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NBA Daily: Ranking the Free Agents – Shooting Guards

Basketball Insiders continues its series examining the free agent class of 2019 by position. To start, Jordan Hicks looks at the best available shooting guards on the market.

Jordan Hicks

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Basketball Insiders has recently started a new series detailing the top free agents by position as a primer for the free agency period beginning on July 1.

In continuing where Drew Maresca left off with top point guard targets, we will now take a look at the top 10 shooting guards that are headed to free agency.

Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump from $101 million to $109 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:

$27,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience

$32,700,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience

$38,150,000 for players with 10+ years of experience

In addition, the mid-level exception for teams in the first year is expected to be $9,246,000, while the taxpayer MLE is expected to be $5,711,000 and the room MLE is expected to be $4,760,000.

If you want a full list of players in the pool, feel free to refer to this page for a list of all the notable free agents-to-be.

Without further ado, here are the shooting guards that are sure to make the biggest splashes in free agency.

Max Guys

Klay Thompson – Golden State Warriors – Last Year’s Salary: $18,988,725

Klay Thompson is arguably the best shooting guard this free agency, period – and he certainly has an argument for best in the league. Not only is he historically one of the best shooters the league has ever seen, but he’s also been one of the most important – if not the most important – defenders on his team.

He’s shot a career 41.9 percent from three-point range on seven attempts per night. Before Kevin Durant buddied up with Golden State, Klay’s shooting was relied upon nightly. The past three seasons it seems like he’s only had to swoop in and be the savior every third or fourth game. Regardless, he has immense talent in multiple areas on the court and his services could essentially be used on any team in the league.

If you have forgotten just how lethal Klay has the ability to be, just look up the record for most points in a quarter. To save you some time – it’s Thompson. 37 points to be exact. If a single team scored 37 per quarter that’d be 148 points per game. That’s pretty good if you didn’t know already.

To the dismay of Thompson, he wasn’t named to an All-NBA team this season, so he isn’t eligible for the Supermax contract. Despite whatever team he lands with, however, fully expect Klay to get a max deal. He isn’t worth anything less.

Where Does He Fit: Like previously mentioned, Thompson could fit on literally any roster. He is quite honestly the best three-and-D player in the league and the standard by which all others should be judged. Before the playoffs began – and more-or-less through the first two rounds – there were rumors going around the Klay was getting sick of his role with the Warriors and would consider seeking other options.

Pre-injury Klay was thought to be interested in signing with a different team. His ACL tear has led many to believe he will stay at home and finish his career off with the Warriors. They can offer him an extra year and more guaranteed money. Not many players have the ability to garner a max deal the summer after tearing their ACL, but Klay is one of the few.

New Deal: Thompson will sign a 5 year/$190 million and stay with the Warriors. Pending other free agent decisions, the Warriors will bank on their new arena to help fill the incredible, imminent debt sure to be left by the luxury tax bill. Klay should hopefully be back by next March at the latest ready to help Golden State go after yet another title.

Jimmy Butler – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $20,445,779

Jimmy Buckets has already declined his player option for the 2019-20 season, which by all accounts was a smart move. He would’ve made just a hair under $20 million, but we all know he is more valuable than that. You might find a few people who would argue his personality and locker room antics negate his worthiness for a max deal, but those few are wrong. Jimmy Butler is the second best shooting guard available this summer, and he most certainly merits a max contract.

While his three-point shooting can be streaky, he’s still a career 34.1 percent from deep. He didn’t earn his nickname by accident; he’s the kind of player that can get you a bucket when one is sorely needed. He has an excellent mid-range game, has the athleticism to get around above-average defenders and can finish at the rim with the best of them.

Butler’s real value is found on the other end, though. As good as he is on offense, Butler’s tenacity on defense is where his true skills lie. He’s long, quick, gets into passing lanes and frustrates the best offensive players.

And please, let’s not forget the beginning of the season where Butler took the third-stringers and wiped the remaining Minnesota starters all over the court in the practice heard ’round the world.

Where Does He Fit: Butler fits quite well in his current situation with Philadelphia. There were reports early on there that he wasn’t happy with his lack of touches, but those rumors never quite grew to anything much more than, well, rumors. Out of him and Tobias Harris, Butler clearly gives you the better chance at a title – mainly due to his contributions on both ends. The Lakers, Clippers and Knicks are all teams with cap space that will certainly try and go after Butler. The Lakers could use someone with better shooting, though.

Recent reports have surfaced saying the Rockets are interested in Butler, but their cap situation is too tricky to bring anyone else on, so it would have to be via sign-and-trade. The Rockets would likely have to give up part of their core to get Butler, so we shall see how that situation plays out.

New Deal: Many teams will call, but Butler will probably sign a 5 year/$190 million deal with the 76ers. They give him the best chance at a title and the most guaranteed money to boot.

Near Max Guys

J.J. Redick – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $12,250,000

For someone who is turning 35 this upcoming season, you wouldn’t expect them to be garnering near max dollars. J.J. Redick has had quite an interesting career arch. He struggled heavily with injuries and didn’t really have much of an impact during his first eight-or-so seasons. He found his first home with the Clippers and now – it seems – his second with the 76ers.

No one would have guessed that Redick would have a career-high 18.1 points per night in his age 34 season. He was tied for seventh in the league at eight three-point attempts per night and played a critical role on a 76ers team that struggled to find spacing all year. For a team that has unbelievable talent in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, it’s amazing just how important Redick is.

Where Does He Fit: Redick is not headed to a team with a younger core. He likely has one to two good years left in him. The Lakers need shooting and may be able to offer him enough money to lure him out of Philadelphia. The 76ers have Early Bird Rights and can offer him up to $21 million.

New Deal: Redick will likely stay in Philadelphia for somewhere around 2 years/$32 million. Many reports have surfaced about how much he loves it there. That deal isn’t near max, but Redick is more focused on titles than money.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Danny Green – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $10,000,000

Green is coming off one of his best seasons to date. For one, he won another NBA championship. He shot 45.5 percent from three off 5.4 attempts per night – the former being a career high and the latter almost matching one. He hasn’t appeared to lose much athleticism with age and is still a very talented defender. He’ll be turning 32 this season and still appears to have a few good years left towards another run at a title.

Where Does He Fit: Like Thompson, Green is about as ideal a role player as you’d want (although Thompson is clearly much more than a role player). Green is your prototypical three-and-D player, and he proved his immense value during the season with Toronto. Going to whoever offers him the most money makes the most sense, but he’d fit in incredibly well with the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers. But in all honesty, you name a team and he’d help them improve.

New Deal: Green recently appeared on The Breakfast Club and discussed his desire to return to Toronto. The Raptors have no reason to let Green walk, so Danny should sign a 3 year/$45 million deal to stay in Canada. A caveat to this, however, is if Kawhi Leonard leaves in free agency. If he leaves, Toronto may not prioritize keeping Green – and he may hear offers from other teams in a similar range.

Jeremy Lamb – Charlotte Hornets – Last Year’s Salary: $7,488,372

Lamb just had a career year – highs in points, rebounds, steals and almost assists. His usage increased quite a bit, and with that came a slight decrease in efficiency. Nothing too alarming, but that could be one of the reasons he won’t garner anything near a max offer sheet. He’ll inject an offensive boost to whatever team signs him. And if his two game-winners against Toronto late last season pull any weight, he might get a few extra dollars on that contract.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak has recently stated his desire to keep the team under the tax threshold. If they bring back Kemba Walker, signing Lamb to a new deal likely won’t happen. The Rockets have expressed their interest, and Lamb is the kind of player they may be able to get. Houston could nab Jeremy Lamb for 3 years/$25 million thanks to the MLE.

Rodney Hood – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $3,472,888

There was a time in Hood’s career where a near max deal was certainly in play when he was averaging 17 points a night for the Jazz at just 25 years old. Partially due to his streaky play – as well as the surprise emergence of one Donovan Mitchell – Hood found himself traded, released and then picked up by the Portland Trail Blazers last season.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Hood played incredibly well for Portland in the playoffs averaging nearly 10 points per game on an impressive 46.8 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three. He’s only 26 and still has time to further develop his game. Portland trading for Bazemore could be a sign that they won’t be able to use their MLE to lock up Hood, so look for Hood to garner multiple offers from a handful of teams looking to add scoring such as the Lakers, Nets, Mavericks and Heat. Let’s say he goes to the Mavericks for 3 years/$30 million.

Terrence Ross – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $10,500,000

Terrence Ross balled out this year. He had career highs in points, rebounds, assists and nearly a career-high effective field goal percentage at 53.4 percent. He was one of the more important players that led the Magic back to the playoffs for the first time in quite a few years. Ross is only 27, so he’s sure to garner plenty of attention on the market.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: The Magic have made it clear they want to keep their core together – as long as it makes sense. Many teams will likely offer Ross decent offer sheets, teams that need offense such as the Pelicans, Pistons and even the next door neighbor Miami Heat. Ross might ultimately stay with the Magic on a short term, 2 year/$35 million deal.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $12,000,000

Pope hasn’t helped himself much since leaving Detroit. His efficiency has dropped, his scoring has dropped and his defense – once his strong suit – hasn’t made much noise either. Still, his ability to score has to intrigue multiple franchises looking for someone who can create offense. He made $12 million last year and will likely get less than that. Pope finished the season on a high-point, so that could help him get a few extra digits in his contract.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Teams love players who can score, but with the emergence and importance of the three-ball, they want someone who can do so efficiently. Pope, just 25 years old, has proven he can be efficient in the past, but he hasn’t been in the league long enough to make teams certain it’ll last. The Knicks might strike out on getting two max-level players, so they could be scrambling to sign others guys to help put points on the board. Pope signs with New York on a 2 year/$20 million deal.

Wesley Matthews – Indiana Pacers – Last Year’s Salary: $512,746

Matthews made more money last year than the above salary shows. He was bought out by the New York Knicks and ended up with the Pacers after Indiana needed someone to fill the injured Victor Oladipo’s void. He played okay for Indiana, but he just hasn’t found the same level of play since leaving Portland six seasons ago. Still, Matthews has the ability to help many teams in the league, especially in a bench role.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Matthews is 32, has a torn achilles in his past and definitely doesn’t move as quickly as he used to. It’s hard to say who would be interested in Matthews, but it’s likely going to be a playoff team who doesn’t end up landing a max guy. Look for teams like Philadelphia, both Los Angeles teams or potentially the Nets or Bucks to go after Matthews. Ultimately, the Bucks may see a few key guys leave, so signing Matthews to a 2 year/$12 million contract would help.

Mid-Level or Below Guys

Austin Rivers – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $922,943

Rivers found himself as a legitimate sixth man on Houston this past season and actually played fairly well in the playoffs. Per Tim McMahon of ESPN, Austin Rivers had the highest individual net rating in the Rockets-Warriors series at plus-18.5 per 100 possessions. Pretty impressive for a player who hasn’t clearly played up to the hype coming out of college. There will be teams interested in Rivers come free agency time, but any deals with him will happen after a handful of dominos fall first.

Where Does He Fit/New Deal: Rivers will probably end back with the Rockets. Houston won’t find anyone better than Rivers using their MLE, so they’ll bring back the player who already has chemistry with the team. He’ll sign for 2 years/$9 million, preserving some of the MLE for Houston to use on other targets.

Other Notable Free Agents

Seth Curry – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Year’s Salary: $2,795,000

Tomas Satoransky* – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $3,129,187

Reggie Bullock – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $2,500,000

Wayne Ellington – Detroit Pistons – Last Year’s Salary: $2,383,076

Alec Burks – Sacramento Kings – Last Year’s Salary: $11,536,515

Jonathon Simmons** – Washington Wizards – Last Year’s Salary: $6,000,000

Iman Shumpert – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $11,011,234

J.R. Smith** – Cleveland Cavaliers – Last Year’s Salary: $14,720,000

Vince Carter – Atlanta Hawks – Last Year’s Salary: $2,393,887

Pat Connaughton**– Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,641,000

Alex Abrines* – Oklahoma City Thunder – Last Year’s Salary: $5,455,326

Justin Holiday – Memphis Grizzlies – Last Year’s Salary: $4,384,616

Nik Stauskas – Cleveland Cavaliers – Last Year’s Salary: $2,161,886

Kyle Korver**– Utah Jazz – Last Year’s Salary: $7,560,000

Jamal Crawford – Phoenix Suns – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Lance Stephenson – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,449,000

Dwayne Bacon** – Charlotte Hornets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Sterling Brown** – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Garrett Temple – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $8,000,000

Gerald Green – Houston Rockets – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Sindarius Thornwell** – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,378,242

Wayne Selden* – Chicago Bulls – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

Patrick McCaw* – Toronto Raptors – Last Year’s Salary: $964,104

Furkan Korkmaz – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,740,000

Rodney McGruder* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,544,951

David Nwaba* – Cleveland Cavaliers – Last Year’s Salary: $1,512,601

Troy Daniels – Phoenix Suns – Last Year’s Salary: $3,258,539

*Qualifying Offer (If made and accepted, player becomes restricted free agent)

**Non-Guaranteed Contract (If player is waived by current team before contract becomes fully guaranteed, he becomes unrestricted free agent)

There are plenty of good role players to go around in this deep pool of shooting guards. This list is quite top heavy so any team dreaming of an ideal two-guard will likely need to settle for a solid role-guy and look for their star player in another position. Whatever two teams are lucky enough to lock in Butler and Thompson long term will be very pleased as either of those shooting guards gives you a high chance of winning playoff games.

Look for Basketball Insiders to continue their saga on upcoming free agents by positions as there are still the threes, fours, and fives! Until then, start preparing now for the upcoming madness that is the free agency period.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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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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NBA

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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