76ers Bubble Preview - Part 2

Bill Gorman, Sports Talk Philly Contributor

Note – this is the second in a four-part series to preview the 76ers return to NBA action, see part one here

In Part one of our 76ers bubble preview we covered the team’s matchups with the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs. In this edition, we will be tackling the Washington Wizards and the Orlando Magic.

Washington Wizards

Pre-stoppage record: 24-40 (ninth in East)
Key players: Rui Hachimura (13.4 pts/6.0 reb/1.7 ast, 47.8% FG), Ish Smith (10.5/3.2/4.8, 36.7% 3FG), Thomas Bryant (12.1/6.8/1.9, 59.9% FG)

The Wizards entered the 2019-2020 season with a roster that more closely resembled the process 76ers of old than the moderately successful Washington teams that had challenged for berths in the Eastern Conference Finals in recent memory. Bradley Beal surprisingly inked a two-year extension to stay in Washington, and even more surprisingly did not immediately demand a trade.

John Wall continued his absence due to a ruptured Achilles’ tendon suffered in February 2019. Dwight Howard, Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and almost every other NBA-caliber player on the 2018-2019 version of the team was either traded, released or allowed to leave via free agency. The Wizards were expected to challenge for the #1 spot in the 2020 NBA Lottery.

Two important factors got in the way in their race to the bottom, however. First, they play in the East, home to five of the bottom seven teams in the NBA, and that would have been the bottom six had the Warriors still had Stephen Curry this season. Second, coach Scott Brooks implemented a system that created more wide-open threes (as opposed to the self-created, off the dribble variety the team tended to take in the past) and encouraged players to get shots up whenever they were available. As a result, the Wizards were third in the league in three-point percentage (led by Davis Bertans’s 42.4% on 8.7 attempts per night) and sixth in the league in points per game. Bradley Beal blossomed without Wall in the lineup, standing second in the league in scoring at 30.5 points per game while also dishing out 6.2 assists.

Defensively, however, they were 29th in points allowed per night, despite forcing the third most turnovers in the league, which in turn led to a 24-40 record and a firm spot outside of the playoffs when the season stopped in March.

It was a surprise to see Washington included in the NBA’s restart because they were so far behind the eighth-place Magic in the standings. Presumably, the league felt a need to include any team that COULD catch the eighth seed in their conference in eight games, so the Wizards were invited to Orlando.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, leading scorers Beal (torn rotator cuff) and Bertans (fear of re-injuring  twice-torn ACL prior to free agency), who combined for 45.9 points per night, will not be joining them in Disney.  This will leave the bulk of the scoring load on the young shoulders of Rui Hachimura (13.4 points per night on a decent 47.8% field goal percentage, especially when you consider he shot 27.4% from 3)). Jordan McCrae (12.8 ppg in 29 games), Thomas Bryant (12.1 points/6.8 rebounds) and Troy Brown (9.4 points) will also be expected to contribute more scoring.

Orlando Magic

Pre-stoppage record: 30-35 (eighth in East) 

Key players: Nikola Vucevic (19.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 3.7 APG), Evan Fournier (18.8 PPG, 3.2 APG, 40.6 3P%), Aaron Gordon (14.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.7 APG) 

The Magic gave the Sixers some issues this season. Although both were close games, the Magic picked up two wins over the Sixers. Sitting in the eighth seed the Magic are going to be playing hard in these seeding games to move up to avoid a first-round series against the Bucks. 

It's no surprise the Magic have been able to compete with the Sixers as they are one of the few teams with the size to match them. Led by All-Star center and former Sixer Nikola Vucevic and forward Aaron Gordon, the Magic have a roster full on length and athleticism. The Magic also have good shooting on their roster like Evan Fournier who is having a career year shooting the ball from deep.

The Magic have a few blasts from the past for the Sixers, biggest being former number one overall pick Markelle Fultz. Although things did not pan out in Philly, Fultz looks to be making the most of his new home. This season for the Magic he averaged 12.1 PPG, 3.3 RPG, and 5.2 APG while shooting just under 50% from the field.  

This game gives the Sixers another chance to rectify one of their biggest issues this season, dropping games to below average teams. Although the Magic currently sit in a playoff spot, there is no reason why the Sixers should drop this game when they face off. Facing off against a young athletic team like the Magic will give the Sixers a chance to see how their new lineup will look in a fast-paced game. 


Will We See A New Al Horford When Play Returns?

By Kevin McCormick, Sports Talk Philly Editor

Big news came out this week regarding the Sixers' lineup. Brett Brown told the media that he has been playing exclusively at the power forward position, and Shake Milton has been inserted to the starting point guard role. This means that Al Horford will be sliding to the second unit, but could this be a good thing for Horford and the Sixers? 

The addition of Al Horford to the Sixers did not exactly pay the dividends that people hoped when he was first signed. He averaged 12 PPG this season, his lowest scoring number since his second season in the league. Also, his 33.7% from three is his lowest mark since the 2014-2015 season. But can this slide to the second unit salvage his season?

Looking at the numbers it might seem questionable, in the three games he appeared off the bench this season he averaged 6.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 2.3 APG. Although those numbers are no eye-popping, his fit has looked better off the bench.

One game that stands out is when the Sixers faced off against the Clippers back in February. Horford posted nine points, six rebounds, three assists, and two blocks coming off the bench. This game was arguably the best Horford looked in terms of fit on a fully healthy Sixers roster.

There are multiple reasons why we could see a better version of Al Horford when the league returns. Before the suspension of play, Horford was starting to find a groove on the Sixers. In the last five games before the NBA season was paused Horford was averaging 16.0 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 5.6 APG, and was shooting 39.1% from three.

Horford will also now be spending almost all of his time at his natural position of center. We saw this year that he was much more effective playing at center than playing alongside Joel Embiid. This will also benefit him defensively now that he will not be put in situations where he will have to defend wing players on the perimeter.

The time off has helped Horford as well. These months off allowed him to rest his body and address any nagging injuries he had. It has also helped him find his voice with the team, as earlier this week Raul Neto mentioned that Horford has become more of a vocal leader in the return.

 Brett Brown has also spoken highly of his veteran big. He also brought up how Horford has been more vocal since the team arrived in Orlando, and that he has been very competitive in practices.  

A rejuvenated Al Horford can be huge for the Sixers. It looks like he has bought in on his new role and is working hard to change the narrative on how his tenure in Philadelphia has gone. Having a player with his experience and basketball IQ off the bench will be a boost for the Sixers in big games.


Takeaways from 76ers' New Lineup Showcased at Orlando Practices

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Editor

Just a few days after practices began in Orlando, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown has revealed one major lineup change the team has been working on: moving Ben Simmons to a point forward role. Brown said on Monday that the team was trying some "high-level stuff" with how they would use Simmons.

The move also resulted in the addition of Shake Milton to the starting lineup. Milton was on fire in the last handful of games before the NBA was forced to suspend its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last nine games before the suspension, Milton averaged 17.8 points and 4.1 assists while shooting 57.4% from the field and an incredible 60.4% from 3-point range. He proved, albeit in a small sample, that he has the ability to run the offense while also being able to shoot from outside and be an off-ball guard, something the team had looked to receive from former first-round pick Markelle Fultz. Joel Embiid has certainly been impressed by Milton's play both this season and in the team's practices thus far in Orlando.

“He’s been amazing,” Embiid said. “He’s been the starting point guard. I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He’s been doing an amazing job, just running the team, and we're going to need him to knock down shots, which he did before the league basically got shut down. He was on a roll. So we all need him to keep it going. But it’s been great.”

Continue reading "Takeaways from 76ers' New Lineup Showcased at Orlando Practices" »

Can Embiid and Simmons Silence Their Doubters?

By Kevin McCormick, Sports Talk Philly Editor

Since the beginning of the season, the media has tried to push the narrative that the Sixers’ All-Star don’t mesh together and can’t succeed as a duo. Now as the NBA is gearing up for its return, it’s a perfect chance for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to silence their doubters. 

With these four months off to recover and get their bodies right, the two are poised to lead the Sixers to a deep playoff run. Simmons said he has been able to get stronger in this time off and teammates have said Embiid has been working hard on his conditioning in the time off. 

What was shaping up to be a rocky finish to the regular season turned into a chance to hit the reset button. Situations like this are one in a million, and they need to make the most of this opportunity. 

The fit is not seamless between the two of them, but they’ve shown not only that they can coexist but they can succeed. We saw last postseason that the Sixers were a miracle shot away from making it to the conference finals in just their second postseason run together.  Now with multiple playoff runs behind them, they know what is expected when the lights get bright. 

Another reason why now is a great chance to silence their critics is the team around them. This current Sixers’ roster is arguably the best group of talent they have had around them since they stepped on an NBA floor together. Yes, last season’s starting lineup may have been better, but top to bottom this roster has to be their best batch of teammates. 

If the Sixers can make a deep run in Orlando it will leave all their doubters speechless. All season the Sixers were looked at as underachievers and are now at best looked at as a sleeper team when the playoffs begin. A deep playoff run would not only prove everyone wrong but prove themselves right, as they have said from the beginning that this roster was built for the playoffs, not the regular season. 

One undeniable thing is that they are easily one of the best defensive duos in the league. Ben Simmons led the league in steals this season, was a top defender in the league on the perimeter and has a real case to be in the defensive player of the year conversation. Then behind him is Joel Embiid who is a top-level rim protector and shot blocker. Together the two can wear down any team in a seven-game series. 

The Sixers are only going to go as far as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can take them. They now have the experience and solid pieces around them to make a run. Not to mention a break to get their bodies and minds right for postseason play. This postseason is a real chance to silence their critics and show the league they can be a dominant force together. It is going to be interesting to see how they step up to the challenge.


Tobias Harris Stepped Into Crucial Leadership Role for 76ers During Quarantine

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Editor

Things hadn't gone quite as planned this season for the Philadelphia 76ers, who stood at 39-26 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference heading into the NBA's suspension due to the Coronavirus-19 pandemic. Tobias Harris, in an interview on ESPN's First Take, attributed some of the team's struggles to a lack of chemistry. The NBA's decision to suspend the 2019-20 regular season threw another hook at what was already a Sixers season filled with ups, downs and inconsistencies. 

Team communication became much more important once the season was suspended and players were forced to quarantine in their homes. Harris viewed the quarantine as a time to fix some of the team's chemistry issues, instigating Zoom calls and text messages throughout the members of the team to make sure everyone stayed in touch with each other.

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76ers Bubble - Part One Preview

Bill Gorman, Sports Talk Philly Contributor

Note – this will be the first in a four-part series to preview the 76ers return to NBA action

Your Philadelphia 76ers will be returning to the court on August 1st for an eight-game sprint to the end of the regular season. These eight games will help teams close out TV contracts that require 70 games to be broadcast locally, but will also determine playoff seeding (or, in the case of five of the Western Conference’s participants, playoff participation). The 76ers are one of twenty-two teams to gain entry into the NBA’s “bubble” in Orlando, FL.

The teams’ opponents were determined by taking their remaining games, eliminating teams that did not qualify for the bubble (New York, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit from the East, Minnesota, Golden State from the West), and plotting the next eight games from there.

As a result, the 76ers will play the following teams – Indiana, San Antonio, Orlando, Washington, Portland, Phoenix, Toronto and Houston. Today, Kevin McCormick and I will preview the games against San Antonio and Indiana, respectively.

Indiana Pacers

Pre-stoppage record – 39-26 (t-5th in East)
Key players – Malcolm Brogdon (16.3 PPG/4.7 RPG/7.1 APG), Domantas Sabonis (18.5 PPG/12.4 RPG/5.0 APG ), TJ Warren (18.7 PPG/4.0 RPG/1.4 APG), Myles Turner (11.8 PPG/6.5 RPG/1.1 APG with 2.2 BPG)

The Pacers were off to a surprisingly good start, banking a 39-26 record before the season’s pause due to COVID-19.  That record was surprising mainly due to the absence of star guard Victor Oladipo, who missed 11 months thanks to a torn quadriceps tendon.

He was able to return for 13 games before the shutdown, looking a bit rusty both due to the lengthy rehab but also trying to reintegrate to a team that had replaced much of his play making with the combination of Malcolm Brogdon (FA signing from Milwaukee) and newly-minted All-Star Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers were able to frustrate opponents by slowing games down (23rd in the NBA in pace at 98.5 possessions per game) and with a solid defense (7th in defensive rating at 108.3 points allowed/100 possessions).

It must be pointed out, however, that while the Pacers were playing well, they did struggle mightily against teams who had winning records as of the league’s suspension. They were 10-15 in such games, 3-8 on the road.

In other bad news for Indiana, Oladipo (continuing rehab for his quad injury) and Jeremy Lamb (torn ACL) will not be making the trip to Orlando. They should be getting Brogdon back from a torn hip, helping to provide not only play making and solid defensive play but also spacing for a lineup that takes the fewest three-pointers in the league.

Indiana comes into Orlando tied with the 76ers for the 5th spot in the East but they will be facing a brutal close to their season, finishing with games against the Lakers, Heat (2x) and the Rockets.

San Antonio Spurs 

Pre-stoppage record: 27-36 (12th in West) 

Key players: DeMar DeRozan (22.2 PPG/5.6 RPG/ 5.6 APG) LaMarcus Aldridge (18.9 PPG/ 7.4 RPG/ 2.4 APG) Dejounte Murray (10.7 PPG/ 4.6 RPG/ 5.8 APG/ 1.7 SPG) 

For the first time in decades the Spurs find themselves on the outside looking in of the playoff picture as the season comes to an end. After years of consistency and success, the Spurs look like they might be heading into a rebuild. Although they have star talent in DeRozan and Aldridge, they have just not been enough to get the team into the playoff hunt. 

These two teams faced off against each other back in November. The Sixers would go on to beat the Spurs by a final score of 115-104. 

Offense has not be an issue for the Spurs this season, it has been their defense. San Antonio had a top ten offense in the NBA prior to the suspension scoring 113.2 PPG. Their struggle was slowing teams down, opponents were scoring 114.9 PPG against them which was 24th in the entire NBA. 

This should be a game where the Sixers should look to capitalize on their size. The Spurs do not have the kind of size to match Joel Embiid down low. All in all this is a matchup the Sixers should walk away with a win in. 


Is Orlando Brett Brown's Last Chance?

By Kevin McCormick, Sports Talk Philly Editor

There are plenty of topics surrounding the Sixers as they return to play, but there is one storyline that has taken a backseat through all this talk. People have been calling for Brett Brown to be relieved of his duties as head coach for years now, and you have to wonder if the league’s restart is Brown’s last chance as coach of the Sixers.

Expectations have been high for this Sixers team since the start of the season, and if those expectations aren’t met there will most likely be another makeover of the team. But with the core of this team locked in for the next few years, the makeover will likely be a coaching makeover.

The question is how far do the Sixers have to go for Brown to keep his job? Some think it’s reaching the conference finals and some think it’s championship or bust. But if the Sixers find themselves knocked out in the second round for the third straight year I would find it hard to believe that Brown keeps his job.

Personally, Brown has to take this team to at least the Eastern Conference finals to retain his position as head coach. Although the regular season did not go as smoothly as we hoped, there is no reason that the Sixers shouldn’t make a deep playoff run. They have a full roster and have had months to heal and prepare, there is no excuse for them to get bounced early in the playoffs.

Being able to adjust is arguably going to be the make or break in whether Brown is the coach of the Sixers next year. Mainly being able to adjust when it comes to the use of Al Horford.

Brown was loyal to the starting lineup of Horford and Embiid together in the frontcourt throughout the regular season, even though the fit was far from seamless. If Brown is not able to adjust when matchups do not favor Horford alongside Embiid, it could be the end of the Sixers’ championship aspirations and Brown’s tenure as head coach.

The final piece of this tricky storyline is assistant coach Ime Udoka. Reports have come out that multiple teams look to interview Udoka for vacant head coaching positions in the offseason. It is no secret that Udoka is one of the top assistant coaches in all of the NBA, and a clear favorite to take over the Sixers if Brown is relieved.

This could put the Sixers in a tricky situation moving forward. If they want to keep Udoka on their sideline then Brown’s seat is hotter than ever. All of these factors are crucial as the pressure has to be on for Brown to deliver if he wishes to remain with the Sixers.


Does Anyone Know What a "Phillie" Is?

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Whatever name the Washington football club decides upon going forward we can agree on at least two things: 1) some people will be upset regardless; and 2) no matter the name, if you think hard enough about it you’ll come to the conclusion that it’s stupid even if it isn’t offensive.  Because, really, can you think of a single team name that isn’t? 

Anybody know what a Phillie is?  Or a Seventy-Sixer?  I know what a flyer is, but I’m assuming the Philadelphia hockey team was named after something other than a pamphlet often utilized to advertise something like plumbing services or cut-rate lawn care.  Or maybe it was.  Either way, it’s ridiculous.

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Three Potential X-Factors for the Sixers

By Kevin McCormick, Sports Talk Philly Editor

We are now just a few short weeks away from the restart of the NBA season. The Sixers will be traveling to Orlando tomorrow as part of the final group of teams to go into the bubble. With about three weeks to go until their first seeding game, here are three Sixers’ players that can be X-factors for the team when games resume. 

Furkan Korkmaz 

Korkmaz took a big step forward this season. He showed that he can be an everyday role player on the Sixers with his play through the regular season, and hopefully will be able to build on the season he was having when play returns in Orlando. 

Three-point shooting was a weak area for the team this season, which is why Korkmaz has a chance to be a real X-factor for the team in the playoffs. Korkmaz was the team leader in three-pointers made with 126 in the regular season, shooting 39.7% from deep on five attempts a game. 

Being a reliable shooter for the Sixers in these games can be huge as spacing hasn’t always been great. Having someone on the floor who can consistently knock down shots from deep can open the floor for the Sixers’ stars to go to work. 

As we know the game becomes much slower in the playoffs, and this is when the Sixers plan to use their size to their advantage. But if “bully ball” is going to work for the Sixers, having shooting around them is going to be a necessity. 

We will likely see Joel Embiid in the post much more in the restart, and he is going to need shooters to kick the ball to if he is double-teamed down low. This is where Korkmaz can come in and do damage. This season Korkmaz shot 43.4% on catch and shoot threes, making him a threat in a half-court setting. 

If Korkmaz can continue to be a reliable three-point shooter it will not only help the offense but will give the Sixers much needed scoring off the bench. 

Shake Milton 

This is the name that has been thrown around the most as the Sixers get ready to take the court again. Shake Milton stepped up huge for the Sixers after injuries took its toll on the roster. Since the All-Star game, Milton has averaged 16.5 PPG, 2.3 APG, and 3.8 APG. In the last five games before the suspension, Milton averaged 19.4 PPG. 

His play has been so strong that there is a chance he finds himself in the starting lineup moving forward. Milton’s ability to play on and off the ball could add a new element to the Sixers’ starting lineup and can open up the floor with his stellar shooting from deep. 

Having another ball-handler in the lineup opens up new ways to utilize Ben Simmons as well. We could potentially see Simmons move off the ball at times and be the screener in pick and roll play with Milton. This could be big as teams are going to try to capitalize on Simmons’ reluctance to shoot from deep. 

Milton can also score in a variety of ways, he shot 44.2% on catch and shoot threes and 52.6% on pull-up threes. Although the sample size is small for Milton’s hot play, if he can continue to show he can play at a high level it could make the Sixers a much stronger team. 

Tobias Harris 

Personally, this is my pick to be arguably the biggest X-factor for the Sixers as they prepare to compete for a title in Orlando. Harris had a strong regular season in his first “full” year in Philadelphia, and they are going to need him to continue his strong play as the stage gets bigger. 

Harris averaged 19.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG, and 3.2 APG while appearing in every regular-season game before the suspension. If the Sixers are going to be real contenders, he is going to have to stay at this level of play if not go higher. 

One thing Harris has going for him is that he has had this time off to deal with any nagging injuries he had throughout the year and get his body right. This is big for a player who was not load managed throughout the regular season. 

Harris can also be another shooter that can help the offense greatly if he can get hot. He hit the second-most threes behind Korkmaz this regular season while shooting a respectable 36.2% on five attempts a game. Although his shooting percentage is close to league average, he was more effective catching and shooting where he shot close to 38%. 

A change in the starting lineup could also benefit Harris. If Shake Milton is inserted into the starting lineup Harris would slide to the power forward, where he is a much better fit. This could give him more mismatches on offense and put him in a situation to be a better defender. 

If Harris can come out and be a 20+ per game scorer in the playoffs the Sixers are going to be an even harder team to beat. Having a three-headed monster of Embiid, Simmons, and Harris along with a good batch of role players and vets like Al Horford would make the Sixers a deep team come playoffs.


Tobias Harris Opens Up on ESPN's First Take

By Kevin McCormick, Sports Talk Philly Editor

On Friday Tobias Harris joined Stephen A Smith and Max Kellerman on ESPN’s First Take. Along with discussing the global pandemic and social justice issues, Harris also had a lot to say about the Sixers as the NBA is closing in on its return. 

Harris was very open about the Sixers’ season before the suspension. Admitting that they “haven’t met our expectations so far this year.” 

He would also hint at some chemistry issues with the team. Saying that “we haven’t had the best chemistry throughout the year” and “it took us a while to kind of get everyone together.” 

Although Harris was very open on some of the Sixers mishaps this year, he is still very optimistic about what they can do when play resumes in July. Harris still feels that the Sixers “have a chance to win a championship.” 

Max Kellerman would mention that he has picked the Sixers as a sleeper team in the Eastern Conference. Harris would go on to say that he is not phased that his team is being looked at as a sleeper. Stating that the team has one goal and that’s “to play and win a championship.” 

Harris would then dive into how the team has been able to fix their chemistry issues during the season’s suspension. He would state the team has kept in touch through this quarantine through zoom calls and group texts. 

In the end, Harris would discuss how the team is ready to take the court in Orlando. Stating the team is looking at it as a “new opportunity.” He would also go on to say that the team will have a “refreshed feeling” when they get to take the court in Disney. 

After having a rollercoaster of a regular season, it looks like the Sixers are starting to put the pieces together. Now with more than three months to rest and get healthy, the Sixers have a chance to show the league how great they can be.