Players are often hesitant to make any kind of drastic changes to their game during the actual NBA season, which is understandable since the rigorous schedule doesn’t allow much time for real development (and certainly not enough time for a player to become confident with their dramatic alterations).
Yes, players improve as they gain experience – particularly young prospects. But when an individual is tweaking their shot, bulking up or transitioning to a new position, these things typically take place over the summer. Most NBA players train extremely hard during the offseason, working out at popular training sites across the country such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago and others.
Basketball Insiders asked a number of NBA players about their offseason and what aspects of their game they worked on this summer.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: “One thing that I tried to add this summer was a three-point shot. I think I did pretty well with it in my national team games and I just want to keep working on it. I think it’s something that I can add to my game that would help myself and the team, especially with the way that the game has evolved. I think with the drivers we have at the guard positions, me being able to stretch out the floor will be able to help them. I always try to add things to my game; I think I’ve done that every season I’ve been here and I want to keep doing it.”
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: “I’ve been working on extending my range. I’m doing a lot of off-the-dribble threes just because that’s something I shot a lower percentage on and that’s something that I do a lot, where I got the ball in my hands and I’m dribbling and I need to be able to shoot better off of the dribble. I’m pretty good at catch-and-shoot and spot-ups and stuff like that. My main focus this year was extending my range, getting a quicker release on my jump shot and being able to pull-up from anywhere. When the defense has their hands down, I want to be shot-ready at all times. That was my main focus and then also just getting better at everything else. Getting better with my right hand, whether that’s finishing around the rim – different types of finishes – or right-hand passes off of the pick-and-roll. I just tried to continue to get better and also to continue to work on my one-legged shot. I pulled that out a lot of more and improved it. I’m supposed to be having a conversation with Steve Nash in a few days and just pick his brain about his one-foot shots that he used to do when he played.”
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: “My ball-handling is better now. I just feel comfortable with the ball now, so you’re going to see some new stuff this season. You’re going to see some new stuff, and hopefully more put-back dunks. … Last offseason, we made a little mistake that all I did was work upper body and try to get bigger. This offseason, I really focused on my lower strength, my legs, my core, [to] make sure that it’s strong. That’s going to give me strength to be able to hold my ground defensively and offensively as well. My legs have gotten much stronger. When I’m driving, I’m able to stay lower. Defensively, I can be lower and quick on my feet.”
Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks: “I’m working on my body a ton. For me, getting stronger is super important. I’m just as athletic as any player in the league, but strength is important over an 82-game season. I’ve been working on my body a lot. I’m always expanding my knowledge of the game, watching a ton of film and understanding the game of basketball better. It’s one thing to just go out there to play, but it’s another to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s a game of chess, and I’m working on setting up players, setting up plays, making sure I’m in the right position on defense and those kind of small details. I’m always fine tuning those things. I think that will make me a much more solid player, and that way I’m not out of position on defense or gambling or things like that. I think I took a step in the right direction last year in terms of being solid, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m continuing to work on my jump shot too. I made a minor change at the beginning of the summer, so I think you should see my percentages go up next season. I’m also working on some more stuff off the dribble. It’s going to be a good year for me. With Dwight [Howard] rolling to rim, I think our pick-and-roll is going to be really special and I’m looking forward to that as well. … I know a lot of guys get a pay check and then relax, but I’m not going to be that guy. I’ve just been so motivated since signing. I’m ready to get back out there and play.”
C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers: “I’m continuing to work on defense [with our assistant coaches]. I’m building more lower-body strength and core strength, continuing to gain more athleticism in order to help me on the defensive side of the ball. I want to get better on defense. I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better at all-around defense. I’ve been working with our assistant coach David Vanterpool, continuing to focus on the other side of the ball.”
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic: “My training regimen has been absolutely hectic. I’ve being doing two-a-days and three-a-days to try to get ready for the season. I’m ready. I’ve been ready. I was ready the day that we lost to Charlotte on our last day of the season – I wanted to start another 82 games right then. I knew that it couldn’t happen, but I wanted it (laughs). Now, I’ve taken this offseason to work on my ball-handling, passing, shooting. Also, being able to shoot over defenders’ hands when they’re closing out on threes or being able to take one dribble and rise to pull up over everybody. I’ve been working on making decisions out of the pick-and-roll. I know with with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka, I’m going to have a roll guy and a pop guy. And with Vooch [Nik Vucevic], I’ll have a little bit of both – a guy who can roll and pop. It’s going to be on me to either score off of the pick-and-roll or make the right read to get the ball to my guy in the best spot. I’m ready.”
D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers: “This offseason has been great. I’ve had an opportunity to really get in the gym, meet the new coaching staff and my new teammates – getting that chemistry built early has been a huge plus. I’m also working on a lot of things to improve my game – mainly with my consistency on jump shots, floaters and finishing around the rim.”
Justin Anderson, Dallas Mavericks: “One of the biggest things is being able to get to the paint. I’m also working on finishing with both hands. Not just doing simple layups, but also being able to utilize my length to get around guys, and really take advantage of that. One of the things coach [Rick Carlisle] harps on is really getting into the painted area, so I’ve been trying to utilize my size and strength to do that. With guys who are playmakers such as J.J. [Barea], Seth [Curry] and Wes [Matthews], I’ve also been trying to work on my floor spacing and being able to open up for others to get shots. Obviously with guys like that, you want to make the game easier on them. So being able to hit three-point shots as an outlet for them is important. Defensively, just continuing to guard any position; point guard through the four position. I’m trying to get better in my one-on-one defense and also guarding guys that are taller than me.”
Jeff Teague, Indiana Pacers: “I entered the offseason wanting to get stronger, so that I can go through the season feeling like myself for the entire year. I improved as a shooter last year and I want to continue to work at that. I also want to be a leader for this team. That’s a big thing for me, being a leader. … I want to take my game to the next level. I think it’s a great opportunity, and I can’t wait to facilitate and make plays for an All-Star like Paul George and proven veterans like Thaddeus Young and Monta Ellis. Those guys can score the ball, which always makes the point guard’s job a lot easier. It’s going to make me a lot more of a threat on the offensive and defensive end.”
Kyle O’Quinn, New York Knicks: “A lot of people expect us to be in the playoffs and what not, so I just want to handle my part, which is just taking care of my body, continuing to learn more and more about the game so I can catch onto concepts as quickly as possible and just continuing to work on my jump shot. I’m working on my mid-range jump shot, and stepping out to the three here and there in our workouts. And I’m continuing to watch film. I’m just trying to get familiar with everything. I’m running through our actions so I’m ready when I’m setting screens for D-Rose or Brandon Jennings or Courtney Lee or whoever is coming off. I will be ready to do my part. The next evolution for me is just solidifying my role and running with it.”
E’Twaun Moore, New Orleans Pelicans: “I’m working on my point guard skills – things like my decision-making and playing out of the pick-and-roll. Now-a-days, 80 percent of the game is out of the pick-and-roll, so I’m just [focused on] making better decisions and making plays. … I definitely think this will be a breakout season for me.”
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: “Individually, I feel like I can put up big numbers for this team and help in any way necessary. I’d like to see myself put up 15 to 20 points per game. That may seem like a long shot, but I feel like I’m very capable. … I can see myself being a very dominant player in this league one day – and one day soon. I mean, I don’t know what my ceiling is. With my work ethic and my drive, I feel like there is no ceiling. I can always improve and get better at all facets of the game. I see some players who come into the league, get all of this hype and then they start to fizzle out and stop working. I’m never going to be that type of player. My work ethic is a lot of stronger than that and I’m very driven right now. I’m really looking forward to what’s to come over these next couple of years.”
Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder: “I’ve been working on a little bit of everything – a lot of catch-and-shoot stuff, a lot of on-the-ball stuff and different things like that. I’m always trying to add little things to my game and improve my repertoire. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. … I feel like you’re going to see a lot more from me [in Oklahoma City]. I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of how good I really can be. I’m getting better every day and I’m looking forward to [showing] it. I can still grow way, way more. I’ve only been in the NBA for three years and I’m just getting more and more comfortable every year. The game has been slowing down for me every year and I’m just so much more comfortable out there. I’m just looking forward to getting in the lab with the guys and putting in the work.”
Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons: “I’m practicing going left, practicing coming off of ball-screens and shooting threes, practicing catching-and-shooting and practicing team defense. Those are some of the things that I’m focused on. … I’m a lot more confident. The work that I’ve done this summer has me feeling like I’ll be able to score from all three levels very efficiently and defend. I’m going to build off of that. [I’ve grown a lot]. Last year, I felt like I was in elementary school and this year, I feel like I’m a senior in high school.”
Larry Nance Jr., Los Angeles Lakers: “Individually, my shot is the biggest thing that I wanted to tweak and work on a little bit this offseason. It’s come along really, really nicely. Shooting wasn’t something that I was really asked to do much at Wyoming; I was kind of an around-the-basket specialist. Now, I’m starting to stretch my [range] out and it’s really coming along. I’m going to be shooting some more threes this year. I mean, how many times did we see Harrison Barnes spotting up in the corner and knocking down that corner three this year? That was kind of the inspiration for me, seeing that it can help so much and spread out our offense [under new head coach Luke Walton]. I think people can look forward to seeing that a lot more. Besides that, I’ve been working on my ball-handling and decision-making and things like that.”
Terrence Ross, Toronto Raptors: “I have just been focusing on getting better in every way I can. I’ve been putting a lot of focus on getting stronger too; that was the main goal for me this offseason. I want to make sure I can be more physical when my team needs me to be. I want to continue to get stronger and be able to absorb contact better when I’m driving. I’ve been shooting a lot of mid-range shots too. I’m just learning how to read defenses and make the best play possible when I’m out there. Strength helps a lot of things, but thinking about the game and putting myself in scenarios in practice is just as important. I want to become a complete player, so that means I have to work on every area of the game. I’m fully taking advantage of the offseason to improve my game and that’s what I’ve done since I came in the league.”
Garrett Temple, Sacramento Kings: “I think the opportunity [for a career-year] is there. Coach [Dave] Joerger believes in my abilities and that I can produce, so I’ll be on the court a good amount this year. I’m working on the aspects of my game that need to improve this summer. I’ll be playing some point guard this year, and obviously playing the two and the three as well. But I’m working on my decision-making coming off of ball screens. People don’t realize that I’m a pretty good decision-maker and that I played point guard a lot growing up. I played point guard my whole high school career and a lot in college. The last couple of years I’ve been playing on the wing more, but I’m going to show people that I’m a versatile guy that can play the one, two and three.”
Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: “I’m trying to build on my core, trying to get stronger. Also, I’ve been trying to work on about two or three moves out of the post. I’m just trying to be that complete basketball player who can help my team. I’ve been [working out] five days a week. I get the weekends off and sometimes I’ll go home, but most of my time I’m in the gym.”
Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic: “I’m continuing to work on my jump shot, mid-range game, finishing at the rim and overall understanding of the game. … We have to learn how to close out games. In a lot of games, we were right there at the end, but we have to figure out how to close out games.”
Moe Harkless, Portland Trail Blazers: “I feel like I still have so, so, so much room to improve – and I’m talking about every part of my game. And you’ve seen me work out in the offseason; I work on literally everything. I feel like I can just keep improving on every part of my game, and I’m still just the same hard-working kid that I’ve always been. I’m looking forward to getting better. Now that I’ve been to the playoffs and experienced what it feels like, I want to get back more. It’s made me even hungrier. … Sometimes I forget the fact that I’m only 23 years old. Like, this year, I was younger than two of the rookies on our team (laughs). There are some guys in this draft class who are a little bit older than me. When people bring that stuff to my attention, it’s just crazy to think about. I know I still have so much room to grow and get better still.”
Langston Galloway, New Orleans Pelicans: “I think the past few seasons, my playmaking ability [has improved a lot] – being able to read the floor better and being able to find my teammates whenever I am being aggressive. I think I am always in attack mode, trying to be aggressive and score. But at the same time, when I am aggressive, I’m able to find my teammates in those situations too. My game has definitely blossomed with that. My playmaking ability is probably the biggest thing [I continued to work on this summer]. And just being more consistent, where I’m knocking down the shots when I am open and just taking advantage of the opportunities when I’m going one-on-one against a guy. I’ve definitely been grinding it out this summer, just knowing those unseen hours that I have been putting in are going to pay off this season.”
Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers: “I’m getting used to defending NBA big men. I’m getting used to defending the pick-and-roll when you’re playing against a really good point guard and a really good big man. The coaches have told me that they’re happy with the way that I’m developing and I am as well. … I think I learned a ton [last year] – about myself, about the NBA and just how everything works. I think I continue to learn every day.”
Willie Reed, Miami Heat: “I think that I’ve grown tremendously. I think that’s due to my family and my maturity. My family allows me to go put in that extra work. They know that I’m in the gym three times a day, but they sacrifice that and come here and be with me just so that I’m comfortable while I’m training and see a familiar face and be happy. They understand the reason I’m doing this for. I’m working on the offensive part of my game: post moves, reading the defense, catching the ball off of the pick-and-roll and being able to avoid traffic. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. I’m excited about the transformation and I just can’t wait for what this next season brings.”
John Jenkins, Phoenix Suns: “When I first got into the league, I think I was known just as a shooter. While I still have the shooting ability, now I can take it off the dribble, finish at the rim, create for others – since I played some point guard in Dallas and a tiny, tiny bit in Phoenix – thrive in pick-and-rolls and things like that. There are just so many little things that I’ve added to my game. I’m looking forward to showing those things off more [during the 2016-17 season].”
Lavoy Allen, Indiana Pacers: “Putting the ball on the floor when I am the top of the key. I am not doing a bunch of crossovers, between the legs, stuff like that – just trying to score from the high-post. … If I get the opportunity, depending on how many minutes I get, [my goal is to] try to average a double-double.”
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
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.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
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.
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.
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.
Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division
Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.
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.