Welcome to ‘Winning Culture’ the new column focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers for tapintothemainline.com. Throughout the season we will be following the Sixers and trying to make sense of going from 10 wins to hopefully 55 in just three years. Be sure to check back each week for offbeat insights, weird references, and as many words about Joel Embiid as we can write. 

 

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The first eight words said by newly acquired forward Mike Scott at his introductory press conference seemed to sum up Elton Brand’s moves at the trade deadline, “I don’t care about none of that [stuff] I just want to play and win.”

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Brand’s first trade deadline as general manager was a whirlwind. Over the course of 48 hours, he brought in All-Star snub Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, James Ennis, and Jonathon Simmons. He cashed in the Sixers biggest trade asset, the Miami Heat’s 2021 unprotected first round draft pick, sent promising rookie Landry Shamet to LA, brought home the wayward Oklahoma City Thunder 2020 first round pick, and finally closed the book on the Markelle Fultz saga.

It’s a lot to take in. With picks and players flying around on one of the busiest deadlines in years, Brand worked the margins and swung for the fences. However it ends up, it was a virtuoso performance for the rookie GM. All the rumors and noise that seems always to surround the Sixers didn’t seem to matter in the end for Brand.

“I don’t care about none of that [stuff]. I just want to play and win.”

 

 

The biggest of the trades is also the most significant risk. Tobias Harris is a free agent at the end of the season and is no guarantee to re-sign with the Sixers. Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic are all free agents once the season as done. Landry Shamet, in the first year of his rookie contract, the Miami pick, and two Detroit second round picks are a huge price to pay for another player who might not be here at the start of the 2019-2020 season. Trading Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala carries less risk. But both players were logging a lot of minutes for the team and integrating almost an entirely new bench will take time. It’s the kind of trade that can define a GM’s career.

The thing is, this is the NBA, and there is absolutely no reward without risk. Yes, Harris and Butler might both leave, and that would be a disaster, but together along with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and JJ Redick they form what is very possibly the second best starting lineup in the entire league.

Tobias Harris is averaging 20.9 points per game while shooting .43% from three on 4.7 attempts. He’s shooting .52% on two-pointers and .87% from the free throw line. Add in 7.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists, and he probably should have made the All-Star game for the Clippers over some names as Klay Thompson and Lamarcus Aldridge. He’s not known as a defender, but at 6’9” and athletic as hell, he is no slouch either. The Sixers had been rotating Chandler and Muscala at the starting power forward slot and Harris represents an enormous upgrade. He is the kind of ultra-efficient scorer that the team has needed at that slot. The offensive capability of the Sixers new starting lineup is a bit mind-boggling.  They will still have issues defensively. Harris doesn’t solve the most pressing need of someone to defend opposing guards, but they will be a matchup nightmare for every team in the NBA.

There haven’t been many groups of players in the NBA you would call a ‘big four.’ In the past, you would have called the group of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green a big four, but the drop off in play from Green makes it seem a little out of place now. Nonetheless, the lineup and egos work for the Warriors because Green doesn’t need to shoot and Thompson doesn’t need to handle the ball. The Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo Celtics could legitimately be called a big four, and they functioned in the same way. Rondo didn’t need to shoot, and neither Allen nor Garnett needed to play with the ball in their hands.

The biggest question facing the rest of the Sixers season is how their new big four will mesh. Joel Embiid is the best of the four and has the highest usage by an order of magnitude. Simmons, Butler, have similar usage numbers, as does Harris with the Clippers. Embiid should continue being the primary option no matter what happens but will need to sacrifice some possessions. Butler, Harris, Simmons, and Redick should spread the wealth equally for whatever doesn’t go through Embiid. Having Chandler in the starting lineup worked well in part because he didn’t really need to touch the ball. He was just out there to shoot the occasional three and try and not turn the ball over. The team now has another mouth to feed.

Likely everyone will drop a few points per game the rest of the season. There are a lot of big egos in the group. Hopefully, they take their cue from Mike Scott yet again.

“I don’t care about none of that [stuff]. I just want to play and win.”

 

 

The luxury of having four players as good as the Sixers have will show up more when their minutes are staggered than when they’re playing together. There should be very few minutes in a game where the Sixers don’t have two of their stars on the floor. My guess is we’ll see a lot of Butler/Embiid and Simmons/Harris minutes. How the rest of the rotations play out will be Brett Brown’s biggest challenge yet.

The Sixers nearly revamped their entire bench across the four deals made by Brand. Landry Shamet was playing 20 minutes a game. Mike Muscala was playing 22. The empty roster spot was averaging zero minutes per game until Corey Brewer came along came along and played 20 minutes a night for a couple of weeks. TJ McConnell is playing around 20, and Jonah Bolden has been playing about 15 of late. Shake Milton, Haywood Highsmith, Furkan Korkmaz, and Amir Johnson were all barely playing. All of that is about to change with the addition Scott, Ennis, Jonathon Simmons, Boban, and very likely someone from the buyout market.

Incorporating five new bench players is no small task. In the absence of a new backup guard, McConnell will likely be the only one whose minutes remain the same. Scott will replace a lot of the minutes that Muscala and Chandler played as stretch fours. Scott can’t slide over to center in a pinch like Muscala, so likely those minutes will be taken by Bolden and Boban. Scott was only playing 14 minutes a game for the Clippers and may see a significant increase. Boban’s 10 minutes a game might jump too, however, his limited ability to switch may hinder him in the Sixers defensive schemes.

J. Simmons and Ennis give the Sixers some functionality they lacked before the trades. Ennis will pick up some of Chandler and Korkmaz’s defensive assignments. He’s a bigger guy and a bit tougher so that will be an added dimension. He’s never been a plus defender, but he should be more competent than Korkmaz, and won’t get treated like a heavily tattooed traffic cone like most guards treated Chandler.

Simmons is probably the highest ceiling / lowest floor of the new bench guys. He has been miserable for the Orlando Magic. He has the lowest effective field goal percentage of anyone in the NBA with enough shots to qualify. He’s shooting .22% from three. His defense has also dropped off from his salad days in San Antonio, at least statistically. On paper he doesn’t look like a very good pickup, however, there is some upside. He was a quality bench defender in San Antonio, and while never a good offensive player, he was better than he is now. The hope is that Brown and the Sixers will be able to get him more engaged and that will lead to improvement. He’s extremely athletic and quick enough to defend guards and at 6’6” big enough to defend most wings. He hasn’t been good, but with the Sixers and their defensive schemes, there is a chance he can be good enough.

The most prominent bench question marks remaining are if they can get another guard in the buyout market and if Zhaire Smith or Justin Patton can make it to the team. Patton has played two games so far with the Delaware Blue Coats in the G-League and has looked as rusty as you would expect, but has shown flashes of the talent that made him a lottery pick of the Chicago Bulls two years ago. Zhaire hasn’t played yet but has been practicing, and videos of him shooting have begun to hit Twitter.

Patton coming back would be a nice deep bench bonus, Smith playing could mean a whole lot more. If he can get back to the kind of quickness he had in college and Summer League, he would be a real boost to the Sixers ability to defend opposing guards, a proposition that is still in doubt after the deadline. If he does play, he’ll be a rookie and will be getting thrown into the fire, and we shouldn’t expect too much. Still, the potential for a late-season defensive pickup is real.

The x-factor is the buyout market. One of the Sixers biggest targets, Wes Matthews, signed with the Pacers almost immediately after being bought out. Wayne Ellington would likely be their next target. Beyond that names like Shelvin Mack and possibly Jeremy Lin will crop up. It’s hard to guess with buyouts, but the Sixers need another win, and that’s the last place to get it.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of personalities to figure out, and rotations to build. The Sixers have only a couple of months to assemble it all into a playoff team. Brown has his work cut out of him, but they have their new mission statement now to replace ‘Here They Come’:

“I don’t care about none of that [stuff]. I just want to play and win.”

 

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The last aspect of the deadline to discuss is easily the saddest. Trading Fultz brings an end to a frustrating and in some ways mystifying era. There have been countless words written about the Fultz situation, quite a few of them by me. He came in looking like the final piece of the puzzle and left as a complete mystery.

I was against trading him to be completely honest. I believe that Fultz has a long and solid NBA career ahead of him. Trading him for expiring contracts as most of the rumors had the Sixers doing seemed shortsighted to me. It was forgone that his trade value was at its lowest ebb, while his potential remains high. The reality, however, is that this is no longer a team that has room for Fultz to grow into. Even if he came back and got himself into shape and could shoot a little, he was at best the backup point guard, and more likely given his inexperience he would be playing behind McConnell in the rotation.

There is a line in the book ‘The Two Towers’ by J.R.R. Tolkien, said by Aragorn to Pippin the hobbit, “One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.” It means that if you can’t let something go, you become its prisoner. The Sixers had become a prisoner of the Fultz saga, and it was time to move on, both for the team and the player.

Going to Orlando takes the spotlight well off of Fultz. He can rehab and hopefully return without the pressures of being the number one overall pick that cost a ton of assets. Now he is merely a player with potential. He won’t be thrust into a high-pressure playoff hunt, nor will he have every move scrutinized. Orlando is an easier market that is merely taking a chance. Philadelphia was likely no longer tenable for Fultz.

Brand getting a player with some upside, a first-round pick that has a good chance of conveying, and a second round for Fultz was almost a miracle in and of itself. It was reported that the Sixers asked for Terrence Ross and Orlando preferred to part with the pick instead. I think that works out better for the Sixers. Ross is nothing special, and the pick helps restock the war chest.

Still, it’s a bittersweet parting. As frustrating as it all was, Fultz was one of our own in the way that any player who goes through that much adversity becomes part of the city that’s behind him.

Last season on a random Monday in March I was at the Wells Fargo Center for the game against the Denver Nuggets. When my editor and I got there we heard the news, Markelle Fultz was going to play that night. He had been inactive since October, and now here he was, ready to play. The buzz in the building that night was incredible. It matched the energy of the playoffs from 2012. It built to a fever pitch and then with 2:54 left in the first quarter, Fultz entered the game. The place was as loud as I’ve ever heard it. There was a spontaneous chant for Fultz mimicking the ‘Skol’ chant of the Minnesota Vikings. Moments later he scored a layup, and the place went bananas.

That game and those moments will forever be some of my favorite Sixers memories. The entire building was behind this kid who couldn’t quite get himself right, but at that moment we all believed.

Sometimes belief isn’t enough. Sometimes trusting the process isn’t enough. With Markelle Fultz, it wasn’t, and here we are, to quote the Tolkien again, “at the end of all things.” I’m glad Fultz was with us, and I wish him the best as he heads off, not for Valinor, but a different Magic Kingdom.

 

The Sixers play the Denver Nuggets at home next. They follow that up with the Lakers on Sunday and then the Boston Celtics on Tuesday and finally the New York Knicks on Wednesday before heading into the all-star break. Three of those will be tough games, and the Sixers have a lot of new parts. It will be a trial by fire for Brown and all his new players. I don’t know what to expect, but one thing is for sure, the Sixers have a whole new look. It’s going to get interesting.

“I don’t care about none of that [stuff]. I just want to play and win.”

 

Jacob Jones-Goldstein has written about the Sixers for Roundballrev.com, loves statistics, and Trusts the Process. He dabbles in fiction, watches a lot of movies, and goes to more concerts than he should. 

 

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