 6-of-16 shooting.

The third quarter was more Butler for the Heat — 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the frame — but he wasn’t getting help. The rest of the Heat in the third shot 3-of-14 and had just eight points. All those misses and a strong rebounding game from Denver had them running and in more of a free flow.

The Nuggets also got a significant contribution from Christian Braun off the bench, who had six points in the third, two on brilliant cuts to the rim and one on a steal and a dunk.

Denver led by as many as 19 and was up 14 entering the fourth… but that is when the Heat have dominated this series.

Not this game. Miami cranked up the defensive pressure and made some plays, but Denver was ready for the zone and the pressure. They were not rushed. They got the ball to Jokić and it settled them.

And with that, the Nuggets settled the game and took the series lead.

Report: Suns tell Chris Paul they intend to waive him, making him free agent

Phoenix Suns v Miami Heat
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There was a lot of talk in league circles that the Suns would try to trade Chris Paul around the NBA Draft — he still had $60 million over two years on the books, but only $15.8 million of it is guaranteed (all of that this season) with a June 28 guarantee date. Paul for a couple of rotation players would be a way for Phoenix to add needed depth to the roster.

Instead, the Suns informed Paul they intend to waive him before the deadline, making CP3 a free agent, reports Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and Yahoo.

Soon after Haynes’ Tweet, multiple other reports from Suns sources came out pushing back on the idea he would automatically be waived. Which seemed the logical path the Suns would take.

The second wave of reports says the Suns are exploring options with Paul of which waiving him is just one, with similar reporting from Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic and Shams Charania of the Athletic, among others. The idea is the Suns would explore trade options — for Paul and Deandre Ayton — but waiving before June 28 could happen, according to the reports.

So many burning questions about this.

The first question is, why did this leak now? Why wouldn’t the Suns keep their plans quiet through the NBA Draft on June 22 — when trades will be flying around — in case CP3 fits into a deal that worked for them? Another team looking to save money might have been open to a trade. If not, the Suns tell Paul they plan to waive him closer to his deadline. Or they keep him because they line up a Deandre Ayton trade. Or a few other options, like bringing him back.

This leak changes the dynamic and market for Paul.

Which may have been the plan. Paul’s camp and the Suns met to talk on Wednesday (reports ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski), it’s easy to draw a line after that where Paul’s camp leaked this angle to put pressure toward a buyout, which would be his preferred option because it makes him a free agent. However it went down, this it’s a strategic blunder by the Suns this got out because it shrinks the team’s options.

Another question: If it comes to it, would the Suns outright waive him (saving $15 million in salary next season, but only freeing up $5 million in spendable cap space) or waive and stretch him, which keeps him on the books for five years but at just $3.16 million a season (freeing up a little more than $12 million next season)? The big difference is the Suns can’t re-sign him if he is stretched, they can if he is waived outright.

After he is waived it leaves the Suns with just five players currently under contract for next season: Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Landry Shamet and Cameron Payne.

The other burning question: Where does Chris Paul play next season?

Assuming he is waived and becomes a free agent (not a sure thing by any means), the obvious landing spot is with the Lakers to play alongside Paul’s good friend LeBron James. CP3 has been wanting to return to his home and family in Southern California, the Lakers are a contender (at least after the All-Star break) in need of a game-manging point guard. Signing Paul to a deal (again for an exception, far less than the $30.8 million CP3 was under contract for) makes LeBron happy, but still leaves the Lakers room to re-sign Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura without going above the second luxury tax apron. 

Other teams would be picking up the phone and calling Paul, but the Lakers would be the frontrunners.

Paul, who will be 38 next season, averaged 13.9 points and 8.9 assists per game, and is still a quality point guard, but his skills on both ends showed clear slippage from his All-NBA years. Father time is winning the race. Wherever he plays next season, fans and the front office have to have reasonable expectations, but they are still getting a good point guard and one of the highest IQ players in the league. He would help the Lakers, the Suns and many other teams.

Where he lands is now a much more interesting subplot.

Is a rebuild coming to the Washington Wizards? League executives think so.

Detroit Pistons v Washington Wizards
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The Washington Wizards have been stuck in the NBA’s middle ground for years (at least since 2018), with a push from ownership on down to make the playoffs rather than go through a rebuild. The result was 35 wins last season, 35 the season before that, 25 before that, and you get the idea. A team that has underperformed with Bradley Beal on it.

Is that about to change under new GM Michael Winger? No decision about the short term of the franchise has been made, Winger told Josh Robbins of The Athletic (in a fantastic profile of the man). Big decisions will tip Winger’s hand this summer, with Kyle Kuzma a free agent and Kristaps Porzingis able to opt-out and reportedly looking for an extension.

However, outside the organization, the expectation is that a rebuild is coming in the next couple of years.

Many rival executives The Athletic has polled informally over the last two weeks expect Winger to undertake a full rebuild — if not this offseason, then within the next year.

Asked about his plans for the team, Winger says he’s leaving his options open.

“The raw, unfiltered truth is, I haven’t yet crafted the immediate vision for the franchise,” he says. “There are a lot of talented and high-character players on the team. I want to get to know them a little bit. The construct of a team isn’t just a matter of what is demonstrated on the court. It’s not just a matter of the box score. Team dynamics are personal, and I think that I need to understand those things before hatching an actionable plan. And I know that that’s not necessarily measurable in this moment. But it is the truth.”

If a rebuild is coming, are the Wizards better off re-signing Kuzma and Porzingis to tradable market-value contracts they can move in a year or two? Maybe spend a season running it back, see if this team can stay healthy and what they can do, then start making moves? Or, is it time to hit the reset button now and have a frank conversation with Bradley Beal?

One way or another, the long-postponed rebuild in Washington is coming. It just might not be immediate.

Lillard said he expects to be in Portland next season, so everyone starts trade speculation. Again.

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers
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Everyone wants Damian Lillard to leave Portland more than Damian Lillard wants to leave Portland. We trash elite players for being mercenaries jumping teams, then the minute one is loyal, everyone questions why he would do such a thing. Welcome to NBA Twitter.

The latest on Lillard is just more of the same.

Lillard appeared on Showtime Sports The Last Stand with Brian Custer and, when asked if he expects to be a Portland Trail Blazer when next season starts, he said, “I do.” This echoes everything he has said all along, he wants to finish his career in Portland (the man just built a new house there). Lillard then reiterated what he also has consistently said — he wants a chance to compete for it all in Portland. If the Trail Blazers organization decides to go in another direction, then the conversations start.

“We got an opportunity, asset-wise, to build a team that can compete. … If we can’t do that, then it’s a separate conversation we would have to have.”

But Brian Custer leaned into the drama (although he did wait nearly 50 minutes into the pod to get to the topic), and so before asking about Lillard staying in Portland, this is how he phrases a trade question to Lillard:

“Everybody keeps saying Damian Lillard is going to be traded to the Knicks, Damian Lillard’s gonna be traded to the Heat, Damian Lillard should be traded to the Celtics, Damian Lillard’s gonna be traded to the Nets. If one of those trades went through, out of those teams, which one would you be like, that’s not too bad?”

Lillard could have, probably should have shot the premise of the question down. Instead, he’s a good guy and played along and said, “Miami obviously” and praised Bam Adebayo and called him “my dog.” He then said the same thing about Mikal Bridges, now with the Nets (Bridges is a guy long rumored to be a Trail Blazers trade target, maybe with the No. 3 pick in this draft).

All of this is nothing new. Lillard hopes to stay with the Trail Blazers and for them to put a team around him that can compete at the highest levels of the conference. They have young players and the No. 3 pick this year to make a deal for a second star (although some reports say the Blazers are not making Shaedon Sharpe available in any trade, it might take that to get the Nets to even consider a Bridges deal, and even then it may not be enough). If Portland’s front office doesn’t do that this offseason, then Lillard and the franchise need to weigh their options.

That won’t stop the speculation, even from former teammate CJ McCollum.

For now, Lillard wants to be a Trail Blazer and we should celebrate that.