76ers believe they finally have the right mix
While he was walking down the arena tunnel after a tough loss, Philadelphia 76ers general manager Elton Brand heard the piercing voice of a fan, who implored him to make a trade to improve an ever-changing roster that had been struggling.
Brand dropped the proverbial mic by making a trade-deadline deal for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and Boban Marjanovic to give Philadelphia perhaps the best starting lineup in the Eastern Conference.
The 76ers are 3-1 since the trade, with the notable loss coming to the Celtics without Kyrie Irving, but there’s hope that the 76ers will finally be able to make a serious title run with the versatile Harris joining Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, JJ Redick, and Jimmy Butler in the starting five.
“I think we’re in a good position,” Simmons said. “I’m looking forward to building more chemistry with these guys. We recently just made the trade. So I think for us it’s just going to take a little bit of time.”
The 76ers are 1-7 against the Celtics, Bucks, and Raptors — the lone win against Toronto without Kawhi Leonard playing — so there is definitely something to prove. But the roster has been so fluid. The club began the season with Robert Covington and Dario Saric but moved both to the Timberwolves for Butler. Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala were shipped to the Clippers for Harris.
“I feel like we need to learn and we need the regular season to do that,” coach Brett Brown said. “We’re going to learn a lot. I think we’ve done OK [through the difficult part of the season]. We’ve had a different team along the way to still do OK. But more than anything we’ve got way more to grow and give to get where we want to go.”
The question is whether the 76ers can overcome the perception that they can’t beat the Celtics. Boston has won 10 of the last 12 matchups against Philadelphia, including all three games this season.
Embiid is visibly bothered by Al Horford’s defense. It was apparent during Tuesday’s meeting that Embiid had become frustrated and began settling for 3-point shots.
The Celtics also went at Harris in the post defensively and finally neutralized the effective T.J. McConnell by also going at him in the post, forcing Brown to go back to Simmons, who is an offensive liability.
The 76ers have a wealth of talent but there are concerns about the chemistry with Embiid, Simmons, Redick, and Butler, who was effective in the early going against the Celtics but disappeared late.
It’s going to take time for the 76ers to mesh. Harris is going to take some shots away from Butler and Embiid, which may cause issues. Embiid looked frustrated during the Celtics game because of a lack of touches.
Harris, meanwhile, is a solid player but has only four games of playoff experience and has never been on such a talented team. He has emerged as one of the league’s rising players and this will be the ultimate challenge.
There is pressure on the 76ers. They have a roster full of stars and young talent. Last year’s playoff elimination by the Celtics was a painful experience, and with the Raptors and Bucks also contenders, this season could turn out the same way.
“There is going to be ups and downs,” Harris said. “It’s just, when we do have a game like this that we lose, we make an adjustment from it and we understand how we need to play to be the best team that we can be. So I think there are things from this [Celtics] game that we can take and go back and look at and get better at, and just move forward from there.”
IT’S COMING TOGETHER
Rivers believes Clippers on rise
The Los Angeles Clippers are an organization in transition, and that’s a good thing considering how they fell short of their goals when Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan were their centerpieces, and Doc Rivers bolted from Boston to lead them to the promised land.
They never got there before the Clippers allowed Paul and Jordan to leave, and then abruptly traded Griffin to the Pistons to begin their rebuild. Quite honestly, Rivers’s previous team, the Celtics, has had more success in the last five years than the Clippers. The Celtics have reached two Eastern Conference finals. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to Houston in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals and were never the same.
Rivers relinquished his role as team president to focus on coaching, allowing ex-Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank to handle the front-office duties. The plan was to remain competitive while preparing to offer two max salaries to free agents in the summer of 2019.
So far, mission accomplished.
The Clippers remain in the playoff race despite playing with a shell of their former roster. That collection of players stormed back from a 28-point deficit to stun the Celtics on Feb. 9.
Rivers is content to be the coach. He loves his organization’s future and the foundation laid by owner Steve Ballmer. It’s good to be Doc Rivers, who’s done some of his best coaching without having superstars.
“First of all, it was too much work to do both,” Rivers said of his dual president/coaching role. “This has been great. [Frank] works harder than any human being alive, so it’s been phenomenal. It’s great for me. You can do one and the other but I just thought, and let’s be honest, my staff at the time I had like six people working the whole staff and now you look at Danny [Ainge’s] staff and my staff, shoot, it took an extra bus of staff members to get here. That tells you how many people we’ve been able to hire with Steve. Steve has allowed our organization to really become an organization. He really has.”
What Rivers has done over the last few years is develop young players such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, former Boston College standout Jerome Robinson, and energetic center Montrezl Harrell while waiting for the summer to woo free agents.
The perception — and many times truth in Boston — was that Rivers didn’t particularly like coaching rookies. He gave younger players a difficult time. He has softened his stance.
“I like coaching young guys,” he said. “My first eight years as a coach was all young guys, five years in Orlando was young guys. I’ve had two Rookie of the Year winners [one, Mike Miller in 2001], so I liked it, but you’ve got to get them to buy in, it’s tough. You’ve got to get them to play roles, it’s tough. Young guys and roles don’t match. Every young guy that comes in was probably an All-American, was probably the guy at his college and in the extreme case, let’s take Al [Jefferson] and Perk [Kendrick Perkins]; we told Al he was the offensive player and we told Perk he was the defensive player.
“And Perk was like, ‘What the hell you talking about? I scored 30 a game in high school.’ And we were like, ‘Yes, and now you’re a picker and you’re a roller.’ And it took Perk a while, like four years, to really accept that role. That’s hard. But they do and you have to do it. It’s not an easy task. Everybody has All-Star dreams and all that, where as a coach you have winning and so you hope they [understand] all that but you don’t care, you want them to learn how to win. All the other stuff comes, but you’ve got to convince them winning first and everything else you get, that’s the order it should be.”
Rivers’s best role is as a salesman. He will be integral in selling the Clippers to free agents such as Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, offering them the possibility of leading the franchise to prosperity. Rivers relishes that opportunity.
“I’ll be very involved [in free agency], that’s what I do,” he said. “It’s funny, we’ve been successful in LA even getting the minimum big-time free agents. We’ve had a hell of a run and we’re going to do it again. We have to. We have a lot of positive things on our side. We have an owner who can buy us all off, and the weather factor. It’s about all those things. It’s about winning, about culture. All those come before the other crap that people think is there. If it went by where people live, we would have them all. They all live in LA in the summer or Miami or New York, the majority lives in LA. It’s clearly more than that to get a free agent. We hope that helps, though.”
One player who has flourished during the Rivers years is swingman Lou Williams, who has won a Sixth Man of the Year award and developed into one of the league’s best fourth-quarter scorers. Williams has helped the Clippers remain playoff competitive despite a plethora of roster changes.
“He’s just a great scorer, as good as I’ve been around,” Rivers said. “He’s efficient at scoring as well and then he’s an underrated passer. He’s probably one of our better playmakers, as well. When you look at his size and look at his pace, it’s hard to see how he’s doing it. You look at [Allen] Iverson and you see the speed, but you don’t see the speed with Lou. He’s the master of different speeds and that’s what makes him so good.”
Rivers also touched on his still strong relationship with Rajon Rondo: “Rondo’s in a great place [with the Lakers], and he’s been in a great place in my opinion, I think it started last year for him. We do talk a lot and he’s just in a good place, family-wise with kids. So it’s really cool to watch how mature he is. It’s just nice, it’s fun. It’s good to see.”
The Clippers made their first deal with the Lakers in 36 years on Feb. 7 to get center Ivica Zubac, a deal they are thrilled with.
“I get a call a day and a half before the [trade] deadline and Lawrence says, ‘I think we can get Zubac,’ and my first response was, ‘Wake up, no way,’ ” Rivers said. “That’s actually what I said. ‘That’s not going to happen.’ He said, ‘I think we can, and to get him would be great.’ I didn’t know we were doing business again because we have tried and there’s just been no conversation, so it’s good that there’s conversation. They liked one of the guys that we got in the 76ers trade and it worked for us and them, too.”
And on his relationship with Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Rivers said, “I’ve gotten to know Brad, which has been great. We do the charity together and we share a lot. I called him about an issue that I had on the season this year, I needed advice.”
Young answers bell for Atlanta
Trae Young will be associated with Luka Doncic for the rest of his career because of the draft-night trade last summer in which they were swapped. While Doncic will likely win Rookie of the Year with the Mavericks, Young has become a potential cornerstone for the Hawks, improving steadily with his shooting and playmaking.
“I feel like there’s definitely a connection just because of the trade, but for me I look at it . . . I don’t look at it any differently than I do any opponent,” Young said. “Luka is playing really well this year. Everybody is seeing it. I mean, I’m happy for him. He’s doing really well, and he’s making our [draft] class look even better.
“We have really good players in this class — Deandre [Ayton], Marvin [Bagley], Jaren [Jackson]. Everybody is playing really well.”
In eight February games, Young is averaging 19.4 points, 9.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and is at 39 percent in 3-point shooting. After a rough start offensively, Young has turned into a complete point guard under first-year coach Lloyd Pierce.
“Just the poise and the patience I have when I’m playing, I think that’s the biggest growth that I’ve had this year,” said Young. “From Game 1 — even from summer league until now — I think I’m just getting more comfortable, and the game is starting to slow down for me. I think at the beginning of the season it was just a transition. Any transition is going to be different.
“Adjusting in that little time period . . . the first month was terrible, but from then on I’ve been able to adjust and it’s been a lot better for me.”
The Hawks are in a complete rebuild but have played better the past few months, including wins over the Nuggets and Lakers. They may have cost themselves a chance at the No. 1 overall pick because of their improvement, but the foundation for success is being built with Young as the central figure.
“I definitely feel excited about our team and this organization and where we’re headed,” Young said. “You can tell, if you go to our practice, if you’re a fly on the wall in our locker room, you can definitely feel the energy and the excitement in all of our guys, and I think that’s the main thing. For us being a young team, I think that’s the most exciting thing and the best thing about us is that we’re excited about the future. I’m just happy to be a part of this team. I know a lot of my teammates are, too.”
There were rumors that former Knicks center Enes Kanter had drawn the interest of the Celtics but they were cool on the offensive-minded big man who doesn’t put much emphasis on defense. Kanter, who was waived by the Knicks, signed with the Trail Blazers, who also added Rodney Hood through trade. The Celtics have an open roster spot and a few weeks to decide whether to add another big man as support for Horford, Daniel Theis, and Aron Baynes. Rookie Robert Williams could see some playing time if he can get healthy. Williams has been dealing with various injuries this season . . . Mark March 18 on your calendar. That’s when Isaiah Thomas and the Nuggets come to TD Garden for Thomas’s first game in Boston as an active player since he was dealt by the Celtics to Cleveland in August 2017. Thomas returned to action for the first time in nearly a year on Wednesday, scoring 8 points in the Nuggets’ win over Sacramento. Now fully healthy, Thomas gives Denver another reliable scorer off the bench and gives fans an opportunity to see one of the league’s more dynamic players. There is a perception that the Celtics dumped an injured Thomas in that trade with Cleveland, betraying the guard after he played through injury and the tragic death of his sister in a car accident. While president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would make the deal again, the organization has never felt quite right about Thomas’s fate after the trade, so expect a first-class and emotional video tribute to him when he returns. It will be an opportunity for both sides to make amends and Thomas to get the treatment he deserves for 2½ years of helping bring the Celtics back to respectability. Thomas’s future is cloudy in terms of a long-term contract, but he will have a chance to show he can be a primary contributor on a good team in the next few months. Thomas may have missed out on the max contract he once sought, but hopefully his health is good enough for him to play another handful of years.