Can Philadelphia win playing big in a small-ball era?

76ers chemistry
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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Ben Simmons, 6’10”.
Josh Richardson, 6’5”.
Tobias Harris, 6’8”.
Al Horford, 6’9”.
Joel Embiid, 7’0”

That’s the height of the Philadelphia 76ers starting lineup — without shoes. Add another couple of inches for each of them when they step on the court.

That lineup isn’t just big, it’s massive. It’s long. It’s a lineup that runs counter to the NBA’s trend of going smaller — the Warriors best lineups have 6’7” Draymond Green at center. Plenty of teams have tried to mimic that (with varying degrees of success), rolling with players who should be undersized stretch fours at center to help create spacing. It’s led to improved offenses, but often at the sake of defense (except in Golden State, thanks to Green).

Philadelphia is bucking that trend — they are going big.

But can they win big doing it?

Can size bring the Sixers its first title since Moses Malone and Dr. J were on the court together?

Sixers GM Elton Brand — a power forward and center himself who played for the 76ers — is betting they can because the Sixers bring skill and defense with all that size.

It’s the defense that will carry this team — they should be a top-three defense. Josh Richardson is versatile and can harass opposing point guards or wings, Simmons length causes issues, and with Horford and Embiid on the backline it’s going to be hard to get to the rim. Horford is also someone who has shown he can defend some in space, and in the playoffs and give other bigs real trouble. The Sixers are going to be a lock-down defensive team.

The questions with the 76ers big lineups are on the other end of the court.

Calling the curry NBA trend “small ball” is a bit of a misnomer; some “small” lineups roll-out guys 6’10” or taller (think Kevin Durant). It’s about having more skill players on the court, more shooting, replacing the old-school bulk and muscle. Philly brings size but it also brings plenty of skill.

That starts with Simmons, the point-forward who will have the ball in his hands to start most possessions. At 6’10” he has the handles of a guard and is one of the best passers in the NBA, in part because he can see over defenses (ala Magic Johnson). Simmons was an All-Star who averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.7 assists a game last season with an efficient 58.2 true shooting percentage.

This season that will not be enough, not if Philly dreams of playing in June.

Jimmy Butler was the guy with the ball in his hands at the ends of games last season, and by the time playoff games were on the line Simmons would find himself in the dunker’s spot along the baseline. Butler has taken his talents to South Beach, now the critical moments of perimeter shot creation fall on Simmons. He has to be able to create offense at the end of games, which means he must be more of a threat to take and hit a jumper so defenders don’t just back off and clog the paint (and passing lanes). Going into this season Butler is 0-of-18 from three in the regular season and playoffs, which is not only an ugly percentage but shows a guy not confident in taking the shot. That has to change, particularly the willingness part. The Sixers are saying all the right things about Simmons shooting in training camp, but opponents will make him prove those words when it matters.

Joel Embiid brings some skill along with everything else he does, which is why the Sixer offense was nearly 7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court last season and fell apart in the playoffs when he sat. Embiid has to get the ball in the post — he had the third most post touches in the league last season and the Sixers scored 1.05 points per possession on those plays, the highest mark of any center getting regular post-ups. Embiid’s ability to pass out of the double-team in the post is improving.

Embiid can also step out, he took 4.1 threes a game last season and hit 30 percent, a respectable number for a big man but opponents would rather he shoot threes than own them on the block. Embiid has the handles to face guys up and some shooting touch from the midrange, but all of that mostly just sets up his nearly unstoppable power game.

Embiid remains the heart of Philly’s offense, and that takes skill.

Tobias Harris is an All-Star level wing (he just hasn’t gotten the votes, yet) who can be efficient creating for himself (1.22 points per possession with the Clippers last season, via Cleaning the Glass) who also is a good passer. In Los Angeles, Harris was both the ball handler on pick-and-rolls and could create in isolation, but with Butler and Simmons last season in Philly Harris often found himself in the role of a catch-and-shoot wing. Not this year, Harris will get the ball and opportunities. His sweet pull-up jumper is going to get Philly a lot of buckets.

Horford is versatile, skilled, and pretty good at everything. Richardson shot 35.7 percent from three last season (and will be used in a way that better suits his skill set this season, Miami asked a lot more of him). The bench of Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, James Ennis, rookie Matisse Thybulle, and Kyle O’Quinn has potential — and size. And athleticism.

There’s an old basketball adage that says “tall and good beats small and good.” Philadelphia is the test to see if that rule still applies in an NBA where guards can bomb away from 28 feet and be in their comfort zone, where stretch fives are a thing.

Philadelphia is betting that size matters. And they may well be right.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers
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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.

Watch Russell Westbrook drain two buzzer-beaters against Blazers

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The Portland Trail Blazers had to know it was not their night when Russell Westbrook knocked down a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer just before the half.

Westbrook wasn’t done, he had one more buzzer-beater in him at the end of the third.

Westbrook wasn’t the only guy in the building draining half-courters — for the second-straight game a Laker fan knocked down a half-court shot, this time to win $25,000.

It was a good night all around for the Lakers and their fans at home against the shorthanded Trail Blazers. They got 31 points from LeBron James, plus 27 points and 12 boards from Anthony Davis. Austin Reaves added in 22, and the Lakers took control in the third and cruised in for a needed win.

NBA plans for 2023-24 include in-season tournament (if approved)

2022 NBA Finals - NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Press Conference
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The NBA is planning for the inaugural version of its in-season tournament – should it become reality – to begin early next season, according to a memo sent to teams.

If the tournament is approved, 80 regular-season games for each team would be announced in August, with two more games set to be scheduled depending on which eight teams make the tournament’s knockout stage. Those games would be added in-season to the schedule.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has pushed for the past several years for the in-season event to be added. Talks have gone on about it since at least 2016, and in 2019 the league even created a proposal in which teams would play eight divisional games in the group stage, followed by quarterfinals for the top eight clubs and then semifinals and finals at a neutral site in December.

That evidently remains the footprint. Teams, in Wednesday’s memo, were told to plan for tournament quarterfinal games in early December 2023 – again, the caveat being that the event has yet to be approved.

“It’s something that I remain excited about,” Silver said in September. “I think it continues to be an opportunity within the current footprint of our season to create some more meaningful games, games of consequence, during an otherwise long regular season. … I think fans might really ultimately enjoy another competition during the season, some sort of cup competition. Certainly not rising to the level of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, yet something else significant to play for.”

Silver has often compared the notion of an in-season tournament to what is commonly seen in European soccer.

“It’s all about fan interest,” Denver coach Michael Malone said Wednesday night. “I know they do this a lot in soccer around the world, these in-season tournaments. I don’t know how it’s going to work, the details of it. But if it’s good for the game and the league supports it, obviously all 30 teams and all 30 head coaches will be on board as well. ”

The scheduling process for next season starts with teams telling the league what dates their home arena is available. The NBA wants that list by Dec. 9; the process continues for the next several months.

Wednesday’s memo included clarity on several key dates for the 2023-24 season. Training camps will begin on Tuesday, Oct. 3 for most teams, except those participating in overseas preseason games; they can open camp on Saturday, Sept. 30.

The season begins Oct. 24 and ends April 14, 2024. The play-in tournament will be April 16-19, 2024, and that means that season’s playoffs would begin on April 20.