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Are The Bucks The New Magic?

There are certain qualities to this current Milwaukee Bucks team that remind Matt John of the Orlando Magic team that once was among the best of the best.

Matt John

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Almost to a fault at times, making a comparison is so easy when it comes to the NBA. Whether if it’s comparing teams or players, we always like to think someone or something reminds us of Team X or Player X.

This season is still in its infant stages, yet we’re already seeing reminded of us crews we’ve seen in previous years.

Take this year’s Golden State Warriors. Following their reign of dominance over the last several years, their best players are all so marred with injuries that their best course of action might just be to throw the season away in hopes of acquiring a high draft pick. That, then, could be following a path similar to the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs.

Another example might be this year’s Chicago Bulls. We were so swept up in how promising the Bulls looked with their youth toward the end of last season that the overhyped was ultimately undeserved. The team currently stands at 2-6 and they haven’t exactly faced the toughest competition in that timespan. For contrast’s sake, Chicago may be a reincarnation of the 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks.

Which brings us to the Bucks as they stand now. Milwaukee came into this season with many expecting them to be one of the better teams in the league. At 5-2, they look just about as good as advertised. The Bucks have an unstoppable, all-time player entering his prime, a brilliant coach and a bunch of players on the roster who, thanks to their shooting abilities, fit like a glove alongside their franchise player.

Let’s check that again and be a little more specific. They have a superstar player whose freakish abilities physically make him arguably the hardest player in the league to stop. Milwaukee has players that help their alpha dog because they can shoot the rock and a wisened coach who knows how to mix and match.

Sound familiar? It should because those were some of the exact components that made the Orlando Magic — way back when they were led by Dwight Howard — an elite franchise from 2008 to 2010.

Now, these two teams aren’t the exact same team detail-by-detail. In their primes, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Howard had some distinct differences between each other. Howard’s natural athleticism — combined with his overpowering strength — made him an all-around terror on both ends of the floor. In fact, when he was at the peak of his power, Howard may have been the most terrifying shot-blocker the NBA has ever seen.

Antetokounmpo, by contrast, is renowned more for his length, handle and speed, three advantages that Howard never really had. The Greek Freak’s long limbs and body control make him a matchup nightmare for opponents — whether if it’s in the half-court or on the fast break.

The overarching theme between the two future Hall of Famers is that their physical gifts allowed their respective franchises to max out the full roster’s potential. Thanks to that, there are several similarities between these current Bucks and those Magic teams from a decade ago.

The Play Styles

At the height of their playing abilities, Orlando lived and died at the three-point. Back then, detractors labeled that sort of playing style as “soft.” Nowadays, they should be revered for being ahead of their time.

Back in the 2008-09 season, Orlando took 26.2 threes per game which, at the time, seemed absurd when you compare them to their other elite competitors like the Boston Celtics (16.5, ranked 21st), Los Angeles Lakers (18.5, 15th) and Denver Nuggets (18, tied for 17th). That year, the Cleveland Cavaliers ranked fifth in three-point attempts a game, but they shot only 20.4 from distance.

Last season, only four teams took less three-point shots than the 2008-2009 Orlando Magic. But in 2008-09, only one team attempted more threes than the Magic. Yeah, the times have changed.

It was more of the same the following year, as the Magic led the league in three-point attempts with 27.3. Again, many scoffed at the idea of a team’s identity offensively centering so much on the three-ball. Now, you’re scoffed at if you don’t shoot enough from three-point land.

The offensive strategy could be boiled down to this: Surround Howard with floor spacers and playmakers that could let him do damage in the post. Back then, Howard was so imposing that opponents usually doubled him and left someone else open.

There was a good reason for this: From 2008 to 2010, the Magic had a wide array of dependable floor spacers to surround Dwight. Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Vince Carter, JJ Redick, Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Rafer Alston and Matt Barnes — all beyond capable three-point shooters. Over both years, they shot 38.1 and 37.5 percent from three, percentages that got them in the top ten league-wide.

It was an effective strategy that many believed wouldn’t work. Following the Warriors’ reign of terror, more teams than ever rely on shooting from the perimeter. It may have taken a few years, but the Bucks are following a similar pattern.

After adding players who turned out to be bad fits next to Antetokounmpo — Michael Carter-Williams, Greg Monroe, Matthew Dellavedova — the Bucks realized last summer that consistent shooting would help more than anything else. Since the summer of 2018, they’ve added Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Mirotic (briefly), George Hill, Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver.

By adding this shooting, the Bucks’ offense not-so-coincidentally took off. Last season, they had the league’s fourth-highest offensive rating, scoring 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Part of their newfound success was the improved shooting as they took 38.2 three-pointers a game — with the much-needed bonus of extra room for Antetokounmpo to operate.

The Second-In-Command

When Howard started coming into his own around the end of 2007, the Magic knew he needed help around him for Orlando to take the next step. So, that summer, Otis Smith gave Rashard Lewis a near-max contract believing that he would be Dwight’s partner-in-crime.

Paying Lewis around $20 million seemed like an overpay for someone that had only made the All-Star Game once in his career, but it was a good addition in the prime of his career.

Lewis may not have been worth as much as Orlando was paying him, but he produced about as much as he could in a Magic uniform. His dead-eye shooting played a key role in the franchise making a surprise NBA Finals appearance in 2009, as he averaged 19 points on 45/39/78 splits. Those were good numbers, but were they numbers that of the second-best player on a championship-level team?

Whether it was or not, Lewis’ mysterious decline — or lack thereof — played a role in Orlando slipping in 2010 and taking a major step back the season after that. Lewis’ sharpshooting elevated the Magic to contender-status with Howard, but we were never sure if he was the best go-to guy next to your superstar.

Thusly, this brings us to Khris Middleton. Middleton has a very similar story to Lewis in regards to how he made it to the NBA. A second-round pick that gradually left his mark on basketball as he proved to be one of the league’s best shooters. But how he got paired with a titan for a teammate is a tad different.

While Lewis was brought in to be a dynamic duo with Howard via free agency, Middleton has been with Antetokounmpo from the beginning. In the six-plus years that they’ve been together, the two have had their highs and lows — eventually reaching where they are today: NBA contenders.

Giannis is now finally playing in an offense that helps him play to his full potential, while Middleton has established himself as a scoring threat thanks to his ability to shoot from just about anywhere.

The NBA has definitely taken notice of this. Middleton’s skill set earned him his first All-Star appearance. Middleton is the No. 2 option in Milwaukee for the same reason Lewis was in Orlando — he can shoot the rock. Now Lewis faced plenty of doubts surrounding if he could be the second guy on a title team, but he performed admirably in the role when the playoffs came. For Middleton though, he raised some red flags last year.

Overall, the two-way standout’s performance in the postseason wasn’t bad. He did his usual thing during the first two rounds, but it came against a team without their superstar (Detroit) and another that was already self-imploding (Boston). When the Bucks faced the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, Middleton couldn’t keep it up.

Outside of Game 5, Middleton’s production as a whole trailed off. He was barely a factor in any of the series, actually. Overall, he averaged 13.7 points on 41/34/55 splits, which are not acceptable for a guy who was playing 40-plus minutes a night.

While Middleton may not flame out as Lewis did, the question remains: Can a sharpshooter be your second-best player on a team looking to win it all?

The Lost Piece

Much has been said about how Milwaukee and Orlando were built around an all-time talent and a bunch of shooters — still, there is a little more nuance to it than that. Both franchises needed playmakers on their squads to get their offense rolling.

For the Magic, that member was Hedo Turkoglu, a savvy playmaker and shooter that had a reputation for coming through in the clutch. He wasn’t the best athlete, but he was unselfish and complemented Howard and Lewis as as much as he could.

Much like Lewis, Turkoglu played a pivotal role in getting the Magic to the NBA Finals. Averaging 16.8 points, 4.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds while putting up 43/39/82 splits would convince any team to re-sign him long-term, but Orlando didn’t see it that way. They sign-and-traded him to the Raptors for Vince Carter in hopes of replacing, or possibly upgrading, in the process.

What does this have to do with the Bucks now? If you haven’t guessed yet, Milwaukee ran into a similar predicament with Malcolm Brogdon. In Milwaukee, he was never a star, but he was the guy that the Bucks relied on to make the extra play because of his fundamentals — both as a passer and as a shooter.

He was excellent in the role that the Bucks gave him and, in fact, there were times where he played like the second fiddle to Antetokounmpo. His sturdy play in the postseason also made it easier to stomach Eric Bledsoe’s struggles. Surely, hanging onto would have been wise, but Brogdon wanted to be more than the third guard. Conversely, the Bucks had already invested in so much of their roster that paying top dollar for a sixth man seemed steep.

However, herein lies a key difference between the Bucks of today and the Magic of 2010. The Bucks have not acquired someone in hopes of replacing what Malcolm Brogdon brought to the table, unlike the Magic that believed Carter would do an admirable job filling in for Turkoglu.

Given how Turkoglu did after he left the Magic in 2009, you can see why they opted not to keep him. Not to take away from how amazingly Brogdon has done in Indiana — he’s been worth every penny — but his would-be role with Milwaukee didn’t match up with the money the young player desired.

Both Orlando and Milwaukee had those glue guys that kept the team afloat — but their departures, as sensible as they may have been, left a hole that became tough to smooth over. For the Bucks, that lingering issue has not yet resolved itself.

But the overarching debate to come from all of this is: Are these similarities a good or bad thing for Milwaukee?

Well, on one hand, Orlando never came away with a championship with the core that they had and that window was only two years long. On the other, a few unexpected twists changed their fortunes for the worse, like Jameer Nelson’s shoulder injury in 2009, Lewis mysteriously falling out of his prime at 30 and a few missed free throws altering the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.

Milwaukee’s window finally opened last year and, for now, it’ll be open until at least 2021. If they want to keep it that way — Antetokounmpo’s status could change overnight without palpable results — they may have to ask themselves if the best route is to follow that of the 2008-10 Orlando Magic or to go another path.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Blazers’ Early-Season Struggles Cause For Lasting Concern

The Blazers are 4-6, and facing a rash of injuries. As the schedule gets tougher, is Portland at risk of falling way behind in the playoff Western Conference playoff race?

Jack Winter

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ silver lining has little to do with them.

The expectation coming into this season was that as many as 13 teams in the Western Conference could compete for the playoffs, propelling the number of victories needed to advance to the postseason into the high 40s. Three weeks into 2019-20, the number of teams good enough to vie for a playoff berth is smaller than anticipated. The Phoenix Suns have ascended to respectability and perhaps more, but the Golden State Warriors have been left for dead while the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans struggle.

The West is strong, of course, but maybe not so strong that a handful of objectively quality teams will be left on the outside looking in at the postseason come April.

Some expected Portland to stand a tier above that fray coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals. But any chatter that said this team was more likely to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end than hope for lottery luck was always misguided. At the crux, it was optimism reflecting last spring’s matchup-dependent outcome that ignored changes sapping them of both depth and continuity.

Less than a month into the NBA calendar, it’s not quite time to panic. Still, with Portland at 4-6 and narrowly escaping an overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, it might be time to readjust season-long expectations in the Rose City – especially given the Blazers’ upcoming schedule and rash of injuries.

Seven of Portland’s next eight games come on the road. Half of them are against teams that made the playoffs last season, including a lone home tilt versus the stoic Toronto Raptors. Merely going .500 over that stretch would be a major accomplishment for the Blazers given how they’ve fared against inferior competition thus far.

It took an extra period for them to beat the Hawks, playing without John Collins, at Moda Center, while the anonymous Warriors earned their first victory after Stephen Curry’s injury versus Portland last week. Not even a career-high 60 points from Damian Lillard, who’s reached yet another peak in the early going, saved the Blazers from a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets, who, too, are still trying to find themselves.

All of which begs the question: Just where will Portland sit in the standings when the schedule gets more palatable? Plus, the more important one: If the Blazers continue struggling over the next two weeks, will injuries prevent them from making up the necessary ground for a seventh consecutive playoff berth over the season’s remainder?

Outside of Lillard, there’s an argument to be made that Zach Collins is Portland’s most indispensable player. No roster in basketball with real postseason ambitions is lighter on forwards than the Blazers, while Hassan Whiteside’s overall lethargy and struggles to integrate offensively add to his value as a part-time center.

Collins is sidelined until March after undergoing surgery on his dislocated left shoulder. Jusuf Nurkic should make his season debut around then, too, but there’s no telling how effective he’ll be after spending nearly a full year away from the game. Any hopes he’ll immediately regain the high-impact two-way form that made him Portland’s second-best player last season should be quelled. More likely is that Nurkic will take time to fully re-acclimate to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, serving as not much more than a replacement-level player until next fall.

In the meantime, the Blazers are relying on Whiteside and Skal Labissiere in the middle, waiting for Pau Gasol to get healthy enough to play spot minutes off the bench. Lillard has already chastised Whiteside for his lack of urgency as a roll man, and it’s clear to anyone who watched Portland last season that Whiteside leaves much to be desired as a screener — a deficiency that’s plagued him throughout his career.

The Blazers, per usual, rank toward the top of the league in ball screens, despite Whiteside consistently failing to make contact with the primary defender – let alone swallow them at varied angles like Nurkic.

Whiteside has flashed more comfort as a passer from the high post and elbows in Terry Stotts’ system but is still ill-equipped to make plays in space when teams force the ball from the stars in pick-and-roll play. Labissiere, while better than Whiteside, leaves much to be desired in both regards, too. Gasol would certainly help, especially given his threat as a pick-and-pop shooter. But it’s indicative of just how thin the Blazers find themselves upfront that a 39-year-old who hasn’t played since March could give them a lift offensively.

Portland quietly finished third in offensive rating a year ago, only behind the juggernaut Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Stotts’ team currently ranks ninth in offense, scoring just over five fewer points per 100 possessions than last season. While offense is down a bit league-wide, there are signs the Blazers’ relatively slow start on that end will persist.

The franchise talked a big game throughout the preseason about prioritizing pace, a newfound emphasis that’s yet to manifest itself in more transition opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass. But the Blazers rank top-10 in pace regardless, mostly on the strength of taking a higher share of their field goal attempts in the first two seconds of the shot clock than any team in basketball. The problem? Their effective field goal percentage on those shots is 45.8 percent, fourth-worst in the league.

Portland has been just average on the offensive glass after finishing second in offensive rebound rate last season and they’re tallying over 50 fewer passes per game despite replacing Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the rotation with superior playmakers. Anfernee Simons has lived up to the hype in his first season playing regular minutes, but Stotts should probably scrap lineups that include neither of his star guards, especially considering his team’s lack of scheme familiarity. The Blazers’ offensive rating without Lillard and CJ McCollum on the floor is 86.2, a putrid number hardly guaranteed to improve even when factoring in the sample size.

The bright side? Three of Portland’s losses were decided in the game’s final moments, and none of them have come by double-digits. The Blazers are a few fortuitous bounces away from weathering an early-season injury storm and emerging from their first 10 games with a winning record.

But context is crucial — especially in a Western Conference playoff field that remains overcrowded — and it renders Portland’s start concerning. Other than an inevitable shot-making improvement from McCollum, who labored throughout last season before coming alive in the playoffs, just how will this team take meaningful strides not just leading up to Thanksgiving, but over the season’s duration?

It would be foolish to count Portland out entirely. Stotts and Lillard deserve every benefit of the doubt, and their teams enjoy a long track record of playing their best basketball during the second half of the season. But dreams of the Blazers being title contenders have faded entirely and faith in their presumed status as a surefire playoff team seems to be eroding in the immediate future – if not longer.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Northwest Division

This week, Basketball Insiders starts its division-by-division “Biggest Disappointments” series. Matt John kicks it off by taking a look at who that would be from the Northwest Division.

Matt John

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A couple weeks ago, Basketball Insiders started a series looking over who were some of the biggest surprises so far in this young NBA season. This week, we’re changing it up a bit by taking a look at some of the biggest disappointments. To start this off, we’re looking at the Northwest Division.

It’s funny how over the last few years, the biggest disappointment coming out of that division, and possibly in the entire NBA, has been Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins’ odd regression over the last few years has made the NBA public lose their faith in him as a player, so much that, when this season started, he was seen as nothing but a young bust that Minnesota was burning oodles of cash to have on its roster.

It looks like Wiggins listened to the haters because he’s been playing like a man possessed this season. Averaging almost 25 points a game on 46 percent shooting from the field would qualify as career-highs for him. Even as a playmaker, he’s made some strides as his 3.1 assists at the present time is also a career-best. The Timberwolves have come down to earth since their hot start, but at least Andrew’s doing his part.

This is relevant to a certain degree. For a while now, the man they called “Maple Jordan” was called a disappointment because his career trajectory was falling — and falling fast. Now, it looks like he’s restored some of the hope he once had. Much like Wiggins over the last two years, the following disappointments in the Northwest have time to pick up the pieces, but for now, they have been rather underwhelming in these first three weeks.

The Nuggets’ Suddenly Unproductive Offense

It sounds weird, doesn’t it? The Nuggets currently sit at 7-2, they’ve beaten some good teams in the last week or so – Philadelphia and Miami – and last year, their offense was one of the best in the entire league. That was evidenced by them having the sixth-best offensive rating, scoring 113 points per 100 possessions.

It gets even weirder knowing that nothing really changed for the Nuggets over the summer roster-wise. The only noteworthy additions to this team were Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. Those guys really shouldn’t make Denver worse – which they haven’t – and could still add another dimension to the team. Besides them, the Nuggets overall have the same construct they did last year, so what’s different?

In a nutshell, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have not performed as well as they had been expected to. As a result, they now have the 23rd-ranked offense in the league, scoring 103.6 points per 100 possessions. In order to figure out how it got this way, we need to take a look at who’s responsible.

Let’s start with Nikola Jokic. In this ever so strange subplot of weird, it may be the weirdest to rag on the Joker considering he’s coming off of two consecutive buzzer beaters over the Nuggets’ last two games, but the point still stands- Jokic has not started the year off well.

In nine games, Jokic has averaged 16.7 points on 44/24/73 splits to go with 9.3 rebounds and 6 assists. When you compare those numbers to the ones he put up last year, a.k.a. the ones that got him All-NBA First Team Honors, that’s a drastic decline. Jokic at the top of his game is the most offensively polished big in the league. The Nuggets have managed to win in spite of his struggles, but they can’t expect to keep doing so if he can’t recapture the player he was last season.

Then, there’s Jamal Murray. Murray hasn’t really regressed, but he hasn’t shown much improvement since last season. Jamal was just given a fairly wealthy extension over the summer, so this lack of progress is a little troubling to watch.

Averaging 18.8 points on 45/37/85 splits are good numbers for a fourth-year player, but next year, Murray’s not going to be on a rookie contract. He’ll be making just a tick less than $30 million next season. Those are numbers you pay for a guy who can put up 25-30 on any given night. Jamal’s done that at times, but as yet to show extensive consistency.

The Nuggets still going at it strong because their defense has improved by a fair margin. Allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions has made them good for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. As disappointing as the offense has been, Denver has to be feeling good about its chances since the team’s still been able to win in spite of struggles.

CJ McCollum’s Regression

The Portland Trail Blazers altogether are kind of a mess right now — although it isn’t entirely their fault. Zach Collins’ shoulder injury just three games into the season is a massive blow to a team that was already pretty thin in the frontcourt. Besides Hassan Whiteside, they are relying on Skal Labissiere to give them minutes at the five.

To compensate for the departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, they are relying on the likes of journeymen like Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja to fill in at the three and four positions. The all-around downgrade in their frontcourt has definitely played a part in the team starting out 4-6.

Their struggles have come from the offensive end, as their offensive rating has gone from 114.7 (fourth overall last season) to 108.9 (11th currently). The new guys probably have something to do with that, but the biggest culprit might just be CJ McCollum’s slump.

McCollum’s still putting up solid numbers, averaging almost 20 points per game, but that’s coming on some of the worst percentages he’s put up since playing a larger role in Portland, putting up 39/31/89 splits. McCollum has the third-highest net rating on the team, as the Blazers are plus-12.4 with him on the court, but one can’t help if those stats are skewed from playing a lot of minutes with Damian Lillard, who is off to the best start of his career.

The duo shares a net rating of plus-7, but when you compare CJ’s net rating with some of his other teammates to Dame’s, they don’t look as promising.

CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside: plus-1.7
Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside: plus-6.4

CJ McCollum and Rodney Hood: plus-0.8
Damian Lillard and Rodney Hood: plus-6.4

CJ McCollum and Kent Bazemore: minus-2.9
Damian Lillard and Kent Bazemore: plus-1.9

CJ McCollum and Mario Hezonja: plus-5.6
Damian Lillard and Mario Hezonja: plus-10.1

Knowing McCollum’s reputation as a scorer, this should get better as time goes on, but how much time is what Portland has to keep in mind. The Western Conference has been unforgiving since the dawn of time, so if CJ and the Blazers continue to struggle, that can come back to bite them when they try to get good seeding in the playoffs.

Portland’s goal this season was to exceed last year’s extended playoff run. For that to come to fruition, they can’t afford to have their other elite scorer struggle from the field for too long.

Utah’s Continued Offensive Stagnancy

Yes, the theme of this has centered around offensive struggles, and yes, you can call this cheating since this writer brought up the Jazz’ woes on that end two weeks ago, but it’s still worth talking about because nothing has changed for Utah.

Three weeks into the season, they have the 27th-best offensive rating, scoring, 102.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s even worse remembering that last season, they had the 15th best offensive rating, scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions. Their offense certainly got in the way of their playoff chances then, but at least it was mediocre as opposed to bad.

This writer doesn’t want to say what he’s already said about Utah’s continued woes on offense. Instead, let’s take a look at one of the Jazz’s big wins over the weekend against Milwaukee. Everyone should remember Bojan Bogdanovic’s one shining moment.

Like any buzzer-beater, it’s always so thrilling to see plays like that happen. Not just because the Jazz beat a tough foe, but because it was such a beautifully drawn play to get arguably their best shooter wide open. So where do their offensive woes factor into this? Well, let’s take a look back at where the game was with 1:30 to go.

A Donovan Mitchell jumper put the Jazz up by eight with less than 90 seconds to go. Coming back from a three-possession game to win with that little time is near impossible. Yet, the Bucks were a Khris Middleton traveling call from pulling it off. They did this because Utah’s offense failed to put the game away.

In 88 seconds, missed free throws, costly turnovers and bad shots on Utah’s part got Milwaukee to close the gap. Not only had Utah lost the lead, but the team was also in jeopardy of losing the game. They may have won the game anyway, but they should not have been in danger of losing that game.

What’s more alarming is that the Jazz can’t afford to make those mental mistakes when facing opponents as tough as the Bucks. They won’t have to worry about facing Milwaukee in the playoffs unless they meet in the NBA Finals, but Utah’s going to have its hands full with other Western Conference competitors.

Like Denver, they’re still going strong regardless of their offensive woes, but they can’t have these problems if they want to go the distance.

Apologies if these disappointments all sounded the same, but honestly, there haven’t been that many disappointments in the Northwest Division. Utah and Denver are doing about as well as we thought they’d do. Minnesota is currently exceeding expectations. Oklahoma City is right where we thought they’d be. The only team that has somewhat disappointed is Portland, and that might not have been the case if Zach Collins wasn’t hurt — or Jusuf Nurkic for that matter.

And just because they’re disappointing now does not mean that will be the same by the time 2020 starts.

There’s still plenty of time for everyone’s outlook to change for the better. Just ask Andrew Wiggins.

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NBA Daily: Choosing Philadelphia’s Backup Point Guard

With Raul Neto, Trey Burke and Josh Richardson playing well in the absence of Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers will have a decision to make at backup point guard. Quinn Davis breaks down what each can bring to the table.

Quinn Davis

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Early in the Philadelphia 76ers’ game against the Charlotte Hornets, Raul Neto was tasked with chasing Terry Rozier through numerous pick-and-rolls on the defensive end. Neto — who head coach Brett Brown called the team’s best defensive player in their game against the Utah Jazz last week — held his own. 

Neto was moved into the starting lineup after Ben Simmons sprained his right AC joint, and the fifth-year guard has been up to the task. While his defense has helped him become a rotational fixture, Neto has also kept the offense humming along and the team is boasting a net rating of plus-5.5 with him on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. His turnover rate has been a tad high, but he is shooting efficiently and moving the ball. 

He has the experience and ability to make the right pass. Here he finds Furkan Korkmaz on the wing for an open three after Gary Harris helps too hard on the rolling Kyle O’Quinn.

Plays like this might not seem very complicated, but it is a facet of the game that has been lacking in the 76ers’ offense. These simple pick-and-roll plays are not viable when opposing defenses are comfortable dipping under screens. 

In the past, there was no change of pace offensively when Brown went to his backup point guard. Last season, both T.J. McConnell and Markelle Fultz, when healthy, were not respected enough to command the kind of defense Neto will see. 

While Neto has played well, the 76ers brought in a second player to compete for the backup point guard role this season in Trey Burke. Burke, who saw his first action of the season on Friday against the Denver Nuggets, has also been very effective.

In his 37 minutes this season, the 76ers have a net rating of plus-15.6, per Cleaning the Glass. A lot of this success has come in transition, where the Sixers have scored 1.38 points per transition play with Burke running the point.

Burke’s speed is underrated. Here he turns on the jets after grabbing a loose ball, opening up an easy layup for James Ennis.

Having Burke as the backup point guard could boost a transition game that the 76ers will need to generate consistent offense. Simmons is, of course, not too shabby in transition either, so having a second point guard to come in and provide that end-to-end ability would be a nice boost.

While Burke is not quite the defender or passer that Neto is, his edge in speed and shot creation ability off the dribble makes this a very tough decision when Simmons returns to the lineup. Burke does tend to dribble quite a bit and may wander from the fundamentals of the offense, but the ability to get buckets may trump any concerns in those areas.

There is, of course, the possibility of playing one of these two guards in the same backcourt as Simmons, leaving room for both to play. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this postgame, but Philadelphia’s head coach seemed to be leaning away from that idea.

“You’d doubt it,” Brown said. “I feel like there are outliers in every game. For example, tonight I went with Kyle (O’Quinn) and Al for a chunk of time. It would have to be under funny circumstances. But the fact that it’s possible because they both have played well, is exciting.”

Brown was asked a follow-up question after that response, regarding how Josh Richardson fits into the backup point guard equation. Brown would not rule him out either.

“We’re finding our way. We have different options. I think when you heard me use the phrase horses for courses, it’s based on who we play and who’s playing well,” Brown said.

It would make sense for Brown to evaluate as the season goes on and make decisions based on matchups. Brown has noted in seasons past that he likes to break the NBA schedule into thirds and evaluate his team in each of those 27-game chunks.  

Richardson’s defensive prowess and ability to guard multiple positions makes him a valuable option at the position. He also had a very nice game Sunday, tallying 11 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in the win. Brown made sure to praise the guard after the game.

“He’s wiry, active, gangly, at times you’re not sure which direction he’s going to go offensively,” said Brown. “He can make plays defensively. I think he’s got a motor that lets him play hard incredibly frequently. It’s hard to maintain that tenacity and energy with anybody. I’m surprised he actually has an endurance level that I see.”

It is worth noting that Richardson began the season running point when Simmons sat. When Embiid was suspended, the shortened rotation allowed Brown to experiment a little with Neto in that role.

The most likely scenario is that this becomes a backup point guard by committee. Richardson will be used against teams with very talented backcourts to maximize the defensive presence on the court. Burke and Neto will be used when the team is in need of a little more offensive creation or transition burst.

It’s also possible that one of these three separates themselves and takes hold of the role. Burke has been impressive in his stints, but only 37 minutes is not enough to make a judgment either way.

This subplot will likely be one of many that make up the story of the 76ers’ rotation this season. It will be exciting to watch it unfold.

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