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NBA Daily: Areas of Concern: Southeast Division

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Areas Of Concern” series with a look at the Southeast Division.

Ben Nadeau

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It’s early November, which means it’s time to make some rash overreactions — right? Well, maybe it’s a bit early to hit those panic buttons, but there are certainly some areas of concern for every NBA franchise. This week at Basketball Insiders, the team has tackled those big (and small) in-the-room elephants to get a better understanding of each squad. If you’re behind — listen, it was a busy week, we get it — then here’s your rapid-fire recap.

Spencer Davies tackled the Central Division on Monday; David Yapkowitz hit up the Northeast on Wednesday; Drew Maresca handled the pesky Atlantic; while Shane Rhodes grabbed the Southwest to finish up the work week. Which brings our coast-to-coast tour bus to the Southeast Division for the next entry in the series. Analyzing the division is no easy task as all of them seem headed in different directions at this time — but whether they’re tanking, experimenting or combusting, every franchise could do with a tweak here and there. With that in mind, let’s check out the current statuses of the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards.

Atlanta Hawks: Smooth Sailing To A Top Draft Pick

This feels like slightly cheating, to kick off these mini-capsules by saying there are no true areas of concern for Atlanta because they’re exactly where they should be: losing. In reality, the Hawks are in the midst of an important rebuild and even an unlikely postseason berth is not worth missing out on another top draft pick. Adding Zion Williamson or Cam Reddish to a core that already includes the talented Trae Young, plus John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Taurean Prince and Omari Spellman, should be a salivating prospect for the Hawks’ front office.

However, since it’s just the early stages of a long, long campaign, let’s assume that Atlanta wants to win a couple more games along the way. In that case, what should they do? On one hand, they could do worse than playing veteran Jeremy Lin more than 17 minutes per game, that’s for sure. Lin’s signing in Brooklyn was unfortunately marred by two gnarly injuries, but he’s proven to be adaptable and reliable at every other stop along the way. Even better, Lin’s minutes don’t need to come at the expense of Young either, as the former has experience playing alongside Kemba Walker in years past.

Still, the Hawks benefit most from racking up those losses while developing the younger portion of their roster — so don’t look for a major tune-up in strategy anytime soon.

Charlotte Hornets: Where Are The Kids?

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Charlotte Hornets, an in-between team with a new coach and a mostly re-run roster that’s done well to get off on their 6-6 start. As of today, the Hornets have the fourth-best offensive rating (114.3) in the NBA and a nearly top-ten defensive unit (107.4) to make the early returns even more impressive. The aforementioned Walker is still red-hot, but Nicolas Batum is playing the second-most minutes per game on the roster right now and 32-year-old Marvin Williams comes in at fourth — but at what long-term cost? The Hornets are shooting like an elite franchise currently — 12.8 three-pointers on 36.8 percent — but in 2017-18, this roster converted just 10 of them per game, a mark on the basement end of proceedings. That high tally also heavily relies on Walker staying at his scorching 4.1 three-pointers per game average as well. If they want to compete with the likes of the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors down the line, they’ll need everybody to continue contributing at this rate, if not even more.

That, naturally, is where Malik Monk comes in.

It’s a well-trodden subject at this point, but it was a frustrating rookie campaign for Monk last season. This year, the 6-foot-3 guard looks like a different animal altogether. Monk is averaging 13.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting in just 23.3 minutes per game — so it stands to reason that once the Hornets truly let Monk loose, they should benefit immensely. To the Hornets’ credit, they’re at not trying to fix something that isn’t broken, for now, which is the second-best scoring bench unit league-wide. Presumably, Monk will move into Jeremy Lamb’s starting spot and newcomer Miles Bridges will receive a deserved boost in minutes before too long. Ultimately, the conference’s top dogs run deep rotations and the quicker Charlotte gets their interesting collection of prospects — Dwayne Bacon and Willy Hernangomez included — going, the better they’ll be by springtime.

Miami HEAT: Just A Star Addition Away?

Originally, this blurb was about Miami’s need to specifically trade for Jimmy Butler. As of Saturday morning, that ship has officially sailed with the Butler move to Philadelphia. Superstars win championships in this modern day landscape and the HEAT happen to be one of the only strong postseason candidates without a bonafide juggernaut. Hassan Whiteside is a still a double-double machine, but he’s not a top-drawer, go-to guarantee at the end of games either. Surprisingly, Miami has imparted most of their scoring burden upon Josh Richardson, a 25-year-old that offers great two-way promise, but he can’t measure up against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard just yet.

That’s no slight against Richardson — 20.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game — of course, but it’s hard to believe Miami can keep pace without the acquisition of a star. It’s no shock that the HEAT were interested in Butler as his hard-nosed, defensive-minded prowess would have been the perfect linchpin for a roster that’s chock-full of second options. It’s safe to assume that the HEAT are as close as to a postseason lock as possible, but it’s tough to pit them against the upper echelon without further reinforcements. Through 11 games, Miami has shot and defended admirably — but they also haven’t beaten any game-changing competition either.

So much will happen between now and February’s deadline, but the HEAT could become serious conference contenders if the right deal eventually comes their way.

Orlando Magic: A Slow Start For Isaac, Bamba

Over the offseason, the hype for the towering Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba duo took on a life of its own — and who could blame those onlookers? The talented Isaac spent most his rookie year injured, but the 6-foot-10 forward showed flashes of absolute brilliance at times. Joined by Bamba (and the recently retained Aaron Gordon), it was difficult not to get excited about that trio’s innate potential, particularly so if these two promising prospects pulled through in fast succession. In retrospect, Bamba was never going to immediately take over for veteran and franchise stalwart Nikola Vucevic at center, especially under new head coach Steve Clifford, but it’s been a slower start than anticipated for sure.

In his limited minutes, Bamba has certainly impressed though: Every time the rookie has logged 20-plus minutes, he’s also grabbed six or more rebounds. Then Bamba notched his first-ever double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in just under 16 minutes against the San Antonio Spurs last week — hell, he’s already had a five-block game to boot.

As for Isaac, things have become a bit trickier once more. We’re yet to see the dominant Isaac that was on full display during the Las Vegas Summer League, with the second-year professional really only showing out in two contests in 2018-19 thus far. In October’s win on the road at Boston, Isaac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds on 66.7 percent from the field; three days later he went for 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a loss against Portland. But other than that, his game log has been sprinkled with 3-for-8 or 0-for-6 shooting performances — and the worst of it? Isaac is now dealing with another ankle sprain, the same ailment that shelved him for much of his first foray into professional basketball.

With the Magic involved in the convoluted Eastern Conference playoff picture for the time being, the overall outlook here may not change until closer to the trade deadline — and that’s OK too. Issac and Bamba are just 21 and 20 years old, respectively, so there are plenty of opportunities left here to peak together. Still, it’s hard to ignore how much better the Magic will be once this fearsome pair is healthy and fully unleashed.

Washington Wizards: Burn It All Down

Man, what a bummer this has been for the Wizards, huh?

After Friday’s disappointing loss to Orlando, Washington finds themselves in 14th place, ahead of just the 1-10 Cleveland Cavaliers, and tied for the second-worst record in the entire league. For a team with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Dwight Howard and plenty of other valuable contributors, that’s simply inexcusable. Even owner Ted Leonsis couldn’t resist piling on when NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the rise in scoring this season, adding bluntly: “They just have to play us.”

And, truthfully, it’s a whole lot worse than that. Their defensive rating is second-worst (114.6), while their offensive rating is not much better (104.5, 26th) and their assist ratio (16.2, 21st) remains toward the cellar as well. Words are getting passive-aggressive already and, when you zoom out the camera, this melodrama has been driving headlong into oncoming traffic for years now. Washington even added Austin Rivers and Howard to this ill-fitting puzzle with no corner pieces and genuinely thought it would work out — this very writer bought in, to be fair — but it’s not even a month into the season and here they stand: fraught and frayed as ever.

So, the Wizards’ areas of concern are, frankly, everywhere. Questions that must be asked, again: Can they overcome these chemistry issues? Are Wall and Beal still the backcourt pairing of the future? And where does the maxed out Otto Porter Jr. fit in at this point? (As of now, the answer is not well.) Once more, these are not new things to address — these are outstanding, important issues that the Wizards have pushed aside time and time repeated.

There’s obviously an insane amount of talent on this roster and November is far too soon to pull the plug — that should go without saying. In the East alone, the Wizards could play .500-or-so basketball for months and remain right in the postseason hunt, so there should be no immediate rush. But after multiple seasons of this head-scratching frustration, the mind can’t help but wonder when the front office will finally push that self-destruct button and start anew.

In the end, it’s still early, but for most of these teams — you’re excused, Atlanta — they’re still trying to figure out where they stand in the conference hierarchy. Three of the franchises boast new head coaches and those rotations won’t just magically reveal themselves, those fleshed-out nuances take time. In any case, seeing more Monk and Bamba, for example, would be an inarguable boon for their playoff-hopeful clubs. Miami has played up to their deep roster, but an injection of star power could make them a darkhorse contender overnight; while the Wizards need an injection — or an ejection, based on your viewpoint — of just about everything.

Either way, it’ll be intriguing to check back on these capsules closer to the trade deadline: potential overreactions, young stud breakouts and blockbuster transactions — it’s all bubbling there, right under the surface, for better or for worse.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Buy Or Sell: Central Division

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

Drew Mays

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It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.

By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.

These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.

Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)

Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).

What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.

The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.

Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.

There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.

Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.

Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers

After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.

Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.

That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.

This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.

Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.

Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.

Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers

The Pistons are right where they want to be.

Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.

Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.

But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.

Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.

The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade —  and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.

Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.

Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.

Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers

It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.

Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.

There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.

Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.

Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.

Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers

The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.

Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.

That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.

Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.

Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.

Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.

December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.

Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.

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NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?

Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.

Jack Winter

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The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.

It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.

Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.

A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.

But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.

Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?

“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”

It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.

But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.

The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.

The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.

But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.

Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.

If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.

The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.

It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?

The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.

Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.

Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.

Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.

This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.

But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.

And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.

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Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division

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

Jordan Hicks

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It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.

What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.

The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.

In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.

Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers

Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.

Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.

It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.

Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers

Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.

The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.

They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.

San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers

The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.

With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.

Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.

New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers

Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.

Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.

Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers

This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?

The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.

This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.

Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.

Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.

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