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Can Sixers’ Assistant Sam Cassell bring some ‘Clutch City’ to Philly’s young core?

Cassell had ice water in his veins as a player. Which young player could emerge as a fearless shot maker for the Sixers on the biggest stage?

Houston Rockets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sixers have assembled a coaching staff this year that includes marquee names like championship winner, Doc River. But some of the assistants Doc has brought onboard are impressive as well. Dave Joeger is here, he comes with an impressive head coaching resume and is known for being a great X’s and O’s mind. Popeye Jones enjoyed a long career as a player before he entered the coaching rank and comes over from the well-prepared and hard working Pacers. And then there is Sam Cassell, who won a couple of championships early in his career by hitting dagger shots in huge moments; something he’d continue to do throughout the former point guard’s long and successful career all before he transitioned to coaching.

Most of the Sixers young players will be too young to have seen Cassell’s playing days (he won the championship in 1994 and 1995) but they should study up quickly. Of course, you’re familiar with Kenny “The Jet” Smith from his work on TNT. Smith shot over 40 percent from deep, during his age 28 and 29 seasons. One would have expected Smith (who shot nearly 43% from deep in 1995 ) to absorb the lion’s share of the minutes in the biggest playoff moments, but the first-year man out of Florida State, originally from Baltimore, and the 24th pick in the 1993 NBA draft, Sam I am, turned the point guard spot into a full-blown timeshare. Without any pro experience, he stepped onto the biggest stage (Madison Square Garden in crunch time of The Finals ) and delivered as if he’d always been there. Remarkable, and something that torments Knick fans who witnessed it to this day earning himself some Reggie Milleresque road villainy. What was it about this kid that caused his head coach to go with Sam with a championship and his own legacy on the line in big spots ahead of a veteran 28-year-old sharp shooter?! But he did and it worked.

Now it seems likely that Doc Rivers would turn to players with a career track record he can trust in crunch time. Danny Green is the closest this generation has to another player who was fearless on the biggest stages, in Robert Horry, who won 7 championships across 3 teams. Green, 33, with 3 rings playing for 3 different teams himself, seems like a lock for some closing lineups. Green went 7/9 from downtown for the Spurs in the finals back in 2013. In 2019, he continued to sizzle in big spots drilling 6/10 for the Raptors in a defeat over the Warriors. He’s going to get plenty of opportunities and he’s a safe bet to deliver.

And Seth Curry seems like a safe bet to play a huge role for the Sixers this season, as the 30 year old is one of the best 3 point shooters in history, and doesn't have a ton of miles on his legs either, having only appeared in 278 total NBA contests. He’s a “young” 30 who looks younger still.

But Sam Cassell should have the chance this year (barring big trades) to work closely with Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and Mattise Thybulle. And if Sam imparts some wisdom, he could let the Sixers young guns know that by the time the finals rolled around, his former coach, Rudy Tomjanovich was playing him and a 29 year old vet nearly identical minutes, and often turning to Sam as the team’s closing point man with all of the marbles on the line.

In fact, even after Kenny Smith hit perhaps the biggest shot in Rockets history in game 1 vs. the Orlando Magic, a game in which Smith drilled what was at the time a finals record, 7 triples, it was Cassell the next night who erupted (again on the road) for 31 points.

Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz have already shown signs of being clutch, each has a game winner in a big spot on their resume.

And Maxey displayed fearlessness in his first game on the big stage, drilling an off-the-bounce dagger from NBA range to put Michigan State on ice. Just listen to Dick Vitale’s reaction. Classic:

Milton and Korkmaz are 24 and 23 respectively, right around the age Sam was when he broke out. While Doc Rivers may feel more comfortable leaning on his veterans more often than not, he certainly seems like the type of coach who’d make an exception for the kid from SMU, Moneytrain Milton, who dropped 39 points against his Clippers on national TV not long ago.

The young players on the Sixers will earn opportunities to eat into the veteran’s minutes. Which one of them shines? Will any take to working especially closely with an assistant who truly had ice water in his veins? Former Coach Brett Brown used to call these “quiet tournaments” when his bench would battle for important playoff rotation minutes. But about 25 years ago, Cassell was dreaming far bigger than winning any quiet tournaments. He was after the big minutes, the big shots, and not one but two big rings. And he helped earn Sixers team President Daryl Morey’s former team the Rockets the nickname “Clutch City.” Hopefully, he can impart some of that wisdom on the Sixers already impressive young core and remind them that there are some scenarios where coach Rivers will have little choice but to thrust a young guy into the limelight on the biggest stage come late spring with a chance to make some history of his own.

Hoops is back! They play the Wizards tonight. It will be exciting to see which young guys emerge and if one of them can help Philly earn its own clutch-themed nickname by the summer with some help from one of their top assistant coaches who was truly fearless on the biggest stage.

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