For all intents and purposes, the first season of the Dwane Casey era in Detroit went according to plan. The Pistons went 41-41, made the playoffs and were trounced by Milwaukee in a sweep in the first round.
This is the space Detroit finds themselves in: A middling team with slim, top-heavy talent that could as easily sneak into the postseason as they could find themselves out of it. But in a league that’s shown competitiveness where overall competence can be a vehicle for drawing free agents, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
If there is a time to strike when the league least expects it, it’s now. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond’s first year-and-a-half together has revived this Detroit group back into a playoff team. Dwane Casey’s done this with the Raptors before, and we could be seeing a quicker transformation in the Motor City. Reggie Jackson finally seems to be getting back to himself after multiple seasons of hampering injuries. Luke Kennard should be a popular candidate to make a significant jump as one of the better tertiary scorers in the game. The team brought in Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris and Tony Snell to bolster its depth as well. This writer would be surprised if Detroit doesn’t finish somewhere in the top eight in the East for a second straight season.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Pistons underwhelmed in 2018-19. But at least Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin made it through an entire season without an injury. Entering 2019-20, they definitely added some nice pieces like Derrick Rose, Tim Frazier, Markieff Morris and rookie Sekou Doumbouya. But their roster didn’t have enough star power in the 2018-19 season to get them beyond the first-round of the playoffs – and they’ve added no new star power since. There is far too much depth and parity in the East for the Pistons to expect too much success. Their best bet might be a self-initiated rebuild. Andre Drummond has a player option for 2020-21. I’m sure most people in the Pistons’ front-office are already praying he opts out to try his hand in free agency.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Drew Maresca
The Detroit Pistons had a pretty solid offseason, in my opinion. I think drafting Sekou Doumbouya at 15th overall in this year’s draft was a nice move. Signing Derrick Rose to a two-year $15 million contract and Markieff Morris to two-year $6,560,000 contract (player option on final season) is a good value overall. I also like that the team claimed Christian Wood off waivers. And while Michael Beasley hasn’t turned out to be the player he was projected to be coming out of college, he could add some scoring off the bench and was signed to just a one-year, $2.2 million deal. The Pistons don’t have the overall talent or depth of the Milwaukee Bucks or Indiana Pacers, but they are a solid Central Division team and could be a tough matchup on any given night.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Pistons seem to be stuck in “no man’s land.” That is, a team that’s good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to actually win anything significant once they’re there. They do have Blake Griffin, a player 29 other teams would love to have. Griffin has expanded his game to the point where he’s one of the best all-around big men in the league. Another bright spot for Detroit is the fact that Reggie Jackson played in all 82 games last season and shot a career-high 36.9 percent from three. Andre Drummond also had a resurgent season this past year. The three of them from the Pistons core group. They also have some intriguing young players. Bruce Brown became a starter as a rookie, and Sekou Doumbouya is an interesting prospect. In the East, the Pistons are pretty much a lock for the postseason, but unfortunately for them, their prospects of advancing past the first round seem rather slim.
3rd Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Pistons are one of those teams that has everything they need to be a playoff contender. They have two All-Star level guys in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, they have solid guards, some depth on the bench, quality coaching. There is no reason the Piston’s shouldn’t be a playoff team… except for injury concerns. Durability is the Pistons big unknown. Blake Griffin, who is basically everything to this team has missed 10-15 games (or more) a year since 2013. Last year was maybe his best year, where he logged 75 games but was hobbled going into the playoffs, ultimately requiring another surgery. The Pistons are good enough when healthy, but that’s not the same variable for the Pistons as it is for virtually everyone else, mainly because of the core players have missed serious time over the last few years making them hard to believe in.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Pistons are flirting with the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with $130.8 million in guaranteed salary towards 14 players under standard contracts. The team will reportedly sign Michael Beasley to a make-good deal. If he or Christian Wood lands the final roster spot, the franchise will be right up against the tax.
By using most of their Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions on Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris, Detroit has a hard cap of $138.9 million. Before November, the franchise needs to decide on the team option for Luke Kennard. Thon Maker is extension eligible before the start of the season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin is far and away the best offensive player on this Pistons team. In 75 games last season, Griffin averaged a career-high in points at 24.5 per game while adding in 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists. As some of his athleticism has faded due to age and nagging injuries, Griffin has accordingly reinvented his game over the past three-and-a-half seasons. This culminated last year when Griffin shot 36.2 percent from three on seven attempts per game (also a career-high), on his way to his highest effective field goal percentage since 2013-14. This new wrinkle in his game has allowed Griffin to remain a top player and elite on the offensive end. Assuming his left knee holds up, he will continue to produce at the level he always has this season.
Top Defensive Player: Andre Drummond
Death, taxes and Andre Drummond controlling the Little Caesars Arena paint. Drummond enters his eighth year having played at least 78 games in all but one season. He’s led the NBA in rebounds per game in three seasons, including the last two. He’s led the NBA in total rebounds four straight seasons, and in offensive rebounds for six straight. His career average in blocks per game is 1.8, steals per game is 1.6 and he’s been number one in defensive win shares for two years in a row. Enough said.
Top Playmaker: Blake Griffin
One of the more underrated things in the NBA over the last 10 years is Blake Griffin’s playmaking ability. While most dedicated basketball fans have been aware of it for years, it feels like the general public doesn’t recognize how much Griffin holistically brings to an offense. Despite not being a primary ball-handler, Griffin has averaged right around five assists per game for the last five seasons. And while that number may not jump out at you, in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass, Griffin had an assist rate of 26.9 percent, putting him in the 99th percentile compared to the rest of the league. In fact, he hasn’t had an assist rate outside of the 95th percentile for his entire career.
Griffin’s proficiency from anywhere on the floor has been extremely obvious since he became a competent three-point shooter. That playmaking ability is even more pronounced in Detroit where the Pistons desperately need him to do so.
Top Clutch Player: Blake Griffin
There’s no reason to look anywhere else. Griffin is Detroit’s best offensive player and playmaker. His ability to shoot from three makes him the go-to player in any late-game situation the Pistons could find themselves in. The only other potential answers are Reggie Jackson or newly-acquired Derrick Rose, and you’d be hard-pressed to convince many people they’re better options than Griffin at this point in their careers.
The Unheralded Player: Luke Kennard
Kennard gets the nod here primarily because he’s the only capable shooter on the roster outside of Griffin and Reggie Jackson. No one else outside of Tony Snell really takes threes, and Snell will never shoot at a high enough volume to move the needle. Kennard is a 40 percent guy you expect to stay that way even when his attempts go up. He was also very good in Detroit’s first-round playoff series loss last season, where he averaged 15.0 points per game and was 9-15 from three in four games.
Best New Addition: Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose! After some light talks of a Chicago reunion, Rose ultimately chose to sign a two-year deal with Detroit. Rose has been somewhat of a repetitive story over the last five seasons; seasons full of injuries and uneven play. However, Rose’s memorable 50-point effort in this past season gives Detroit hope that he still has something left in the tank. Production similar to last season would be a welcome addition to the Pistons.
– Drew Mays
WHO WE LIKE
1. Reggie Jackson
While oft-maligned, Reggie Jackson is still an assertive guard teams have to account for. Last season, Jackson played all 82 games and posted career-highs in three-point percentage and three-point attempts. He finished third on the team in scoring behind Griffin and Drummond and is capable of making something happen at any moment. With Griffin operating as a point-forward and Rose now in the fold, Jackson will hopefully be able to direct his energy towards playing away from the ball and attacking accordingly. That’s what’s best for him individually and the Pistons as a team.
2. Markieff Morris
When you think of the Detroit Pistons, you think of hard-nosed, grind-it-out basketball. This began with the Bad Boys and rolled into their championship season in 2004, but the essence still exists in 2019, and Markieff Morris fits that vibe. Morris is a tough veteran who will look to provide frontcourt depth behind Griffin and Drummond.
3. Tony Snell
Throughout a six-year career, Tony Snell has become a Central Division staple. Snell spent three years in Chicago followed by three years in Milwaukee and now enters his first year in Detroit. Snell is the ultimate role player, a long-armed wing who is a career 38.2 percent three-point shooter. He will fit in just fine, likely playing 20 minutes per game as he did for Detroit’s division foes.
4. Sekou Doumbouya
Detroit’s first-round pick may have been the youngest prospect in the draft, but he has the most professional basketball experience of anyone selected this past June. Doumbouya began playing pro basketball when he was 15 and spent 2018-19 playing in a league in France. Though it will take Doumbouya time to develop, he’s a skilled 6-foot-9, 229-pound forward who gets to learn from Blake Griffin every day. There’s plenty of reason to expect exciting things from him this year.
– Drew Mays
Last season, Detroit was a relatively weak offensive team. Without much in the way of offseason additions, that will likely be true again this season. Accordingly, the offensive strengths for the Pistons are Blake Griffin and their offensive rebounding. Barring injury, Griffin can carry this team offensively. He’s still that good.
Regarding the offensive glass, the Pistons were sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate. What is a great way to boost an otherwise struggling offense? Get more chances. Any team with Andre Drummond will be good with that.
Defensively the Pistons were solid. They finished 12th in the league in both points allowed per 100 possessions and turnover rate and will need to at least repeat those numbers to vie for the playoffs.
– Drew Mays
The offensive talent around Griffin. Detroit has been in the bottom third in points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage the previous three seasons. Reggie Jackson will need to be more good Reggie than bad Reggie, Kennard will need to build upon last year’s playoff performance, Rose will need to be effective and healthy and Doumbouya will need to add something. Of course, if Griffin’s knee flares up for an extended amount of time, it may not matter how everyone else plays.
– Drew Mays
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Pistons return to the playoffs in an improved East?
Even if Blake Griffin misses time, it still feels like the Pistons will slog their way to 38-40 wins. That’s just what they do. The question is, will that be enough to once again make the playoffs in a revamped East?
This writer’s guess is no. Every team above Detroit in the Eastern Conference last year will be relevant again this year, and several teams have legitimate reasons to believe they can be playoff teams. Detroit’s roster is thin. Coupled with the injury history of their core, it seems wise to take the field for that final playoff spot.
– Drew Mays
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.