In the fourth installment of the Prodigies Series, Basketball Insiders takes a look at Myles Turner or the Indiana Pacers and Zach LaVine of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Out of all the players included within this series, Myles Turner may be the guy whose game has the most balance. On both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, Turner excels in numerous categories. Although “hard” stats—such as points and rebounds per game—may not be at the top of this list when compared to his prodigy peers, his efficiency, when compared to his peers, is off of the charts. The second-year man out of Texas seems to be on the verge of really taking off. He has made large scale improvements within his game from his rookie season, and because of this, the versatility and balance that he brings the Pacers is quite evident.
Like Turner, Zach LaVine also has turned heads in Minnesota. The super athletic LaVine is the 2015 and 2016 NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion. However, now in his third year in the league, LaVine has the potential to develop his game into much more than just a high-flyer. There are several parts of his game, if improved, that could generate substantial performance improvement.
Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both Turner and LaVine.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
15.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.4 bpg, 53% FG, 79% FT, 43% 3PT (through 40 Games)
Versatility – As his numbers are reflecting, Turner is showing the ability to effectively master many parts of the game on both sides of the court. Compared to all of the other players included within this series, Turner’s versatility stands out the most. He ranks in the top half of the league in almost every offensive and defensive category. In some areas, Turner is off the charts. His jumpers off of the dribble, finishes around the basket and offensive rebound put-backs are stellar. Turner ranks in the 100th percentile (in other words, as the best player in the league) in jumpers off of the dribble. In regards to finishes around the rim, Turner ranks in the 95th percentile and with put backs, he is in the 97th percentile. On the defensive end, he is stellar when it comes to isolation defense. He has only allowed 16 points on 35 possessions this season, which ranks him in the 96th percentile of the league in this category.
Moving without the ball – Turner moves fluidly through the Pacers’ offense and effectively finds the open areas down low for dump-offs on his teammates’ drives to the basket. Turner also effectively sneaks behind defenses and uses his length and ability to finish around the rim. He is shooting 68 percent from the field and averages 1.38 points per possession in these situations. That ranks him in the 72nd percentile of the NBA. Off of flash cuts, Turner is averaging 1.14 points per possession and ranks in the 83rd percentile in the league. Turner does a really good job filling open spots on the floor and presenting himself to teammates, whether on hand off pops or screen and pops to the basket. On basket cuts, Turner is in the 72nd percentile in the league, averaging 1.45 points per possession.
Spot Up Opportunities – Turner has scored 95 points on 85 possessions in no dribble catch-and-shoot situations and ranks in the 78th percentile in the league. He is effective on catch-and-shoot opportunities because he has his body to the rim, has good foot work, and does a good job getting his shot off quickly.
Transition Scoring – Turner runs the floor like a guard. He excels by sprinting the lanes on the break and attacks the rim on finishes. He ranks in the 79th percentile in offensive efficiency in transition, averaging 1.26 points per possession. In secondary transition, Turner also does an effective job seeking out trailer scoring opportunities. As the trailer, Turner ranks in the 83rd percentile in the league, is averaging 1.36 points per possession, and is shooting 61% from the field.
Assist to Turnover Ratio – It is hard to find areas in which Turner struggles. However, one area where Turner could improve is with taking care of the ball. Turner’s game is not built around facilitating for his teammates. He generally creates his production through looking to score the ball himself. This being said, Turner could take care of the ball more effectively. Almost halfway through the season, Turner is averaging 0.9 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game. His -.64 A/TO ratio is not terribly concerning, considering his tremendous improvement in all other areas of his game over the course of the past year, but he could stand to improve.
Post Up – Turner has the most room for improvement in the post, where in the half court he is averaging just 0.8 points per possession, scoring 44 points on 55 possessions. Turner is shooting just 38 percent from the field in these situations.
Guarded Jumpers and End of clock – Turner ranks in the 38th percentile on short clock jump shots, scoring 11 points on 17 possessions, where he is shooting only 24 percent. On guarded jumpers in the half court, Turner is also shooting a low percentage (34 percent), ranking in the 22nd percentile in the league.
Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves
20.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.0 apg, 47% FG, 86% FT, 42% 3PT (39 Games):
Dynamic Transition Scorer – LaVine has a knack for scoring the ball in transition. Overall, he is averaging 1.3 points per possession. He is especially effective from the right side of the court, where he ranks in the 92nd percentile in the league, scoring 42 points on 26 possessions. He ranks in the 75th percentile in scoring efficiency when running the middle of the floor, scoring 18 points on 11 possessions. He also does a solid job pushing the ball in transition as the ball handler. In these situations, he is averaging 67 points on 63 possessions, ranking in the 73rd percentile in the NBA.
Perimeter Shooter – LaVine is a great spot up jump shooter. He has scored 105 points on 78 possessions this season, ranking him in the 89th percentile in the league. He is effectively shooting the ball when left open or when guarded. LaVine currently ranks in the 90th percentile in the league in catch-and-shoot opportunities when left open and when guarded in the half court, shooting 41 percent guarded and 50 percent when left open.
Scoring, Moving without the ball – LaVine does a great job mixing up how he scores the ball in the half court. He uses dribble hand off, screens and cuts to free himself for opportunities. On hand offs, LaVine is shooting 48 percent from the field and ranks in the 80th percentile of the NBA, scoring 138 points on 129 possessions.
Off of the ball, LaVine uses basket cuts to create scoring opportunities around the rim. He ranks in 90th percentile in the league on scoring while coming off cuts. LaVine does a great job using dribble hand offs to create space between himself and his defender. This is also true on dribble hand offs, as LaVine ranks in 81st percentile in the league, scoring 70 points on 64 possessions. Off of screens, LaVine loves to come straight off of the screen for scoring opportunities. Interestingly, like Devin Booker (another prodigy), LaVine shoots the ball more effectively when he is coming off to his left side. Coming off left, he averages 1.38 points per possession, ranking him in the 92nd percentile in the league, while coming off right he averages just .75 points per possession, ranking him in the 23rd percentile in the league.
Transition, Left Lane Finishes – Despite LaVine’s overall stellar transition scoring numbers, he has struggled scoring the ball when operating from the left side of the floor. He ranks in the 30th percentile in the league, averaging just .96 points per possession and scoring 24 points on 25 possessions. In transition from the left side, he shoots just 48 percent from the field.
Isolation from Top of Key – LaVine struggles with efficiency when scoring the ball from top of the key. He is averaging .67 points per possession and ranks in the 22nd percentile of the league in this category. When driving the ball from the top of the key going left, LaVine really struggles, ranking in the second percentile in the NBA. As mentioned above, LaVine is a hard driver right and is most efficient creating going right. When he drives left, LaVine wants to get back to his right hand to finish. Often, this tendency has him shooting back into the defense as opposed to relying upon his left hand around the rim. His efficiency going left will need to improve if he is to improve his performance.
Pick-and-Roll, Right Side of Floor – Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler Refusals – When LaVine turns down ball screens off the dribble, he also struggles. He ranks in the 25th percentile in the NBA in these situations, averaging just .79 points per possession and shooting just 35 percent. When refusing ball screens, LaVine tries to get all the way to the rim but has only scored 10 points on 12 possessions.
Pick-and-Roll, Right Side of Floor – LaVine ranks in the 11th percentile in the NBA when working off of the right side of the floor in pick and rolls. Again the theme remains, when LaVine is forced to come off to this left hand in these situations, which generally happens in ball screen action taking place on the right side of floor, he struggles. LaVine is posting .61 points per possession in these situations this season, scoring 17 points on 28 possessions.
In the next part of this series, Basketball Insiders will evaluate the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and The New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis.
NBA Daily: Devonte’ Graham’s Unfathomable Breakout In Charlotte
Devonte’ Graham never drew high praise in high school, college or in draft prep. Breaking through in his second season is a rarity unlike almost any other. Douglas Farmer writes.
Comparing a sweet-shooting, 6-foot-2 guard in his second year with the woebegone Charlotte Hornets to Draymond Green misses its mark on paper, but the poor-shooting forward in his eighth season — three of which have ended with him and the Golden State Warriors hosting an NBA Finals trophy — may be the only player in the league analogous to Devonte’ Graham.
Teams have sought the next Green since he broke through in his third year, seeking a playmaking forward who could defend all five positions. That largely-fruitless search overlooked what made Green so unique — just how overlooked he was.
The No. 122 player in his recruiting class, per Rivals.com, Green did not break into college basketball’s national consciousness until his senior season when he was named a consensus All-American. That pushed him up draft boards all the way to No. 35. He then toiled on the Warrior bench until stepping in for overpriced veteran and changing the trajectory of the Golden State franchise.
Graham was the No. 36 player in his class, per Rivals.com, but otherwise the parallels are nearly exact, and while not as insulting as Green’s recruiting ranking, Graham’s was hardly flattering. He then became a consensus All-American in his senior season, was drafted No. 34 overall and spent his rookie season primarily on the Hornets’ bench. Now, he has usurped free-agent signee Terry Rozier of his starring role and given Charlotte reason to be excited.
Those reasons to be excited are not limited to the long-term, either, as some of Graham’s 20 points per game have included moments of high drama.
Graham’s second-year explosion has come largely off catch-and-shoot threes, clearly showing how different he is from Green, even if their rises from nowhere are similar. Graham has already made 103 threes in just 27 games, a sample size both large enough to end any “Breakout or Mirage? wonders and put him in the company of James Harden and Stephen Curry.
Only Harden and Curry had made it this far into a season on pace to sink 300 shots from deep, and they are also the only ones to actually do so. Maybe Graham cools off and finishes with a mere 280, but given he spent the first 10 games this season coming off the bench, his current pace will likely send him well past 300.
Either way, Graham was never supposed to end up in a sentence comparing him to two surefire Hall of Famers.
Recruits who debate between Virginia Tech, Providence and North Carolina State before ending up at Kansas, who never garner genuine notice until they are three months shy of turning 25, do not break out like this. They go onto decent NBA careers, if that.
While plenty of highly-ranked prep prospects do not pan out at all, it is even rarer for second-tier recruits to reach professional stardom. Of the 120 players Rivals ranked between No. 30 and No. 50 in the six recruiting classes from 2010 to 2015, only 14 have gained genuine traction in the NBA.
2010: No. 31 Meyers Leonard, No. 44 Gorgui Dieng, No. 48 Terrence Ross
2011: No. 31 Dorian Finney-Smith, No. 34 Ben McLemore, No. 37 Otto Porter, No. 41 Maurice Harkless
2012: No. 40 Willie Cauley-Stein
2013: No. 31 Semi Ojeleye, No. 44 Zach LaVine
2014: No. 36 Devonte’ Graham
2015: No. 31 Donovan Mitchell, No. 43 Malik Beasley, No. 46 Dejounte Murray
Porter, LaVine and Mitchell all earned enough notice in college to be drafted in the lottery. Their development into NBA bucket-getters has not been astonishing. It was their play in college that surprised.
Graham did not impress then. Nor did he impress as a rookie, averaging 4.7 points in 14.7 minutes per game and hitting only 28.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Becoming a 42.9 percent 3-point shooter was not anyone’s expectation. Even in college, Graham topped out at 40.6 percent from behind the shorter arc as a senior when he averaged 17.3 points per game.
Now, he casually went 7-of-12 from deep for 40 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds on Wednesday in a 113-108 road win over the Brooklyn Nets. The seventh of those made threes drove the fact one more time that Graham is not a flash in the pan.
“Unconscionable” is an overused word in sports. These are just sports, after all. But if ever a shot was unconscionable, it was that dagger on Wednesday. If not that, it may have been unfathomable.
Unfathomable when only Graham’s late prep development got him to a collegiate blueblood, unfathomable when he hardly flashed at Kansas, unfathomable when he fell into the second round, unfathomable when Charlotte signed Rozier for three years and $58 million.
Graham was never supposed to do any of this, and he shows no signs of stopping.
In the first 10 games of the season coming off the bench, Graham shot 42.5 percent from deep and averaged 17.9 points and 7.6 assists per game. In his 17 starts since then, he is shooting 43.1 percent from deep and averaging 21.2 points and 7.6 assists per game.
His consistency has rendered the 6-foot-1 Rozier not just an overpriced point guard, but a lineup liability. With both of them on the floor, Charlotte has a minus-3.1 rating per 100 possessions, getting exposed on defense with an undersized backcourt. With Graham on but Rozier off, the Hornets are plus-1.6. The offensive ratings are within a tenth of a point, but the latter lineup is 4.8 points better per 100 possessions on defense.
Come Sunday, Rozier can be traded. Finding a taker for his onerous deal may be more difficult than one for Graham’s, which pays him only $1.4 million this year and $1.7 million next. Regardless, if Charlotte moves one of them, the organization will be in a better position moving forward because of Graham’s eruption.
At no point was it considered Graham could change the franchise’s direction like this.
Then again, it was never expected of Green, either.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.
The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.