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

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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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: If Bucks underperform whether to re-sign ‘becomes a lot more difficult’

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Around the league, the consensus among team executives is Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost a lock to sign a super-max contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks next summer.

Almost.

Which is why other teams are keeping an eye on the situation, just in case.

The Bucks are a contending team and the only home Antetokounmpo has known in the United States — the only place he has ever been able to live comfortably and happily with his family — but he keeps leaving the door just a little open. He did that at the end of last season. He did it again over the summer speaking a Harvard University professor who was researching the Bucks turnaround and the challenges of a small market team in the NBA. Via the Journal Sentinel.

“I want the Bucks to build a winning culture,” Antetokounmpo is quoted as saying. “So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there’s no other place I want to be. But if we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult.”

Define “underperforming.” Do the Bucks need to make the NBA Finals? What if they lose in a close seven-game Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia? Anything short of the conference finals — barring a major injury, of course — would be a disappointment. Is this Antetokounmpo just keeping pressure on the organization to spend and put together a winner?

Leaving Milwaukee would mean leaving a lot of money on the table — only the Bucks can re-sign Antetokounmpo to a five-year, $247 million supermax contract next summer. Bucks GM Jon Horst said Milwaukee will offer it (then got fined for saying they would offer it, even though it’s obvious). If Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign it, the Bucks will be forced to consider trading him (or lose him for nothing), or find a way to win him over before his contract ends in 2021.

Because of money, comfort level, and playing for a contender, most teams don’t think Antetokounmpo is going anywhere as a free agent next summer.

But they are watching. Just in case.

Jamal Crawford makes not-so-subtle pitch on Twitter for spot on Lakers roster

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The Lakers have made LeBron James their point guard this season, the shot creator with the ball in his hands.

That worked with limited success in a season-opening loss to the Clippers. LeBron tried to force-feed the ball to Anthony Davis much of the night (leading to five turnovers). The Clippers adjusted to defend LeBron/Davis actions as the game wore on — switching but having the big man stay back and daring LeBron to shoot or blow past the defender, neither of which he did well. When Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee was on the floor, the Lakers had no spacing, so the Clippers clogged the paint. In the end, LeBron and Davis combined to shoot 15-of-40 on the night, including 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter.

Laker coach Frank Vogel was stuck because he didn’t have another good playmaking option (his next best guys for that, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma, are both out injured).

Free agent Jamal Crawford has an idea and voiced it on Twitter.

Crawford is one of the best veteran free agents available

And no, this is not going to happen.

The Lakers have 14 guaranteed contracts already and the one non-guaranteed they are carrying is Howard (teams can only carry 15 players). If the Lakers waived Howard they would need to replace him with another center. The Lakers could eat the contract of Troy Daniels or Jared Dudley to create a roster spot for a free agent, but they are nowhere near making that kind of move yet. Even if they were, Crawford might not be the guy, he creates shots more for himself than others.

Crawford could help the right team, the man can still get buckets off the bench. He averaged 7.9 points per game last season and lit it up for the depleted Suns at the end of last year. There are downsides — Crawford is 39, has slowed in recent years, and his defense is not good — but in the right role he can help.

Just not the Lakers.

Good try, though.

Draymond Green opens up about, takes blame for last season’s rift with Kevin Durant

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At the time last November, some wondered if Draymond Green‘s on-court, over-the-top argument with Kevin Durant — which extended into the locker room, where Green reportedly called Durant a “b****” and questioned his commitment to the Warriors because of KD’s pending free agency — would doom the Warriors down the line in the playoffs.

Green was more worried about what it would do to his friendship with Durant.

That’s what Green said on The Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, a  joint interview with Green and Warriors GM Bob Myers. Green also said the team suspending him for a game ultimately forced him to step back and think about the incident.

“I started to tell myself in my mind, ‘Wow, [Myers is] flipping on me,’ and it just felt like, ‘Wow, OK, is this not the guy I’ve known for all these years? Is he turning on me?’ And I started to tell myself all of these things, and then everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, the Warriors sided with Kevin Durant.’…

“I just had to accept the fact that I was wrong. And once I was able to get over my stubbornness and accept the fact that I was wrong, I was able to move on. I lost [Durant’s] trust. How do I get that back? Not so we can win a championship or we can win some games … but I actually loved this guy, like that’s really my brother. And so not knowing what’s next in our relationship bothered me more.”

Green said he eventually apologized to Durant and he thought the relationship was repaired. However, Green added that Durant’s comments to the Wall Street Journal this summer that he never felt he fit in with the guys in Golden State really bothered him.

The Green and Durant incident ultimately did not cost the Warriors a title, worn-down ligaments and tendons that snapped did that (as well as an outstanding Raptors team).

Did what Green said push Durant out the door, ultimately to Brooklyn? Only Durant knows the answer to that, but it felt like KD was eyeing the door before Green got in his face.

As for their relationship, if Shaq and Kobe can get along now there’s no reason to worry about Durant and Green.

 

Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet each go off for 34 points against Pelicans (VIDEO)

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Apparently lifting those insanely-large championship rings didn’t wear out Pascal Siakam‘s and Fred Van Vleet’s shooting arms.

Siakam looked like a guy ready to earn that new $130 million contract, and Van Vleet looked like the guy from the NBA Finals who just kept hitting shots and making plays. Each of them scored 34 points — Van Vleet did it on 12-of-18 shooting — helping left the Raptors to a 130-122 overtime win.

Check out the video of Siakam and Van Vleets buckets above.

We’ll see what the Raptors roster looks like after the trade deadline, but as assembled this is a pretty good team that’s going to win a lot of games in the East. Especially is Siakam can continue this level of play and take another step forward off of last season’s Most Improved Player campaign.