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Philadelphia 76ers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2016-17 NBA season.

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The fans in Philadelphia are hoping that their beloved 76ers have finally graduated from the rebuilding phase to a competitive “win-now” stage of their development.

For the first time in a very long time, Sixers faithful have reason to be optimistic and excited about the present, as opposed to just focused on the future. There is hope that the seedlings Sam Hinkie patiently planted in years past will finally begin to show fruit. Of course, plenty of question marks remain, but the foundation appears to be set and that alone is quite promising.

Basketball Insiders previews the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

It’s nice to see the 76ers starting a season in which they’ll actually be given the opportunity to be good at basketball, because it’s been a long time since they were anything but the tank-focused league laughing stock with zero chance at winning 25+ games in any given season. This year, though, there’s such a massive influx of young talent that it’s hard not to get at least a little excited about what’s to come. Those that “Trusted the Process” are about to see their patience rewarded in the form of rookies Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, as well as pseudo-rookie Joel Embiid. They still don’t have a point guard, and they still need to figure out how they’re going to return some measure of value for Jahlil Okafor in trade, but things are finally trending in the right direction for this squad. Plus, they may not actually be the worst team in the NBA. Progress!

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

The Sixers are headed for another sub .400 campaign, but let’s be clear unlike the past few seasons there is plenty of talent in Philadelphia these days. The team’s youth movement in the frontcourt will be their strength with Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric all competing for minutes in the nightly rotation. This will create somewhat of a logjam, but it’s a good problem to have for the previously talent starved Sixers. However the team’s overall success could hinge on how much production they can realistically count on from its backcourt. The team signed veteran guards Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez for stability over the summer and all three will have the chance to challenge for 20-plus minutes per night. While the playoffs are still a very far cry away for the Sixers, the talent level is enough for them to move up in the Atlantic Division. Not sexy, we know, but definitely progress.

4th place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson among others give the Sixers a new look, as the team attempts to escape from the doldrums of the Eastern Conference. At the very least, it does appear that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but with the Raptors and Celtics clearly being the cream of the division and the Knicks having enough talent to compete, the Sixers will be battling the Nets to avoid the dubious distinction of being the doormat of the Atlantic.

One interesting thing to keep in mind as it relates to the Sixers, though, is that they are still more than $10 million beneath the salary floor and have more than $20 million worth of cap space. The Sixers still have the means to improve their team and could absorb a contract or two under the right circumstances. Barring something along those lines, though, I won’t bet on them escaping the cellar of the Atlantic. Not this season, anyway.

5th Place — Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

It’ll be very interesting to see how the 76ers manage their frontcourt pieces this season. Adding Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric to the mix when they already have Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor will likely only lead to more trade rumors coming out of Philly. I’m excited to see what Simmons can do at the NBA level after hearing so much hype about him for years, and he has some talented pieces around him (which is important since he’s a facilitator who needs offensive weapons to be at his best). I don’t expect the Sixers to make a ton of progress this year since they are still relying on a very young, inexperienced core. With that said, hopefully Embiid is healthy, Saric impresses and Simmons lives up to the hype. If those things happen, this team looks like one of the better up-and-coming squads in the East.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

The 76ers enter the 2016-17 NBA season with a lot of reason for optimism. After tanking for the last few seasons, the 76ers are loaded with young talent, including players like Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric and even Nik Stauskas. With Jerry Colangelo and Bryan Colangelo running the show, the team is now dedicated toward turning the fruits of the franchise’s suffering into something meaningful. In order to facilitate this transition, the front office added some veterans like Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez to bring stability to the team. While this team won’t be competing for a championship this season, it will be fun to watch the franchise find out who the cornerstone pieces are, who can be traded and how good guys like Simmons, Embiid and Saric can be. If things start coming together nicely in Philadelphia, let’s remember that it was Sam Hinkie who laid the foundation for their future success.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jahlil Okafor

Okafor had a roller-coaster rookie campaign. He had a number of issues off the court, and struggled mightily on the defensive end of the floor. However, Okafor was arguably even better than advertised offensively. In fact, Okafor became just the sixth under-21 player in NBA history to average at least 17 points and seven rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the floor. Per BasketballReference.com, the other five members of that exclusive club are Magic Johnson, Adrian Dantley, Chris Webber, Shaquille O’Neal, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Okafor can score in a number of ways. He has great touch around the basket, an impressive post-up game and can also step out and knock down 15-footers. Okafor has the potential to develop into one of the NBA’s truly elite low-post scorers.

Top Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel

Noel is already one of the most versatile and athletic defensive-minded big men in the NBA. In 2014-15, he became the first rookie in NBA history to average at least 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. He was back at it again last season, patrolling the paint in Philadelphia, leading the 76ers in defensive rebounds and steals, while finishing second on the team in blocks.

Top Playmaker: Sergio Rodriguez

The Sixers plucked Rodriguez from Spain this summer with a one-year, $8 million deal. Sergio has some NBA experience; he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 27th pick in the 2006 draft and was later traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, spending three seasons with them. He also had short stints with the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks before returning to Spain. Rodriguez developed significantly during his time playing in the competitive Spanish league. Last season, he led Real Madrid to a league championship, and led the league in assists for the second time in his career. The Sixers have had issues at point guard since trading away Michael Carter-Williams and are hoping Rodriguez can successfully facilitate the offense in his second go-around in America.

Top Clutch Player: Jahlil Okafor

This is a very difficult choice and should probably simply be left as “TBD: To Be Determined.” Because they are such a young team, no player has established themselves as a true “team leader.” Thus, it’s hard to predict who will get the ball in important, late-game situations. Will they dump the ball down low to Okafor in the post? Will Philly run a play to get experienced veteran shooting guard Gerald Henderson a good look? The other issue is the Sixers haven’t played many close games, so we haven’t had a chance to see them operate much in the clutch. By this time next year, we should have a better read on this situation.

The Unheralded Player: Dario Saric

No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons will (deservedly) draw plenty of attention. Ditto for Joel Embiid, as he (hopefully) makes his way back to the court. As a result, one rookie that may fly under the radar in Philadelphia is Croatian sensation Dario Saric. He has played for Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Basketball Super League since 2014, and averaged 11 points and six rebounds this past season. Still, as we know with young, international players, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Just 22 years of age, the 6’10 Saric is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. As he showcased in the Olympics, he is not intimidated by anybody and plays with an aggressive edge that will surely win over plenty of fans in the City of Brotherly Love.

Best New Addition: Ben Simmons

There are some flaws in Simmons game, such as the lack of a reliable jumper, but there is also plenty for Sixers fans to get supremely excited about. Simmons is a rare athlete who can dominate the game in a multitude of ways. He has a great handle and is a terrific playmaker for someone who stands 6’10. There is even talk of Simmons playing some point guard next season. In fact, when we create this list again next season, Simmons may be listed as the team’s best playmaker. He impressed during his first showing in a Sixers uniform, when he averaged 12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists over his four games in the Las Vegas Summer League. Simmons has a good chance to join Allen Iverson and Michael Carter-Williams as the third player in franchise history to take home the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award.

-Tommy Beer

WHO WE LIKE

1. Brett Brown

Brown has been a head coach for three seasons and, amazingly, has yet to win 20 games in a single season. In total, his career record stands at a putrid 47-199 (.191 winning percentage). However, we know that judging Brown solely by his record would be unjust, because he has had so little talent to work with. The first three years of Brown’s coaching tenure have been about ripping apart the roster in an effort to rebuild the franchise. And, to his credit, Brown has kept a sturdy chin and taken the beating. He has always said the right thing and made sure his teams played hard, even if they were obviously out-manned and bereft of talent. The Sixers rewarded him with a two-year contract extension. The 2016-17 campaign will be the first opportunity Brown has to coach a team that will make winning games immediately the top priority, which means he’ll finally have the opportunity to enter each game with a legit chance to win.

2. Joel Embiid

The skepticism surrounding Embiid is obviously understandable, considering he hasn’t played a single minute in the NBA since being drafted back in 2014. However, the upside remains as enticing as ever. He was hailed by some as arguably the best center prospect in a decade when the Sixers snagged him with the No. 3 overall pick. He’s been beset by injuries ever since, but he recently claimed he was 100 percent and ready to finally get his NBA career off the ground. Based on footage from recent workouts, he looks like he’s in great shape.

If he can ever stay healthy, it will be extremely exciting to watch him unleash his rare combination of size and athleticism on the league…

3. Robert Covington

Covington has carved out his niche as an under-the-radar contributor in Philadelphia the last two seasons. Undrafted out of Tennessee State three years ago, he’s proven he belongs in the league. Last season, he averaged 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while posting a respectable 13.2 PER. Impressively, Covington shoots above 36 percent from three-point territory for his career. He has also impacted the game on the defensive end of the floor as well.

4. Jerami Grant

A former second-round pick, Grant earned a spot in Coach Brown’s rotation last season. Grant started 52 games for the 2015-16 Sixers, averaging 10.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in those 52 contests. With Saric, Simmons and Embiid entering the mix, it may be difficult for Grant get the same opportunities, so it will be interesting to see if he can continue his growth as a player in Philly.

-Tommy Beer

SALARY CAP 101

The Sixers have changed over their management from Sam Hinkie to Bryan Colangelo, but the franchise’s financial position hasn’t changed significantly.  The team is still carrying minimal payroll, with only $65.2 million in committed salaries.  That’s roughly $29 million under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, giving Philadelphia tremendous flexibility in trade.  Only 11 of the franchise’s 19 players heading into training camp have guaranteed contracts.  The Sixers are well below the $84.7 million that teams are required to spend this season.  If they don’t reach that mark, they’ll need to cut a check at the end of the year to their rostered players.

The 76ers need to decide on the rookie-scale options for Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas before November.  Assuming the team takes all three options, Philadelphia projects to have in the neighborhood of $47 million in cap room next summer.  Some of that could be committed to Nerlens Noel, whose extension deadline is Oct. 31.

-Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Sixers’ roster is stacked to the brim with young, talented athletes with tantalizing upside. Nerlens Noel is 22 years old. Jahlil Okafor is only 20. Joel Embiid is 22. Ben Simmons was 19 on draft day. Dario Saric is also just 22. The Sixers have only three players on their entire roster born in the 1980s. All the rest were born in the 1990s. There will obviously be growing pains with this inexperienced group, but Coach Brown should be able to tap into all that youthful energy on a nightly basis and use that to the Sixers’ advantage. Philadelphia obviously isn’t a title contender, and won’t be for a while, but they are moving in the right direction.

WEAKNESSES

The Sixers were the worst offense in the NBA last season. They were the only team in the entire league to score fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions. In fact, Philly has posted the worst Offensive Rating (below 99.0 each year) three seasons in a row. The hope is that the arrival of Simmons as the facilitator and Embiid as a finisher, along with the continued development of Okafor, will allow the Sixers to score more efficiently and effectively starting this season. Philadelphia also finished last season with the fewest rebounds in the league. They will need to address/improve that deficiency next season.

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Philadelphia trade away a forward/center to address their lack of depth in the backcourt?

Trading a “big” for a “small” isn’t always advisable in the NBA, but it may make sense considering the Sixers’ glut of big men and need for guards. Philly’s hand may be forced and they will have to make a difficult decision sooner rather later, especially if Embiid stays healthy through camp and the early part of the season. Noel may be a free agent next summer, and with the salary cap set to spike to north of $100 million, he would receive a bevy of lucrative offers. Will Philadelphia commit major money to Noel long-term? If they do, what happens with Okafor, Embiid and Saric? There are simply not enough minutes to go around up front. When you also consider the Sixers’ lack of quality guards (their projected starting point guard and shooting guard didn’t start a single NBA game last season), trading away from their glut of big men might be the best allocation of their resources. It is likely Philadelphia will be very active on the trade market in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline in February. In fact, it would be somewhat surprising if both Noel and Okafor are on the roster in March.

– Tommy Beer

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The X-Factors: Dallas

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at the Dallas Mavericks’ most important pieces when the NBA returns in late July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA has zeroed in on a July 31st return – and it’s barely cracked news.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s just that the confluence of civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed into a supernova of stressors that seem virtually insurmountable — and together, they’ve swallowed up the entirety of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s important to note that the loss of basketball pales in comparison to the many hurdles African Americans face with varying – but almost certain – regularity. And with 80.7% of NBA players being people of color (according to a recent study by the University of Central Florida), it’s obviously an incredibly personal issue for many of us close to the game.

But back to the NBA’s return…

The NBA is set on a 22-team solution that includes returning for eight games with the added bonus of a possible play-in tournament. Further, Oct. 12 will be the latest date for a potential Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. But not only is the NBA officially returning, we now know how and when.

We also know who — and the Dallas Mavericks are in that group of teams that will return to regular season play. They are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference and they possess a 7-game lead over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. That means it’s highly unlikely that they’ll need to compete in the play-in tournament, and they’ll instead focus on regaining midseason form and identifying their first-round opponent. But lots of things must work in their favor if they hope to get past that step.

The Mavericks entered the season boasting the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic – and they were finally ready to add Kristaps Porzingis back into their lineup.  But no one knew how Porzingis would look upon his return from a 2018 knee injury; and while Doncic’s rookie season exceeded all expectations, his net effect was limited as far as team success was concerned (33-49).

But despite the doubt, Dallas has looked every bit the part of a playoff team. Doncic has put up MVP-caliber numbers and Porzingis acclimated nicely. But what must the Mavericks do to continue building momentum, and maybe even deliver a first-round upset?  Let’s examine the most pressing X-factors for Dallas in their pursuit of a return to contender status.

First of all, the most important thing the Mavericks need to make a postseason run is their health. The Mavericks haven’t been entirely healthy all year. Porzingis tweaked his right knee only a few short months after returning from left knee injury that sidelined him for more than a year and a half. As a result, he missed six straight games and sat out a total of 16 games in 2019-20.

While missing games was the primary concern, Porzingis’s real hurdle has been ramping up from his extended hiatus. Porzingis was clearly not his old self immediately upon his return – and that’s reflected in his averages. He averaged only 15.8 points per game in 13 games in November and only 17.2 points per game in 20 games between December and January. But he found his groove in February, posting 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. And he followed that up with 23.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game in five contests in March before the shutdown. Porzingis clearly figured out where he fits with the Mavericks; and if he continues playing like he did in March and April, the Mavericks should boast a mismatch up front on most nights.

But even at his best, Porzingis alone doesn’t elevate the Mavericks to contenders. The Mavericks need more from their role players, too. With free agency remaining closed until the conclusion of the season (although it may open before the draft this year), teams must work with what they have at their disposal. That means that any solution must already be on their roster. And while options are obviously limited, there is one player from whom they could expect a little more – Seth Curry.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room – Curry is simply not on his brother’s level in terms of talent, and he never will be. But considering just how special Stephen Curry is, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What he lacks in ability (relative to his brother), Seth Curry makes up for with fearlessness. The younger Curry has carved out a real role in his second stint with the Mavericks, taking and making shots at an impressive rate; Curry is shooting a scorching 45.3% on three-point attempts over the entire season. And looking ahead, Dallas should unleash him even more. While Curry is averaging only 12.6 points in 24.5 minutes per game, his scoring average jumps to 20.5 points on 67.6% three-point shooting when given 30+ minutes. If the Mavericks hope to be competitive (and maybe even advance) in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Curry may very well be the key.

Last, but definitely not least, is Doncic himself – specifically, how in-shape he is upon his return. The Mavericks need a physically fit Doncic to return in July. And he very well may do just that. Remember, it was only about a year ago that he committed himself to lifting weights and conditioning – and this season he’s the sixth-leading scorer in the league and a (long shot) MVP candidate. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban joked about Doncic’s conditioning last Summer.

“He came (in the summer of 2019) and he was working out with coach,” Cuban said. “I actually saw an ab, so it was a step in the right direction. There may have been two. But he’s definitely in better shape (than he was last season).”

And that worked out pretty well for Dallas.

Recently, rumors have surfaced about Doncic and his physique and/or conditioning. Specifically, rumors claim that Doncic looks “puffy”, but ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported the contrary.

“Anytime Luka (Doncic) goes overseas and people don’t see him there’s going to be these rumors, ‘He’s beefing up again, he’s looking puffy,’” MacMahon said. “That rumor’s out there. I asked. I was told that he looks fine on their Zoom calls, he’s been working out and he’s actually been playing pickleball over Slovenia.”

Doncic is a major wild card in that no one knows what to expect. We’ll know more soon.

Ultimately, the Mavericks are going to have a challenging time advancing past the elite teams in the league. But if Porzingis, Curry and Doncic don’t all return ready to play the best basketball of their respective careers, an early elimination is a near certainty. If they can all reach new highs, they’ll have a chance.

And that’s all anyone can ask for.

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The X-Factors: Indiana

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.

Matt John

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There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.

If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.

Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.

There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.

For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.

First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.

Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.

1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver

When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.

However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!

Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.

If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.

If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.

Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.

Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.

A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.

It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.

In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.

Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.

There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?

There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.

Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.

The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.

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The X-Factors: Memphis

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.

David Yapkowitz

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Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.

Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?

We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.

Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.

Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.

So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.

After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.

Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.

While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.

The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.

Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.

Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.

Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.

Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.

But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.

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