The Philadelphia 76ers entered the season as one of the most interesting teams in the league, nearly earning a trip to the Eastern Conference finals a year ago with two of the biggest young stars in the NBA who were only going to get better.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid had pulled the 76ers out of the depths of a painful rebuild, and they were one of the favorites to make a run at the NBA Finals this season.
But there were murmurs that everything wasn’t OK, that personality conflicts between the team’s top two stars would threaten their championship future. An early-season trade for Jimmy Butler, a two-way star who left a wake of bad feelings in Chicago and Minnesota, made things even more complicated.
This week, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said that getting his team’s players on the same page was the challenge occupying the biggest space in his brain.
“What’s most, by a mile, lately on my mind, is the growth of a team and the cohesion and the ability to share in someone else’s success — and the ability to communicate candidly. To coexist. That’s all I care about,” Brown said.
“We’re coming together. We have a new opportunity. And you just don’t click your heels and ‘You’re going to throw Jimmy Butler in and everyone is going to be playing the same way and the same style.’ It just don’t work like that. My job is to grow a team.
“Playing together is what’s always, by a long shot, most on my mind.”
But how together are the 76ers?
Wednesday against the Clippers, Simmons whacked Embiid in the face when the two players tried to chase down a rebound, with Embiid visibly frustrated with the play. And, days later, ESPN reported that Butler challenged Brown and how the 76ers’ offense is structured during a film session.
With Philadelphia, Butler is attempting 13.9 shots per game, the fewest he’s taken since his third season in the NBA. His rebounding and assist numbers are also down.
“The thing that’s easy is that he’s a talent and he’s a competitor. He thinks like we try to think defensively. So, the fit is natural,” Brown said of Butler. “The challenge is obvious. The ecosystem of Joel and Ben Simmons and JJ Redick, integrating all that together, is the challenge.”
The 76ers traded their best two role players, Dario Saric and Robert Covington, to get Butler, who will almost certainly opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
There’s a tight timetable to keep Philadelphia on the level of Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Indiana. If it doesn’t work, there’s no guarantee that Butler and the 76ers are a long-term match.
Rivers finds a home
Former Clippers guard Austin Rivers has landed in Houston, and with Chris Paul and Eric Gordon injured, Rivers has made an immediate impact.
Washington traded Rivers to Phoenix as part of the deal for Trevor Ariza, and the Suns immediately reached a buyout agreement, making Rivers a free agent.
Rivers said he chose Houston over Golden State, Orlando, Memphis and Milwaukee.
In his first five games with the Rockets, Rivers is averaging 12.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists, a natural fit in the team’s isolation-based offense.
“I don’t know where he came from,” James Harden joked. “He fits in well with what we’re trying to do.”