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.”

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.