September 22, 2018
"We want to play in the NBA Finals," Brett Brown told reporters on the first day of training camp Saturday, laying out the team's goal for the upcoming season. If you were expecting the head coach to come out and dial back expectations after Joel Embiid named the Finals as his goal on media day, think again.
Aspirational thinking is an organizational habit at this point. The Sixers expected last year's playoff push before most were prepared to factor them into that picture, their stars talk of winning MVPs and Defensive Player of the Year awards, and their recent GM hire is on some level a swing for the fences, a chance on an up-and-comer many in their position would not have taken.
Brown has been to the promised land of the Finals before as an assistant, and he knows exactly what it takes to get there. From his view, that means the Sixers have to start establishing expectations and habits now in order to make it happen.
"As I've said to you, we feel we could have played in the NBA Finals [last season]. I understand the magnitude of that statement, but I stand by it and I own it. It is our goal to go play in an NBA final. It's a respect of championship habits, it's a respect of each other, and there are a lot of pieces that clearly have to be involved for us to achieve such a high goal, but that's our goal."
None of the players who spoke with the media after Brown backed down from the challenge even a little bit. In fact, they moved in the other direction — questioned by a reporter on whether it was a reachable goal or not, Ben Simmons scoffed at the notion that the team would set a goal they didn't feel was within reach.
Talk and posturing are all well and good, and it takes a certain degree of belief (rational or otherwise) to succeed at the highest levels in sports. Now it's up to Brown and his players to deliver on that belief, because the pressure they'll face this season will be higher on every front. Fans will demand more, analysts will not accept as many excuses, and the rope will be shorter for players who aren't delivering every night. They will no longer be the young team that can sneak up on everybody, and instead will have a target on their backs as one of the presumed top teams in the East.
So there's nothing like inviting that pressure starting on the very first day of camp. Say this about Brown and Co. — they aren't afraid of the spotlight.
• Markelle Fultz's jumper remains at the forefront of everyone's minds to start camp, and when reporters were allowed in at the end of practice No. 1 we got a glimpse of his shooting stroke. For those of you who have seen the new form he showed off in a recent Players Tribune video — I assume it's most of you — it looked identical to what you saw in that clip.
OMG MARKELE FULTZ’S JUMPER HAS BEEN REVEALED!!!! pic.twitter.com/OaCpZYPCNp— Drew Corrigan (@Dcorrigan50) September 20, 2018
The only unfortunate thing is that Fultz retreated to the weight room shortly after reporters entered the room, so we didn't get an extended look at it. But regardless of what you think of the new form, it says something that he was out there shooting NBA-range threes even if it was just for a moment. For much of last season, he actively avoided shooting altogether, so the comfort level is clearly worlds ahead.
Also worth mentioning here: Drew Hanlen was waiting for Fultz in the weight room, where the Sixers have another basket on the wall that they often use to go through shooting exercises with their players. The trainer's presence during camp is noteworthy, if for no other reason that it shows the constant work being put in to have Fultz prepared for this season.
• Ben Simmons was working on free throws while a good chunk of reporters were talking to Sixers players, but The Athletic's Mike O'Connor got a good clip of Simmons working on his free throws on the far court. His form looks quite a bit different than it did last season or at any point during his amateur career.
Ben Simmons’ free throw motion looks notably different from last year. Says he worked on keeping his elbow tucked and keeping the ball on his left side. pic.twitter.com/64raeO5BM3— Mike O'Connor (@MOConnor_NBA) September 22, 2018
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder here. Moving to more of a one-motion shot with a tucked elbow is a positive step, but the total absence of leg use and the push motion leave a lot to be desired.
Ultimately, all anyone is going to care about is whether it goes in, so I'll reserve judgement here until we see what the results look like under the lights.
• Looking at the group the Sixers have in for camp, it struck me that there are a lot more shooters around here compared to this time last season. Some of those players will hit the road sooner rather than later — shooting 41.2 percent from three in the G League isn't going to keep Anthony Brown around long-term — but the Sixers seemingly have a lot more flexibility in who they can bring in a game to space the floor.
With all due respect to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Landry Shamet looks a lot more natural in the spot next to JJ Redick during cooldown shooting drills. Between Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz, and even two-way guys like Shake Milton, the Sixers have a much deeper reservoir of shooting than they've had in a while.
• Let's end on a less impactful note — for the second straight day, Joel Embiid was spotted rocking Under Armour sneakers around the practice facility. For those of you who pay attention to this sort of thing, Embiid has been an adidas guy so far in his career, and this isn't the sort of thing that happens on accident.
From my understanding, Embiid is still currently a "free agent" on the shoe front as he deliberates his next move. With his old deal presumably expiring at the end of this month, a lot of rookie shoe contracts have right of first refusal and match clauses built in, so there's a possibility Embiid could simply be leveraging Under Armour to get more money out of his current partner. Big men aren't traditionally big shoe sellers, so who knows how impactful that sort of move would actually be.
Could Under Armour be angling to make him one of their signature guys alongside Steph Curry? Who knows. I'm sure the only thing most people care about is Embiid's health in whatever brand he ends up wearing and not the amount of zeroes on his next shoe contract.
(For the record, if any athletic brands are reading this, feel free to send your boy some free gear at any time. I'm the Dave Chappelle of accepting sneakers.)
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