PHILADELPHIA >> Brett Brown hasn’t spent a lifetime in basketball without learning how to draw up and call out a play. So when he ordered his most recent, it would not, could not be without the necessary preparation.
The play was simple. The play-call was Gabe Kapler bold.
“We are,” Brown said, in one of his earliest nights as an NBA general manager, “star hunting.”
Brown is from Maine, but he has immersed himself in Philadelphia, its basketball culture and its people. So he knew before that slogan left his mouth that it might just as well have been tattooed on his face, Mike Tyson style. It was not going away. It was never going away.
And it was not meant to go away.
That’s why with every day that passes, it is clearer that the Sixers will find a way to add a player with the capability to escort them promptly into the NBA Finals. That would be Kawhi Leonard, a top-five talent, a player with the assortment of basketball gifts the Sixers most need.
Those signals, all coming rapidly in recent days:
■ Leonard was not, as per his presumed wish, traded to the Lakers. Though NBA reality still holds that the superstars rule and thus the two-time defensive player of the year could still get his way, Gregg Popovich is not likely to run his best player through Western Conference recycling. With that, reports are that his asking price for Leonard is substantially steeper in the Pacific time zone, making it all but prohibitive for Magic Johnson to pair Leonard with LeBron James. Instead, the momentum is shifting toward L.A. instead adding Carmelo Anthony. And ESPN is reporting that James has given Johnson the all-clear to back off from the Leonard bidding.
■ Brown has been oddly quiet since beginning his star-search. Yet sources close to him know him to be maintaining a high degree of excitement about what it coming next for the Sixers.
■ The Vegas know-it-alls are showing their belief that Leonard will land in Camden.
“We’ve taken a good amount of sharp money on the Sixers recently,” Scott Cooley, spokesperson for online gambling website BetDSI, said in an e-mailed statement. “There’s no telling what’s going to happen as there are a ton of moving parts, but we saw the same guys firing at L.A. late with the LeBron odds.
“The square bettors have been all over the place for this prop, but they read the news and react to it so they’ve been betting Philly. Plus, the possibility of creating a second superteam in the East creates excitement they want to be a part of.”
BetDSI has the Sixers at 2-1 to trade for Leonard, the Celtics at 3-1, the Lakers at 12-1. It’s 5-1 he remains in San Antonio. Follow the money.
The Sixers would need to invest heavily to acquire Leonard. Dario Saric, whose rebounding instincts and court vision occasionally inspired visions of Larry Bird, almost certainly would go to San Antonio. But Brown has made it clear, literally from the day after the Sixers’ season ended, of his demand.
“I think that another high-level free agent is required,” he said at an end-of-the-season press conference. “And I feel like we have the ability to attract one.” He added, “We don’t have to turn this into calculus. It’s quite clear.”
Leonard is not a free agent. But he is a developing Hall of Famer able to provide Brown that player he needs and, for this year, anyway, end that star-search … the one he never hesitated to advertise.
So Brown is still the interim general manager, and is finding out quickly why any draft is risky.
In his first opportunity, he wound up with three players and a draft pick. Two of those are injured already.
Second-round pick Shake Milton, a 6-foot-6 perimeter threat from SMU, was found to have a stress fracture in his back, causing him to miss the Las Vegas Summer League. Then, first-round choice Landry Shamet, the guard from Wichita State, injured his ankle in the first summer exhibition and will be lost for up to three weeks.
The Sixers are off to an 0-2 start in the Las Vegas Summer League. But first-round draft choice Zahire Smith has impressed with his length and athleticism. He scored 16 in a 96-79 loss Saturday to the Lakers.