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Cheap Seats: Super Sophomores

In the latest edition of Cheap Seats Basketball Insiders’ interns debate over who is the best sophomore from the 2013 NBA Draft Class.

Yannis Koutroupis

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss who is the best sophomore from the 2013 NBA Draft class.

Anthony Davis

In a league that features LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant among other big names, a guy like Anthony Davis, in just his second season, may get overlooked on the basketball court. A prime example of Davis getting overlooked happened back in February when he was left off of the All-Star roster by fans and even coaches. He was eventually selected to replace Bryant. Off of the court, Davis may be more noticeable due to “The Brow,” but that may soon change. Davis is playing himself into the elite tier of the league, at a position only few have.

Davis has made improvements in a few key statistical areas, improvements that have Pelicans fans believing he should be the Most Improved Player in the league. The Pelicans took notice and have launched the “Bigger. Better. Brower” campaign highlighting Davis’ improved season and are encouraging fans to post pictures donning a unibrow to social media. The improvements Davis has made are an additional 7.3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game in over six extra minutes of playing time. Davis improved his blocks per game from 1.8 to 2.8, and just missed out on being the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in the 1999-2000 season to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game. Davis is seeing the results of an improved overall game as his player efficiency currently ranks fourth in the league only behind Durant, James and Kevin Love.

Davis brings speed to the big man position that it hasn’t seen since Dwight Howard, and even Davis is quicker. His ability to handle the ball gives him the chance to face up on slower defenders and blow right by them with his first step, which often results in a foul. Davis is sixth among power forwards in free throw percentage and would rank third among centers at 79 percent, miles ahead of Howard’s 55 percent. The Pelicans want to institute the in-and-out type of offense, similar to what Howard had in Orlando, but the Pelicans just don’t have the shooters capable of that. The scary part is Davis still has more skills on the offensive side of the ball to refine. While he can catch some of the bigger guys off with his speed, adding more dribble moves would really solidify his presence in the middle of the floor.

What makes Davis such a dynamic player is his ability to hurt NBA teams on both sides of the ball. Davis can run the floor with the best of them, which is no easy feat for someone 6’10” and 220 pounds. Davis’ 7’4” wingspan has the paint on lockdown at times, but teams are figuring out how to work around that.

They will often run pick-and-rolls to move Davis out of the paint. His lack of size will hurt in the post and the back-to-the-basket plays, but the Pelicans seem to have been able to figure out how to work around that. Davis’ ability to time shots one-on-one in post-up plays has bailed him out numerous times. Once the defense really slows down for Davis, he will become a force for the Pelicans.

– Cody Taylor

Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard burst onto the NBA scene in a big way. In his debut, Lillard scored 23 points, and dished out 11 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a good start for the young point guard from Weber State University who was selected by the Portland Trailblazers with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft. He hasn’t slowed down since. Lillard swept the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award last season, and was unanimously named Rookie of the Year, becoming only the fourth player to do so, along with Blake Griffin, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson.

Last season Lillard set a Portland franchise record by making 185 three pointers, surpassing former Trailblazer Damon Stoudamire, who made 181 three pointers in 2005-2006. Lillard has taken it even further this season. As of today, Lillard is tied for second with Klay Thompson for most three point field goals made this season with 213.

Looking into Lillard’s background, it becomes clear why Lillard has become an elite point guard, and why the Blazers took a chance on him with the sixth pick.

Lillard was born and raised in the Oakland area, which has produced some of the best point guards to have ever played, including Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. Payton, nicknamed “The Glove” for his gritty defense, told SI.com that “He (Lillard) plays like the rest of us did, with that little swagger and that complete calm. He doesn’t get rattled. That quality comes from Oakland, from the neighborhoods, from going into other gyms and getting challenged.” It also comes from Lillard’s strong work ethic. His high school coach, Orlando Watkins, told Maxpres.com that Lillard “has always been very focused and very driven. When other kids were out partying, Damian was working on his dribbling or jump shot.”

That work ethic and composure has served Lillard well in his first two seasons. But his success has not changed the way he approaches the game. Earl Watson, a teammate of Lillard’s, told SI.com that Lillard “doesn’t want to think of himself that way. He still wants to think of himself as a two-star from Weber State. I played with GP and against J-Kidd, and those guys all have that Oak edge. Dame is afraid to lose it.”

This approach has paid off for Lillard. Recent reports indicate that Lillard is close to signing a new, lucrative deal with Adidas. For the last few years Derrick Rose has been the face of Adidas’ basketball brand. The similarities between Rose and Lillard go beyond their shoe endorsements however.

In Rose’s rookie season he averaged 16.8 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting from the field. He also contributed 6.3 assists, and 3.9 rebounds. In his second season, Rose averaged 20.8 points on 48.8 percent shooting, along with 6 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. In comparison, Lillard, in his rookie season, averaged 19 points on 42.9 percent shooting, along with 6.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. This season he is averaging 20.9 points on 42.5 percent shooting from the field. Lillard is also contributing 5.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and is hitting on 39.2 percent of his three point attempts. Note that it was Rose’s third season where he really made the leap into the upper stratosphere of the NBA, and won Most Valuable Player of the Year. With this in mind, it’s not a stretch to believe Lillard’s best days are ahead of him and could make a leap similar to the one Rose made.

However, Lillard still has room to improve, mostly on defense. Gary Payton said that “He’s not where he needs to be defensively. But he calls to ask what he’s doing wrong.” Lillard is in that class of elite players that are willing to admit their weaknesses and work hard to turn those weaknesses into strengths. This perspective will help Lillard continue his climb to truly elite status. Dorell Wright recently had dinner with the young star and told The Oregonian that “He was saying stuff to me that I don’t hear from young guys. He was talkin’ ‘I can’t wait until the summer, because I’m going to be working on this and that.’ And I was like, you already have your head there? Just hearing him saying that, and him looking forward to doing that work, that’s big. When I was that age, I was looking forward to getting back to L.A. to hang out with my friends. That was my main goal. So to hear him say that let’s me know how much passion he has for the game, how much passion he has for winning, and how much of a competitor he is.’’

While Lillard’s future is bright, it is important to not lose sight of what he and the Blazers have accomplished so far this season. Entering this season the Blazers were expected to be at best a fringe playoff team. Instead, they started the season on fire, going 31-9 in their first 40 games. They then hit a rough patch where they were winning and losing games in bunches, and slipping in the standings. Things got especially tough for the Blazers when star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge hurt his back on March 12 against the San Antonio Spurs. The Blazers lost that game, their fourth in a row.

After the game Lillard addressed his teammates in the locker room. It is unclear what he told the team, but veteran players like Wesley Matthews said it was good to hear from their point guard. Matthews said “It showed he’s grown. He’s one of those guys who has always led by example, and he put it on himself. He was tired of losing so he voiced his opinion.’’ The team still had some missteps until finally getting Aldridge back from injury, but it was Lillard who kept things from completely imploding. Most recently, Lillard went off for 14 fourth quarter points to help the Blazers get by the Utah Jazz after the Jazz managed to stick with the Blazers through three quarters.

The Blazers will have a tough route to the NBA Finals and it will be up to Lillard and Aldridge to step up and lead the team against the best teams in the West, most likely starting with the Houston Rockets. Listening to Payton, Lillard’s teammates, and his high school coach, it seems clear that Lillard has the confidence, leadership and skill to rise up to the moment.

– Jesse Blancarte

Andre Drummond

The Pistons season wasn’t great. In fact it was pretty disappointing. The team went out and brought in some big names (Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith) with the intent of being a playoff team and unfortunately never came close. However, there was one silver lining, one big reason to give pistons fans hope for the future and that of course is Andre Drummond.

Drummond, the ninth pick in the 2012 draft has been a monster in paint. When you watch him play it’s hard not to be in awe of his physical attributes. It is rare to see a man of his size (6’ 10” 270lbs) and strength to also be such an explosive athlete. Granted he may not have set the world on fire in his one season at the University of Connecticut but it’s still hard to believe eight teams passed on him before Drummond landed in the Pistons lap.

Following a strong rookie campaign, where he averaged 7.9 points per game, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game playing just over 20 minutes a night, Drummond has been even better in his sophomore season. He has started in every game he has played in this season (79) playing over 32 minutes a night. You would expect an increase in production when a player is given a more significant role but the numbers Drummond have been able to put up with increased minutes this season have more than just a small jump.

The most impressive aspect of Drummond’s game this year has to be his relentless effort on the glass. He has been a rebounding machine all season long, hauling in 13.2 per night. To just give his rebound per game numbers would be selling Drummond short, he leads the league the in total rebound percentage at 22.2, offensive rebounding percentage 17.3, total offensive rebounds with 426 and is second in total rebounding with 1041 on the year to date. To put in perspective just how dominant Drummond has been rebounding let’s compare Drummond’s offensive rebound totals historically with the offensive rebound totals of players in their second season, he is the best, EVER. That’s right no player has ever recorded more offensive rebounds in their second season than Drummond. His 426 offensive rebounds ranks ahead guys like Shaquille O’neal, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and Dennis Rodman to name few. When you expand the query to include not just players in their second season but any single season, Drummond only ranks behind the great Moses Malone who somehow managed to haul in 587 offensive boards in the 1978-79 season, as well Malone had two other seasons with over 445 offensive rebounds. His numbers on the defensive glass may not be as historically great but they certainly aren’t bad either. He ranks third in the league in total defensive rebounds (615) and ninth defensive rebound percentage (27.7). In just his second season in the league Drummond has already proven that he is without a doubt one of the best rebounders in the league and is in a class of his own when it comes to the offensive glass.

Rebounding may be his strongest attribute but it definitely is his only strength. He isn’t a great scorer in the sense that he is not likely to drop 40 plus on a given night, but in terms on efficiency he is one of the best in the league. Second best to be exact, scoring on a 62.5 percent on his attempts. Sure many of those attempts are dunks or lay-ups but you could say the same about a lot of big men in the NBA and they aren’t nearly as efficient scoring the ball. His incredible work on the offensive glass allows him to create many scoring chances for himself. As well he does a nice job camping out around the rim waiting for lob opportunities when penetration draws his man to help. If Drummond can manage to improve his low post moves watch out, he may quickly develop into one of the best big men in the league.

One major weakness that he must improve on is his free throw shooting; Drummond is shooting only 41.3 percent from the stripe which is shockingly better than the 37.1 percent he shot his rookie season. He isn’t the first center to struggle at the line, Shaq of course was a notoriously bad free throw shooter, but 41.3 percent is absolutely terrible. The position he plays and the way he plays will afford him plenty of chances at the line so it will be important for him try and get his percentage up to atleast over 50 and preferably near 60.

Defensively Drummond is very solid. He can use his massive physique to handle almost any opposing big on the block. He does a nice job staying out of foul trouble and is decent rim protector blocking almost two shots per game.

The Pistons have look like they have struck gold in Drummond. If he can manage to stay healthy there is no reason he shouldn’t be one of the top big men in the league for the next decade. If he continues to rebounding at the rate he did the season he may in the conversation with some of the best rebounders of all-time. This is just projection based off one season so a lot could certainly change but he has already shown that when healthy he can be one of the most productive rebounding bigs in the league. Amazingly Drummond is still very young, just 20 years old. If he can become a consistent scoring threat on the low block it’s hard to imagine any scenario where he isn’t a perennial all-star. Drummond’s future will only be limited by his commitment to the game, if he is willing to put in the work he will be a star for years to come.

– John Zitzler

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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Buy Or Sell: Central Division

Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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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.

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.

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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.

Jack Winter

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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.

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Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division

Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.

Jordan Hicks

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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.

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