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NBA PM: Will Stars Bolt From West to East?

Will NBA stars bolt to the weaker Eastern Conference going forward? Alex Kennedy asked players and agents.

Alex Kennedy

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NBA PM: Will Stars Bolt for the Eastern Conference?

When the Chicago Bulls held their free agency meeting with Carmelo Anthony last July, part of the franchise’s pitch focused on the Eastern Conference being wide open and how the star-studded Bulls could be a perennial contender in that landscape. They wanted to stress to Anthony that playing in the NBA Finals year after year could be a reality with Chicago’s talented roster and relative lack of competition, whereas making an annual title run would be much more difficult if he joined one of the Western Conference teams pursuing him.

Anthony, of course, re-signed with the New York Knicks. Then, the Cleveland Cavaliers added LeBron James and Kevin Love to become the clear-cut frontrunner in the East. Still, it remains true that the Eastern path to the Finals has significantly fewer obstacles than the Western route.

Players recognize this too, so don’t be surprised to see a number of middle-to-upper-tier players move from the West to the East through free agency or trades in the near future. Other things will obviously factor into players’ decisions too – such as the money, city, weather, playing time and much more. But all things being equal, East teams may be more attractive given how insanely competitive the West has become.

A number of players and agents who spoke to Basketball Insiders on condition of anonymity admitted as much.

“Players will consider going to the East, for sure,” one Western Conference player told Basketball Insiders. “The East is down right now and the West is a dogfight. The seventh- or eighth-seeded team in the West could possibly make the Eastern Conference Finals with how things are now.”

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea [to join an East team],” added another NBA player. “I’m pretty sure Kevin Durant is going to start it off and go home to [the Washington Wizards in] D.C.”

That’s obviously just speculation about Durant (although it is a popular theory these days), but it’s easy to see why any player might want out of the West.

Five teams in the conference won 55 or more games this season (the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs), whereas only one East team (the Atlanta Hawks) accomplished that feat.

In the East, two teams made the playoffs with a losing record (the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets), while a 45-win team (the Oklahoma City Thunder) missed the postseason in the West. If the eighth-seeded Nets were in the West, their 38-44 record would’ve ranked 12th (or, in other words, fifth-worst in the conference).

For much of the season, the Cavaliers were expected to win the Eastern Conference and face little resistance along the way. That’s exactly what happened, as Cleveland swept two of their three East opponents and lost just two games before advancing to the NBA Finals. Oh, and they did this with Kevin Love out for the postseason, Kyrie Irving sidelined for some games and playing through pain in others, and LeBron James hobbling around the court as well. That sums up the East’s ineptitude.

By the way, Cleveland was the second seed in the East with their 53-29 record, but they would’ve been the seventh seed and faced the Rockets in the opening round if they played in the brutal West.

The analytics website numberFire uses the metric “nERD” to measure team performance based on statistical analysis. nERD assigns teams a rating on a scale of 0-100, with 50 being the league average. This season, West teams had an average nERD of 53.90 compared to 46.24 for East teams. Looking at just the playoff teams, the West’s top eight had an average nERD of 64.39 compared to 54.46 for the East’s postseason squads. In 13 of the last 14 years, the West has had a higher average team nERD than the East (with 2009 being the lone exception).

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And the head-to-head numbers aren’t pretty either. Western Conference teams went 263-187 in games against Eastern Conference teams this year. This is the 15th time in the last 16 seasons (and the sixth consecutive year) that the West has had the better head-to-head record versus the East, according to Cleveland.com.

There’s also the fact that the West has many more stars. Yes, the East has LeBron James, who’s arguably the best player on the planet, as well as John Wall, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Derrick Rose (when healthy) and Dwyane Wade (although he’s clearly declining) among others. But take a look at this year’s NBA end-of-season awards and it’s pretty clear which conference has more star power.

In the voting for the Most Valuable Player award, 10 of the 11 vote-getters played in the West: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson. The lone exception was LeBron James.

In the voting for the three All-NBA teams, 12 of the 15 players selected were from the West: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan. The only East players were LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Pau Gasol.

In voting for Defensive Player of the Year honors, the top eight vote-getters were from the West: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut, Tony Allen and Tim Duncan. There wasn’t a single East player who received a first-place vote.

In the voting for the two All-Defensive teams, eight of the 10 players honored were from the West: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Andrew Bogut and Tim Duncan. Jimmy Butler and John Wall were the lone East players who were honored.

This doesn’t even include other West household names such as Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Damian Lillard and Dirk Nowitzki among others. And let’s not forget that the West’s pool of stars may continue expanding in a few years, as 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins continues to develop and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor could join the conference since the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers have the top two picks in the 2015 NBA Draft.

The difficult road to a championship is an understandable reason for a player to switch conferences, but the number of stars could influence that decision too. It’s harder for a player to build their brand or earn individual accolades (which often trigger contract bonuses) when they’re surrounded by so many star-caliber players. One agent who has prospects in the 2015 NBA Draft is privately hoping his clients don’t end up out West for this very reason.

“Players absolutely want to be in the East,” said one NBA agent who asked to remain anonymous. “[The conference disparity] affects the All-Star teams too. I want my kids in this year’s draft to get selected by Eastern Conference teams.”

Also, with the NBA’s salary cap set to rise significantly next summer due to the new television rights deal, just about every team will have substantial cap space. That means players will have plenty of options to team up in the East if that’s where they’d like to go. Some star players have already casually discussed the possibility of forming a new super-team together once the cap rises, according to league sources, and it’s possible that squad could decide to assemble in the East for strategic reasons.

Even though we could see some notable players cross the country in the near future, don’t expect a mass exodus from the West. As one player noted, that wouldn’t solve anything.

“I could see players leaving the West, but not if too many stars to go the East,” said the player, who has played in both conferences. “If too many stars switch, then the East is really tough and you have the same problem. Personally, though, I believe the top 16 teams should be in the playoffs instead of going by conferences.”

This idea to ignore the conferences and just allow the teams with the best records into the postseason has been discussed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and it seems that he’s strongly considering it.

“Ultimately we want to see your best teams in the playoffs,” Silver recently said to Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area. “And there is an unbalance and a certain unfairness. There is a proposal… where the division winners would all automatically go into the playoffs and then you’d seed the next 10 best teams. I think that’s the kind of proposal we need to look at. There are travel issues, of course, but in this day and age every team of course has their own plane, travels charter. I don’t think the discussion should end there. And as I’ve said, my first year I was studying a lot of these issues and year two is time to take action. It’s something I’m going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it’s an area where we need to make a change.”

It’s worth noting that not all agents believe quality players will start fleeing Western Conference teams due to the competition from both teams and individuals. This agent feels that, in most cases, players are much more concerned about themselves when they’re weighing their free agency options (and several other league sources echoed this sentiment as well).

“I think players will always go where they can personally benefit the most,” said one NBA agent, who spoke off the record. “They’ll focus on what’s best financially first, and then on basketball second. Even if the money is equal, I think they’d go to the team where they can play the most. I think money and playing time will always impact a player’s decision more than whether they’re in the East or West. The one exception is the veteran who has money and is chasing a ring; I could see him favoring East teams.”

One executive pointed out that we may not see players make the switch from the West to the East until LeBron James retires. James has now been to five straight NBA Finals, so while there are fewer contenders at the top of the East, getting past James is very difficult (just ask the Bulls).

At the end of the day, factors like the money, city, market size, playing time, weather, management, teammate relationships and lack of state income tax will always impact a player’s move.

However, it’s possible that a team’s conference could play a role (even if it’s just a slight one) in the decision-making process going forward. Just as the Bulls brought it up in their pitch to Anthony, teams that are looking for any possible edge in recruiting will certainly include this among other things as they attempt to land free agents.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Houston Rockets

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by analyzing the Houston Rockets.

Ben Nadeau

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Over the course of July and August, Basketball Insiders embarked on grading all 30 NBA teams for their offseasons — additions, subtractions, draft picks, trades, etc — and their potential headed into the 2019-20 campaign. Between today and autumn, franchises will be tasked with figuring out how their roster pieces, both new and old, might mesh together on the floor. At long last, the journey has nearly reached its conclusion but a reshuffling of the hierarchy has left the recently-superior conference in a state of unpredictability.

Between Kevin Durant leaving for new opportunities, Anthony Davis finally getting his way and Kawhi Leonard teaming up with Paul George, the Western Conference, for now, is anybody’s best guess. Among those with an imaginable volatile future, the Houston Rockets will be a mystery box of highs and lows, anchored by two ball-dominant MVPs and former teammates. James Harden and Russell Westbrook need no introduction, but their fit has been questioned since the latter was snagged in a shock deal for the oft-injured Chris Paul.

There are other pieces here, most definitely, as general manager Daryl Morey continues to find gems in the league’s tiniest nooks and crannies, but make no mistake: The Rockets’ ceiling will only rise as far as Harden and Westbrook can co-habitat. It’s both the million-dollar query and a philosophical wonder, a beard-sized challenge that’ll come to define the new-look NBA by January — for better or for worse, however, that remains to be seen.

Overview

But before any Westbrook-related fireworks can commence, it’s worth looking back on a mostly successful campaign for Houston in 2018-19.

Despite experiencing major turnover to a roster that was once an ill-timed Paul injury away from eliminating the perpetually historic Warriors during the previous postseason, Houston recovered better than many expected. An early, ugly spat between Paul and the Lakers’ Rajon Rondo, a long-time rival, helped to put the Rockets in a 1-5 hole to start the season, where an ever-so-slight inkling of worry began to creep in. But Harden — the eventual runner-up in a contested MVP race, only bested by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s other-worldly efforts — erased those apprehensions with an electric effort every night.

For the Rockets, that was often more than enough.

Harden played 36.8 minutes per game, practically a dead tie with Bradley Beal and Paul George for the league lead, and finished as one of two players with a PER over 30 (Antetokounmpo). The feared iso-ball mastermind tallied 36.1 points per game — a staggering eight full points ahead of the second-placed George — and ended as the seventh-best assister (7.5) on the ladder too. The former MVP made 4.8 three-pointers and nabbed an even two steals per game too, numbers that placed Harden, once again, as second-best in the NBA. Not a single player attempted or made more free throws than Harden either — a result largely thanks to the bearded-assassin’s flat-out insane 40.47 usage percent, the second-highest season-long rate in basketball history.

(Westbrook’s 41.65 rate in 2016-17, his MVP-worthy campaign, ranks first all-time, but that is a detail better suited for another section.)

To cap off a list of personal achievements that could truly run the length of this entire piece, Harden scored 30 or more points in 57 games, topped 50 in nine of them and hit 60 twice. For everybody else that stepped on the court for Houston in 2018-19, they reached the 30 point-mark a combined total of five times (Eric Gordon, 3; Clint Capela, 1; Paul, 1).

After the All-Star break, when Harden embarked on the equivalent of a nirvana-induced bender in all the best ways, the Rockets went 20-5 and secured the conference’s fourth seed. Unfortunately, a significantly tight race in the standings left Houston on the same side of the bracket as Golden State, who dispatched them in a tough six-game series during the second round and eliminated the Rockets for the fourth time in the last five postseasons.

All and all, it was a concentrated, historic effort for a franchise that was doubted after losing key rotation pieces like Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza the summer beforehand.

But what they did next might’ve been even more unbelievable.

Offseason

So, Russell Westbrook — let’s get into it, finally.

On Jul. 11, the Rockets pushed all-in by trading Paul and first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, plus pick swaps in 2021 and 2025, for Westbrook. Apparently, James Harden was a loud, positive voice during the acquisition of the point guard and believes that the union can work.

In any case, Westbrook is an upgrade over Paul, if nothing else, given his nearly clean bill of health over the last half-decade. 80, 81, 80, 73 in the games played department for Westbrook compares so generously to Paul’s injury-riddled count of 74, 61, 58, 58 that the Rockets might consider the reliability worth the blind leap of faith alone. Since Harden and Durant departed Oklahoma City, Westbrook turned into a usage beast and evolved into the type of No. 1 option that many had envisioned for the floor-running, high-flying future Hall of Famer.

Additionally, Westbrook’s 10.7 assists per game crushed second- and third-placed Kyle Lowry (8.7) and Paul (8.2), respectively, while his rebounding efforts should help a Rockets side that ranked almost dead-last in rebounds per game last year at 42.1. On offense, the ball-hawking, aggressive duo should get Houston in transition early and often, a place where they succeeded all year long by putting up 18 points per game off opponent turnovers. When considering a near-perfect outcome, the pair would have to reignite their dynamic partnership, equally share responsibilities and not end up watching alternate possessions as the other isolates.

However, the Rockets have built their brand on volume three-point shooting — that, naturally, is one of Westbrook’s weakest tendencies. At 16.1 three-pointers made (and a ridiculous 45.4 attempted), Houston blew away opposition from behind the arc in 2018-19. The season before that, they did it again (15.3, 42.3) — but how about the year prior? You guessed it: The Rockets’ 14.4 three-pointers made on 40.3 attempts per game during 2016-17 also lead the entire league. Simply put, it’s the key tenant of Houston’s up-tempo offense and the forward-thinking Morey often fills out the roster with like-minded players during free agency to boot.

Westbrook has only shot over 34 percent from three-point range on one occasion over his 11-year career and is coming off a disappointing 29 percent effort during his final season in Oklahoma City. Like most professionals, Westbrook can get scorching-hot from deep but it’s inconsistent enough to question his perimeter fit alongside Harden, an elite penetrator that often drives and kicks to open three-point shooters. Still, mixing two recent MVPs, and getting out from under Paul’s albatross-sized deal, is a chance the Rockets will swing on every time — so, at this moment, the only thing left is to wait and see.

Of course, Houston made other moves too — that certainly happened!

Danuel House, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green all returned to the fold after dipping their toes into free agency — more of those athletic, adequate three-point shooters, obviously — while Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried both departed. On Jul. 19, the Rockets snagged Tyson Chandler to backup the blossoming Capela, then took fliers on Ben McLemore and Anthony Bennett a week later.

As a small note, Houston left the 2019 NBA Draft with no new additions.

PLAYERS IN: Russell Westbrook, Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, Ben McLemore, Anthony Bennett

PLAYERS OUT: Chris Paul, Kenneth Faried, Iman Shumpert

What’s Next

Lots of prayers, right?

There’s an undeniable magnetism in joining Harden and Westbrook together once more — two former MVPs in their respective primes — but how that practice plays out is still a relative unknown. The Rockets will continue to shoot a metaphorical truckload of three-pointers — hopefully, with some better looks than he got in Oklahoma City, Westbrook can get closer to the league-wide average. Even if he doesn’t, Houston holds plenty of deep-hitting cards to use at head coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced, high-volume mercy.

Clint Capela, bless him, has taken a backseat in discussions all summer because of Westbrook, but the 25-year-old has continued his ascent and recently averaged 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds, both career-highs, on 64.8 percent shooting. He’s still range-limited but with Harden and Westbrook dishing open looks, and surrounded by many capable three-point shooters, Capela fills his role perfectly. In spite of some draft-time chatter of a possible Capela trade, Morey held onto his 6-foot-10, rim-protecting stalwart — a decision that’ll keep the Rockets from bleeding points in the paint for years to come.

So, then, what is next? Is their ceiling higher than last year? Lower? With an injured Thompson and departed Durant, could this be their year to enact revenge on the Warriors? Or did they fall behind the other conference risers? In August, these are some heavy questions that don’t have answers today, understandably.

Honestly, it’s impossible to fully and accurately predict the Rockets’ forecast — still, there is one fact already written in the stars, however:

It’ll be fun as hell, so buckle up and enjoy the show.

OFFSEASON GRADE: B

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High-Performance Mindfulness: Energy Psychology – The NBA’s Best Kept Secret

Jake Rauchbach takes a deep dive into the positive correlation between the effectiveness of leading-edge Energy Psychology techniques in removing mental baggage and improving on-court statistical performance.

Jake Rauchbach

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With the NBA’s latest initiative requiring all 30 teams to have mental health professionals on staff, the door has now been kicked wide open on in regards to High-Performance Mindfulness and mind-based holistic methods that support the well-being of the player both on and off the court.

As teams all around the league begin to expand their mental health groups, and the scope of their player development departments, the next logical step in player support could be the application of Energy Psychology-based techniques. These techniques zero in on the elimination of subconscious performance blockages for the direct aim of exponentializing on-court statistical improvement.

Before we discuss how NBA, college and international professional teams are implementing these High-Performance Mindfulness modalities to move the dial on on-court statistical performance, let’s first discuss the foundational mechanics of the player mindset, starting with the subconscious mind.

Energy Psychology techniques interface directly with the subconscious mind of the athlete for the goal of unlocking the player’s full potential.

The Subconscious Mind

Science tells us that the conscious mind makes up 1-10 percent of total brain capacity, while the subconscious mind makes up 90-99 percent. The conscious can focus on one to two things at any given time (reading and writing, e.g.), while the unconscious can manage thousands of tasks all at once, doing so while a person is generally unaware that it is happening.

The subconscious mind is about habit, pattern and muscle memory. For a player, tending to the subconscious is vital, because all hours of practice, training and repetition get logged there. A player’s subconscious is like a supercomputer, storing all programs (thoughts, emotions, feelings, images) from life’s past experiences.

Subconscious Performance Blocks

If not fully processed on the mental and emotional levels, thoughts, emotions, feelings and images from negatively-charged past experiences can often become trapped within the player’s subconscious mind. When this happens, performance blocks occur, ultimately throwing a wrench into instinctual response, muscle memory and on-court performance execution.

A prime example is Nick Anderson’s missed free throws in the 1995 NBA Finals, and the unresolved subconscious loop of blocking thoughts, emotions and feelings that ensued and sabotaged the remainder of his career.

Mental blocks can stem from on and/or off-court experiences. Off-court situations that seemingly have nothing to do with basketball frequently present the biggest challenges when improving performance by working through the mind.

Many times, players are unaware that the unresolved thoughts and feelings from their past are acting as performance impediments to success. Furthermore, these players generally do not have the skills to resolve these performance-blocking imbalances on their own.

From the pool of NBA, college, international and national team players that I have observed, below are some of the most common subconscious blocks to on-court statistical improvement:

1.    Epic Failure: Epically failing the team, no matter the level of basketball, is one of the most commonly observed performance-blocking experiences. Often, the anxiety, embarrassment and shame attached to these unresolved memories can be carried throughout a career, effectively hampering performance. Case in point is Nick Anderson.

2.    Freshman Year of College: When a player has not quite solidified their role or found their confidence and rhythm within the context of the team, volatile experiences on both the mental/emotional and performance levels can occur. The first few games of a college career can be overwhelming. Players often carry forward emotional discord from these events, until resolved.

3.     DNPs & Injuries: When a player does not play for an extended period, it can mess with the psyche. NBA veterans who have experienced these stretches often carry it with them throughout their career with emotions such as lack of confidence, confusion and frustration. Watching teammates contribute while they are resigned to the bench can be debilitating.

4.     Family & Home Life: Many performance issues at the deepest levels map back to off-the-court issues. It is important to note that the older the blocking emotional discord, generally, the more debilitating to performance it can become.

5.    Recent Poor Performances: Subconscious blocks relating to recent hiccups in performance are common. It is prudent to address these immediately when fresh in the mind of the athlete so that long-term performance barriers do not occur.

With this breakdown, we are providing context to what coaches and players intuitively already understand: past negativity can affect future performance if it is allowed to linger.

This being said, when performance blocks exist, there is generally no amount of additional skill-development repetition, film study or strength and conditioning work that will help to unblock or unlock big time improvement for the player. The root cause of down trending performance held at the unconscious level has to be eliminated first.

This is something that many player development approaches have historically overlooked.

The Gap Within the Traditional Player Development Model 

Although closing fast, a gap has existed within old constructs of traditional player development strategies.

Players have been viewed as purely mechanical commodities as if they were robots repeatedly able to generate top-level performance by the click of a button. Outside of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and maybe a couple of other all-world players, this is simply not the case.

Players are multi-dimensional beings requiring customized, specific support at all levels of their awareness (especially the subconscious, where performance habits are created and fostered).

Only addressing the physical component (on-court work/strength and conditioning), or only addressing the conscious mind/analytical component through film analysis and scouting, neglects possibly the most important aspect of the athlete – the subconscious (muscle memory) element, which directly influences the player’s effectiveness in each one of these areas.

Tweaking the player development model, by addressing this aspect, may present the best opportunity to date for helping players consistently optimize on-court performance throughout a season and a career.

This, then, begets the question: What is the most effective way to do this when incorporated within the context of an overall team dynamic? Enter Psychology.

Closing the Gap Through Energy Psychology

Energy Psychology or EP is quite possibly the best-kept secret in basketball player development, and may be on the verge of breaking out big-time as a way to facilitate massive statistical on-court performance improvement for players.

Based on ancient traditional Chinese healing principals, and rooted in empirically-based results, EP works directly with the natural energetic flow, or meridian system of the body, to unburden and unblock past lingering experiences still residing within the subconscious mind of an athlete.

This has the effect of freeing up the player’s ability to perform better and, quite possibly, could be the fastest way to supercharge on-court statistical performance when integrated within the totality of an existing player development program.

Once deemed nonsensical and out there, techniques like Touch-Point tapping, muscle testing and Reiki and Quantum-Touch are now being implemented by NBA teams, high-major Division-1 college programs, and European ball clubs, as ways to supercharge performance.

Players and coaches are beginning to turn to these methods to dramatically improve three-point shooting percentage, free-throw percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, VAL analytics, plus-minus offensive efficiencies and defensive efficiencies, mental focus, confidence, decision-making and leadership qualities, just to name a few.

This past season, the Los Angeles Clippers and their Integrated Player Development Department, employed the next level skill-sets of Dr. Laura Wilde, a cutting edge High-Performance Consultant who has been working with professional athletes for years. Dr. Wilde is a pioneer in this space, applying advanced Energy Psychology methods as a way to promote player well-being and to improve performance.

The Utah Jazz rely on Graham Betchart’s expertise as a long-time Elite Mental Skills Coach to star NBA players as a way to support their players both on and off the court.

As awareness around this space continues to build and these practices become common knowledge for helping players, roles for the High-Performance coaches who administer these Energy Psychology–Player Development-based techniques will become more defined.

For now, the most effective implementation of this type of specialist is likely as an embedded, trusted resource within an overall coaching staff or player development department.

The bottom line: The trend for improving performance through unlocking the mind is growing, and so too are the innovative and proven ways for producing positive change for players.

Energy Psychology and other types of High-Performance Mindfulness methods like it are now coming on-line as player development – secret weapons – in facilitating big-time statistical performance improvement for players.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Philadelphia 76ers

In this edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series, Matt John takes a look at the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the most talented albeit confusing teams in the league

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When evaluating a team’s offseason, it can take a while to complete.

Between going over what happened last season, what they did this summer and predicting what lies ahead – it’s quite the exercise. You could almost call it a process.

Oh hey, speaking of processes, the next team up in this series? The Philadelphia 76ers.

Philadelphia has to feel good about itself. It came within a literal buzzer-beater from overtaking the reigning champion Toronto Raptors. They don’t have the same team that they did three months ago, but they still have a team that, should things break their way, can feasibly win its first title since 1983.

Their roster makeup is a tad confusing at the moment. Then again, saying that would imply that their roster construction has always made sense in the Embiid-Simmons era, which it hasn’t.

One thing is for sure, though: This team is going to be good. With Kawhi Leonard out of the Eastern Conference and Kevin Durant probably out for the year, the Sixers have a bigger window than they’ve had in decades.

Overview

Give Elton Brand credit. In just his first year as general manager, the guy didn’t shy away from shaking things up. Between Philly’s so-so start to their season to the trade deadline, Brand made the following moves.

  • Traded for a bonafide scorer who was available for cheap (Jimmy Butler)
  • Gave up on a prospect whose lack of progress was not helping the team (Markelle Fultz)
  • Acquired a pseudo star whose abilities fit like a glove next to Simmons and Embiid (Tobias Harris)

Since starting from scratch in 2013, Philly has always been about the future. The moves they made signified that the future was now. Butler wasn’t the best fit next to Embiid and Simmons, and Harris had never been on a team with aspirations nearly as high as Philly’s, but the talent that the Sixers had at their arsenal was gargantuan – gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated-like gargantuan.

Though Butler and Harris clearly made the Sixers a bigger threat for a title, progress was kind of slow after adding both of them.

Without Butler/Without Harris: 9-6 (Winning percentage of 60), Offensive Rating: 106.8 (19th overall), Defensive Rating: 106.9 (9th overall)

With Butler/Without Harris: 25-14 (Winning percentage of 64), Offensive Rating: 113 (7th overall), Defensive Rating: 108.9 (13th overall)

With Butler/With Harris: 17-11 (Winning Percentage of 61), Offensive Rating: 112.1 (10th overall), Defensive Rating: 110.3 (15th overall)

There are other factors that played into this. For example, it could’ve been the opponents who they played in those time frames. Or maybe it was Joel Embiid missing 18 games. Still, the Sixers somehow didn’t really take that next step they were hoping for. They finished the season 51-31, which qualified them for the third seed.

With Toronto and Milwaukee as their primary competition, that’s a mark the Sixers should be proud of. Maybe it would have been different if they had Butler and Harris from the get-go.

In their defense, some growing pains are in order when you shake up the roster to the degree that the Sixers did. When the playoffs come around, you can’t afford to wait for progress. When the Sixers entered the postseason, the progress they desired came, and it came swiftly.

After making quick work of the upstart Brooklyn Nets – and making someone look really dumb in the process – Philadelphia had quite the duel with Toronto. There were times where the Sixers looked completely outmatched against the Raptors. There were times where they completely outclassed the Raptors. To make a long story short, the craziest buzzer-beater – perhaps in playoff history – took them out for good.

As heartbreaking as that was, when you look at how the rest of the postseason turned out, the Sixers were the closest to eliminating the team who ended the Golden State superteam. Even if things didn’t end the way they wanted to, last season proved that Philadelphia is on the right track.

Offseason

In a perfect world, the Sixers would have retained all three of Butler, Harris, and J.J. Redick. As we know, not everything went according to plan. That doesn’t mean the Sixers had a bad offseason. Far from it.

It all started with the draft. The Sixers had five picks coming into the draft and wound up keeping two of them. They wound up with Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok. There’s not much to say about Shayok besides that the best hope for him is adding some guard depth.

For Thybulle, he could add so much to the 76ers. He was one of the best defenders coming out of this draft. At the very least, he should make Philadelphia much stronger on that end of the floor. He’s not necessarily a future star, but his potential as an impact player is very high. Expect him to be in Philly’s rotation sooner rather than later.

As for free agency, well, the Sixers were among the teams that went through quite a bit of turnover.

Let’s just get to the main course. Jimmy Butler decided to take his talents to South Beach, which honestly was a “surprised, but not surprised” type of move. Unlike say, oh, Kyrie Irving and Boston, Butler didn’t leave Philly on bad terms. In fact, he didn’t leave the Sixers empty-handed either.

While Butler is gone, in comes Josh Richardson. There is definitely a talent disparity between Butler and Richardson. In fact, there were many times where Butler carried the Sixers on his back when the team could not get things going. Richardson doesn’t command the same kind of respect, but he brings certain advantages that Butler does not.

-At 25 years old, Richardson fits better with Simmons and Embiid’s timeline than Butler does
-As a career near-37 percent shooter from three, Richardson is a better floor spacer than Butler is
-At $10 million, he’s one of the best bargain contracts in the league with his production

Brand probably would have preferred keeping Butler, but considering the alternative – letting Jimmy Buckets walk for nothing – getting Richardson expertly salvaged the situation.

That wasn’t the only sly move Brand made this summer.

When you’re building a contender, nothing helps your chances better like taking away a valuable piece from one of your biggest rivals. Philly took Al Horford right under from Boston’s nose, simultaneously giving the team another dimension while knocking the Celtics down a peg.

Over the last two years, Horford has established himself as one of the better defensive bigs in the league. He’s not a rim protector, nor is he the best pick-pocket, but his elite defense comes from his smarts. You wouldn’t think he could match up against Embiid’s girth or the footwork to contain Ben Simmons’ speed, but he can and he has.

As one of the few players who has shown the ability to slow both Simmons and Embiid, Horford has been Philly’s worst nightmare since “The Process” went full-throttle. With him on board, both of their young stars should be able to play their games more smoothly, especially against Boston.

That would be more plausible if Horford’s fit on the Sixers was a perfect one, which it isn’t. Horford is slated to start at power forward, which he only played eight percent of the time last year. At 33 years old, Horford’s footwork is on the decline. Plus, last season, he struggled to play well on back-to-backs. The Sixers already have enough worries on their hands with Embiid’s conditioning. With Horford, they’re going to have all their fingers crossed.

The Sixers also brought in plenty of new faces to help round out the roster. Raul Neto and Trey Burke are good flyers to take when looking for a second or third-string point guard. Kyle O’Quinn didn’t do much for the Pacers last season, but he’s an upgrade over the likes of Greg Monroe and Amir Johnson.

This offseason hasn’t just been about who they brought in, but who they brought back.

Considering what they gave up for them, the Sixers had to keep at least one of Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris. Butler leaving for Miami increased the urgency to keep Harris at all costs. The Sixers definitely took that to heart, as they gave him a five-year/$188 million extension.

Harris is a talented scorer. Before he was traded to Philadelphia, he gained a lot of well-deserved All-Star recognition. He didn’t put up the same numbers as a Sixer – with some of that understandably coming from less touches – but those numbers fell further in the playoffs. Being traded mid-season gives him the benefit of the doubt. With more time, maybe he’ll figure it out.

That’s going to be hard though, because with Horford on the team, Harris is going to be playing a lot more at small forward now than he’s played in years. His best position is playing a stretch four because he’s not quick enough to cover wings, but his strength holds up against power forwards.

He could make the proper adjustments, but if he doesn’t, that could spell trouble. What makes it more troubling is that the Sixers paid Harris superstar money when the man, as good as he’s been, is not a superstar. If he’s put in the right role, keeping Tobias could be the right move no matter what he gets paid. Finding that role is going to be hard with the frontcourt logjam.

The Sixers wanted to keep their wing depth this summer. Along with Harris, management brought back James Ennis III – who carried his weight in the playoffs – and Mike Scott, who, regardless of his production, will get plenty of attention because of The Office.

Oh, and the Sixers are going to have to adjust to losing three-point marksman that is J.J. Redick. Redick’s three-point shooting was a threat. Richardson and Horford have a respected deep ball, but they don’t command the same respect that Redick did. He fit perfectly next to Simmons/Embiid. Playing without him is going to take some time to adjust to.

Losing Butler and Redick bites, but Philadelphia compensated well in response to their departure.

PLAYERS IN: Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, Raul Neto, Trey Burke, Kyle O’Quinn, Shake Milton, Isaiah Miles, Chris Koumadje, Norvel Pelle (two-way), Marial Shayok (two-Way)

PLAYERS OUT: Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick, Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic, TJ McConnell, Amir Johnson

What’s Next

Boston, Milwaukee, Toronto and Philadelphia all lost a player(s) that played an important role in each team’s success. The difference between Philadelphia and the aforementioned teams is that they brought in a fair amount of talent to cover its losses. But was it the right talent?

This has been said about the Sixers all summer, but it bears repeating: This roster doesn’t make a whole lot of sense right now. Brett Brown is a good coach, and he redeemed himself pretty well in the playoffs following an embarrassing loss at the hands of the Celtics in 2018, but he’s got a lot on his plate this season.

This can go right or it can go so very, very wrong. It’s not just about who the Sixers gained and lost this summer. There still remains the question as to whether Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can reach their full potential when they play together. Simmons may never get a respectable jump shot, and Embiid’s conditioning is still an issue.

Both are two of the best young players in the game. If the Sixers are serious, they may have to choose between one or the other going forward. This isn’t something that needs to be taken care of now, but it is something that the Sixers should be paying close attention to.

This season could be the one where the Sixers finally cash in on the process just as much as it could be the confirmation that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will never co-exist on a championship team.

OFFSEASON GRADE: B+

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