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NBA Daily: Sixers Face Rotation Questions As Embiid Returns

With Joel Embiid returning to the lineup, the Philadelphia 76ers will need to figure out how to maximize the talents of both their star center and Ben Simmons. Quinn Davis looks at their options going forward.

Quinn Davis

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On Jan. 6th, the Philadelphia 76ers hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team was looking to snap out of the malaise that it had fallen into after dominating the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day.

The game progressed as most home games for the Sixers had up to that point. They smothered their opposition on the defensive side of the ball and eventually pulled away. The story of the game came earlier than its finish, however, as Joel Embiid’s finger was pointing in an unfortunate direction late in the opening quarter.

Embiid was taken to the locker room and taped up before returning to the game, which ended in a Sixers win. All was not well though, as tests the next day showed ligament damage and prompted the big man to opt for surgery on the finger, sidelining him for at least two weeks.

Head coach Brett Brown, still working out the kinks of a fully healthy roster, was now forced to find a way to survive without his team’s centerpiece. The fact that the Sixers were sitting in sixth place in the East made the injury all the more ominous.

Fast-forward two weeks. The Sixers went 6-3 in the nine games without their star center. They most recently dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in an impressive home win.

Ben Simmons has been playing his best basketball over these last two weeks, putting up efficient scoring numbers while continuing his success as a floor general and perimeter stopper. Simmon’s dominance has not only been the impetus for the Sixers staying afloat, but also for the myriad takes and opinions on the team’s roster construction going forward.

Watching Simmons unleash fury in transition throughout these recent games has opened the door for questions regarding the team’s identity. Some have gone as far as pondering trades centered around Embiid in an effort to build a perfect team for the 6-foot-10 point guard.

While Simmons has been great, the Sixers’ offense has not. Since Embiid went down, the Sixers only scored at a rate of 105.8 points per 100 possessions, good for 26th in the NBA in that span. Their defense, meanwhile, had held opponents to 102.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks second in that same time period, per Cleaning the Glass.

The offensive ineptitude is partially due to a shooting slump. The team is shooting 32.6 percent from deep since Jan. 7th. Three-point shooting can fluctuate randomly at times, but it would be fair to assume that open attempts have been harder to generate without Embiid demanding double teams in the post.

Even with the clunky fit, the Sixers will only go as far as the young duo will take them. Breaking them up could help establish an identity, but that identity would likely be a fun team headed for an early playoff exit.

With Embiid back following Tuesday’s win against the Golden State Warriors, the team will need to figure out a way to reincorporate the big man while still letting Simmons be most of himself. That could involve some rotation reconfiguring by Brown, some deadline dealing by general manager Elton Brand — or both.

The most drastic of rotation changes would be to move Al Horford to the bench. While he and Embiid have proven to be a destructive defensive duo, there have been growing pains offensively.

With the Simmons-Horford-Embiid trio on the court together, the Sixers have an offensive rating of 102.6, per Cleaning the Glass. That number would be almost one full point below the league-worst Warriors. Fortunately for the team, they’ve been able to offset the appalling offense with a 99.2 defensive rating.

When Simmons and Embiid play together without Horford, the offensive rating shoots to 119.8, nearly four points above the Dallas Mavericks’ league-leading number. When you filter for lineups with Horford and Simmons but no Embiid, the number is not quite as high but still sits at a very solid 113.0.

Splitting up Horford and Embiid seems like a logical conclusion based on the numbers, but there are obvious drawbacks. For one, this would cut Horford’s minutes into a dangerously low territory as the backup center to Embiid. Horford signed a 4-year, $109 million contract with an eye on starting at power forward for this Sixers team. Going back on that promise midway through his first season with this group could have a chilling effect on the team’s locker room.

Brown is a known experimentalist when it comes to lineups, so it wouldn’t be out of his comfort zone to shake things up despite chemistry concerns. If Horford is on board, it would certainly be worth a look before the playoffs.

Moving Horford to the bench would also allow the team to start Matisse Thybulle. The rookie is still figuring things out on offense, but has proven to be a menace on the defensive end. He is currently averaging 2.9 steals per 36 minutes, tied for first in the league.

With that said, Brown will likely opt to let his team fight through the missteps and try to build chemistry. The Sixers showed flashes of greatness earlier in this season and when engaged have looked like the best defensive unit in the league. The team could learn a lot about the viability of the Horford-Embiid pairing in an upcoming three-game stretch against their foes at the top of the East. The Sixers will see the Celtics, HEAT and Bucks in consecutive games during the first week of February.

That stretch will carry them right up to the trade deadline on Feb. 6th. The Sixers have been mentioned in reports for almost every available shooter and shot creator on the market. Brand has been an active trader in his stint as the team’s GM and should be exhausting all possible options for the team over the next two weeks.

The team’s salary situation makes those options limited. Acquiring a starting-quality player would be nearly impossible without giving up a starter in return. The Sixers have been linked to Danilo Gallinari, but his salary would be impossible to absorb without the sending out either Horford or Tobias Harris.

The Sixers could package together Zhaire Smith, Mike Scott and some draft capital to bring in a bench contributor. The names most commonly offered here have been Derrick Rose, Davis Bertans and Marcus Morris.

The team could use a jolt of shot creation when Simmons sits, and Rose would be perfect for that role. This would do little, though, to quell the spacing issues around Simmons. If that is the main concern, Bertans would be the ideal fit.

Bringing in both of those two would take some tight maneuvering. It’s likely that the triumvirate of Brand, Brown and ownership will need to come to an agreement on the most pressing need for the team at the deadline.

Any road they travel will come with risks. Moving a veteran to the bench comes with the aforementioned chemistry concerns. Any trade will almost certainly involve the departure of Scott, a solid locker room presence and fan favorite.

The Sixers could also stand pat and ride out their current rotation in the hopes that defense truly does win championships. Whichever route they take, the end result could determine Brown’s job status and the makeup of the roster next season.

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

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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