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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-

Report: Knicks rookie Kevin Knox signs deal with Puma

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New York Knicks rookie Kevin Knox was the darling of the 2018 NBA Las Vegas Summer League. And while Knox and the Knicks didn’t win the championship — that honor went to the Portland Trail Blazers — the performance of the former Kentucky Wildcat perhaps gave some hope to New York fans for a brighter future.

It also appears that some companies have taken note of Knox as well. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Knox is the latest target of Puma brand.

The long-dormant shoe company has made a return to basketball for the upcoming NBA season, notably signing Deandre Ayton, Terry Rozier, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr., and Zhaire Smith. Knox was seen wearing a Puma shirt this week.

Via Twitter:

Puma has seen a bit of a sea change in 2018, with its parent company divesting itself of a large portion of its controlling interest as of this June. The move is supposed to give Puma more direct control, and moving forward with a basketball division seems in line with that strategy.

Under Armour and Adidas have been battling for market share against Nike over the past couple of years, and perhaps Puma sees a chance to grab some of that pie. Betting on some of these young players is a reasonable strategy for Puma, as rookies will no doubt be cheaper for the company than established veterans. At the same time, mid-level rookies will receive more money than they would from Puma than the more recognizable basketball apparel stalwarts.

Now we just need to wait and see how Puma develops lines for their basketball side of business.

NBA rookies agree on little, but Trae Young’s shooting and playmaking supremacy comes closest

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You might see stories today about Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr.‘s peers picking him to have the best career among this rookie class. After all, he was the top vote-getter in that category in the NBA’s annual rookie survey.

But 87% of polled rookies chose someone else. That Carter’s 13% of votes led means only so much.

That was the story throughout the survey.

The leaders for predicted Rookie of the Year (tie between Suns’ Deandre Ayton and Cavaliers’ Collin Sexton), biggest steal based on where he was drafted (Timberwolves’ Keita Bates-Diop), most athletic (76ers’ Zhaire Smith) and best defender (Grizzlies’ Jevon Carter) each received less than 30% of the vote in their category. In other words, more than two-thirds of polled players picked a rookie other than the leader in each category.

The exceptions: best shooter (Hawks’ Trae Young at 47%) and best playmaker (Young at 35%). But even he didn’t get a majority of votes. Still, I appreciate many of his peers recognizing his passing ability. That’s his best skill, not the deep shooting that draws so much attention.

Sixers Zhaire Smith has foot surgery, no timetable for return

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I don’t believe in curses, but if I did…

Philadelphia rookie Zhaire Smith had surgery on the Jones fracture Thursday night, and there is no timetable for his return. However, this is the injury that sidelined Joel Embiid for all of his rookie season.

 

A Jones fracture is to the bone that runs from the “little toe” up towards the ankle on the foot. The challenge with treating it is this is not an area of the body that receives a lot of blood flow, so injuries can be slow to heal.

Why mention a curse? Because Smith joins a long list of recent Philadelphia first-rounders who suffered a serious injury before their rookie years: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and Landry Shamet. (Yes, the Sixers knew some of them were injured before the draft, still…)

Smith showed a lot of athleticism and some promise at Summer League, he needs to work on his handles and his shot to take advantage of his athletic gifts, but there is real potential there. A season off due to injury is not ideal, but it could be put to good use. While the Sixers are already elite, Smith is another project to watch.

Report: 76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffers Jones fracture, undergoing surgery

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The 76ers announced rookie Zhaire Smith suffered a foot injury.

It doesn’t sound good.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Smith joins a long list of recent Philadelphia first-rounders who suffered serious injury before their rookie years – Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Landry Shamet. Though the 76ers sometimes drafted hurt players, there’s also a lot of bad luck on that list.

It’s unclear how much time Smith will miss. He might return before the regular season. He might miss a huge chunk of the season.

But at minimum, Smith will miss several weeks of training. Wilson Chandler has become even more likely to claim the backup small-forward job behind Robert Covington.