With 4.2 seconds left in a tied Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Marc Gasol inbounded the ball to Kawhi Leonard. Leonard caught the ball at the top key and was promptly met by Ben Simmons, who shadowed Leonard as he made a move to his right and headed toward the wing. When Leonard arrived at the wing, Joel Embiid greeted him and took over the defensive responsibility.
Embiid mirrored Leonard as he made a beeline towards the corner, keeping the star forward between himself and the basket. When Leonard realized he would be unable to turn and get closer to the rim, he hit the brakes and squared his shoulders to the basket. Embiid, realizing what was about to happen, came to a jump stop as well and made sure to position himself to not commit a foul. As Leonard rose to fire the last shot of regulation, Embiid rose with him and extended every inch of his 7-foot-2 frame to contest.
The ball hit the front of the rim and went straight up, every set of eyes in the arena now fixated on its trajectory. It hit the same side of the rim again, then the other side of the rim twice for good measure, before dropping through the net. The Philadelphia 76ers season was over.
Embiid’s hands went to his head, his expression resting somewhere between total disbelief and total deflation. The most important game of his career up to this point had ended in crushing defeat.
About a month later, the Raptors won the NBA title, and the Sixers went into the offseason with hope. They had pushed the eventual champions to the brink and came closer to defeating them than any other team. Their starting lineup post-Tobias Harris trade was the best in the league by net rating. If they could bring everyone back, perhaps an upgrade at backup center would be all that is needed to push them over the top.
This hope of a re-do swiftly vanished when JJ Redick accepted a two-year deal in New Orleans, and Jimmy Butler made it known that he would like to play in Miami. General manager Elton Brand had a Plan B, however, as he was able to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with the HEAT, receiving Josh Richardson as consolation for the Butler departure. The Sixers were able to re-sign Tobias Harris to a five-year deal and used most of their remaining cap space to sign veteran Al Horford to a four-year contract.
A new starting lineup was set, and the team enters the 2019-20 season still projected to compete for a championship. This year, an even bigger microscope will be on the homegrown stars – Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Their improvement or lack thereof could determine the team’s fate.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The 76ers had a productive offseason. Jimmy Butler fled Philadelphia for Miami, but he was replaced by Al Horford. And while many might look at the addition of Horford as redundant, it is unarguable that he’s a supremely skilled, versatile and super high-IQ player. Unfortunately for the 76ers, JJ Redick also left Philly, but they added Josh Richardson in the sign-and-trade that sent Butler to the HEAT. Speaking of Richardson, he projects to be the 76ers shortest starting player at 6-foot-6. With Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Horford and Joel Embiid, the 76ers project to be among the best rebounding teams in basketball. And they also feature a good deal of depth with Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, James Ennis III, Kyle O’Quinn and rookie Matisse Thybulle. And with Kawhi Leonard heading to the Clippers, the Eastern Conference has become less competitive at its top – giving the 76ers a clear path to the Atlantic Division crown…and maybe more.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Drew Maresca
Seems like it was just yesterday that we were “Trusting The Process” and watching the Sixers win 15 games a season. Gone are those days, however, and now The Process has led to having a true NBA Finals contending team. Yeah, they may have lost Jimmy Butler, but they re-signed Tobias Harris and added some quality players. Josh Richardson came over in the Butler sign-and-trade. They were one of the biggest winners in free agency with Al Horford. Kyle O’Quinn and Trey Burke provide veteran depth. But if the Sixers are to really achieve their goal of making it to the NBA Finals, that’s all going to depend upon the improvement of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Process gifted the Sixers their two franchise building blocks; now it’s time for them to continue to grow and prove that they’re capable of leading the Sixers to the promised land. A conference finals appearance at least should be the goal in the City of Brotherly Love.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– David Yapkowitz
There’s been a seismic shift in power in the Atlantic Division. No longer do the defending champion Raptors have their ace, nor do the Celtics have two All-Star pieces. The Nets obviously hit the jackpot with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, but the latter is out for the foreseeable future. The Sixers have a chance to really make a jump this season. While they also lost a key veteran and All-Star, they’ve retooled. Josh Richardson and Al Horford are being added to the mix of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. It’s a change in direction with more length on the defensive end, while also bringing a chance to young upstarts like Zhaire Smith, Shake Milton and rookie Matisse Thybulle off the bench. How the rotations will shake out remains to be seen. The talent speaks for itself, though, and it should lead to Philadelphia’s first division title since the 2000-01 campaign.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
The 76ers looked to be loaded and way more balanced than a season ago. Under general manager Elton Brand, the Sixers spent a ton of money this summer, but locked into a core that should not only be good enough to win the division, but if healthy, contend for the Eastern Conference crown. Now here is the pessimistic point of view: Are the 76ers mentally tough enough and mature enough to handle the next level? They say you have to learn how to win in the postseason of the NBA, how to string together a process to endure the unrelenting pressure of the big stage. The 76ers young stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have come up short two years in a row. Al Horford should help in this department, but the 76ers look like a team poised to win a ton of regular-season games, it’s the postseason that still haunts the franchise.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
I cannot think of another team that is quite as unique at the Philadelphia 76ers. With the addition of Al Horford, this team is now absolutely massive. With starting lineup of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid, the 76ers have the size and physicality to match up with any team and be a menace defensively. Brett Brown may have one of the tougher jobs of any head coach this season as he will have to figure out how to get these players to fit well with one another and will have to experiment with his lineups to optimize the talent he has available to him. The loss of Jimmy Butler stings a little bit, especially in crunch time situations, but that leaves room for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris to stepup and take more responsibility in high-pressure situations. There are some reasons to be concerned about how this team will play together but I am excited to see how Coach Brown manages his team throughout the season.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Sixers went under the salary cap to sign Al Horford. They also used their Room Exception on Mike Scott, leaving the franchise with just the minimum to offer if they want to add to the roster. Assuming Trey Burke makes the team, Philadelphia will have a full 15 and a payroll near but under the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold.
The team needs to decide on Zhaire Smith’s rookie-scale option before November. Beyond this season, the 76ers are well over next year’s projected $116 million salary cap (likely a taxpayer). If the roster performs successfully this season, the team may be willing to foot that bill, but if the end result is unfavorable, Philadelphia could change course and look to move some players.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Best Offensive Player: Joel Embiid
Since he entered the league, Joel Embiid has been the highest-usage center in the NBA. The Sixers’ offense will once again be powered by the Cameroonian behemoth, and his efficiency -despite the large load he’s been asked to carry – makes him the team’s first and best offensive option.
The Sixers’ offense scored about seven more points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court than with him off last season, per Cleaning The Glass. The 7-foot-2 center attracts attention from multiple defenders and acts as a safety valve if the Sixers can’t find another opening for a basket.
Embiid was third in the league in post ups last season, behind only LaMarcus Aldridge and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Sixers scored 1.05 points per possession on those post ups, which was the highest mark in the league among players with at least three post-ups per game, per NBA.com.
Joel Embiid’s ability to pass out of double teams and his propensity for turnovers have been his most glaring flaws offensively. His turnover percentage has decreased steadily since his rookie year, and him continuing that trend will be a key subplot for the Sixers’ offense.
Embiid makes up for his turnover issues with an uncanny ability to draw fouls. He led the league in both personal foul percentage and shooting foul percentage out of post ups last season, per NBA.com. His large frame and nimble feet make him nearly impossible to guard without fouling for the league’s less defensively-inclined centers.
If Embiid continues to work on his fluidity with his moves and his passing out of double teams, he could be impossible to guard for the rest of the league as well.
Best Defensive Player: Joel Embiid
Embiid’s impact may be even more pronounced defensively, where he represents the difference between the Sixers being elite or dreadful on that end. His impressive foot speed for his size allows him to switch onto smaller players when necessary, and his high defensive IQ has him reading the opponent and knowing where to help at a moment’s notice. These tools combined make him one of the league’s premier defenders, earning All-Defensive second team honors in each of the last two seasons.
Not only does Embiid limit his opponent’s efficiency, he also limits their second chances. His defensive rebounding rate rose to 28.6 percent last season, putting him in the 95th percentile for his position, per Cleaning The Glass.
The Sixers’ defense experienced a strange decline last season compared to the 2017-18 campaign. This can be attributed partially to a scheme change that took some adjustment and constant roster turnover. With a new lineup now full of defensive pedigree, Embiid’s impact could be even more devastating.
Best Playmaker: Ben Simmons
With Jimmy Butler suiting up in Miami, the playmaking duties for this Sixers team will rely more than ever on the capable hands of Ben Simmons. The 6-foot-10 point guard is a virtuoso passer, and his assist percentage has been near the top of the league in each of his first two seasons.
Simmons is most effective in transition, where he can use his elite speed to create fastbreak opportunities and find teammates who have either spotted up or filled the lane for wide open looks. One of Simmons’ patented moves is to grab a rebound, race the defense to the other end before stopping abruptly at the foul line. Here, he creates a pseudo-post up where his teammates cut and move around him in transition. The ensuing confusion usually leads to a wide open three or layup for the Sixers.
Simmons’ playmaking ability is, of course, limited in the half court, and many question how much value he can even provide in a set play when the defense does not have to respect him outside of 10 feet. While this is certainly an issue, Simmons still is adept at finding cutters out of the post and can be weaponized as a screener a la Draymond Green in Golden State.
Best Clutch Player: Al Horford
Over the last few seasons, Al Horford has been one of the more underrated clutch players in the NBA. While he doesn’t always take the clutch shots for his team – and therefore has a low volume on these attempts – his efficiency in the clutch has been consistently near the top of the league.
Just last season, Al Horford shot 64 percent from the field in clutch minutes, per NBA.com. He also shot 50 percent from three in clutch minutes, albeit on a very low number of attempts.
Like his role with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford could fill in as a second option for the Sixers late in games when defenses are focused on Embiid. It’s easy to picture a scenario where Horford is left open after setting a screen or simply left alone outside the three-point line. Horford has shown ability to knock down those looks when it matters.
The Unheralded Player: Tobias Harris
After joining the Sixers last season, Tobias Harris was primarily used as a floor spacer and occasional post-up threat in a stacked Sixers lineup. The main options on offense, particularly in the playoffs, were Jimmy Butler pick-and-rolls and JJ Redick-Joel Embiid dribble handoffs. Due to the lack of touches, Harris has seemingly gone under the radar as a potential offensive centerpiece this season.
Before the trade to Philadelphia, Harris was the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. He regularly ran the pick-and-roll and showed an ability to score in isolation. Now, with Redick and Butler off to different teams, Harris could once again flash his full skill set.
Harris possesses a smooth pull-up jumper and is able to get where he wants coming off a screen to create a basket. Expect Harris to take on a larger offensive role this season, and if he can improve his passing, he could be a primary option when the Sixers need a basket.
Best New Addition: Al Horford
By acquiring Al Horford this offseason, the Sixers accomplished two things. First, they found a floor-spacing power forward that doubles as a very capable defender to slot in next to Embiid. Second, they brought in someone who can also fill in as a backup center when Embiid is on the bench or taking the night off.
Last postseason, the Sixers’ center rotation was exposed behind Embiid. Against the Raptors, the Sixers plus-minus while Embiid was on the court compared to him off was astronomical. Now, Horford will provide strong center play while Embiid is off the court, and his ability to stretch the floor should fit in perfectly with Ben Simmons.
Horford also should be a perfect fit sharing the court with Embiid and could help this group reach a new level defensively. Last season, the Celtics had a defensive rating of 99.2 when Horford was lined up next to Aron Baynes as a power forward. This placed in the 99th percentile among all NBA lineups, per Cleaning The Glass.
Horford also brings intangibles and a valuable locker room presence. His quiet demeanor should be the perfect foil to Joel Embiid’s bravado. If his production stays consistent, the on-court fit will be ideal as well.
– Quinn Davis
WHO WE LIKE
1. Matisse Thybulle
The Sixers traded up to nab the forward from Washington in this year’s draft, and his defensive potential has many intrigued. Thybulle has an impressive seven-foot wingspan on a 6-foot-5 frame, which allowed him to be a pest in the passing lanes in college.
Thybulle set a school record at Washington with 101 steals in a single season and was subsequently named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts. In a video taken in the Sixers’ facilities of Matisse Thybulle meeting Brett Brown, the coach looked at his new player and said tersely: “You guard. You’re good people.” That about sums it up.
2. Mike Scott
Scott came to Philadelphia as a part of the Tobias Harris trade in February and has endeared himself to the Sixers faithful ever since. From a basketball standpoint, Scott is a valuable bench piece, as he is around a 40 percent three-point shooter who can adequately guard threes and fours. He notably hit a huge three from the corner in Game 4 of the Sixers’ playoff matchup against the Nets, giving the team a 3-1 lead and control of the series.
Scott has also never shied away from a scuffle, whether it be on the court or in the parking lot of an Eagles game. His fire and energy can potentially galvanize a contending team that may find themselves in a rut during the regular season drudgery.
3. Ime Udoka
After spending seven years as an assistant under Greg Popovich in San Antonio, the Sixers hired Udoka to be Brett Brown’s right-hand man and defensive coordinator. Udoka brings strong experience from a Spurs team that has been consistently solid defensively outside of a decline last season.
Last season, the Sixers installed a new defensive scheme under assistant coach Billy Lange. The scheme had mixed results and certainly played a role in their defensive downturn. With the new look roster, Udoka will have plenty of tools to use to build this defense back up to an elite outfit.
4. Josh Richardson
Coming over from Miami in the Butler sign-and-trade, Richardson will bring feisty perimeter defense, solid three-point shooting and even some playmaking potential to the Sixers’ starting lineup.
Last season, Richardson spent a lot of time handling the ball for a depleted HEAT team and gained valuable reps running dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls. He will not be asked to do as much in Philadelphia, but with his full focus on the defensive end, and his ability to hit open threes, he could be a huge part of the team’s success.
The fifth-year guard is also still young and improving and is under contract for the next two seasons at only 10 million dollars per year.
– Quinn Davis
The Sixers will have one of, if not the biggest, starting five in the league next season. Josh Richardson will be the shortest among them, standing at 6-foot-6. With all of this size, the team certainly projects to be strong on the glass. They were already strong on this front last season, finishing fourth in the league in total rebounding percentage, per NBA.com.
If the whole equals or exceeds the sum of its parts, the Sixers also project to be an elite defensive team. As mentioned briefly above, both Horford and Richardson are strong defenders, and teams have typically defended very well with Horford playing power forward. With those two in fold, the lineup now boasts four elite defenders who should combine to make for a frightening unit.
– Quinn Davis
While the new starting five is rife with defensive potential, there is some reasonable concern with the lack of offensive shot creation. Jimmy Butler was of particular import in the 2019 playoffs, where he acted as the team’s point guard down the stretch against Toronto.
The Sixers will need internal improvement from Ben Simmons, as well as help from Richardson and Harris to create shots around the perimeter this season. The Sixers’ offense may stagnate when they play more adept defenses, and this issue could be a thorn in the team’s side in the 2020 postseason.
– Quinn Davis
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Ben Simmons develop/use his jump shot?
Most discussions about the Sixers’ championship viability for this season and beyond hinge on whether their star point guard can turn himself into an average or even slightly below-average shooter. For two straight playoff runs, the fatal flaw on the otherwise inimitable Simmons has stuck out like a sore thumb, leaving fans and pundits to go as far as thinking he should be traded.
If Simmons was playing for a different team, maybe this wouldn’t be as dire of an issue. There are teams in the league that could surround him with four other shooters, and perhaps unleash his true potential as 6-foot-10 version of Jason Kidd. He will not have that liberty if he shares the court with Joel Embiid. The superstar center commands touches in the post and requires space to operate, space which Simmons cannot currently provide.
There are multiple schools of thought on Simmons’ shooting woes. Some think he doesn’t work hard enough at it, and others think he is shooting with the wrong hand. Some think the form is less of the concern and it is just an issue of finding confidence and a willingness to let it fly. Wherever you fall, it is certainly agreed upon that Simmons’ ceiling is significantly lowered without the development of his outside shooting.
The quandary of Simmons jump shot can you lead down a path to more unanswerable questions. If Simmons made a similar percentage of mid-range shots as say, Russell Westbrook did last season, would this be a good thing for the Sixers’ offense? Is simply taking the shots really going to be enough open things up,? And relatedly, is taking these shots despite the likely inefficiency a necessary evil to build the foundation for future years?
While it remains to be seen how much Simmons can improve in one offseason, hope for Sixers fans did arrive this summer in the form of minute-long, meticulously edited footage from pickup games featuring the guard taking and making stepbacks, fadeaways and even pull-up threes. Whether or not this footage translates from the LA Fitness gym to an NBA arena could define this Sixers season and beyond.
– Quinn Davis
NBA Daily: What We Forgot
With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.
With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.
Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.
But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.
Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal
Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.
Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.
Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.
The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.
Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done
What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.
Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.
Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.
In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.
The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.
Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.
Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.
Maturity Issues Loom Large
Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.
Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.
After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.
Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.
Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.
But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.