Before he knew it, suddenly, Jason Terry found himself trapped in the corner. By the time Ersan Ilyasova managed to come away with the loose ball, he took a look up the floor and recognized one of his teammates ahead of the pack.
Without hesitation, Ilyasova channeled his inner Aaron Rodgers and hurled a bomb. Joel Embiid received it just beyond the center circle, took a few dribbles, eluded Malcolm Brogdon, rose majestically and threw down a thunderous dunk that sucked the life out of Milwaukee’s Bradley Center.
Twenty-two points, 12 rebounds and five blocks later, the Philadelphia 76ers had won their sixth game in their past eight contests.
This is The Process.
Back in 1999, Jeff Van Gundy had famously fallen out with New York Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld. In attempting to help Patrick Ewing and Van Gundy get the Knicks over the hump, Grunfeld determined that the Knicks needed some new blood and made a few moves to make the team younger and more athletic. Among the moves was a trade completed on June 25, 1998. Grunfeld agreed to send franchise favorite Charles Oakley to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Marcus Camby.
With the Knicks struggling during the lockout-truncated 1998-99 season, Grunfeld was demoted. Camby and Latrell Sprewell—one of Grunfeld’s other prized acquisitions—would help lead the Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals and be productive players for the franchise for many years. He just wasn’t around to see it all come to fruition.
The Knicks organization, apparently, wasn’t willing to trust the process. Neither were the Philadelphia 76ers.
Former general manager Sam Hinkie currently resides in Palo Alto, California, but his fingerprints remain on the Sixers as if he resided on Broad Street. His players, his decisions, his guts and, above all, his former draft pick, Joel Embiid.
Make no mistake about it, the Sixers have turned a corner, and it’s mostly because the Cameroonian center has proven to be worth the wait. Embiid, to this point, has delivered on every bit of his promise. His per-36-minute averages of 28 points, 11 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.5 blocks become all the more impressive considering when one considers that Embiid is effectively playing in his rookie season. Although he has had time to train under the rigors of NBA conditions and with its technology, his rapid ascent and production give him a very real opportunity of earning a spot as an Eastern Conference All-Star this season, which was absolutely unfathomable entering the season.
Obviously, there is no telling how good Embiid may end up being in the long run, but he has already helped carry the Sixers franchise to places it hasn’t been in several years.
With the aforementioned victory against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers enter play on January 18 having won six of their past eight games. After winning a combined total of 47 games over the past three seasons, one would have to go all the way back to November of 2012 to find such a stretch.
What’s most encouraging about Embiid, however, is something that’s intangible: his spirit.
Those who have spent time around the young center often come away from him being encouraged by and positively attracted to his attitude. Evidenced by his jovial nature on social media, Embiid strikes the difficult balance of not taking himself too seriously but approaching his preparation with maturity and a business-like focus. According to some close to the organization, he has never had trouble taking the long view and understanding that some of the minor frustrations he experiences today are in his future best interests.
What’s been most noticeable about Embiid, however, has been his impact on his teammates and on the culture in Brett Brown’s locker room. For the past few years, the Sixers have been going about their business almost like a rudderless ship. There’s only so long that young men can hear about “patience” and “process” and remain steadfast to a vision without seeing any return on their investments. But when Embiid shows up and plays, he gives both his head coach and the vision that Brown has for his team a credibility that could only be bought by using incremental success as its currency.
So that’s where we are. Embiid has lifted an entire team and fan base and has improbably risen as the chosen one of the triumvirate of Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and himself. With Ben Simmons inching toward his own debut and the young Sixers suddenly believing in their ability to compete, in Philadelphia, finally, trust abounds.
Sure, the road back to contention will be long. Entering play on January 18, the Sixers find themselves trailing the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference by six games. Qualifying appears unlikely, but that may not be a bad thing. The 2017 NBA Draft is believed to be one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, and the Sixers appear to have an inside track to another two, potentially franchise-altering picks. Aside from owning their own, they may end up with the pick of the Los Angeles Lakers, which is top-three protected.
Although there still may be a bit of losing in the immediate future of the Sixers, it’s obvious that Embiid has already done wonders for the franchise. So long as he can stay healthy, it is safe to say that the corner is being turned.
Across the country, even Sam Hinkie can see that.
Back in 2014, in selecting Embiid with the third overall pick of the draft, Hinkie took a monumental risk as he was embarking down the path of rebuilding the Sixers into a respectable franchise.
Back then, he began the process. And now, finally, the process has started to turn things around for the 76ers. His name is Joel Embiid.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Southwest Division
In continuing the disappointment series for Basketball Insiders, Jordan Hicks takes a look at the Southwest Division and their current woes.
The NBA season is still very much in its infancy and yet storylines have already begun to develop around the league. Certain teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, are playing up to their pre-conceived expectations. Others, much like the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans, appear as if they could be in for somewhat of a long season. Either way, there is still plenty of time for things to change — but will they?
Continuing our early-season disappointments series, it’s time to look at various aspects of the Southwest Division and highlight the ways the specific situation could turn around down the line. Whether it’s the Pelicans slow start or the Houston Rockets’ lack of defense, the Southwest has clearly left quite a bit to be desired. Let’s take a look at the previously mentioned, as well as a few other divisional setbacks and see what we can uncover.
Pelicans’ Slow Start
To what can we accurately attribute New Orlean’s horribly slow start? Considering the fact that many considered them a West playoff bubble team, it’s been disappointing beyond belief. It would be easy to point a finger at the absence of Zion Williamson. He was electric in the preseason and was a major reason the Pelicans were expected to compete. But laying all the blame there would be too easy.
The fact of the matter is that New Orleans has just been playing poor basketball. Their best player, Jrue Holiday, has been off to an alarmingly rough start. He’s shooting just 23.3 percent from three on over five attempts per night and his efficient field goal percentage is 40.5 percent. Those are both career lows by a country mile.
Brandon Ingram has been playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 25.9 points on very efficient shooting, and yet he’s second-worst (to Holiday) in plus-minus at negative-7.3.
It’s hard to point out exactly what it is that is causing them to lose games, but they have the second-worst defensive rating in the league — and that’s as good a place to start as any. They no longer have Anthony Davis’ length under the rim and the only true defensive force they have in the paint, Derrick Favors, is barely cracking 15 minutes a night.
Williamson’s return from injury in a few weeks should improve their play on both ends of the floor — but head coach Alvin Gentry will need to fix this defense if they want to start seeing more wins.
James Harden + Russell Westbrook’s Efficiency Woes
The Rockets are sitting at 7-3, but they haven’t looked too impressive.
James Harden leads the league in scoring but is doing so by shooting a career-low percentage from three and his worst mark from the field since his rookie year. Russell Westbrook is shooting an abysmal 21.4 percent from three, a career-low, yet he’s shooting a career-high from the field as a whole, which is certainly strange.
The efficiency issues don’t solely stop at Harden and Westbrook. Eric Gordon is shooting 30.9 percent from the field, an entire 10 percent below any other season average he’s had.
Unfortunately, and expectedly, their issues don’t stop on the offensive end. Houston has given up 118.4 points per game to opponents, ahead of only four other teams in the league. The Rockets rank 20th in defensive rating as the fast-paced offense and overall age of the roster has certainly influenced that stagnation.
The one silver lining is that they still lead the NBA in scoring despite their efficiency issues. If their shooting averages start to increase — as you should expect them to — their offense could become a problem for the rest very quickly.
Kristaps Porzingis Struggling
Surprisingly, Kristaps Porzingis was actually pulled out of the Dallas Mavericks lineup during crunch-time against the Boston Celtics. He even lost to the New York Knicks in his first return to Madison Square Garden and looked bad doing so. Overall, his fit with Luka Doncic has been awkward at best.
And yet, the Mavericks are 6-4.
Porzingis started hot by scoring over 20 in each of his first three contests, but he’s put up just one such contest over their last seven games and has lacked plenty of physicality on the defensive end.
In that game against the Celtics, he mustered just 20 minutes, netting just four points on 1-for-11 from the field.
There have been 14 players to average at least three post-up possessions per game this season and Porzingis is dead-last in there at 0.55.
Let’s look at the bright side: He’s playing alongside arguably the best, young player in the league in Luka Doncic. Moreover, Porzingis is playing in his first season since tragically tearing a ligament in his knee just weeks before his first All-Star Game. It was expected that he’d struggle early. So the fact that he’s still averaging over 18 points per game isn’t exactly a negative.
If he can find his game — or, more importantly, a tad more competitiveness — the Mavericks could be a real threat to make the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ Minutes Distribution
This one is pretty bizarre. For all the young talent on their roster, guess who is leading the team in minutes? Jae Crowder. Guess who is the only player averaging more than 30 minutes per game? Jae Crowder. Guess, then, which players are averaging well under 25 minutes per game? Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones and Kyle Anderson.
Jaren Jackson Jr. barely cracks 26 minutes and Ja Morant creeps out over 27.
What is up with this? Obviously, the Grizzlies aren’t trying to make the playoffs this season, but wouldn’t it be in their best interest to play their young studs? Perhaps there is a deeper plan to all this, but if so, it clearly doesn’t make any sense.
There are still plenty of games to be had, so perhaps Memphis’ front office wants to save their key player’s legs for down the stretch. Still, there’s honestly no rhyme or reason for doing this when their team is so young and uninjured.
It really can’t be mentioned enough that these disappointments could all be completely dispelled, some within a few weeks. At only about 10-to-11 games into the campaign, the amount of reliable data out there isn’t necessarily accurate.
Will the Rockets start making their shots? Will Ja Morant get more minutes? Can Williamson change the narrative around the Pelicans? Only time will tell for these pertinent questions and many more. But if we’ve learned anything over the history of the league, it’s that puzzling stories and frustrations can change in an instant.
NBA Daily: The Rich Getting Richer In LA
How will Paul George’s return from off-season shoulder surgeries affect the current state of things in Clipper Land? Chad Smith examines.
Paul George spurned the Los Angeles Lakers, not once but twice. The Palmdale, California kid grew up as a fan of the other team in town, the Los Angeles Clippers. Tomorrow night, he will make his debut for the franchise as one of their best players.
To say the Clippers were the laughing stock of the league for most of their existence would be a massive understatement. The tables have turned, and now the five-time All-NBA forward is part of a team favored by many to win the NBA championship.
Paul has been limited to non-contact drills for the last couple of months, and he has had enough of it.
“I’m tired of rehabbing,” George told reporters after practice. “It sucks.”
Following offseason surgery on both of his shoulders, the star forward has been chomping at the bit to make his return. Fortunately for the Clippers and their fan base, they won’t have to wait long.
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, George will make his season debut against the New Orleans Pelicans. With Kawhi Leonard’s load management and the recent injury to Landry Shamet, the addition of George couldn’t come at a better time for Los Angeles.
On top of that, the Clippers are finishing up a brutal seven-game stretch on the schedule. Those were games against Utah, San Antonio, Utah, Milwaukee, Portland and Toronto. They visit Houston tonight and travel to New Orleans for the second night of a back-to-back.
The Clippers currently rank 24th in three-point shooting, which is another area where Paul can dramatically help them improve. He has always been an underrated player in that department, but showed last season just how good of a spot-up shooter he can be. Even when he is not the one shooting the ball, there will be plenty of opportunities that open up for his teammates when he drives to the basket.
Paul has always been one of the premier defensive players in the league. His prowess on that end of the floor has put him in the conversation as one of the best two-way players in the game. Pairing the four-time All-Defensive player with Kawhi and Patrick Beverley is going to give opposing teams nightmares.
Working his way into 5-on-5 scrimmages, he would find himself playing against Kawhi’s team. Not only was he up for the challenge of guarding the two-time NBA Finals MVP, but he relished the opportunity.
Despite his eagerness to return to action, Paul is cognizant of the big picture. He has been through this before, at a much more frightening level. After fracturing his right leg in a Team USA scrimmage in 2014, Paul missed essentially the whole season in 2014-2015. He played the last eight games of the season with the Indiana Pacers, but it gave him great perspective. Paul stressed the importance of what pressure to put on himself, and what to avoid.
One thing Doc Rivers shouldn’t have to be concerned with is Paul adjusting his game. He has went from a young role player to an All-Star in Indiana. He averaged a career-high 28 points per game in Oklahoma City playing alongside a ball-dominant guard in Russell Westbrook. He has shared the spotlight before, and things will be no different playing with “fun guy” Kawhi.
The most mesmerizing part about the pairing of Kawhi and Paul is that they were nearly teammates in Indiana. The Pacers drafted the six-time All-Star 10th overall in 2010. A year later, they had the opportunity to select and keep Kawhi, but opted to trade him to San Antonio for local product George Hill. One major reason why Indiana made that move was that the franchise felt they were already solidified at the position with Paul.
The bond is already tight with George and his other Clippers teammates. This past Sunday, Fresno State retired Paul’s No. 24 jersey after he spent two seasons as a Bulldog. Several Clippers players showed up to surprise him, including team owner Steve Balmer. It was already a moving moment for Paul, but having his guys on hand to share the ceremony with him made it even more special.
The 29-year old forward averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals last season in Oklahoma City, where he finished third in the MVP voting. With LA’s elite role players already established, George should be able to find his groove within the team before their game on Monday, where he will face his former Thunder teammates.
The big question will be how much will Kawhi and Paul play together? With the ability to always have one superstar on the floor at all times, Doc Rivers will have plenty of options. Should Kawhi continue to rest throughout the season, Paul should be able to handle the load as long as he is healthy. His seven games of scoring at least 40 points — including a 47-point triple-double against Portland last year — should be sufficient evidence of that.
Versatility is a strong suit for LA when it comes to rotations. The lineup to start the game could be drastically different from that which closes the game. When fully healthy, they can go big or small, shifting Paul between the shooting guard or power forward positions. With Shamet likely missing some time, Paul may spend a lot of time at the guard spot. That could arguably be the best five-man defensive lineup in the league with Beverley, George, Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Ivica Zubac.
With George returning to the floor, LA will now have both of its dynamic duos intact. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played incredibly well for the Lakers so far this season.
Should Kawhi and Paul fulfill expectations, the Battle of Los Angeles may, in fact, reward the winner with a trip to the Finals.
NBA Daily: Blazers’ Early-Season Struggles Cause For Lasting Concern
The Blazers are 4-6, and facing a rash of injuries. As the schedule gets tougher, is Portland at risk of falling way behind in the playoff Western Conference playoff race?
The Portland Trail Blazers’ silver lining has little to do with them.
The expectation coming into this season was that as many as 13 teams in the Western Conference could compete for the playoffs, propelling the number of victories needed to advance to the postseason into the high 40s. Three weeks into 2019-20, the number of teams good enough to vie for a playoff berth is smaller than anticipated. The Phoenix Suns have ascended to respectability and perhaps more, but the Golden State Warriors have been left for dead while the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans struggle.
The West is strong, of course, but maybe not so strong that a handful of objectively quality teams will be left on the outside looking in at the postseason come April.
Some expected Portland to stand a tier above that fray coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals. But any chatter that said this team was more likely to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end than hope for lottery luck was always misguided. At the crux, it was optimism reflecting last spring’s matchup-dependent outcome that ignored changes sapping them of both depth and continuity.
Less than a month into the NBA calendar, it’s not quite time to panic. Still, with Portland at 4-6 and narrowly escaping an overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, it might be time to readjust season-long expectations in the Rose City – especially given the Blazers’ upcoming schedule and rash of injuries.
Seven of Portland’s next eight games come on the road. Half of them are against teams that made the playoffs last season, including a lone home tilt versus the stoic Toronto Raptors. Merely going .500 over that stretch would be a major accomplishment for the Blazers given how they’ve fared against inferior competition thus far.
It took an extra period for them to beat the Hawks, playing without John Collins, at Moda Center, while the anonymous Warriors earned their first victory after Stephen Curry’s injury versus Portland last week. Not even a career-high 60 points from Damian Lillard, who’s reached yet another peak in the early going, saved the Blazers from a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets, who, too, are still trying to find themselves.
All of which begs the question: Just where will Portland sit in the standings when the schedule gets more palatable? Plus, the more important one: If the Blazers continue struggling over the next two weeks, will injuries prevent them from making up the necessary ground for a seventh consecutive playoff berth over the season’s remainder?
Outside of Lillard, there’s an argument to be made that Zach Collins is Portland’s most indispensable player. No roster in basketball with real postseason ambitions is lighter on forwards than the Blazers, while Hassan Whiteside’s overall lethargy and struggles to integrate offensively add to his value as a part-time center.
Collins is sidelined until March after undergoing surgery on his dislocated left shoulder. Jusuf Nurkic should make his season debut around then, too, but there’s no telling how effective he’ll be after spending nearly a full year away from the game. Any hopes he’ll immediately regain the high-impact two-way form that made him Portland’s second-best player last season should be quelled. More likely is that Nurkic will take time to fully re-acclimate to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, serving as not much more than a replacement-level player until next fall.
In the meantime, the Blazers are relying on Whiteside and Skal Labissiere in the middle, waiting for Pau Gasol to get healthy enough to play spot minutes off the bench. Lillard has already chastised Whiteside for his lack of urgency as a roll man, and it’s clear to anyone who watched Portland last season that Whiteside leaves much to be desired as a screener — a deficiency that’s plagued him throughout his career.
The Blazers, per usual, rank toward the top of the league in ball screens, despite Whiteside consistently failing to make contact with the primary defender – let alone swallow them at varied angles like Nurkic.
Whiteside has flashed more comfort as a passer from the high post and elbows in Terry Stotts’ system but is still ill-equipped to make plays in space when teams force the ball from the stars in pick-and-roll play. Labissiere, while better than Whiteside, leaves much to be desired in both regards, too. Gasol would certainly help, especially given his threat as a pick-and-pop shooter. But it’s indicative of just how thin the Blazers find themselves upfront that a 39-year-old who hasn’t played since March could give them a lift offensively.
Portland quietly finished third in offensive rating a year ago, only behind the juggernaut Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. Stotts’ team currently ranks ninth in offense, scoring just over five fewer points per 100 possessions than last season. While offense is down a bit league-wide, there are signs the Blazers’ relatively slow start on that end will persist.
The franchise talked a big game throughout the preseason about prioritizing pace, a newfound emphasis that’s yet to manifest itself in more transition opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass. But the Blazers rank top-10 in pace regardless, mostly on the strength of taking a higher share of their field goal attempts in the first two seconds of the shot clock than any team in basketball. The problem? Their effective field goal percentage on those shots is 45.8 percent, fourth-worst in the league.
Portland has been just average on the offensive glass after finishing second in offensive rebound rate last season and they’re tallying over 50 fewer passes per game despite replacing Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless in the rotation with superior playmakers. Anfernee Simons has lived up to the hype in his first season playing regular minutes, but Stotts should probably scrap lineups that include neither of his star guards, especially considering his team’s lack of scheme familiarity. The Blazers’ offensive rating without Lillard and CJ McCollum on the floor is 86.2, a putrid number hardly guaranteed to improve even when factoring in the sample size.
The bright side? Three of Portland’s losses were decided in the game’s final moments, and none of them have come by double-digits. The Blazers are a few fortuitous bounces away from weathering an early-season injury storm and emerging from their first 10 games with a winning record.
But context is crucial — especially in a Western Conference playoff field that remains overcrowded — and it renders Portland’s start concerning. Other than an inevitable shot-making improvement from McCollum, who labored throughout last season before coming alive in the playoffs, just how will this team take meaningful strides not just leading up to Thanksgiving, but over the season’s duration?
It would be foolish to count Portland out entirely. Stotts and Lillard deserve every benefit of the doubt, and their teams enjoy a long track record of playing their best basketball during the second half of the season. But dreams of the Blazers being title contenders have faded entirely and faith in their presumed status as a surefire playoff team seems to be eroding in the immediate future – if not longer.