The Memphis Grizzlies have finally closed the door on the “Grit and grind” era after trading away franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley over the past year. The Grizzlies drafted one future star in Jaren Jackson Jr last year, and look to have nabbed another in Murray State’s Ja Morant. Both will need time to find their way in the NBA, which seems to suit the Grizzlies just fine as they seem to have fully embraced the rough road of a rebuild.
Let’s take at a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s been a long, long time since the Grizzlies had an opening night that didn’t feature Mike Conley Jr. or Marc Gasol on the roster. Over a decade, in fact. The era of Grit-N-Grind is over with, and now it’s the kids’ turn to take over. Continuing a rebuild that began with the upstart Jaren Jackson Jr., rookie sensation Ja Morant should provide us with plenty of exciting moments. Fellow first-year addition Brandon Clarke looks as prepared as anybody to contribute right away as well. We’ll see if Taylor Jenkins is the right man for the job in Memphis, as he’s got a responsibility to uphold to bring this fresh roster together.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Grizzlies didn’t turn a corner as quickly as the Pelicans did, but they made a lot of progress. They now feature two franchise cornerstones in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. and some pieces they’ll look to learn more about in 2019-20, including Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson and Tyus Jones. While Andre Iguodala is a great piece both on and off of the court, he recently let it be known that he prefers a release to finish out his career with a contender. It’s hard to know what the Grizzlies season will look like, but it will be considerably worse if they let Iguodala walk for nothing in return. There isn’t nearly enough established talent to make a playoff push, but the Grizzlies are in a good place – just not necessarily for 2019-20.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Grizzlies officially moved on from the Grit and Grind era. They’re ushering in a new beginning with some intriguing young players. Jaren Jackson Jr. was a darkhorse candidate for Rookie of the Year. They now get pair him up with Ja Morant, one of college basketball’s best playmakers. They’ve got a few other young guys in Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton who could also help make up the new core. There should be some exciting basketball in Memphis, albeit a lot of losses. New head coach Taylor Jenkins is getting his first head coaching opportunity so it’s going to be a learning season for everyone. Expect a team that plays incredibly hard, but won’t win many games.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
I have been critical of some deals that Memphis Grizzlies have made and failed to make in the past. I have no such criticisms for the Grizzlies this offseason. Memphis made several significant deals that are detailed more throughout this season preview, so I will focus on a few moves I particularly liked. Memphis finally traded point guard Mike Conley and ended up with a better package than I would have expected considering Conley has an early termination option for the 2020-21 season. Ja Morant was the right choice with the No. 2 overall pick, in my opinion. Trading Julian Washburn to the Golden State Warriors for Andre Iguodala and a 2024 first-rounder was a great move. That draft pick may end up being quite valuable depending on how the next few seasons go for Golden State. Also, Memphis has Iguodala on the roster and could eventually trade him for a nice return assuming a contender is willing to pay that price. Jae Crowder is on a value contract and can be flipped for more assets. Signing Tyus Jones is a nice addition. Even trading C.J. Miles for Dwight Howard and buying out Howard saved money. Simply put, Memphis made smart moves, added young talent, acquired future assets, rebalanced the roster and made the most of their tools this offseason.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Grizzlies have a lot of up-side youth. That bodes well for the future, but not much for the upcoming season. Head coach Taylor Jenkins might be the most unproven guy we’ve seen in awhile land a top job in the NBA. This makes him more likely a placeholder through the rebuild than the future of the franchise, which will likely make this season tough to watch as not only will the players have to learn on the job, so will the head coach. This season looks to be a throw away season focused on developing the young guys, and while that’s good for the long-term, in the short term the Grizzlies are in for a tough season.
5th place – Southwest Division.
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Grizzlies cycled through multiple trades this offseason, including the deal sending Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz. The team has a high payroll but currently stands at roughly $3.2 million under the NBA’s luxury tax threshold of $132.6 million. The issue for the team is roster space, with 16 players under standard NBA contracts.
Both Bruno Caboclo ($300,000) and Ivan Rabb ($371,758) have sizable partial-guarantees. If the Grizzlies want to keep the two developing players, they’ll need to shed a total of three fully-guaranteed contracts to make room. That could mean Andre Iguodala (though reports say the team has not explored a buyout and expects the forward to report to camp), Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee. If not, someone else has to go, unless Caboclo and Rabb don’t make the cut.
The Grizzlies also have to decide on team options for Josh Jackson, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Grayson Allen before November. The franchise still has its $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception available, along with multiple trade exceptions (the largest at $7.7 million for Conley), but roster space and avoiding the tax may limit any significant additional spending. Memphis is hard-capped at $138.9 million after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Tyus Jones.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Jaren Jackson Jr.
The offense in Memphis will run through the versatile big man. Jackson’s unique combination of size, agility, and length is the perfect fit in today’s NBA. He can stretch the floor, as he made 51 three-pointers last season at a respectable 36 percent clip. He can block shots, handle the ball like a guard, and has showcased some impressive post moves.
While Jackson will continue to develop his game, he is also entering his sophomore season in the league. Teams will now be game-planning for him, and he will need to make adjustments and learn how to combat defensive schemes designed to slow him down. He can score from many areas on the floor, and Memphis will desperately need that this season.
Top Defensive Player: Kyle Anderson
Anderson is not the flashy name that comes to mind when you think about tough defenders in the league. However, his deceptive speed and athleticism can be used to his advantage, and his high basketball IQ always has him in the right spot on the floor. Despite playing just 43 games last season, he nearly led the team in steals and was top-five in blocks per game for the Grizzlies. He ranked 33rd in the league in defensive real plus-minus a year ago.
Memphis does not have the one standout high-level defender, but they do have a great collection of defensive talent. Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas are outstanding rim protectors. They also added three excellent defenders this offseason in Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Brandon Clarke. It remains to be seen how much if any, Iguodala plays for Memphis, but Crowder is a great defender that can guard multiple positions.
Top Playmaker: Ja Morant
It will take some time, but this will ultimately be Ja Morant’s show. Rookies typically need time and experience before they can become the focal point of the offense, even on a bad team. For Morant, that will mean utilizing Jackson and relying on him to finish plays and bail them out when the offense bogs down and becomes stagnant.
The No. 2 overall draft pick from this summer will be a high-level pick-and-roll player almost from the start. The front office has surrounded him with a smorgasbord of quality role players. The key for Morant will be finding his comfort zone and figuring out the game. It took time for Trae Young in Atlanta, but he eventually settled in and flourished. Ja will be given ample time and opportunity to get to that point, so patience will be key with him.
Top Clutch Player: Dillon Brooks
The Grizzlies do not yet have a player they feel comfortable with taking over late in a close game. Fortunately for them, they do not necessarily need someone like that right now. Their young roster does not have many guys that have played in big games or shined in monumental moments. Iguodala would fit the bill here, but it is unlikely that he plays the entire season in Memphis. Crowder has hit some big shots in his career, but if they need someone to create and go get a bucket, Brooks has the confidence and the ability to make something happen with the ball.
Josh Jackson is an interesting candidate here as well. Jackson was hot and cold in Phoenix, and Memphis sees him as an intriguing project right now. It will be interesting to see how he slides into the rotation, and what role they want him to fill this year. Jackson and Morant could very well be this guy for Memphis as well, but Brooks will want the ball at the end of close games.
The Unheralded Player: Tyus Jones
Tyus Jones joins a team where he will fit in nicely as a top-level backup point guard. Playing that same role in Minnesota, Jones will be an excellent replacement for Delon Wright for the Grizzlies. Jones has an extremely high basketball IQ and rarely turns the ball over. Last year Jones posted a 6.9 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best in NBA history.
Jones does not gamble much and exhibits excellent court vision. He had career-high marks in points, assists, and rebounds per game last season with the Timberwolves. The 23-year old guard is entering his fifth season in the league and will be a steady rock for Morant to lean on during his rookie campaign.
Best New Addition: Ja Morant
There were several nice additions that the Grizzlies front office was able to land this offseason. Several new role players are going to shape this franchise over the coming years. After winning the Summer League championship and MVP honors, Clarke has already been dubbed as the steal of the draft. Their first pick this year is still the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Despite the truckload of players that Memphis added, Morant is without a doubt their best new piece. The keys to the franchise belong to him and Jackson, who are both still very young. Jackson is still 19, and Morant just turned 20 last month. The future is bright is Memphis, but they will have to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
– Chad Smith
WHO WE LIKE
1. Jaren Jackson Jr
What is there not to love about this kid? He already possesses so many skills and has a solid head on his shoulders. He has already gotten a great feel of the modern NBA. Last season he was either hitting three-pointers (142 attempts) or working inside (389 attempts around the rim) while anchoring the defense. He had the lowest defensive rating among rookies last season and knows how to get to the free-throw line.
2. Ja Morant
Most superstar players in the NBA are great at many things, but elite in one area. For Morant, his elite skill is his passing. His supreme court vision and passing ability were on full display at Murray State. The young point guard is much more than just an athlete. His ability to create off the dribble and get his teammates open shots is something coaches dream of. Morant’s ceiling is incredibly high, and he will be given plenty of time to develop.
3. Jae Crowder
Every team needs a veteran leader, especially one that is willing to sacrifice and lead by example. Crowder is willing and able to lay it all out on the line. He will guard the best offensive player, dive for loose balls, and do whatever it takes for his teammates. Those traits are what help teams gel and genuinely care for one another. Both Crowder and Valanciunas will be key factors in how quickly this team learns the nuances of the game.
4. Dillon Brooks
After playing in all 82 games during his rookie campaign, Brooks only managed to play in 18 games last season due to injury. Brooks has a strong build and can be a very good defender at times. His shooting has not been outstanding (44 percent his rookie year), but he is arguably the Grizzlies’ best effective shooter. With the attention on Jackson and Morant, Brooks could have some excellent open looks this season.
– Chad Smith
After finally moving on from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the young Grizzlies are on their way up. The team will be moving at a much quicker pace, which is something Memphis hasn’t experienced in quite some time. They ranked 30th in pace last season and 26th in attendance. You can bank on both of those numbers improving this year, as they will boast one of the more exciting young duos in the league. They are oozing with young talent at nearly every position.
There is also something to be said for having strength in numbers. A team like the Rockets have the star power in the starting lineup, but their bench is almost non-existent. The Warriors ran into trouble in the Finals last year after injuries depleted their roster. The Grizzlies have an extremely deep team, with a bunch of parts that all work very nicely together.
– Chad Smith
These guys are babies. The Grizzlies have the seventh-youngest roster in the league and are going to rely on the growth and emergence of essentially two teenagers. They are more than that obviously, but they are going to experience some growing pains, and they will have to figure it out in a gauntlet of a Western Conference. Fortunately, they have some quality veterans like Iguodala and Crowder that they can lean on, but their time in Memphis may be short-lived.
The Grizzlies will desperately need to improve their overall shooting, as they were 27th in offensive rating and dead last in points per game last season. In terms of three-point shooting, they ranked 27th in threes made and 25th in three-point percentage. The addition of Crowder and the return of Brooks should help there, but they do not have a strong and consistent three-point shooter.
– Chad Smith
THE BURNING QUESTION
How will Taylor Jenkins be graded in his first season as Head Coach?
All of the buzz surrounding Memphis is how their young duo will look. With so many roster moves and potential buyout deals and draft picks, it is easy to overlook the new Head Coach of the organization. While it is Taylor’s first lead role, he certainly brings some valuable coaching experience with him.
Jenkins spent last season as an assistant coach under Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee. Before that, he was with Budenholzer in Atlanta for five years, where they made it to the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals in addition to three other playoff appearances. In 2013, Jenkins guided the Austin Toros (Spurs G League affiliate) to the Semifinals.
It will be interesting to see the rotation that Jenkins goes with, with so many bodies on the roster. There are some unknowns as well, with guys like Clarke, Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson, Bruno Caboclo, De’Anthony Melton, and Miles Plumlee. They need to figure out who can play, and who cannot. The best way to make that determination is with playing time on the court.
The players are going to be learning on the job, and so will their coach. The relationship between the two is going to be vital in terms of the growth and success of the organization. This is going to take time, but the Grizzlies seemingly have everything lined up to be a real contender in the foreseeable future.
For Jenkins, his grade will be determined not by how many meaningful basketball games they win, but by how he can develop his young cornerstone players.
– Chad Smith
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.