PHILADELPHIA — Keeping it simple has been Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown’s way to describe the adjustment period for the latest incarnation of his team, a squad that has champagne hopes for the coming months.
But at times, this talented bunch looks barely old enough to drink, clumsily trying to find its way following bold gambits in the trade market.
76ers general manager Elton Brand believed his team was ready to take the next step and pressed the fast-forward button on its development and expectations, dealing for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in the last three months. Even though the early returns haven’t been disastrous, it may be a little too hasty to think the 76ers could get to the NBA Finals
The ante was upped and chips were pushed to the center of the table at the trade deadline, with upgrades all around the Eastern Conference and seemingly every transaction challenging the last. But even though the 76ers technically fired the first salvo in acquiring Harris, they seemed to be the team that knew the least about themselves, which made things even rockier.
At times, the 76ers look dangerously dynamic, able to overwhelm opponents from all angles with speed and skill. Others, they look dangerously disinterested.
In short, they look like the biggest chemistry experiment in the league, and they now have six weeks to establish some semblance of togetherness, comfort in roles and a willingness to sacrifice.
“It’s possible, but it’s difficult ... to create habits when five of 12 guys are new,” Brown said after the 76ers’ 130-115 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday afternoon. “That’s not a coach crying. It’s sort of inching along and letting them know in a clear way these are the habits we’re hoping to establish here in Philadelphia. But it’s as much as putting them in a clean environment.”
All-Star center Joel Embiid has been out with knee soreness, so the time to develop a new identity has been scarce.
In Milwaukee, things revolve around Giannis Antetokounmpo and a plethora of shooters, so adding Nikola Mirotic doesn’t upset the cart. Toronto moved the ball splendidly even before picking up Marc Gasol, with Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry as proven performers and Pascal Siakam developing as a do-everything wild card.
Boston is struggling to find consistency, but it has the muscle memory of reaching the conference finals last May.
It’s hard to see what the 76ers’ identity is, aside from having a top-heavy talented five that can rival Golden State. Embiid is the first option, but everything from there becomes muddled. Harris is a complete scorer, while Butler has grown into one the last few years. And JJ Redick still needs to keep defenses honest with enough 3-point shooting.
Ben Simmons? Well, let’s say his trash talk is as effective as his jump shot outside the paint, but he can be a dizzying force when he needs to.
Can all that mesh?
“It’s not tough, we’re all basketball players who have one common goal and that’s to win,” Harris told Yahoo Sports before Saturday’s loss. “It’s gonna take awhile to build chemistry as a collective unit, but this is something that can be special if it comes together the right way. It’s gonna take time, but we’re just feeling each other out.” It’s important to remember that a little over a year ago, the 76ers were 25-25 with Joel Embiid just starting to play back-to-backs, just beginning to establish himself as a reliable interior force. Simmons was getting into petty squabbles — rookie or not a rookie? — giving off glimpses of greatness even with his glaring flaws.
Shortly thereafter, they closed the season on a 16-game winning streak, surprised the Miami Heat in the first round and battled the Boston Celtics in their five-game East semifinal loss.
The “processors” were salivating at the future, wondering how far their youth could take them.
But it’s still all very new — the 76ers struggled to get past New Orleans on Monday night 111-110 — and championship habits or an organizational structure that demands excellence doesn’t develop overnight. It’s difficult to expect players whose main objective appears to be establishing themselves individually to comport themselves with the maturity of mid-career veterans, putting the team above all else.
Stated or not, the acquisitions of Butler and Harris thrust this franchise into the spotlight and a place where merely reaching the second round again will not be cause for celebration — if it indeed gets that far.
In this era of so-called “buddy ball,” clusters of stars have joined together with differing results. But the commonality usually lies in the individuals knowing who they are as players and having some level of stability in their league hierarchy.
In this instance, Butler and Harris will be unrestricted free agents following the season, and Simmons will be eligible for a rookie extension this summer.
For Butler, his arrival gave the 76ers a veteran edge and a potential fourth-quarter closer. But since Harris’ arrival, Butler’s usage rate is seventh on the team, a hair above T.J. McConnell’s. Butler’s efficiency has risen, but he would be the logical ball-handler late in games because he can create shots, get to the line and set up teammates.
For the moment though, he’s floating and taking his opportunities as they come, which doesn’t seem like the best strategy for high-stakes playoff games. With all the drama that’s surrounded him, Butler is trying to be the good soldier and not rock the boat.
“It’s different now. When I played with him with the Bulls, he was the man,” Dwyane Wade told Yahoo after the Miami Heat’s loss to the 76ers last Thursday. “He was a young guy coming up, had some success, he’s an All-Star. He was ‘The Guy’. Here, they got a lot of guys, so he has to play that plug.
“And then he has that opportunity like you see where they just let him go. He has to play that game. You can’t come to a team like this and expect to play your same game. Tobias Harris, you know? You have to find a way to spot greatness in spot moments. Chicago ... it was a lot of young guys and Jimmy had to be a guy who did it every night for us.”
Wade was part of a ragtag group that won a title in 2006, when the Heat added Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Jason Williams — but not at the deadline. In a sense, all of the teams in the East are fighting history.
Only Pau Gasol with the Lakers in 2008 and Rasheed Wallace with the 2004 Pistons were impact acquisitions that helped their teams to the Finals or a championship in the same season.
“It’s tough. I don’t think it’s been done, from a standpoint of a team coming together this late and winning a championship,” Wade said. “But from a talent standpoint, they’re as talented as they get, especially in the Eastern Conference. Obviously with them being healthy, we’ll see. It’s tough. It’s definitely tough. Because everyone has to accept their roles and be great in their roles. You have a short amount of time to figure that out.”
Talking the talk
“I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games … because I’m here.”
— Celtics guard Kyrie Irving after a 126-116 loss to the Bulls on Saturday. Insert joke here … or believe in Irving’s confidence until Boston goes to the Bay Area.
1. The Lakers’ young players have taken heat for their recent struggles, but Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram have performed better than their averages since LeBron James returned from a groin injury. The team defense is horrible and they don’t look organized. Maybe that’s the issue?
2. If the Lakers miss the playoffs, can we still say LeBron is the best player in basketball? That title will be up for grabs with Kevin Durant looking ready to snatch it.
3. Left for dead no more: The Detroit Pistons, winners of eight of their last 10, are separating themselves from the bottom of the pack as the No. 7 seed with center Andre Drummond totally locked in for the longest stretch of his career.
4. Lauri Markkanen: 26.5 points, 12.5 rebounds in February on 49/38/93 splits. Will he be a 2020 All-Star? (Maybe Zach LaVine, too?)
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