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Misadventures stall progress for 76ers

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

After an extended period of mediocrity then several years of tanking, the 76ers won 52 games and reached the second round, their best season since Allen Iverson led them to the 2001 NBA Finals.

But Philadelphia sure didn’t get the typical stability that follows a breakthrough like that.

The 76ers experienced plenty of disorder this offseason – some welcomed, some not, some between and most of it in service of adding another star.

The Process was always built on the understanding that acquiring multiple stars is both extremely difficult and all but necessary to win a championship. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, a combination many teams would envy, aren’t enough for Philadelphia.

That’s a reason the 76ers ousted Sam Hinkie, who drafted Embiid and positioned Philadelphia to make the easy call of drafting Simmons. Hinkie executed his vision smartly, but also callously. It’s hard to tank for that long without upsetting people, and the perception he turned the franchise into an embarrassment only grew. So, the 76ers turned to an executive with a more acceptable reputation around the league.

That decision that came home to roost this summer, as Bryan Colangelo’s tenure ended in a scandal far more tawdry than anything under Hinkie.

We still don’t know precisely what happened with those burner Twitter accounts, but the 76ers determined Colangelo’s wife, Barbara Bottini, ran the accounts and he mishandled private and sensitive information. The 76ers didn’t find proof he knew about the accounts, and he denied prior knowledge. But it shouldn’t be lost the team’s investigation was impeded by Bottini deleting the contents of her cell phone. Also remember: Two days after news broke of the accounts’ existence, Colangelo was still denying any knowledge of anything about them. In the midst of the biggest scandal of his career, his wife never came clean to him? That is the most unbelievable part of this saga.

So, the 76ers rightfully dumped Colangelo, even though it left them without a general manager for the draft and free agency. With that void in leadership, LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard all ended up elsewhere.

Unable to get that additional star via trade or free agency, Philadelphia used most of its cap space on J.J. Redick and Wilson Chandler.

Re-signing Redick (one year, $12.25 million) was especially important given Ersan Ilyasova’s and Marco Belinelli’s departures in free agency. Ilyasova (two years, $14 million guaranteed from the Bucks with an unguaranteed third season) and Belinelli (two years, $12 million from Spurs) were important cogs on last year’s team due their shooting. The 76ers were +42 in the playoffs when Ilyasova and Belinelli shared the court and -3 otherwise – a remarkable split for a pair of reserves.

But Philadelphia clearly didn’t want to limit its long-term star-acquiring flexibility. So, matching multi-year contracts for Ilyasova and Belinelli was a no go.

That’s why trading for Chandler was at least logical. Though overpaid, he’s on an expiring contract can can still pay. The 76ers also got second-round consideration for taking him from the tax-avoiding Nuggets.Still, it seems Philadelphia could have gotten a better free agent for that money, someone good enough to justify passing on the Denver picks.

Keeping a theme, the 76ers lost Nemanja Bjelica when he determined the one-year room exception didn’t provide him enough stability. Why he didn’t figure that out before agreeing to the deal with Philadelphia is on him, but the 76ers paid the price for his defection to the Kings on a multi-year deal.

So, still in need of a stretch big with Ilyasova and Bjelica out of the picture, Philadelphia traded Justin Anderson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot for the Hawks’ Mike Muscala, who, naturally, is on an expiring contract. Because Muscala is a four/five (to Bjelica’s four/three), the 76ers dumped reserve center Richaun Holmes for cash. They also re-signed backup center Amir Johnson to a minimum contract for – you guessed it – one year.

Not only are the 76ers preserving 2019 cap space, they’re also stockpiling assets for their star search. On draft night, they traded No. 10 pick Mikal Bridges – who profiles as a solid role player and would have acclimated nicely to Philadelphia, where he grew up and played collegiately at Villanova – to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. That Miami pick has major upside and could be valuable in a trade with a team moving its star and rebuilding.

Philadelphia left the draft with Smith, No. 26 pick Landry Shamet and No. 54 pick Shake Milton. The 76ers also signed last year’s second-rounder Jonah Bolden to a four-year contract. It’s a nice haul of young talent to add to Philadelphia’s stockpile.

But none of those players is the star the 76ers clearly seek. After undercutting themselves, they at least did well to give themselves a chance to try again next year.

That said, maybe they already have the additional star they desire. Markelle Fultz suffered through a miserable rookie year due to the yips. Whether injury was the cause or effect barely matters now. If he finds his groove, that could swing the franchise’s fortunes for a decade. His development might be more important to Philadelphia’s offseason than any signing, trade or draft pick.

I believe Fultz has improved over the summer. But I just can’t project he’ll return to the star track that made him the No. 1 pick a year ago. That’s too big a leap of faith. Even major advances could still leave him well short of stardom.

But he is the biggest variable in offseason that saw Philadelphia lose helpful contributors, fail to maximize its ample cap space and move one year closer to Simmons joining Embiid on max contracts that will limit flexibility.

At least they’re still in strong shape for next summer.

Offseason grade: C-

Phoenix Suns perfect 4-0 in bubble, growing, thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

 

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.