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.”

Report: Terry Stotts to remain Trail Blazers coach next season

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts
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The Trail Blazers had big expectations after reaching the 2019 Western Conference finals and signing their top players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, to lucrative contract extensions.

Instead, Portland (26-32) is in a dogfight with the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs, Suns and Kings for the No. 8 seed.

Often, teams underperforming like that fire their coach.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

A source with knowledge of coach Terry Stotts’ situation said there’s no reason to believe he’s in any danger this summer, regardless of how this turns out.

Stotts has a few things working in his favor:

So expect Stotts back next season. But also expect him to face a little more pressure. Even if a lot of what wrong this season wasn’t his fault, losing tends to increase scrutiny on the coach.

In his eighth season with the Trail Blazers, Stotts is the NBA’s fourth-longest-tenured coach (behind only the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, Heat’s Erick Spoelstra and Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle). It just becomes increasingly more difficult for Stotts to meet the high expectations he has helped set in Portland.

For now, though, Stotts appears to remain ahead of the curve.

Stephen Curry reportedly will return to Warriors lineup Sunday vs. Wizards

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After four months off, the Warriors were looking for a soft landing spot to ease Stephen Curry back into the rotation.

How about Sunday, vs. Washington and the worst defense in the NBA this season?

That’s the plan, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Curry has said for some time he was targeting March 1 for a return, this would be that exact date (to be fair to the Wizards, they have played better defense of late). After that, Golden State plays at Denver on the third, has a Finals rematch against Toronto at the Chase Center on March 5, then the 76ers visit the Warriors on the seventh.

Curry suffered a fractured hand just four games into the season when Suns’ center Aron Baynes fell on him. Recovery required two surgeries, one to put pins in to stabilize the bone through the healing process, then a second one to remove those pins once the recovery was far enough along.

While some fans had called for Curry to sit out the season and tank, Warriors coach Steve Kerr emphatically shot that idea down. As he should.

For one thing, Kerr wants to build some familiarity and chemistry between Curry and newly acquired Andrew Wiggins this season. Having Curry back may mean the Warriors don’t finish with the worst record in the league this season (which they have right now) but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not as big an issue. Besides, this is not a deep draft. This is not a situation where the Warriors will get instant help — in our podcast recently, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons. The Warriors may ultimately try to trade their pick for a player who can help more next season.

Ben Simmons has nerve impingement in lower back, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

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The biggest concern with Ben Simmons back issue is not that it will have him out weeks, it’s that nobody is saying what exactly is causing it.

Simmons has a nerve impingement in his lower back that will have him getting treatment daily, and he will be re-evaluated in two weeks, something first reported  by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided some context, but nothing that is very encouraging.

A nerve impingement — what is commonly referred to as a pinched nerve — is exactly what it sounds like: Something is pressing on the nerve, “pinching” it and causing pain.

The big question: What is impinging on the nerve? That’s what Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes asked.

This does not sound like something that is going to be resolved in two weeks and Simmons will be back to normal.

Simmons injured his back last Wednesday in practice while grabbing a rebound, according to coach Brett Brown. Simmons sat out last Thursday’s Sixers game against the Nets, tried to play on Saturday vs. the Bucks but had to come out after one quarter, and has not set foot on the court since.

Simmons averages 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds a game, not to mention a league-best 2.2 steals a night. The All-Star is a core part of the Sixers rotation and will miss significant time they try to climb up into the top four in the East and get home court for the first round of the playoffs. Shake Milton started Monday in Simmons place.

Tilman Ferttita: Rockets don’t fear Lakers, Clippers like they did Warriors

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta likes to talk.

Volume 48.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“I think Milwaukee is head over heels above everybody else,” said Fertitta

“We just need to get home court for the first and second rounds and see what happens.”

“None of us fear L.A. or the Clippers or Denver like we feared Golden State,” he said. “It’s not like how we were scared of them. We could easily win the West this year or get knocked out in the first round. Both L.A. teams, Denver, Houston, we’re all excellent teams. Just comes down to somebody gets hot and makes a shot. Our chances are as good as they’ve ever been.”

The Rockets stood up to the Warriors far more than any other team. But that was most true before Fertitta put his imprint on the franchise. He’s somewhat culpable for Houston cowering to Golden State.

As far as this season, Fertitta is right all around: The Bucks are great, combining last year’s success with important playoff lessons. Houston could easily win the West or lose in the first round. The Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets shouldn’t be feared. (Nobody fears the Nuggets, though they are a real championship contender.)

But the Lakers and Clippers also look like darned good playoff teams. Even if not predicting victory, Fertitta’s comments could become bulletin-board material in Los Angeles.