Appreciating the Little Things: Five Things to Watch in the Sixers-Bulls Series

Appreciating the Little Things: Five Things to Watch in the Sixers-Bulls Series

Already getting a sense of deja vu, perhaps? That's because this column
is going to be remarkably similar to the ones I wrote before the Sixers'
first-round series against the Heat in 2011 and against the Magic in 2009
(and it would have been remarkably similar to the one I wrote before
the Pistons series in 2008, if I was writing for the Level at the time.)
As Ace Hood might say, it's the same s---, just a different
post-season. 
The Sixers aren't going to win this series, and even hoping
that they will seems oddly unfair. All we can really hope is that the
boys hustle hard and try not to embarrass themselves (and by extension
us) too badly.

Of course, this series is a little different than the last three
first-rounders the Sixers have played, but it's not in a good way. In
those other three series, the Sixers even making the playoffs was
considered exceeding expectations. In '08, they did so in their first
full year without Allen Iverson, in '09, they did so after suffering the
crushing disappointment of big free agent landing Elton Brand's subpar
play (and subsequent re-injury), and in '11, they did so a year after
being one of the worst teams in the East. 
In 2012, however, they're
coming from the other direction—they were always expected to make the
playoffs, and for a while there, they were even expected to win a round
(or possibly even two).

Well, no more—now that the once-discombobulated NBA has sobered,
they see that the Sixers ain't that fine after all, and now people are
giving them even less credit against the Bulls than they were given
against the Heat last year. 
It's hard to really contradict them—up until
their recent four-game win streak, which they only get half-credit for
due to it being the end of the season and three of their opponents
having already thrown in the towel, the Sixers have been miserable for
the last few months, not just the worst team in the playoffs but one of
the worst teams in the league, losing to the Wizards and Raptors by
about 20 each and getting creamed in must-wins against the Celtics and
Magic. And oh yeah, the Bulls are really good, winning 50 games despite
playing nearly half their season without reigning MVP Derrick Rose.

So yeah, we're probably going home in the first round this year,
like we've done in each of our last four playoff appearances. As such,
it doesn't really make sense to break down matchups and go nuts with the
stats and the like. So let's just talk about what to watch in this
series, both for the sake of the Sixers having a fighting chance of
advancing, and for where they go after these playoffs, in what should
(could?) be the most pivotal off-season in recent Sixers memory.

  • How long does Lavoy Allen start at center? That's right:
    Temple's own Lavoy Allen, Mr. 500 himself, is expected to be the Sixers'
    starting pivot. It's a somewhat perplexing move, considering the
    front-line advantage the Bulls have on Philly even with a seven-footer
    like Spencer Hawes or Nik Vucevic in the starting lineup, but Coach Doug
    Collins' bench-fetishizing knows no bounds, and it certainly will be a
    weapon to be able to bring two trees like Hawes and Vuc in against the
    Bulls' second unit. You do have to wonder if Hawes on the bench means
    that Collins does not see him as part of the team's long-term plans, and
    if consequently the team does not plan on retaining his services this
    off-season. It's not exactly a vote of confidence. 
  • Who takes Derrick Rose? Ideally, it should be Jrue
    Holiday, who has shown flashes of being a lockdown perimeter defender
    and would certainly allow the Sixers to maximize their other defensive
    advantages elsewhere. The last time Rose played the Sixers, however, he
    shredded the Damaja, and Collins was forced to switch Andre Iguodala
    onto him before long. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing a little bit of
    Evan Turner on Rose either—Evan can't stay with Jrue on the perimeter,
    but he can prevent him from getting to the basket (or at least funnel
    him to a help big), and force him to take jumpers. And if he's hitting
    those, it's pretty much game over anyway. 
  • How much does Coach Collins rely on Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and Lou Williams?
    In my mind, none of these guys are getting this team to the next level,
    none of these guys are going to be on this team in 12 months, and if
    we're not going to win this round anyway, none of these guys should be
    the go-to options in crunch time. Much preferable would be letting our
    young guys get that much-coveted (though in all truth, probably
    much-overrated) Playoff Experience to hopefully allow them to grow
    together into a core that can honestly compete in a future playoff
    series. If it really is those three guys, Jodie Meeks and Thaddeus Young
    down the stretch, with our late-game offense consisting of isos for
    'Dre or Sour Patch Lou...it's gonna be a little hard for me to be
    terribly invested in whether this team wins or not. 
  • How much does our team still feel like fighting for Coach Collins?
    Last year, the fight in this team was never in question, and their
    series-clinching loss to the Heat was so emotional in its sheer heart
    and humanity that I called it the "Best Loss Ever." This year, the team
    has shown a definite (and highly discouraging) willingness to throw in
    the towel on their coach, to let a big lead get bigger and watch a game
    fade out beyond the horizon. Will they show the same heart down the
    stretch against the Bulls this post-season, even in semi-inevitable
    defeat? The answer to that question will likely have a great deal of
    bearing on what Doug Collins' future is with this team for next season
    and beyond. 
  • Who the f--- is Evan Turner, really? Is there anything
    this guy could do that would surprise you at this point? I'd believe
    you if you told me that he wins the Sixers two games single-handedly,
    posting a pair of 28-15 games and clamping down Derrick Rose on D, just
    like I'd believe you if you told me that he shoots 27% for the entire
    series, posts twice as many turnovers as assists, and sees his minutes
    slashed to ten a game by series' end. If there's any X Factor to this
    series, it's certainly the Extraterrestrial, and though it's probably
    not enough for the Sixers to win either way, it could have a fair bit of
    bearing on how the organization views Turner going into the off-season,
    and whether they feel like his emergence means they can finally afford
    to cut the cord with Andre Iguodala, or whether his continually
    frustrating play means maybe they're better off shopping him elsewhere.

As disappointing as this season has ended up, and as little a
chance as I feel they have in this series—again, I peg it optimistically
at around 15 to 1—I still plan on enjoying watching this team in the
post-season, and so should you. 
For better or worse, this team very well
might not look like this for much longer, and even if they have too
many flaws to ultimately eclipse the Bulls, I believe they'll make it a
close, eminently watchable series. 
The 12th draft pick might've been
nice, but watching your team play basketball in May is not without its
charms either, and I believe the Sixers will give us the pleasure of one
and very possibly two wins in this series. 
1:00 tip-off from the United
Center. Go Ballers.

Elton Brand on national anthem protests: Sixers working with NBA, having 'discussions internally'

Elton Brand on national anthem protests: Sixers working with NBA, having 'discussions internally'

CAMDEN, N.J. — Pockets of NBA players have increasingly started to speak up about what they believe to be racial and social injustices taking place in the United States.

With San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem sparking protests from other players around the NFL and various sports, now the NBA as a whole is preparing for potential protests prior to games.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association union executive director Michele Roberts came together last week to formulate a joint letter to players to express how the two sides plan to take "meaningful action."

Whatever that action is, Sixers veteran Elton Brand is all for it and the overall discussion of issues going on around the country.

"There are e-mails and direct texts from the NBPA. We’re working with the NBA. They’re going to talk to us soon,” Brand said. “My thing is if you want to stand up for something, that’s a good thing. Especially in America, the tensions and the injustices that are going on right now. 

“Even in our locker room we’re discussing who feels like this, who feels like what and ways that we can display how we feel about things. I’m all for it. I stand behind it and stand with other athletes and people that want to stand for a cause. Whatever their cause is, they want to stand for a cause. Our cause may be different.”

The NBA is significantly more diverse than the NFL, and Brand even admitted it’s been an eye-opening experience having talks about issues affecting African Americans inside a locker room with players from around the globe.

“We have a lot of international players,” he said. “I’m looking around the room and there are seven people that aren’t from this country. So you talk about the flag, talk about the constitution and to them it’s like, ‘I represent America because I’m working here, but I’m pro-Spain and I have problems there, too.’ We’re all sorting it out. We’ve had discussions internally also. I’m looking forward to what the NBPA and the NBA have to offer."

What the league and players association come up with will likely serve as something other than protesting during the actual anthem. Unlike the NFL, the NBA has a rule in place that explicitly states players, coaches and trainers must stand on the foul line or sidelines in a dignified posture during the playing of national anthems.

If Sixers players do ultimately decide on some sort of protest before games, they will have the support of the organization to express their rights.

"We haven't been together collectively long enough to have a real robust discussion about it," Sixers president Bryan Colangelo said. "I think we just addressed it briefly this morning with the players in an opportunity to say the following. Basically, we as an organization are going to be supportive of the views of our players. As the league and the players association formulate perhaps an approach, they've already circulated some information to teams. Things are probably still at the discussion phase. I hope to think that's where things are with our players, that they're still at the discussion phase. 

"Once again, I'm assuming that there will be a desire to express an opinion or viewpoint. I've always been supportive of people in society having freedom to express a viewpoint. Again, going back to the league and the players association, in a positive way I think they've always been out in front of some of these social issues and if they can affect social change in a positive way they probably will. You can just anticipate that there's still some unknowns to this, but you can estimate that we will be supportive as an organization as to how our players want to express their views."

Joel Embiid expects to play in Sixers' preseason opener

Joel Embiid expects to play in Sixers' preseason opener

CAMDEN, N.J. — The long wait could be over next week.

Joel Embiid expects to play in the Sixers' first preseason game Oct. 4 at UMass-Amherst against the Celtics, he said Monday at media day.

“The first thing for me is just get back on the court,” Embiid said of his expectations this season. “It looks like in a couple days I’m going to have the chance to do that.”

Embiid has missed the past two seasons since being drafted third overall because of foot injuries. Even though he is taking his rookie year one step at a time, he has a positive long-term outlook given how healthy he feels. 

“I’m confident that I’m going to have a long, successful career,” he said. “From what it looks like right now, I’m going to have a 20-year career.”

Embiid has grown as a player and a person during his recovery. He noted had he been competing in an 82-game season, he would not have had as much time to dedicate on his development. As a result of the specialized workouts and the hours he has spent in an individual practice format, he has improved his shooting and gained strength and speed. 

“What I was two years ago, I’m not even close to what I am right now,” he said. “My game has gotten so much better ... I’m not the same guy. I’m different.”

Embiid has been following a well-mapped out rehab plan during which he has had to adhere to restrictions, and will continue to do so this season. He admits the restrictions have been frustrating, but he now understands they are being implemented for his best interest long term. The lengthy recovery has forced him to change his outlook on maintaining his health. 

“The main thing I learned about myself is, I could be patient,” Embiid said. “When I was first doing my rehab, going through that, the only thing I thought about was getting back on the court. I would try to get back on the court and play more than I was supposed to. After the doctor [said] you had to heal well and I needed the second surgery, that’s when I told myself be patient and do whatever I can and make sure I listen to what people have to say.”

Head coach Brett Brown wants Embiid to become the “crown jewel” of the defense. Embiid, who stands at a towering 7-foot-2, 275 pounds, is ready to embrace those expectations. He has studied tape of Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, among others. Embiid likes the game of Marc Gasol and appreciates how DeAndre Jordan communicates as a big man. 

“I love playing defense,” he said. “I hate when the other team scores.”

Embiid's debut will be the culmination of years of work. Now that the season is approaching, he is eager to count down the days. 

“I’m really excited,” Embiid said. “I’ve gone through a lot and it’s been two years. The fact that I’m healthy now and ready to get back on the court, I just can’t wait.”