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NBA Sunday: Ben Simmons and the Early and Incalculable Impact

At this point, Sixers fans hope Ben Simmons is more LeBron James than Michael Carter-Williams. He just might be.

Moke Hamilton

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With Friday night’s 121-110 victory over the Indiana Pacers, the Sixers pulled themselves above the .500 mark for the first time since Evan Turner was a starter for the team.

Although the mighty Joel Embiid has been quite impressive, it’s now okay to begin buying stock in Ben Simmons. The team’s declaring their rebuild to be all but over has just as much to do with him as it does Embiid, if not more.

While both Simmons and Embiid possess unique traits and qualities, Simmons’ rare combination of size, agility and ball handling is uniquely cut from the mold of LeBron James. Embiid, while gifted in almost every way, doesn’t have the ability to take smaller players off the dribble in order to effectively create for his teammates. Simmons can also play as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations and function as a break starter off of a rebound.

Through just nine games, to say that Simmons’ impact has been felt would be an understatement. He’s averaging an unreal 18 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game and, most importantly, has managed to stay on the floor for 35 minutes per contest.

As most NBA youngsters will agree, the “rookie wall” is a real thing. Most neophytes entering the league aren’t accustomed to the gauntlet that is the NBA season and often show signs of progressive fatigue around the 50-game mark. Often times, they never recover.

For Simmons, though, the early returns have been truly remarkable. Currently second on the Sixers in scoring (he trails Embiid’s 20.5 points per game), Simmons may have a realistic shot at becoming just the first rookie in NBA history to average as many as 18 points, eight assists and eight rebounds per game since Oscar Robertson. That’s something that not even James was able to accomplish as a rookie.

In fact, in NBA history, aside from Robertson, only two other rookies have managed as many as 16 points, six rebounds and six assists—Magic Johnson and… wait for it… Michael Carter-Williams.

Sixers fans, without question, are familiar with Carter-Williams. Similarly to Tyreke Evans, they are rare examples of NBA players who appear to have peaked as rookies. The idea of “peaking” in one’s first year, of course, is a bit strange. Traditionally, NBA players spend their first two seasons merely learning the rigors of their lives as professionals and adjusting to the pace of the game and the way that their travel schedules impact their bodies and ability to perform 90 times per year.

In hindsight, we know that the major issue with Evans was merely that his body wasn’t cut out for the long grind of an NBA season. Evans, as you may recall, was similarly impressive in his rookie campaign, joining Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only other three rookies in NBA history to accomplish per-game averages of 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. Still, as he enters his ninth season, Evans has played in just 482 of 660 regular season games—just 73 percent. It should also be pointed out that he was not 100 percent healthy for a fair number of games he did play in, as well. The evidence suggests that it’s fair to say he hasn’t been the epitome of an ironman.

Carter-Williams, on the other hand, appears to have merely reaped the benefits of being a player on a non-contending team who always had the ball. There’s a keen difference between averaging 20 points per game on a 15-win team and averaging the same on a 50-win team. Teams that win 50 games are more likely to be involved in close games where defenses are active and engaged. More often than not, their games matter. Meanwhile, there are scores of NBA players who relish getting playing time in blowouts. When one’s team is trailing by 25 points and there are six minutes remaining in the game’s fourth quarter, a meaningless eight points can go a long way toward boosting a career average and securing a future contract.

Before this becomes about Carter-Williams and what he brings to the table, the record should reiterate the central point: he and Evans serve as this generation’s shining example of why it’s not wise to anoint a rookie to be a “future Hall-of-Famer” based on what he shows in his rookie year, much less the first few years of his career.

…But it is fair to salivate at the potential.

As it relates specifically to Simmons, it is he, both in stature, characteristics and effectiveness, that is the closest thing we’ve seen to LeBron James.

Since James’ entry into the league in 2003, we have seen a fair number of trans-generational NBA stars enter the league—Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry certainly qualify, while Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis may if they finish their careers with multiple championships. Simmons, though, is the closest thing. That probably has something to do with why James and Simmons have become close, and it’s also something that a fair few around the league have noticed.

What’s most interesting about Simmons, though, is not who he is, but who he can become.

Had LeBron been born 20 years earlier, we may have had the pleasure of seeing him and Hakeem Olajuwon join forces.

Instead, we may have to settle for Simmons and Embiid, for each of these two, the ceiling is that high.

* * * * * *

As the season continues on, Thanksgiving approaches. Along with Christmas, the holiday is the first of the two poles of the NBA season—general managers take inventory, start looking at the standings and consider their team’s immediate futures.

Generally speaking, it’s premature to begin discussing All-Star berths and such prior to that point, but it’s safe to say that Simmons, if he continues giving us what we’ve seen thus far, will be considered along with Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis and Andre Drummond as reserve front court players from the Eastern Conference.

And depending on how things shake out, LeBron James—who will almost certainly be one of the captains of this year’s All-Star Game—may have an opportunity to select his doppelgänger to be his running mate.

It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that we’ve never seen a player like Simmons before, because we have. His name is LeBron.

That we can even mention Simmons in the same breath as James is just as remarkable as it is appropriate.

Hopefully, the future will be kinder to him than the past has been to Evans and Carter-Williams.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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