Each time 76ers coach Brett Brown addressed the media during his visits to Boston, or at the Wells Fargo Center when the Celtics visited Philadelphia, he offered optimism about his team, even though it seemed the organization was crumbling.
The 76ers won a total of 47 games in Brown’s first three seasons, with general manager Sam Hinkie’s “Trust the Process” philosophy of drafting, tanking, signing below-NBA-level free agents, and then drafting again. Eventually, Hinkie promised, it was going to lead to success.
Hinkie did not last long enough to see his dream realized. He was fired last season, replaced by Bryan Colangelo. And while Colangelo’s moves in adding established veterans have added to the 76ers’ legitimacy, it is those draft picks and signings by Hinkie that have led to the organization’s resurgence.
Philadelphia has 11 wins through 36 games, after winning 10 of 82 games last season. Joel Embiid, the third overall pick in 2014 who missed two seasons following two foot surgeries, is a lock for Rookie of the Year. Dario Saric, also drafted in 2014 and who waited two years to join the club, has played well in his first season.
And draft afterthought T.J. McConnell is a spunky point guard who exemplifies the fortitude that has made the 76ers a formidable opponent this season. The Celtics have struggled with Philadelphia in both meetings, and the 76ers knocked off the Knicks last week, rallying from a 10-point deficit with two minutes left to win on a McConnell buzzer-beater.
Embiid is talking playoffs, but the 76ers are likely headed for another lottery, though they will have two lottery picks unless the Lakers totally collapse — their own first-rounder, as well as the Lakers’, which is top-three protected. So, add two lottery picks to Embiid, Ben Simmons, and potentially Nerlens Noel, along with a notable free agent, and the “process” could take a major leap.
Embiid wowed the TD Garden crowd Jan. 6 with a 23-point performance in just 26 minutes, as the 76ers continue to limit his playing time after the surgeries. Embiid is a post presence and defensive menace, and his success is somewhat surprising considering his long absence.
Immediate dominance was not expected, but Embiid has exceeded even the expectations from three years ago, when he was projected as the No. 1 pick before slipping because of foot issues.
“When you come into the league as a top-three pick it’s hard, you’ve got a chip on your shoulder,” he said. “Everybody wants to go at you, to be able to come back on the court and prove that I belong there, I deserved it, just feels great.”
Brown has a logjam in the frontcourt. Embiid is a cornerstone, but the 76ers also have 2015 No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor and Noel, an Everett native who is a defensive ace but offensively unrefined. Brown realizes he cannot play all three of his young big men at once, so he has alternated between Okafor and Noel.
Noel expressed his unhappiness last month when he came back from a knee injury and registered just eight minutes in a home loss to the Lakers. Brown asked Noel for patience, and he worked him into the rotation.
“He’s growing up. I have a real fondness for him,” Brown said of Noel. “We come from the same part of the world (Brown is from Maine and played at Boston University), and he has gone through a lot, trying to stay healthy, figure out his role, figure out his future. We keep it extremely candid. No uncertainty about what I’m thinking or about what his situation really is, and I just think he’s been really professional and mature. He’s handling it well. He’s really treated it very maturely.
“I think he’s coming along fine. He’s got a real bounce to his game. I think he’s handling the situation well.”
Noel was initially part of Hinkie’s process, but the GM then drafted two additional big men, both of whom have more polished offensive games, leaving Noel to question his future in Philadelphia. Colangelo is not going to just hand Noel over to an interested team, such as the Celtics, so he will stay put for now. Noel said he is remaining patient.
“I think every season has been a challenge and I’ve dealt with a lot of adversity,” he said. “I think I’ve grown in major ways with my will as a person. It’s just another day to get better.”
What has been key for the 76ers is the three big men get along well. Noel wants to play more minutes with Embiid.
“I think we’re a couple of big men who can mesh pretty well just off the feel of the game,” Noel said. “Coach is doing a great job of just taking his time with it and putting us out there at the right time. It’s been challenging for me, but there’s trials and tribulations you have to go through to get to really where you want to be. It’s been a long process, the last three, four years, but I’ve stayed with it and kept working on my game. I’ve still got some ways to go but I’ve got to worry about what I can control.”
Noel hears the trade rumors but is trying to remain focused on the only NBA team he’s ever known.
“I’m with the Sixers and I am focused on getting better while I’m in Philadelphia and helping this team win games,” he said. “Obviously Boston is a great city and I’m from here, but I’m just focused on my situation right now. I have a strong mentality that I don’t think anything can break at this point, from getting hurt at Kentucky and all the losing, it has built a certain will in me that just keeps me going and helps me see the positive side of things.”
DeRozan, Lowry a dynamic duo
If Celtics fans even carried a hint of doubt about the talent of Raptors starting guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, those doubts were erased when DeRozan dropped 41 points on the Celtics and Lowry hit some key baskets down the stretch in the Raptors’ 114-106 comeback win last Tuesday night in Toronto.
DeRozan is averaging a career-best 28.2 points per game in shooting 47.4 percent from the field. The All-Star has mastered his midrange game, something many of his peers have not. He punished the Celtics with an array of jump shots, and what’s especially impressive about DeRozan’s scoring average is that he has averaged just one made 3-pointer every three games. His scoring consists of jumpers, attacking the rim, and free throws, which some would consider an old-school style. Toronto coach Dwane Casey said DeRozan, the ninth overall pick in 2009, has developed because of a tireless work ethic.
“Like most players, maturity and experience is huge, he’s growing up right before us,” Casey said. “He’s not getting sped up by the defense, double teams don’t bother him anymore. He can make good decisions out of double teams. Just the Olympic experience that he had last summer has given him a level of confidence of what he can do on the floor, so Father Time is great for everybody.”
Another standout scorer who excelled at the midrange game was Kobe Bryant. Bryant averaged 25 points per game over his career, and an average of 1.4 of his 8.7 made field goals per game came through 3-pointers. He was the master of the 2-point shot, which were created by brilliant footwork that allowed him space to score.
“[DeRozan] was a student of Kobe, watching Kobe growing up. His footwork, he emulated him. I know a few years ago we got some tapes of Kobe in his iso situations, so yes, that has a lot to do with his production and his efficiency,” Casey said. “The main thing he does a great job of, he creates space with his footwork, his jab steps, with his pivots. He worked with Hakeem [Olajuwon] a few summers ago and that helped his footwork.”
|DeMar DeRozan||Kyle Lowry|
|Points per game||28.2||22.4|
|Field goal %||.474||.478|
|Minutes per game||35.5||37.4|
Lowry flourishes against the Celtics. He is a stocky point guard who attacks the rim and is one of the league’s better 3-point shooters. Lowry is third in the league from beyond the arc (44.5 percent), including a game-clinching 3-pointer last Tuesday against the Celtics.
The Raptors have exceeded expectations despite being without former Celtic Jared Sullinger (foot surgery). The Raptors also did not add a major free agent after losing Bismack Biyombo to the Magic, so they were expected to take a dip. Instead, they have remained the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, as Lowry and DeRozan have both improved.
“We’re professionals, man, and no matter who we’re playing we’re going to go out there and do our jobs, give a good effort every single night,” Lowry said. “That’s one thing about our team, we’ve got some true professionals on this team and our organization are true professionals. You’ve got to go out there and play basketball no matter who is on your team, and that’s how we look at it.”
Lowry left Villanova after his sophomore season and was the 24th pick overall in 2006 by the Grizzlies. Memphis chose Mike Conley fourth overall the next season, creating a logjam at point guard. Lowry was traded to the Rockets in February 2009, and after 3½ years in Houston, he was acquired by the Raptors in trade to be their starting point guard.
It’s been a successful stint for Lowry, who has an opt-out clause in his contract that allows him to be a free agent this summer. If he decides to pass on that final year at $12 million, Lowry could be one of the more sought-after players on the market.
“It took a long time [to fully develop],” he said. “I work on my game every summer. I am very detailed on what I do. It’s about getting better and never being satisfied with being one type of player.”
Silver doubts PED problem
In his autobiography “Furious George,” former coach George Karl wrote that performance-enhancing drug use is indeed an issue in the NBA.
“I have not read George Karl’s book, which has just come out, but I’ve read accounts of George Karl’s book, and I’ve read accounts of what he said about performance-enhancing drugs,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “I’ll just say our testing is state of the art. I have no reason to believe whatsoever that we have an issue, either as the result of testing or as the result of other information that comes to the league office. I’d say that in most sports where there are issues, even when players do not test positive, usually there is some chatter that there is something going on. Other than what George Karl wrote in his book, there is no chatter whatsoever in the league. Obviously, many reporters in this room cover the NBA. Presumably if they thought there was an issue, they would be writing about it.”
There have been NBA players suspended for “drugs of abuse,” but very few penalized for performance-enhancing drugs. The most notable was the Magic’s Rashard Lewis, who served a 10-game suspension in 2009 for using the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA.
“We take allegations of performance-enhancing drugs or drug abuse of any kind incredibly seriously,” said Silver. “I’m sure we will go through George Karl’s book, others, not me, in the league office, word by word, suggestion by suggestion, and ferret out whether there’s anything to it. For us, it doesn’t matter what the source is. If somebody is — especially if it’s a Hall of Fame-caliber coach registering those sort of allegations against the league, we will take them seriously. But standing here today, I have absolutely no reason to believe there’s any truth to those allegations.”
Meanwhile, there is a growing issue with the length of games, especially the final minutes being littered with timeouts, review stoppages, and regular late-game occurrences. Silver wants to keep fans captivated, but it seems that review stoppages are becoming more prevalent, especially the reviewing of flagrant fouls.
“It’s something that I know all of sports are looking at right now, and that is the format of the game and the length of time it takes to play the game,” Silver said. “Obviously people, particularly millennials, have increasingly short attention spans, so it’s something as a business we need to pay attention to. When the last few minutes of the game take an extraordinary amount of time, sometimes it’s incredibly interesting for fans, other times it’s not.”
Silver vowed to examine the length of games, especially the fourth quarter and beyond.
“We are going to take a fresh look at the format, specifically in the last two minutes,” he said. “We have a Competition Committee that reviews those matters and then takes them to in essence our full board of owners. The Competition Committee had begun studying those issues last year, specifically the number of timeouts that are allowed in the last two minutes, and my sense is we are going to be taking a fresh look at it at the end of the season.
“It’s something that we track very closely. In the league office we time out every game, we know exactly how much time each possession takes and, again, we can also look at minute-by-minute ratings, so we know at what point fans are potentially tuning out.”
Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, is traveling with the 76ers on the road and is beginning to take part in personal workouts as he recovers from foot surgery. There is no timetable for his return, but the rookie is making progress. The 76ers already have exceeded their win total from last season and while there may be no sense of urgency for Simmons to return, he is expected to play late this season . . . We’re nearly halfway into the season and no coach has been fired. The one with the hottest seat is the Bulls’ Fred Hoiberg, who now has Rajon Rondo coming off the bench with the second unit. Rondo’s biggest issue this season has been an inability to hit 2-point baskets. Rondo has always attacked the basket when he needed to, and in his last All-Star season of 2012-13, Rondo made 51.3 percent of his 2-point shot attempts. This season he is making just 38.8 percent of his 2-pointers. While Rondo is hitting just 29.8 percent of his 3-point attempts, that is not the issue because he’s never been a strong perimeter shooter. But for a team that doesn’t stretch the floor and shoot 3-pointers well, it’s critical for the Bulls to hit their 2-pointers, and Rondo is struggling. And while his offensive rating was 105 last season with Sacramento — points scored per 100 possessions – that number has dipped to 91 this year with the Bulls. So Hoiberg instead has opted for Hamilton native Michael Carter-Williams as his starting point guard. Carter-Williams is a better shooter, more athletic, and a better defender at this stage of his career.
By trading for Kyle Korver, the Cavaliers acquired one of the premier shooters in NBA history. Of players with more than 4,000 3-pointers attempted, the 14-year veteran has the highest shooting percentage.