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June 14, 2019

Lessons the Sixers (and the entire NBA) can take from 2019 NBA Finals

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Kawhi-Leonard_061419_usat Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard celebrates with the Larry O'Brien Trophy after beating the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals.

It took mere minutes following the conclusion of Toronto's NBA Finals victory for reports to circulate about teams threatening to poach Raptors GM Masai Ujiri. If that wasn't a clear enough message, here it is in direct fashion — the NBA offseason has officially begun.

The Sixers have had some time to collect their thoughts and build a plan heading into this important period of the calendar, but that doesn't mean they would have taken their eye off of the games being played. Experiencing something yourself is a great way to learn, but observing from the people you're chasing for success is a tried and true tradition in the world of sports. You can't always hire the industry leader for every position in your organization, but you can certainly observe patterns of other successful teams to inform your teambuilding.

We won't see another real NBA game until October, but here are a few things for the Sixers to chew on until then.

There is no such thing as inevitability

One of the big knocks against the NBA in recent years has been the suggestion that it wasn't worth watching the games knowing what the outcome would be at the end of it all. The Warriors were the big, bad bully on the block, so why bother tuning into the games? Why bother making moves to win and compete now when this unstoppable machine is ready to cut you down?

As it turns out, the Warriors were not so inevitable after all. Yes, they were hit a devastating wave of injuries at the worst possible time, and there's certainly no guarantee that Toronto wins if they go up against a fully-loaded Warriors team. But that's why you actually play the games. You don't win the championship on paper, you do it by outlasting the league's other 29 teams over 82 regular-season games and a minimum of 16 playoff games.

Even if we throw out the Finals because of the health problems the Warriors faced, we saw examples of this throughout the rest of the playoffs. Durant's injury was not enough for the Rockets to get past the Warriors in Round 2. Jusuf Nurkic's injury was thought to be a death sentence for Portland, yet they dispatched of the Thunder easily and upset the Nuggets on the road in a Game 7 to go to the West Finals. This was a multi-round experience for the Raptors — the Milwaukee Bucks were a metrics juggernaut all season, with the splits of a championship team, but Toronto refused to bow at their altar.

This is certainly not an excuse to just throw caution to the wind when building your team. Potential dynasties can collapse if you mortgage the future for one crack at a title and come up short.

But in a profession where the margins are thin at the highest levels, there is no sense in running scared from the competition. Assemble the best team you can, and let the chips fall where they may. Klay Thompson has been one of the league's iron men, but he's now out for the foreseeable future because of a freak play. 

Nothing is certain.

Proactive health management is essential

When a fan purchases a ticket for a game to see their favorite team or player, nobody wants to hear the words "load management" pop up during pregame. I don't think anyone wants to hear that phrase, really, because even on the media side it's a lot more fun to cover games when both teams are at full strength.

Do you think Raptors fans care about the 22 regular season games Kawhi Leonard missed this season right now, though? Keeping their best player in tip-top condition for the part of the season that really mattered is a big reason why the Raptors are taking home their first title in franchise history.

The Sixers worked Joel Embiid hard in the early part of the season this year, with the big man leading the NBA in minutes during the opening period of the season. It allowed him to put up wild numbers and butt his way into the MVP conversation, but the wear and tear eventually disrupted his season and played a part in Philadelphia exiting in the second round.

Though we have yet to see what the end result will be, this has been one of the themes of Philadelphia's offseason. When they parted ways with Dr. Daniel Medina (VP of Athlete Care) and Dr. David Martin (Director of Performance Research and Development), a source told PhillyVoice the Sixers were looking for someone who would guide their health decisions in "a progressive way." At exit interviews, Elton Brand and Embiid both discussed the importance of resting more and prepping for the stretch run.

This idea does not exist on its own, however, and relies on factors beyond the big man himself.


MORE: 2020 NBA Finals Odds: Sixers considered third-best bet in East


Every pick and transaction matters

If this wasn't abundantly clear after watching Bryan Colangelo personally burn down Philadelphia's asset collection, this point should be clear now. Toronto's story is years in the making, made possible by mastering the margins and waiting for their opportunity to strike.

You've heard the stories many times over by now. Fred Van Vleet was an undrafted free agent, yet he ended up being the best bench player and a critical role player in the Finals. Pascal Siakam was taken one pick after Furkan Korkmaz in 2016, but it was his emergence this season that empowered the Raptors to rest Kawhi Leonard as often as they did, with Siakam's defensive versatility helping to offset Leonard's absence on a given night.

The trades Toronto made to build that core were a product of their drafting and developing as well. Leonard doesn't come to Toronto if they don't turn a raw DeMar DeRozan into a flawed but productive All-Star. Marc Gasol isn't in place if they don't have a younger and talented center to send back (Jonas Valanciunas) along with a guard (Delon Wright) who they plucked in the middle of the first round. The proof is in the smaller moves too — in 2015, the Raptors traded Greivis Vasquez, now out of the league, for the picks that became OG Anunoby and Norm Powell.

Whether this front office can win at the same rate the Raptors have is up for debate. With Brown running the show last draft, they snagged a good young shooter in Landry Shamet and got great value in the trade for Zhaire Smith (with the on-court value of that swap yet to be decided). Brand has had some small wins of his own, like the acquisition of James Ennis, while the starry trades were risks whose ultimate value will be determined soon enough.

The Raptors continued to win without Leonard on the floor this season, while the Sixers flounder anytime Embiid is not on the floor. To get to a place where the Sixers can feel safe resting Embiid as often as they should, they need to build continuity as a group, improve their depth, and find a backup center who can at least offer a reasonable impression of his defense.

That is not easy to accomplish in one offseason, by the way. 

Yes, everyone needs to be a threat to shoot

At the top end, the Warriors have the greatest shooting backcourt the league has ever seen. With Durant on the floor, that advantage is even more pronounced.

So what did Toronto do in the Finals? They blitzed the hell out of Steph Curry and left Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green open, daring them to beat them as shooters. More often than not, they failed to do that, and in many cases, they never even looked up at the rim before making the pass to the next man.

The Sixers are building around a post-up center. Whether it's Ben Simmons or anybody else they put on the floor, they need to earn respect from opponents as shooters, period.


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