Aug 22 2014

Woj: Thad to MIN; Shved, Mbah a Moute, 1st-rounder to PHI

After weeks of speculation surrounding an Anthony Bennett-for-Thaddeus Young swap, NBA media overlord Adrian Wojnarowski has spoken.

So, not Bennett.

A natural reaction is to be underwhelmed. After spending time warming up to the idea of an undervalued Anthony Bennett working with the Sixers’ development staff, it’s a tough adjustment to cozy up to Luc Mbah a Moute doing Mbah a Moute things instead. But it’s a reasonable haul nonetheless.

Thad was never staying in Philadelphia beyond July 1. He was going to decline his option for 2015-16, (according to a Liberty Ballers source), presumably to sign with an actual basketball team. First-round picks don’t move often, and not a single one moved at the deadline last season. That the Sixers are getting one (likely in the high-teens) for a decent starter on an expiring contract is no small feat.

And there’s more to look forward to, sort of. With Embiid’s erstwhile mentor in Mbah a Moute changing hands in the form of a $4,382,575 contract, Embiid’s “#WeAllFromAfrica” hashtag on Twitter is sure to return full force.

The jury is mostly out on Alexey Shved (also an expiring deal – $3,282,057), who racked up negative offensive win shares last season. His shooting was the culprit; he was below 30 percent from everywhere on the floor last year except for the restricted area. He’s still only 25 and he shot the ball well and was a solid playmaker overseas, so there could be room to grow. And while he’s been a borderline disaster of an NBA player, he has (occasionally) played well, when given the opportunity.

The usual causation/correlation warnings apply here, but there’s evidence — albeit in the form of a tiny sample size — that he’s capable of resembling a serviceable NBA point guard. There could be value here.

But this deal wasn’t made for Shved, or for Mbah a Moute. The prize here is Miami’s top-10 protected first-round pick. The Heat should make the Eastern Conference playoffs, though the pick has some upside; given how fragile Wade is, it’s possible it ends up being a mid-first-rounder. If the Sixers could have gotten more, it wouldn’t have been by much.

We’ll have more on this as details come in. It’s been real, Thad.

Aug 14 2014

Revisiting the Sixers’ Defensive Scheme

“I will say this: if in fact [Noel and Embiid] do play together, which is what we anticipate, we’re going to be a menace at the rim, an absolute menace.” – Sam Hinkie

Opposing teams did more than just torch the Sixers from downtown last year. They doused the arc in kerosene and held ceremonial fire-dancing parties, breaking record after record and finished with 739 threes on the season1.

This wasn’t an accident. Not entirely, at least. It happened because the Sixers were running a defensive scheme that focused on limiting shots inside the paint. Ssimple in theory, though near impossible to execute without personnel that’s both qualified and familiar with the system.

Zach Lowe explained this in a Grantland column from March:

But playing this way requires precision atop athleticism in two specific ways:

1. Players have to know when they should help inside and when they should stay closer to home.

2. Everyone else has to slide around and rotate in concert to cut off obvious passing lanes and be in position to close out on shooters in a timely fashion.

The Sixers didn’t have shot blockers last season, and they didn’t have strong perimeter defenders. On top of that, they were brand new to this particular scheme. (With an average roster age of 23.9, most of them were brand new to any NBA scheme.) Some of the newer, younger players were accustomed to the traditional zone defenses of college ball. And the few players who had been around were used to the Collins-Curry defense, which in many ways ran counter to the 2014 scheme: emphasizing perimeter pressure, disrupting passing lanes and getting out on fast breaks.

Things should get better defensively this season, and that’s not just because things can’t get worse (seriously, a 1.29 opponent PPS is as bad as it gets.). With Nerlens Noel, and just as importantly, the addition of athletic wing players — KJ McDaniels (6-6 guard, 6-11.25 wingspan2), Jordan McRae (6-5, 7-0.5 wingspan), Jerami Grant (6-8, 7-3 wingspan) — the Sixers will have the length  to compensate for at least some of their inevitable defensive lapses. They’ll have a rim protector down low protecting the paint, and terrifyingly long humans patrolling the passing lanes and closing out on shooters. The Sixers didn’t have this luxury a year ago, with Charmin Ultra Soft representative Spencer Hawes in the middle, and James Anderson and Evan Turner on the wings.

The pack-the-paint system does have its downsides. For one, it’s hard to maintain and execute. As Lowe noted in his piece, it requires lots of communication, and can be foiled by even one player gambling in a passing lane. Plus, since it’s so personnel-driven, one injury can turn a well-oiled machine into a Hummer. Take, for example, the Thunder, who had a top-10 defense with world-class athletes at nearly every position. Even they struggled to execute with consistency, and when they weren’t full strength, things got ugly. Don’t believe me? Then rewatch the Spurs torch the Serge Ibaka-less Thunder in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Fear of injury shouldn’t ruin the appeal of this scheme, but it’s a risk to consider, especially given the Sixers fragile frontcourt foundation.

Still, the Sixers have a roster that, on paper, has infinite defensive potential. Two vicious rim-protectors, a 6-6 point guard, and an excess supply of long, athletic wings? Yes, please. Don’t expect an overnight transformation, but it’ll be better. Nothing can be worse than the bloodbath that was the 2013-14 season.

 

1. Unofficially, this is the second-most threes surrendered. The 2014 Cavs (765) have the no. 1 spot.

2. Fourth-highest block rate in the ACC last season.

Aug 08 2014

Anthony Bennett to the Sixers?

The Thad Young-Anthony Bennett rumor had been floating around for a few days (as part of the T-Wolves-Cavs blockbuster centered around Kevin Love and Andrew Wiggins) but it looked dead yesterday when Adrian Wojnarowski reported that there wasn’t a third team involved.

Reportedly, it’s back on.

This could be a three-team trade, or a side-trade, or it might not happen at all. For now, it looks like Bennett — 2013 No. 1 overall pick, who might’ve had the worst rookie season of any No. 1 overall pick — is headed to Philly. And Thad — the Sixers’ best player, who might’ve had the worst season of any team’s ‘best player’ — is going to Minnesota. This one’s interesting.

Bennett was a disaster last season (6.95 PER!), and we’re not quite sure why; maybe it was his asthma, maybe it was because he was out of shape, maybe it was because of the shitty Cavs environment, or maybe he’s just terrible. It’s likely that last year is the worst-case scenario, making this a good buy-low opp. It would’ve been an even better buy-low opp if they acquired him before summer league, where he was arguably the better of Cleveland’s No. 1 overall picks. The hope for the Sixers is that the Brett Brown system (and a tonsillectemy) can get the 6-foot-8 combo forward back in shape and playing to his potential.

This trade isn’t a no-brainer, and that’s because Thad is a good basketball player on a fair contract ($9.16 million this season with a $9.72 player option next season), without any injury or character red flags. He’s been an efficient two-way player over his seven-year career; an eFG% of .517 while shooting 50 percent from the field. And though last season wasn’t his best, he’s added a 3-point shot to his arsenal. He’s also only 26 years old. And there’s no one better at turning garbage into gold. If this is for real, he’ll be missed.

If you’re craving more Bennett-Thad content, I direct you to this post from Liberty Ballers editor Derek Bodner on his personal blog. We’ll have more on this as details come in.

Jul 31 2014

Windhorst: Sixers Fighting Lottery Overhaul

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported yesterday, via multiple sources, that the NBA’s plan to overhaul the lottery has met strong opposition from Sixers management, which, for obvious reasons, is hoping to delay any sort of changes that could come before next year’s draft.

In the current system, the NBA’s worst team has a 25 percent shot at landing the top pick and a top-four guarantee; the second-worst team has a 19.9 percent and top-5 guarantee; third-worst has a 15.6 percent and a top-six, and so on, with odds decreasing as you move further down the 13-team lottery.

In the new lotto format, according to Windhorst, “the bottom five or six teams could have an equal chance,” which in theory, would discourage tanking.

From ESPN:

The rough draft of this plan was met with opposition by 76ers management, which is in the midst of a multiseason rebuilding project that is dependent on a high pick next year. The 76ers, sources said, are hoping to get the NBA to delay the plan’s implementation for at least a year because it would act as a de facto punishment while just playing by the rules that have been in place.

The 76ers, however, may struggle to gain support from Silver or fellow teams for holding off on the changes. Philadelphia’s planned sink to the bottom has caused a drag on revenues in one of the league’s largest markets and has upset some other teams, sources said.

Worth reiterating: the Sixers’ plan — disregarding regular season wins, collecting ping pong balls — is a byproduct of a CBA that rewards losing and regulates the salaries of rookies and superstars. It’s understandable, then, that they would disapprove of a major change right in the middle of their rebuilding process. But considering the Sixers are pretty much the embodiment of what the NBA wants to eliminate, they may have trouble gaining support from the 29 other teams, many of which may be morally opposed to losing on purpose. (It won’t help matters that they’re below the salary floor; a signal that they’re not even pretending they want to compete in the short-term.)

My stance is that the current CBA, not tanking, is the problem. Even if there is a lotto adjustment, the slots will still be weighted and draft picks will continue to be valuable commodities, there will remain an incentive to lose; though instead of the horrible teams gunning for the No. 30 spot, you’ll have the terrible teams gunning for 5/6 as soon as they’re out of playoff contention. The proposed change wouldn’t solve tanking. Instead, it’d put a Band-Aid on the problem — which doesn’t necessarily need solving.

Jul 29 2014

Kyle Korver and ‘the most unusual three ever hit’

Over at Grantland, Zach Lowe wrote a feature on Kyle Korver, the 3-point genius who, against all odds, has become one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons. He’s coming off a season where he converted 3s at a ridiculous rate of 47.2 percent, playing a career-high 34 minutes/game and helping the Atlanta Hawks reach the postseason. He also made at least one 3-pointer in 127 consecutive games, breaking Dana Barros’ record of 89.

And somehow, Korver keeps getting better. Though he’s 33, and heading into his 12th NBA season, he was one of the 19 players invited to the USA National Team training camp held July 28-Aug. 1. Not bad for a second-round pick.

In case you’ve forgotten, the 6-foot-7 Ashton Kutcher look alike first made a name for himself 11 years ago with the Sixers. He was drafted by the Nets with the 51st pick in the 2003 draft, then immediately traded to Philly for $125,000, which would cover summer league. Korver struggled as a rookie under Randy Ayers, who tried getting the sharpshooter from Creighton to develop a mid-range game. That didn’t work, at least not immediately; he shot 35.2 percent from the field (with a 2P% of 28.3) in his first year.

But Korver’s career took off the next season when the Sixers hired 3-point friendly Jim O’Brien.

Here’s Lowe:

In the team’s very first practice, Allen Iverson ran a two-on-one fast break with Korver filling the wing. Iverson dished to Korver behind the 3-point arc. Korver took two dribbles, nailed a 17-footer, and waited for the applause.

O’Brien was livid. He screamed for Korver to look down at the 3-point line. O’Brien told him that if Korver ever passed up another open 3-pointer, he would remove him from the game. Korver remembers one thought flying through his head during O’Brien’s tirade: This is awesome.

Korver led the league in made 3s that season, establishing himself as perhaps the league’s deadliest shooter. But he would not be pigeonholed as a spot-up guy chilling in the corner. He liked moving too much for that. Korver grew up in Lakewood, a small town within Greater Los Angeles, and he fell in love with the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. “Everyone on that team was running, cutting, and passing,” Korver says. “To me, that’s still perfect basketball.”

To fully understand what Korver meant to Philly, it’s important to consider context. In part due to personnel, and in part due to coaching, the Sixers never had a lights-out 3-point shooter before Korver’s arrival. In the six seasons (1997-2003) under Larry Brown, the team finished last in 3-point attempts thrice, second-to-last twice, and 24th once. They had capable shooters, like Keith Van Horn, Aaron McKie, and briefly, Toni Kukoc, but they were nowhere near as effective as Korver. Even if they were, they’d likely have been underutilized with a 3-point opponent like Brown calling the shots.

Korver was, in many ways, the perfect 3-point specialist for the mid-2000s Sixers. With his smooth stroke and underwhelming athleticism, he fit all of the white-guy-shooter stereotypes. But unlike predecessors Van Horn, Kukoc, and Matt Harpring — who arrived with unfair expectations — he could shoot the lights out, and just as importantly, played with a 3-point friendly coach.

Korver’s Sixers tenure ended in his fifth season, when he was traded to Utah for Gordan Giricek and a first-round pick, a move that opened up playing time for Thaddeus Young and created cap space for the 2008 offseason. (Philly would end up needing every penny of its Korver savings for its five-year, $80 million offer to Elton Brand.) Though in spite of his short-lived Sixers tenure, he remains the franchise’s last, and perhaps only 3-point ace. In just 337 games, he nailed 661 3-pointers (1,618 attempts) at a 40.9 percent clip, good for second on the Sixers all-time leaderboard. (Iverson  leads with 885, but needed 2,864 attempts). It’s possible, if not likely, that Korver is — and will remain — the best 3-point shooter in Sixers history. If and when a Sixer surpasses Iverson’s total, it’ll likely have more to do with the changing pace of the game, than the player himself.

On that note, I’ll leave you with highlights from a classic Korver performance from his sophomore season in a 106-104 overtime win over the Pacers. He finished with 23 points off the bench and hit seven 3s, including “the most unusual three ever hit” (1:20).

Stick around for a few minutes and you’ll catch an Iverson game-winning buzzer beater.

Jul 18 2014

Should the Sixers Make An Offer to Eric Bledsoe?

Last month, Bryan outlined a strategy that a cap-savvy/healthy team like the Sixers could utilize in restricted free agency: offering a hefty contract in the hopes of either landing a borderline all-star, or as a consolation prize, driving up his price for a competitor.

As we’ve seen with the Mavericks signing of Chandler Parsons (three years, $46 million) and the Hornets attempt to pry away Gordon Hayward from the Jazz (4/63), the restricted free-agency market is a dicey game. The Sixers, in spite of their cap room, have chosen to avoid it thus far, but there are still a few RFAs, including Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe, that they could go after. The latter is reportedly far apart in contract talks with Phoenix and Philly, with more than $30 million in cap room, is in a unique position to make a play for the talented combo-guard.

So, the Sixers are the only team not from Phoenix with the flexibility to jump in and make Ryan McDonough sweat.

This puts the Suns in a predicament. While Bledsoe is a dynamic, two-way player, a max contract could restrict their spending in the near- and possibly long-term.1 Losing Bledsoe would hurt, but with Goran Dragic and the newly acquired Isaiah Thomas already in the backcourt they have replacements. The Suns proved last year that they could get by without Bledsoe, going 20-19 in the competitive Western Conference while their second-leading scorer sat out with shin and knee injuries.

The Sixers, meanwhile, would be in a better position to take on Bledsoe’s max without inhibiting their long-term plans. In the next year or two, they’d lose some of their coveted flexibility, but would still possess more than enough cap space to facilitate trades and do Hinkie things. (Keep in mind that with a new TV deal kicking in, the cap is expected to raise as high as $80 million, something that the Suns, Sixers and Bledsoe are keenly aware of. In other words, a max contract this summer could very well be a bargain two years from now.)

The fit could be interesting too. The Sixers were rumored to have spoken to Exum about running a two-point guard lineup, and Bledsoe is coming from the same double-alpha dog system in Phoenix. A lineup that includes Bledsoe, MCW, Nerlens Noel, and Joel Embiid has all the makings of a lock-down defense.

There are cons as well. For one, he’s injury prone; he’s missed 87 games over the past three seasons. While his defense is strong, his offense is questionable. He’s turnover prone (3.3 a game last season) and he’s a poor, albeit improving shooter, as he converted about 36 percent of his 140 three-point attempts last season to up his career rate to just below 33 percent. Not exactly the ideal lights-out off-ball guard to place next to MCW and the twin towers, if and when they take the floor.

That said, fit and injury history certainly haven’t scared Hinkie off before, and 24 year-old talents like Bledsoe don’t come along often. He’s an intriguing option, one to keep in mind while his camp and Phoenix’s continue their negotiations.

1. ShamSports has Phoenix with $34,878,911 on the books for next season, plus the cap holds for Bledsoe, the newly drafted Tyler Ennis, restricted free agent PJ Tucker and Leandro Barbosa. Throw in max money for Bledsoe, Tucker’s new three-year. $16.5 million contract, Ennis’ deal for what is likely to be 120 percent of the rookie scale and whatever happens to Barbosa and Phoenix only has around $5 million to add anyone else this season to upgrade their fringe playoff team in the loaded West.

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