Continuing Basketball Insiders’ examination of all 30 teams this offseason, today we look at the Philadelphia 76ers and how they can improve going forward.
The good news for Sixers fans, coming off one of the worst seasons in NBA history (one that featured upheaval and turnover in the front office to cap off the 2015-16 campaign) is that there is nowhere to go but up.
Focus on the Present
Sam Hinkie’s infamous “process” was about focusing on the future. And say what you will about Hinkie, he left a cupboard full of intriguing and promising assets. Now, the onus is on new general manager Bryan Colangelo to turn the corner and turn that promise into actual on-court victories.
We saw this change in philosophy begin to take hold last season, when Jerry Colangelo (Bryan’s father) was brought in to right the ship. Philadelphia promptly traded away future second-round draft picks in exchange for Ish Smith, a player they had previously let walk in free agency. Philly also signed veteran Elton Brand to serve as a trusted mentor to their cadre of young big men.
This change in direction is likely music to the ears of head coach Brett Brown. Brown has fought the good fight while having to play each night at a talent disadvantage. When the Sixers are able to increase the quality of their roster, Brown will finally have an opportunity to showcase his abilities as a head coach, as the 76ers start to enter games on equal footing with their opponents.
Still, making the transition from an organization focused on the future to one striving to improve right now is fraught with it’s own set of challenges. Patience, which was running low in Philly, will obviously still be required. Luckily for Philadelphia, they have an enormous amount of cap space to work with, which should hopefully expedite the evolution.
Utilize Cap Space Correctly
This upcoming offseason is obviously immensely important for the future of the franchise. The Sixers will enter the 2016 free agent frenzy with upwards of $60 million in salary cap space to spend, which will likely qualify as the most cap space in the league (depending on how the L.A. Lakers handle a few of their expiring contracts).
This organization will have an opportunity to add established, proven players to their exciting young core. Unfortunately for the Sixers, this is a relatively weak free agent class, especially considering the 76ers have essentially no chance at landing the crown jewels of the crop (LeBron James and Kevin Durant). There are a few elite forwards and centers on the market, but the 76ers’ primary objective will be to add guards. Could they convince DeMar DeRozan to accept a max contract to play in Philadelphia? The top point guard available will be Mike Conley, but considering his age and ‘wear and tear,’ he’s probably not an ideal fit. Other expensive players they could target would be wings such as Nicolas Batum, Harrison Barnes (restricted) and Chandler Parsons.
However, an issue Philly may run into is that they would likely need to overpay to land top-tier players this offseason, as the most valued commodities likely won’t have the lowly 76ers atop their list of preferred destinations. Still, the 76ers will need to spend approximately $50 million just to hit the salary floor, so splurging for the right player would be excusable. A second option might be trading for another team’s unhappy star who’s making major money.
The 76ers’ best plan of attack may be to target mid-tier talent – players who haven’t completely established themselves yet, but have each shown they are legit a NBA talent with an intriguing ceiling. Shooting guards who would fall into this category are Kent Bazemore, Allen Crabbe, Evan Fournier, Eric Gordon and Courtney Lee. Point guards include Jeremy Lin, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson and Matthew Dellavedova.
Of course, free agency isn’t the only way the Sixers plan to improve their roster this summer.
Get Lucky in the Lottery and Hope for Healthy Returns
Depending on how the ping pong balls bounce, the 76ers could end up with four first-round selections – including two of the top four picks in the 2016 NBA draft. The Lakers pick is top-three protected, so if L.A. drops out of the first three spots, the Sixers will be sitting pretty. There is a 44.2 percent chance of this happening. In this scenario, Philly could, theoretically, walk away from the draft with LSU’s Ben Simmons and combo-guard Jamal Murray out of Kentucky.
Developing the young players who are under contract is crucial too. There were a number of twists and turns that resulted in Hinkie’s ouster in Philadelphia, but arguably none was more damaging than losing Joel Embiid for two seasons due to multiple foot injuries. At the time he was drafted, Embiid was viewed by many draft experts as possessing an incredibly high upside. He needs to appear in at least one NBA game before we start rehashing how good he can become, but the excitement will ratchet up if he shows signs of healthy progress.
Jahlil Okafor’s introduction to the NBA was a rocky ride. He showed that he could score at will, which wasn’t a surprise, but other than that his rookie season was an unpleasant experience. He had multiple off-the-court issues that brought unwanted drama and embarrassment. On the floor, his defense was deplorable. His season was also cut short due to a knee injury. The Sixers have to hope he not only returns to 100 percent health, but that he also matures a great deal in a short period of time and is willing to commit to improving his defense next season.
Another potential piece that could greatly improve the overall outlook of the organization going forward is bringing Dario Saric to America. Saric, the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, turned 22 years old earlier this month and as is one of the more promising prospects in all of Europe.
Saric is currently a member of the Turkish Basketball League affiliate Anadolu Effes, which is nearing the end of its regular season. This season, in 22 minutes per contest, Saric is averaging 11.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, while shooting an ultra-impressive 50 percent from the floor, 40.3 percent from three-point territory and 93.9 percent from the free-throw line. Saric will likely play for Croatia in the Olympics this summer, but Coach Brown has said that will not decrease the chances he comes over to play in the NBA next season. Saric has one more year left on his current contract in Turkey.
If things fall the right way over the new few months, it’s not impossible to see the Sixers on a path to respectability sooner rather than later.
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.
NBA Daily: Mo Harkless Proving His Value
The LA Clippers have thrived despite their two biggest stars missing a combined 18 games this season. The reason for this may be linked to the problems in Portland. Chad Smith details why Mo Harkless has been a key factor in both.
The Los Angeles Clippers are undoubtedly one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Understandably, much of the credit goes to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley. Though he may be overlooked and underappreciated, Maurice Harkless is a significant piece of the tenacious defense that has fueled the Clippers to an 18-7 record.
More affectionately known as Mo Harkless, the versatile wing has delivered when the team needed him most. Between Kawhi’s load management and George missing the first 11 games of the season, Doc Rivers had to rely on the services of one of their other new players. Harkless’ role in LA isn’t much different from his role in Portland, where he spent the last three seasons.
After being drafted 15th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, Harkless patiently waited for the right opportunity. Oddly enough, that came in the form of a trade during the summer of 2015, when he was dealt to Portland for a 2020 2nd round pick, which is top-55 protected. After three years in Orlando, it all came together in the Pacific Northwest.
Harkless was an afterthought by some in the four-team sign-and-trade deal that sent Jimmy Butler to Miami. Injuries have devastated Portland, but losing a talented role player like him has hurt them just as bad.
In LA’s first seven games this season, Harkless recorded 11 total steals and was top five in the league in deflections. One of the most valuable assets that he possesses is the ability to guard four positions on the floor. This was something that surprised Doc early on, not fully grasping his depth of talent.
Scoring has never been Harkless’ calling card, but he is very capable of averaging double figures. His points are slightly down this year, but that is not why the Clippers put him on the floor. When he does score, he takes high percentage shots at the rim, as his 55 percent effective field goal percentage indicates. He shoots above 50 percent for his career and is connecting on 37 percent of his shots from downtown.
The rebounding numbers won’t blow you away either, but Harkless can hit the glass when needed. He actually led the team with 14 rebounds in their last game in Indiana on Monday. Harkless isn’t going to lead the team in any significant category over the course of a season, but he is able to produce in various ways on any given night. That is a lethal weapon for any coach to have coming off of his bench.
The versatility that Harkless possesses was on display against Toronto when he split time defending Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. He held Kemba Walker in check and forced him into three consecutive turnovers. He locked down Luka Doncic to the tune of 4-for-11 shooting and even spent time guarding Anthony Davis in the season opener. His lethal combination of length and quickness allows him to become a pest to all different types of players.
The Clippers currently boast a 104.6 defensive rating, which is eighth-best in the league. Kawhi has missed seven games, and George missed the first 11 which makes that rating look even better. With Harkless’ defensive skill set and offensive weapons like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench, it makes it even tougher for opposing teams to generate enough offense to keep pace.
On top of the games that their two star players have missed, the Clippers have also only had the services of Landry Shamet for 10 games. JaMychal Green has also missed a few games due to injury, which has tested their depth even more. Harkless has played in all 25 games so far for the Clippers. Considering how this team has performed amid all of the injuries, it is scary to imagine what they could become by season’s end if they are healthy and have their chemistry figured out.
Portland experienced a lot of roster turnover from a year ago, and it has crippled them so far this season. At first glance, people may point to the departure of guys like Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu, who are now playing for the two teams in Florida. Ed Davis and Evan Turner have both left the west coast, but it may be safe to say their biggest loss was that of Harkless.
He set the tone on defense for them and was the guy that would do whatever the team needed in order to win. He never cared about his statistics or how he was used in the rotation. Sure, having a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins would be nice, but Portland would sure love having Harkless back in their lineup.
This is a tough stretch for the Clippers, who have begun an 11-game gauntlet that began with a brutal loss in Milwaukee, and ends with a “road” game against their LA rivals on Christmas Day. Only 2 of those 11 games will come on their home floor when they face a surprising Phoenix team and an angry Houston squad. They will be thoroughly tested between now and the holidays, but they are up for the challenge.
Tonight’s matchup in Toronto is obviously all about Kawhi’s return. Two elite teams will square off with All-Star caliber players all over the court. Mo Harkless may not be one of them. He doesn’t rank inside the top 150 players in points, rebounds or assists. His Hall-of-Fame probability is 0.0 percent.
Still, much of LA’s success this season can be attributed to his stellar and unselfish play.