The Los Angeles Lakers ended last season with the worst record (27-55) in the franchise’s illustrious 66-year history. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-15 roster as this proud organization attempts to not only rebuild in the shadow of an aging giant, but also find a way to permit five-time champion Kobe Bryant to finish his Hall of Fame run as gracefully and successfully as possible.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Los Angeles Lakers.
Five Guys Think
Here’s the cold reality for the Lakers: Kobe Bryant makes a lot of money for a team that wasn’t very good a year ago, so currently Hollywood is not the free agency hotbed that it used to be. The Lakers also are not quite the team they used to be, but for those already writing them off completely: stop it. There are some decent ball players on this team, even if half of the roster is seemingly comprised of power forwards, and behind players like Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer, they can be more competitive than many are giving them credit for. Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Julius Randle all should be respectable role players, and if healthy, Bryant would definitely rather go out with a roar than with a whimper. They’re not competing for a championship, but they’ll be better than many expect.
3rd Place – Pacific Division
The Lakers had a disappointing offseason. They entered the summer hoping to land a star player like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love. Instead, their big acquisitions were Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis. Getting Kobe Bryant back from injury should help them, but it remains to be seen if he can return to elite form. Drafting Julius Randle was an excellent decision for L.A. and he could be a star for them in the future. However, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers having much success in the short-term. The team may be marginally better than last year’s 27-55 squad, but they’re bringing back many of the same players and the Western Conference is just as loaded with talented teams. It seems like the Lakers are poised to struggle once again.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
The Los Angeles Lakers are no longer among the league’s elite and will head to training camp with plenty of question marks. Can Kobe Bryant regain his form and play at a high level after numerous injuries? How much does point guard Steve Nash have left in the tank in what may possibly be his final season as a professional? Is rookie forward Julius Randle ready to play a significant role right out of the cereal box? The health of Bryant is obviously the most important in the equation. Without Bryant playing at a high level, for a significant amount of games, the team will struggle to pull out wins. Too many what-ifs present to predict a playoff berth, but the team should definitely improve on its 27 victories from last season.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
Although the Los Angeles Lakers failed to catch one of the big fish from last July’s free agency school, they managed to salvage quite a bit. The acquisition of Jeremy Lin is a low-cost, high-reward proposition, as the point guard position has been a void on this roster for quite some time. Carlos Boozer, though not as talented as Pau Gasol, will replace the Spaniard and, along with rookie Julius Randle, provide the Lakers with some much-needed size up front. Whether or not the Lakers have a real chance of qualifying for the playoffs or not will ultimately fall squarely on the 36-year-old shoulders (and knees) of Kobe Bryant and whether or not new head coach Byron Scott can replicate the success he had as the head coach of the New Jersey Nets from 2000-2004. In all likelihood, the Lakers will once again be on the outside looking in when playoff time rolls around, but with so many new faces and Bryant’s pending return, it would be unwise to completely discount them.
4th place – Pacific Division
– Moke Hamilton
For decades the Los Angeles Lakers have been operating with distinct advantages that the rest of the league struggled to compete with. The league’s increase in exposure has really worked against them, taken away from their prestige and even the playing field when it comes to recruiting stars. You no longer have to play in Los Angeles to be a nation-wide, or global-wide star. That’s why they’ve been one of the biggest losers in each of the last two offseasons. That, and the appeal of playing with Kobe Bryant coming off of the two most serious injuries of his career while he’s getting paid the most money in the league just isn’t that attractive. It’s quite possible that we’ve seen the last of Bryant in the playoffs, as the Lakers lack the top-tier talent necessary to compete in the Western Conference right now. Barring impressive bounce back seasons from Steve Nash, Carlos Boozer and Bryant, it’s hard to see how the Lakers even come close to competing for a playoff spot. Their competition only got better, while they frankly got worse. For the first time in his career, it’s easy to choose against the Black Mamba, and it could be until they strike gold in the draft like they did with him before they ever contend again.
5th place – Pacific Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: For the first time in a decade, last year’s Lakers team didn’t have Kobe Bryant to serve as the team’s top offensive weapon and it was evident on many nights. While players like Jodie Meeks (Detroit) and Nick Young (re-signed) may have enjoyed career seasons, the team lacked a clear-cut and dependable “first option” and someone whom could be leaned upon for leadership and guidance throughout adversity on most nights. Although age and the attrition of both minutes and injuries will force Bryant to continue adjusting his game, he will likely remain the top offensive player for the Lakers until he removes his jersey for the final time.That isn’t to say he’ll absolutely need to be the team’s leading scorer each and every night (although we wouldn’t put it past him to end up leading with somewhere around 23.5 PPG), but Bryant will still remain the most pivotal offensive piece both as a scorer and playmaker for the Lakers frankly because he’s still talented enough to do so. Even though we’ve likely seen the last of his free-wheeling and high-flying days of the past, as long as Bryant is healthy he’ll still be able to out-think and out-maneuver most opponents on a given night. Scott and Bryant have to find a way to balance his responsibilities and minutes played so that he can be most efficient and effective while on the court. Never has there been a greater need for Bryant to pace himself, not only throughout the season and from game to game, but even as far as self-assessing from quarter to quarter.
Top Defender: This will likely be Scott’s most difficult responsibility in 2014-15. The fact is the team simply doesn’t have enough defensive oriented players at this time. Bryant is 36, in his aforementioned 19th season and returning from what were ultimately consecutive season-ending injuries. As someone that had been unable to consistently answer the bell on the defensive end even prior to the last two seasons, clearly the Lakers cannot and should not enter the year expecting Bryant to champion the cause. Julius Randle is a young and active body, but we have yet to see what his defense will look like at this level. Ed Davis and Jordan Hill have each been rim-protectors in reserve roles, but with a potential starting backcourt that could have a combined age of 77 years old by the second week in February, chances are these Lakers are going to need the equivalence of the reincarnation of Wilt Chamberlain or a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Sweet Lew, if you will…) manning the paint in order to prevent opponents from living in the lane. Scott can preach about pride and passion all he’d like, but unless he can devise and get the team to execute perfect defensive schemes and game plans on a nightly basis, that will remain their biggest issue along the way.
Top Playmaker: Jeremy Lin is in the unique position of being in a contract year with an opportunity to lead one of the NBA’s ‘Glamor Franchises’ as it attempts to rise from the ashes all while during the comeback and literal Swan song of the one of the more beloved players in the organization’s history. If that doesn’t make for a grand stage for a free-agent-to-be, we aren’t sure what might. We’re not predicting a repeat of ‘Linsanity’ or anything of that nature, but the circumstances are in place for Lin to have a very productive year as he seeks long-term security moving forward. While known for being a guy that thrives in the pick-and-roll, Lin has actually improved as an all-around offensive player that can also play off-ball. At 6’3, Lin does a good job of probing in the halfcourt set, and routinely finds his way into the paint and to the rim. Although he should be one of the team’s primary ball-handlers and playmakers, he remains versatile and flexible enough to shift into whatever role Scott may ask of him.
Top Clutch Player: This is probably the easiest answer of any preview we’ll do throughout the preseason, but we have no doubts Bryant will occupy that spot once again for the Lakers. He may not be expected to go off for 20-point quarters or single-handedly carry these Lakers throughout a game, but if there’s one thing Bryant has absolutely lived for throughout his career it would be for the opportunity to pull his team through in the end by any means necessary.
Top Unheralded Player: A strong case should probably be made for Nick Young as he heads into his second season with the Lakers and a chance to play alongside a mentor in Bryant, but we’re not sure just how “unheralded” you can claim to be when you’re in the limelight (for various reasons) quite as much as the 29-year-old swingman. Instead, we’ll actually take a moment to acknowledge Wesley Johnson as someone we expect to have a bit of a turnaround season this year. While Johnson was one of the few players from last year that was active on the defensive end in most games, he still struggled to find consistency on the offensive side of things and in particular with his shot. In an effort to improve on that end, it was reported that Johnson decided to work with Bryant throughout the summer and emulate his offseason training regimen. Put simply, if you’re looking to learn a few tricks of the trade and further develop your game, then you could probably do a lot worse than being personally tutored by a ‘Roundball Rembrandt’ like Bryant.
Top New Addition: The Lakers have to absolutely hope Julius Randle fulfills this role. Even though Bryant will remain a key figure regardless of the circumstances, the team must move forward in terms of developing and nurturing the up-and-coming talent. After concerns surrounding the draft, all reports are that Randle’s surgically repaired foot is strong and healthy. Although seen as a guy that is generally liked and respected by his players, Scott is also known for holding them accountable and has already challenged Randle to report to camp in the best shape of his life. Randle isn’t currently slated as a starter despite being a high lottery pick, but don’t be surprised to see this determined and self-motivated young man work himself into playing a significant role within the rotation and earning additional minutes and trust throughout the year.
– Jabari Davis
Who We Like
1. Kobe Bryant: Forgive us if we fall over ourselves saying “DUH” to this one. Even at this state of his career, Bryant finds a way to enter the season with a proverbial chip on his shoulders as he attempts to disprove any/all doubters (See: Charles Barkley). The truth of the matter is, the greatest battle may just lie within as Bryant has been very candid and forthcoming about the natural doubt and questions that come along with attempting to rehab and return to form after so many years.
2. Julius Randle: Whether he starts to begin the year or serves in a reserve role for his rookie campaign, the most important thing for Randle (and these Lakers) is that he is permitted to work on his game against live action as much as possible. He’ll provide the energy and effort, but it will be upon Randle, Scott & Co. and his teammates to ensure that he is afforded the opportunity to develop. He already has a nice over-the-shoulder and jump-hook game from the post, but could stand to develop consistency as a face-up option as well as fine-tuning his ball-handling skills. He may be versatile and more agile than expected at his size, but actual season will not be quite as forgiving as some of the summer league action was when he attempted to act as a playmaker off the dribble.
3. Carlos Boozer: It was about time we mentioned Boozer, as he was actually a pretty good pick-up for these Lakers once Pau Gasol decided to leave for Chicago. Boozer may be far from the player he once was while playing as a member of the Utah Jazz, but he can still be an effective offensive player at this point in his career. He’s coming off a year where he provided 13.7 PPG and 8.3 RPG, and while he may not play quite as many minutes (28.2) especially by the end of the year, he is a guy that knows how to score and produce while on the court.
4. Jeremy Lin: We’ve already mentioned that he’s in a great spot during a contract year and should be expected to provide some quality minutes as the primary ball-handler, but he can also serve as a mentor along with Steve Nash for the Lakers’ second-round pick (purchased from Washington) in combo guard Jordan Clarkson.
5. Nick Young: Young may have played the market a bit, but it made a lot of sense for him to return to the ‘Purple and Gold.’ Not only was he absolutely embraced and beloved by the fan base, but Young was as comfortable as we’ve seen him at any point in his career last season. The trick for Young will be finding a way to be productive while serving as a member of a competitive team, and giving the focused effort it will take on the defensive end to keep Scott happy.
– Jabari Davis
Even though no one is going to mistake the Lakers’ roster – as currently constituted – as any type of contender, they have clearly improved at several positions where they were playing D-League call-ups for long stretches of 2013-14. If healthy, they should be able to score and produce on the offensive end as everyone settles into and learns Scott’s offensive philosophy. If Scott stays true to form, you’ll probably see them running a mixture of pick-and-roll with various elements of the Princeton offense.
– Jabari Davis
We hate to harp on the subject, but defense is most likely to be this team’s greatest weakness. Neither Jordan Hill nor Ed Davis have ever served in a starter’s capacity for an entire season, so it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff decides to break down the minutes at the center position. The roster is also a bit heavy with players that are generally power forwards, and does not much depth in case of injuries to either of their four swingmen. They could ultimately decide to test the 6’5 Clarkson with some reserve minutes as a shooting guard if things progress well enough for the first-year player.
– Jabari Davis
The Salary Cap
For the first time since the team acquired Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, the Lakers dropped under the salary cap. After acquiring Jeremy Lin in trade, Carlos Boozer via an amnesty claim (from the Chicago Bulls) and re-signing Nick Young, the Lakers have used their spending power. The team also utilized their $2.7 million Room Exception to re-sign Ryan Kelly and Xavier Henry. The Lakers chose not to stretch out Steve Nash’s $9.7 million salary over three years (at $3.2 million) to protect future spending power. With 13 players under contract, the Lakers can only add via minimum deals or trades. The team may look to send out Nash before the trade deadline, and even recently re-signed Jordan Hill (not until after January 15), but unless the Lakers get value in return, they may just wait for next summer when they should have cap space once again.
– Eric Pincus
It was a desultory 2013-14 for the Los Angeles Lakers in all respects. Kobe Bryant got a ludicrous extension that will curtail the Lakers’ efforts to compete through 2015-16, then immediately was re-injured. Mike D’Antoni elected not to return without a contract extension, and the club was unsuccessful in landing Carmelo Anthony, the only major free agent it chased. Free agent signings with the ostensible goal of competing resulted in a roster without a single above-average defensive player. Byron Scott, who presided over defenses ranked 25th or worse during all his years in Cleveland, was brought in to coach.
Alas for Lakers fans, there does not appear to be much of a coherent plan in Lakerland these days. The Bryant extension and his presence on the roster is greatly complicating for a team that should be looking to develop young talent rather than pursue the Sisyphean task of making the playoffs with this roster.
Best Case Scenario
The Lakers and Celtics, the league’s two proudest franchises, share the dubious distinction of benefitting long-term from having worse records in 2014-15. While I have argued tanking is an overblown concern in general, that is certainly not the case when a team trades away a protected pick. In the Lakers’ case, the top-five protected pick they owe Phoenix for the Steve Nash trade provides a great incentive to finish as badly as possible.
Meanwhile, the Lakers’ hopes of acquiring a major free agent or two in 2016 when Bryant comes off the books hinge on having young talent on the roster. Randle is the only player who qualifies, and he will hopefully start and play over 30 minutes per game. But having another young cost-controlled stud on the squad may be essential to luring top-end 2016 talent. The Lakers have no way to obtain such a player except by retaining their pick in 2015. Unfortunately, it looks like the presence of Bryant and myriad mediocre veterans will likely preclude that possibility unless the Lakers get some lottery luck.
Worst Case Scenario
Randle starts poorly and plays little, as players without a long-term future in LA like Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill play more minutes than he does. Bryant is painful to watch, while the best defense in Lakerland belongs to the rabid combination of Laker and Jeremy Lin fans reacting to perceived slander of the team. The squad misses out on the playoffs, yet gives up its draft pick to Phoenix.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Can the Lakers remain competitive in a deep Western Conference?
Considering it a longshot might be putting it mildly, but then again we aren’t as bold (or as foolish) enough to prematurely kick dirt on Bryant’s grave until we see what his body will permit him to do upon returning. Regardless of what he has left in the tank, this team’s overall team health will be the difference between whether the 2014-15 Lakers are at least competitive or in jeopardy of having to worry about surrendering a lottery pick (1-5 protected) to a team within the division in the Phoenix Suns.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.
The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.
Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division
Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.
It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.
What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.
The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.
In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.
Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers
Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.
Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.
It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.
Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers
Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.
The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.
They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.
San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers
The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.
With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.
Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers
Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.
Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.
Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers
This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?
The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.
This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.
Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.
Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.