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NBA PM: Top Returning NCAA Draft Prospects

A look at the top returning draft prospects to the NCAA, including Montrezl Harrell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Caris LeVert and more!

Yannis Koutroupis

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Top Returning NCAA Draft Prospects

Earlier this week, we took a look at the top five draft prospects for the 2015 NBA Draft, all of whom happened to be underclassmen who will be making their collegiate debuts at the start of the 2014-15 season. As much hype as the 2014 freshman class received, the 2015 freshman class could produce just as many first-round picks (nine). However, there’s going to be stiff competition as a few potential first round picks passed on the NBA for a year and the upperclassmen talent-level overall is quite intriguing despite the fact that youth is such a valuable commodity in the draft. Here’s a look at the top returners who you need to keep an eye on:

Willie Cauley-Stein – 7’0, 244 lbs. Jr., Center (Kentucky)

Had he declared for either one of the last two drafts, Cauley-Stein very likely would have been a lottery pick – a mid-first round selection at worst. However, he’s passed both times, with injuries playing a factor. Now, though, he’s returning to one of the most crowded frontcourts in the country with his perceived upside far less than it was after his freshman season.

Cauley-Stein’s production actually dropped off in his sophomore season, despite playing the same 23 minutes a game he did his first year. It’s hard to imagine him getting the same amount of run with all the talent that Kentucky has coming in and returning, so it’s really going to be important for him to make the most of the minutes he does get. Scouts know that Cauley-Stein is a quality finisher and shot blocker. Improvement in his low-post game and free throw shooting, which was sub 40 percent last year, will be key.

Because seven footers with his speed, length and his athleticism are always going to have a home in the NBA, Cauley-Stein’s floor is likely somewhere at the end of the first round this year, with the potential for him to still go in the same range he could have the last two years. But that’s only with marked improvements in areas we saw very little development from his freshman to sophomore years.

Sam Dekker – 6’9, 229 lbs. – Jr., Small Forward (Wisconsin)

A strong NCAA Tournament may have pushed Dekker onto the other side of the fence and into the 2014 NBA Draft. Dekker wasn’t at his best during the Badger’s run to the Final Four, though. In fact, it was arguably his least impressive stretch of the season, after looking every bit like a lottery pick early on in the year.

Dekker has a really nice all-around skill set and more than ideal size for a NBA small forward. He’s just consistently left scouts yearning for more throughout his first two years. As a junior he has to take the next step forward and be one of the best players on the floor like he’s capable of night in and night out, especially late in the year when it matters the most.

The Badgers are going in to the season as one of the favorites to get back to the Final Four, and if Dekker can help lead them there and produce at a higher rate, there’s no reason why he should be on the board past 20 come draft night.

Montrezl Harrell – 6’8, 230 lbs. – Jr., Power Forward (Louisville)

After exploding in place of the departed Gorgui Dieng as a sophomore, everyone thought that Harrell was as good as gone. Louisville was already set to lose a lot with Russ Smith and Luke Hancock to graduation, but Harrell shockingly decided to return for his junior season.

What makes scouts love Harrell is the fact that he doesn’t have an off switch. He plays with as much energy and aggression as any player in the country. At one point when they were in danger of getting upset by Manhattan in their opening round game of the NCAA Tournament, he seemed to be foaming at the mouth as he helped lead them to victory. That’s the kind of tenaciousness he plays with.

Although he lacks ideal size for his position, Harrell’s likely going to produce at a rate that cannot be ignored. In fact, given what the Cardinals have lost, there’s the potential for Harrell to actually improve his stock if he can excel as a featured option offensively. Had he entered this year’s draft he would have been looked at primarily as an energizer whose contributions would come on the glass and defensive end. If he consistently hits the mid-range jumper and gets good shots in the low post, look for him to shoot into the top 10.

Chris Walker – 6’9, 205 lbs. – So., Power Forward (Florida)

We only got to see glimpses of Walker last year as he had to deal with eligibility issues that cost him a good portion of his freshman campaign. Now, with the Gators losing a huge part of their core to graduation, the stage is set for Walker to showcase his entire arsenal and improve his stock significantly. As a bit of a mystery with plenty of potential he probably would have been a late first-round pick or early second-round pick at worst, but this upcoming season he could easily play his way into the top 10.

What made Walker a blue chip recruit out of high school was his elite-level athleticism and defensively versatility. He’s very raw, though, and somewhat positionless. Hopefully an offseason under Florida’s training program has helped him improve in those areas. He appears to be best suited for the power forward position. With a stronger frame, refined offensive skill set and a clear cut position, Walker could lock up a spot in the lottery of mock drafts in very short order.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – 6’6, 212 lbs. So., Small Forward (Arizona)

No one would have criticized Hollis-Jefferson if he decided to leave after his solid freshman season at Arizona. He probably would have went somewhere in the 20s, as scouts loved his defensive ability and athleticism. He has all the tools to be a high-level defender at the next level, but by coming back for his sophomore season he can change the way that he is looked at completely.

Rather than just being viewed a “3-and-D” guy, Hollis-Jefferson could work his way up the small forward rankings by displaying an improved offensive game – particularly with his ability to score out on the perimeter. He wasn’t much of a threat from beyond the arc last year; he doesn’t have to become Doug McDermott or anything like that as a shooter, but he simply has to prove that he’s capable of making more than two in 960 minutes like he did as a freshman.

Late in the season it seemed like things were really starting to click for Hollis-Jefferson, who did a good job of playing within himself and simply focusing on what he was asked. With Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon gone, he’s going to have much more responsibility – so look for Hollis-Jefferson to potentially climb into the lottery with a big season.

Caris LeVert – 6’5, 170 lbs. – Jr., Michigan (Shooting Guard)

LeVert really shined in his expanded role as a sophomore, going from a seldom-used freshman to playing all but six minutes a game in year two. With the departure of Nik Stauskas, LeVert is poised to be the number one option for Michigan next season and if his next step forward is anything like his last, he could be one of the first swingmen taken on draft night 2015. He has NBA-caliber athleticism, height and length, but he needs to add a significant amount of strength. The added strength will not only help him in preparation for making the leap to the NBA, but make him a much tougher cover during what is likely his last season at Michigan. His goal should be to get to the free throw line at least six times a game in 2014-15.

Bobby Portis – 6’10, 235 lbs. So, Power Forward (Arkansas)

Nationally, Portis’ standout freshman season may have gone underappreciated, but he’s firmly on the NBA Draft radar going into his sophomore season. In fact, there was very little chance that he wouldn’t have been a first round pick had he decided to declare, but he didn’t give that option very much consideration at all.

Stretch fours have become almost more common than the traditional power forwards who prefer to play with their back to the basket than 15 feet away from it. Portis is comfortable no matter where he is on the floor and has good size and strength for the position. Expectations are going to be much higher for him, though, and he’s going to have to come close to putting up a double-double in order to improve his stock. Without top-tier athleticism, becoming more physical and welcoming of contact is going to be critical for the longevity of Portis’ NBA career.

Frank Kaminsky – 7’0, 234 lbs. Sr., Center (Wisconsin)

Beyond underwhelming his first two years at Wisconsin, “the tank” as he’s referred to really blew up at the end of his junior year. A 28-point outing against Michigan State in the Big 10 postseason tournament and a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds against Arizona in the Elite Eight pushed Kaminsky’s stock into the top eight. However, a disappointing outing against Kentucky’s younger, bigger and more athletic frontline showed that he wasn’t ready to take his game to the next level and he ultimately decided to return.

With his size and offensive versatility, which features a jump shot with deep range, Kaminsky has a long future of playing professional basketball in front of him. What’s going to determine whether that is in the NBA is how he handles the increased level of physicality that he’s going to see as a senior and his rebounding. NBA teams will look past the fact that he’s not a phenomenal athlete as long as he can find a way to utilize his high basketball IQ, improved strength and skill set to help negate that disadvantage.

Wayne Selden – 6’6, 223 lbs. So, Shooting Guard (Kansas)

Often overshadowed by his classmates Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Selden opted for a featured role as a sophomore over being a fringe first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. With his size and strength, which are unique even at the NBA level for his position, he’s making a wise choice and has the potential to climb a great deal.

When Selden initially committed to Kansas there was some hope that he could develop into a point guard, where his physical advantages would be much greater than they are at the shooting guard spot. That may not ever happen, but he’ll undoubtedly have the ball in his hands more with Wiggins and Embiid’s departure. It’s going to be important for him to continue to focus on making the right basketball play as his light to score becomes greener. As a well-rounded shooting guard with improved consistency on his jump shot he could get into the top 15, which is right around where he would go if he looked capable of playing the point guard position at the next level anyway.

Aaron Harrison – 6’5, 210 lbs. So, Shooting Guard (Kentucky)

As the shooting guard version of the Harrison twins made clutch shot after clutch shot during the Wildcats’ run to the national championship game, there were very few who expected him to be back in Lexington for his sophomore season. Whereas his brother’s stock took a hit during the season, he maintained his status as a first-round pick and could have justified leaving.

Now, like his aforementioned teammate Cauley-Stein, he’s returning to a Wildcats backcourt that is much more crowded than it was last season. However, it’s hard to imagine Calipari having more confidence in anyone than Aaron late in ball games – so his minutes may not decrease like Cauley-Stein’s have the potential to.

Without great quickness or athleticism, Aaron is always going to rely on his IQ, strength and jump shot. By playing with more maturity and taking pride in his defense, two things he struggled with as a freshman, Harrison’s floor should remain late first round with the potential to climb into the 20s with a strong sophomore season.

Honorable Mentions: Andrew Harrison (Kentucky), Delon Wright (Utah) Dakari Johnson (Kentucky), Brice Johnson (North Carolina), Alex Poythress (Kentucky), Perry Ellis (Kansas), Shawn Long (Louisiana Lafayette), Ron Baker (Wichita State), Brandon Ashley (Arizona), Branden Dawson (Michigan State), A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona), Jabari Bird (California), Jarell Martin (LSU) and Jordan Mickey (LSU).

Grizzlies Announce More Additions

The Memphis Grizzlies announced today that they have bolstered their coaching staff and player development team with several key additions to the organization.

Jeff Bzdelik (BIZ-del-ik), who has over 30 years of coaching experience, including 17 in the NBA, has joined Dave Joerger’s staff as an assistant coach. John Townsend, who previously served as shooting coach for the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers, has joined the staff as director of player development. The Grizzlies also added Trevor Moawad, a recognized expert in the field of mental conditioning who has led mental endurance programs for the University of Alabama and Florida State football teams, as mental endurance coach.

“True to his word in a relatively short period of time, Robert Pera has meaningfully increased the resources available to our coaching staff and players,” Joerger said. “The addition of Jeff, who brings a wealth of knowledge to our sidelines and fits seamlessly within our culture, is just one of the many moves we made over the last few weeks to accomplish our singular goal of making the Grizzlies a world class organization. We are greatly appreciative of Robert’s efforts and I am confident that the addition of Jeff and others will benefit us in preparing for the upcoming season.”

Furthermore, Jason March, who previously served as advance scout, has been promoted to assistant coach/advance scout while Drew Graham, who previously was the head athletic trainer, has been promoted to head athletic trainer and vice president of player care. Additionally, the Grizzlies have also added several player development staff, strength and conditioning coaches and a physical therapist to the basketball operations staff.

Bzdelik, after six seasons as an assistant coach for the Washington Bullets (1988-94), worked seven seasons under Pat Riley, starting as a scout for the New York Knicks (1994-95) before becoming an assistant coach and advance scout for the Miami Heat (1995-2001). Hired by the Denver Nuggets in 2001, Bzdelik spent two-plus seasons as Denver’s head coach (2002-04) and in his second season guided Denver to a 26-win turnaround and a berth in the 2004 NBA Playoffs.

The Mount Prospect, Ill. native has coached on the collegiate level as an assistant with Davidson (1978-80) and Northwestern (1980-86) and served as head coach at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (1986-88), Air Force (2005-07), Colorado (2007-10) and, most recently, Wake Forest (2010-14).

Townsend has been named director of player development after joining the Grizzlies last season as a shooting coach.  Townsend also worked as a shooting coach for the Toronto Raptors (2011-14) and Portland Trail Blazers (2007-10) and the NBA Development League (2002-07) and served one season as a consultant for the Continental Basketball Association’s (CBA) Yakima Sun Kings (2002-03).

Moawad joins the Grizzlies organization to serve as mental endurance coach. Moawad has recently coached under Nick Saban at the University of Alabama and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State University, helping to guide and lead the development of the players off the field to ensure they are thinking at an elite level on the field. Through the integration of advanced mindset solutions, he has played a vital role in both schools winning NCAA Championships for their football programs in his tenure.

March will enter his eighth season in Memphis.  March previously served the team as assistant video coordinator (2007-12), director of basketball information and technologies (2012-13) and advance scout (2013-14). Graham will begin his ninth season with the Grizzlies.  Graham served the previous eight seasons as head athletic trainer in Memphis.  He spent six seasons with the New Jersey Nets (2000-06) as assistant athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA

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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