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NBA Daily: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons Still Working Out Kinks

The Philadelphia 76ers are still looking for the best ways to combine Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons offensively. Quinn Davis looks at what the team has done so far and what it could do going to forward to maximize their talents.

Quinn Davis

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Late in the third quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ win over the Toronto Raptors, Ben Simmons brought the ball up the court and called a play.

After directing some traffic, Joel Embiid came up to the three-point line and ran a simple pick-and-roll with Simmons. Simmons slashed past Marc Gasol to the rim and threw down a left-handed dunk.

For most teams, this simple high pick-and-roll would go unnoticed, a faint memory from a normal December win. For these Sixers, though, that play is symbolic of the team’s championship aspirations.

There has been much hand-wringing and alarm-sounding over the fit of Embiid and Simmons offensively. The concerns are justified, as Simmons and Embiid both do their best work around the basket. They are yin and bigger yin at times.

As of their win over the Raptors, the Sixers’ best offensive units have been the ones featuring Simmons, but not Embiid. The lineup of Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, James Ennis, Tobias Harris,and Al Horford has scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That same lineup with exception of Furkan Korkmaz in for Thybulle has scored 117.7 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Sixers score 107.8 points per 100 possessions when the two young stars share the court.

The key to those Simmons-led lineups has been their pace. At their fastest, they have zoomed up and down the hardwood at a pace of 111.6 possessions per game, per NBA.com. That lineup, which is the Simmons-Thybulle-Ennis-Harris-Horford grouping, would rank first in the NBA by a mile in that category.

With Embiid on the court, playing at that pace is impossible. Lineups with Embiid have hovered around a pace of 98 or 99 possessions per game so far this season.

That is not knock on the star center; any player at his size would be a better fit for a slower game. This is just one example of the tricky fit between the two leaders of the franchise.

This wide gap was not present last season. The starting lineup used at the end of the 2018-19 run, which featured both Embiid and Simmons, ran at a pace of about 106 possessions per game, a number that would rank first in the NBA this season. Also, the offense stagnated when Embiid left the court last season. With Simmons on and Embiid off, the Sixers only could muster 108 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

The change this year can largely be attributed to the addition of Al Horford. Horford, who is now the starting power forward and backup center, has had a profound effect on the team’s offense and pace.

Firstly, he has proven to be an ideal partner for Simmons. Horford is a master at trailing the fastbreak for top the arc threes and also can be weaponized as a pick-and-pop partner against defenses who collapse on Simmons, like in this play against the Raptors.

Secondly, Horford as a power forward contributes to the snail’s pace that the team plays with their starters. The sheer size of that five-man unit makes running up and down the court counter to the advantages that they pose.

With Horford in tow, the differences between Simmons and Embiid are now amplified on the offensive end.

With Embiid and Simmons on the court together, the spacing predictably tightens. The cramped paint leads to turnover problems, as the Sixers’ turnover percentage jumps to nearly 18 percent when those two share the court, per Cleaning the Glass.

Minimizing those turnovers and piecing together a strong half-court offense will be key in the Sixers’ title hopes as the year goes on. They may need to get creative in order to do that considering the unique skillset.

Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown is aware of this. He is sure to use the regular season as a laboratory to experiment with the best possible sets when the two share the court.

One of those ways is to have Simmons space to the corner in half-court offensive sets. Brown didn’t mince words over the weekend when asked about Simmons’ second made three of the season, saying he wanted to see “one three-point shot a game,” from his star point guard.

Brown noted that the attempt itself is not only important, but it is the way it would open things up for the rest of Simmons’ game. Brown continued that the ability to attack the paint from that position would lead to dunks and free throws.

As of now, there are a lot of possessions like the one below. The ball gets entered to Embiid while Simmons lurks in the dunker spot on the opposite side of the basket. Most defenses simply collapse into the paint and force the kick out with ease, as the Indiana Pacers do here. The Sixers’ three shooters are located around the top of the arc, so defenders have a short distance to close out.

Simmons spacing to the corner on plays like this would make the Sixers much more difficult to defend. A few passes around the perimeter could lead to an open three or a drive to the rim when a defender closes out wildly.

There is also the step of involving Embiid and Simmons in more two-man actions. The most common two-man action in the NBA is, of course, the pick-and-roll.

Going back to the pick-and-roll at the beginning of this piece, the one thing that stands out immediately is the way Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is guarding Simmons. He is tight on Simmons all the way out five feet above the three-point line. That defense allows Simmons to get free with a head of steam to the basket.

Simmons will rarely see a player guard him that way all season. Most will sag to the foul line or deeper and be content drifting under ever pick. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this specific play and what they could do going forward to get more actions like this, his response was detailed.

“It’s always been a wish to grow those two in pick-and-rolls,” Brown said. “It sounds good, in this room. But when you watch how the league is defending him, there’s nobody to screen. You have to go to different angles, like deep pick-and-rolls and I think they have had success out of that.”

The Sixers have dabbled in those deep pick-and-rolls this season. The play usually involves Simmons getting the ball on the mid-block, where Embiid sets the screen and Simmons moves toward the basket. The play usually results in a decent look for Simmons, as it does on the play here.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, Simmons has had a bit more trouble with those short hooks this season. His percentage in that area is down from 38 percent last season to 34 percent in this campaign, per Cleaning the Glass. This could be variance, as the season is still young.

Still, there are other ways to maximize their combined skills. Perhaps the Sixers try more actions with Simmons as a screener while Embiid plays the role of the dunker. There is also the possibility of more high-low action, weaponizing Simmons’ ability as a passer from the high post.

It is also important to mention the benefit of having two distinct styles. Having a team that can play multiple ways depending on personnel is an inherently good thing.

While the two make for an odd couple offensively, the situation is not as dire as it may seem. The pair operates at a plus-11.4 net rating when sharing the court, per Cleaning the Glass. When Embiid plays without Simmons, the net rating sits at plus-9.7, while that number is a plus-5.7 in the reverse scenario. When you further specify to view lineups with Simmons and Horford sans Embiid, that number jumps to plus-12.7.

These numbers can be attributed to the defensive side of the ball, where the two make for a destructive duo. Embiid has provided his usual rim-protection while Simmons has taken a leap on that end, locking down guards and wings alike while leading the league in steals.

If a few things are tightened up offensively, the Sixers could go from contender to favorite in the championship race.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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