Sizing Up the Sixers (28-51):
Even though they’re currently carrying the youngest roster (by age) in the NBA, the 76ers are still very much a more seasoned group than they have been in the past.
One of the priorities for the team entering this season was to incorporate proven veterans into a promising young core. The front office’s subsequent transactions reflected this objective, as the Sixers went about adding the likes of Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, and Sergio Rodriguez via free agency.
Once the campaign got under way, more experience came on board. The Sixers traded for Ersan Ilyasova, who ended up spending 53 games with the club, during the second week of the season, then later acquired Tiago Splitter, a 32-year old with over a decade of professional basketball on his resume, towards the end of February.
Over the course of the year, Brett Brown has appreciated having at his disposal a contingent of players with several hundred games under their respective belts. Their collective presence and perspective have been valued, and welcomed. In previous seasons, such a dynamic didn’t exist to this extent.
“Veterans,” Brown said, “can remind people of what’s most important, fix what we did last, and deliver it to this court.”
As for how involved each veteran has been in the Sixers’ rotation this season, it varies by the individual.
Upon his arrival, Ilyasova was swiftly inserted into a starting role, and had a positive impact on the team’s fortunes before being dealt to Atlanta. Henderson, despite battling pesky left hip soreness throughout the year, is on-pace for his most efficient shooting season to-date, particularly from the perimeter. Rodriguez, up until he was recently sidelined with left hamstring tightness, had served as the Sixers’ dependable, bouncy, energetic back-up point guard.
Bayless, however, was unable to stay healthy this season, his ninth as a pro. During training camp, he began feeling pain in his left wrist, an issue that never fully went away. The combo guard looked into a variety of options, but ultimately needed surgery. His contributions were limited to three games the week of Thanksgiving.
Splitter, included as part of the swap that moved Ilyasova to the Hawks on February 22nd, has overcome injuries of his own this year. He was cleared for his first game action in roughly 14 months on March 28th, and has since gone on to log minutes in six of the Sixers’ past seven contests.
Earlier this week, Brown said situations have “come up all the time” this season in which, as a coach, he’s seen the Sixers’ older guard productively influence their younger counterparts. One such example occurred in the aftermath of Tuesday’s “distasteful” outing against Brooklyn, in which the Sixers open their four-game homestand with a 141-118 loss.
Henderson, according to Brown, was someone who helped get the team re-focused.
“Gerald has a large part to do with that from a leadership perspective,” said the fourth-year head coach.
While there wasn’t much that went the Sixers’ way in the setback to the Nets, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot emerged as a bright spot. He tallied a team-best 19 points, 14 of which he produced after intermission.
That night, the rookie wasn’t pleased with his personal efforts during the first half. In the back of his mind, there was a factor motivating him to finish strong.
“Brooklyn, I started really bad,” said Luwawu-Cabarrot. “In the halftime, I remember I came back into the locker room. I can’t keep going like this, because these [veterans] are just going to be on my back all week. To bounce back, that’s how they help.”
The 21-year old Frenchman specifically credited Bayless, Henderson, and Robert Covington for acting as sounding boards for him throughout his first season in the NBA. Behind solid internal support, Luwawu-Cabarrot has positioned himself to cap the year in promising form. He’s cranked out 79 total points over his past four games.
“Just by talking and giving advice,” said Luwawu-Cabarrot, when asked this week how the Sixers’ vets have affected his growth. “Jerryd more being like a bully, yelling at me when I do things, or being on my back all the time when I do something bad, always on me, on my back. He gives me the thing to react, and that’s great.”
Although near the end of what is only his second season in the NBA, T.J. McConnell has certainly shown encouraging leadership traits, between the hustle he constantly brings to the court, and the way he gets it to rub off on his fellow teammates. He, too, has found the Sixers’ influx of veteran players to be beneficial.
“Just having guys that have been through it helps out tremendously, pretty much showing us the ropes,” said McConnell.
Mentorship moments, McConnell said, happen all over the place – in film sessions, practices, games, and off-court settings as well.
“They’ll point out something that you might not even see, but they’ve been doing this for so long that they’ll point it out, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t see that,’” said McConnell. “Just looking up to them, having them as role models in the locker room, and being there for us, it’s helped out a lot.”
“It’s been a good season,” Henderson said Thursday. “It’s had its highs and lows. Overall, I think it’s been a good year, a fun year.”
In his first season with his hometown NBA team, and eighth overall in the league, Henderson believes the Sixers should be optimistic in respect to what lies ahead.
“I think we’ve got a really good group, and I was happy to be here this season,” he said. “I think we’ve got a bright future. I think we’ve kind of created a base for ourselves in how we want to play, and we just need to continue to build on that.”
The infusion of veterans like Henderson has perhaps moved things forward at a slightly faster pace, part of the Sixers’ hopes for this year all along.
Sizing Up the Bucks (41-38):
A resoundingly successful March was timely for Milwaukee, which relied on an NBA-best 14 wins last month to propel itself into post-season contention. As of Saturday morning, the Bucks sat sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, just one game behind the Atlanta Hawks for fifth place, but also just one game ahead of the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, which share seventh.
Currently, the Bucks’ magic number is one. Should they win one more game, and the ninth-place Miami Heat lose one more contest, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. would guarantee themselves a trip to the playoffs for the second time in three years under head coach Jason Kidd.
Antetokounmpo’s ascension to All-Star status has not only been arguably the leading headline for Milwaukee this season, but one of the top 2016-2017 NBA subplots as well. The 22-year old jack-of-all-trades point-forward has spun together a dazzling stat line, averaging 23.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game, on top of shooting 52.3 percent from the field.
Antetokounmpo was tabbed Eastern Conference Player of the Month for March, and is on-pace to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Garnett as the only players in history to ever reach the aforementioned statistical averages in the same season.
Bucks’ guard Malcolm Brogdon has been mentioned in conversations for Rookie of the Year. He moved into the starting line-up amidst Milwaukee’s breakout month of March, and accounts for 10.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. The Virginia product, however, has already been ruled out for Saturday’s tilt (back soreness).
The Sixers entered this season having dropped nine consecutive games to Milwaukee. Now, with one meeting left between the Eastern Conference foes, the Sixers are vying for their first series victory over the Bucks since the lockout-shortened 2012 slate.
In each prior match-up this season, the road team has prevailed. Back in January, the Sixers posted two triumphs at BMO Harris Bradley Center (113-104, and 114-109) in the span of two weeks. On March 6th, the Sixers endured a 112-98 defeat to Milwaukee at The Center.
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