Last season was a big step forward for the Sacramento Kings. And for Kings fans, it was a long time coming. For years, the forgotten sons of California have been the poster child for mediocrity in the NBA. They’ve had lottery finish after lottery finish with nothing to show for it — but that all changed last season.
Through the first couple of months of the season, the Kings even held a winning record. They ultimately finished the season at 39-43, but it was their best finish in over a decade and good enough for ninth in the Western Conference, just outside the playoff picture.
Still, no matter how you slice it, there were plenty of reasons for optimism in Sacramento — mainly, that De’Aaron Fox emerged as a budding superstar. In his second season, Fox firmly established himself as the Kings’ point guard and franchise cornerstone of the future. Marvin Bagley III also emerged as a core piece of the foundation, thus giving Sacramento two draft lotteries in a row that they seemingly got right.
The midseason acquisition of Harrison Barnes also showed that the front office is firmly committed to winning and changing the losing culture that has been prevalent in Sacramento. It should be another season of growth for the Kings and we should know a little bit more about them once this season gets underway.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Shockingly, the Kings are one of the sweethearts of the NBA. They’ve got a great deal of young talent including Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles III, that latter of which is still somehow only 21. There is also strong support around them with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Trevor Ariza. But no one is more important to the Kings’ success than De’Aaron Fox – and if he continues to improve, they very well may qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2006. But the Pacific Division will be super unforgiving and coming away with a division crown is next-to-impossible for 2019-20.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Drew Maresca
The Kings finally showed signs of growth this past season, finishing just one spot short of the playoffs. They actually had a winning record at one point during the season. After years of being in the lottery and having nothing to show for it, it appears that they finally struck gold the past two drafts with De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III. Their recent free-agent signings and trades have also made a lot of sense, something that couldn’t be said about the Kings for over a decade.
The real question is going be can they build off the success from last season and continue their upward trajectory. Even though their roster should be improved, there’s no guarantee that they make the playoffs or finish above .500. On paper, they should be able to build upon last season’s win total, but it’s possible that they might still be on the outside looking in. As long as they don’t take a step back though, that’s all that matters. But the Kings should be able to finish at least at .500 — that alone would be a huge victory for a growing franchise.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– David Yapkowitz
The excitement in Northern California is palpable when it comes to their Kings, as it should be. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield make up one of the most dynamic backcourt duos in all of the NBA. Their pace is fast and calculated, scoring in bunches while also involving teammates. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III will bring the energy that’ll give everybody fits. Though the make-up of their rostered core has essentially stayed the same, they’ve added veteran presences to bolster the experience level. Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, and Cory Joseph will help not only with development but also in the win column. Head coach Luke Walton’s stint with the Lakers didn’t go as planned like it once did with the Warriors — but we’ll see if Sacramento is the right fit with this promising group of players.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
The Sacramento Kings signed Harrison Barnes to a new four-year, $85 million contract. This is the biggest move the Kings made this summer in what was a relatively quiet offseason. That is admittedly a lot of money for Barnes, but I will give Sacramento credit for frontloading the deal so that Barnes will be making just $18,352,273 in the 2022-23 season, the final year of his contract. Sacramento has a surprising amount of depth and has balanced out the roster with an interesting mix of young and upcoming talent, along with some notable veteran players.
Adding Trevor Ariza is a nice move if he has some gas still left in the tank, especially considering only $1.8 million of his salary is guaranteed for next season. I also like the additions of Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph. Between these three, the Kings have added some defensive punch, which the team was in serious need of. However, the team still lacks the top-end talent to contend for anything more than a bottom-end playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It has been 13 seasons since the Kings last made the postseason, think about that for a minute. Top draft picks like Brandon Roy, Andrew Morrison and Andrea Bargnani were the names being talked about in the draft when the Kings last saw a playoff game. It is time. The Kings have so much young talent ready to burst on to the NBA stage as stars, so it is time. Sacramento has a head coach now that should make it work. It is time. De’Aaron Fox should be an All-Star level guy this season. Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes are exactly the right counter punches to Fox — plus they have size and athleticism, and added some solid veterans to anchor the team. It is time. With the Warriors hobbled with injury, there is a window for the Kings. It’s time.
3rd place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Kings used cap room to add veterans like Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon to a young team that wasn’t far from making the playoffs in the Western Conference last season. The team still has $4.8 million to spend via the Room Exception. Sacramento has 14 guaranteed players, suggesting the final standard roster spot will be fought for by Tyler Lydon, Isaiah Pineiro and Eric Mika.
Looking ahead, the Kings need to pick up team options on Marin Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, Caleb Swanigan and Harry Giles before November. Buddy Hield is eligible for a contract extension before the season, which is reportedly under discussion. If Hield does get a sizable deal, the Kings may not have significant cap room next summer.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield
Buddy Hield struggled a bit when he was first traded to Sacramento, but now he’s developed into one of their major building blocks. Last season, his third in the NBA, Hield had his best year yet. He started all 82 games while putting up 20.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 42.7 percent from the three-point line, plus 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
When the Kings initially traded for him as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, owner Vivek Ranadive famously proclaimed that he had Stephen Curry potential. Now Hield is no Curry, of course, but he’s a talented offensive player in his own right. He’s expanded his game to the point where he’s more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble. Entering his fourth season, and with a potential contract extension looming, look for him to take another step forward and establish himself as one of the league’s top perimeter scorers.
Top Defensive Player: Dewayne Dedmon/Trevor Ariza
I’ve got to go with two players for this category. Both new additions, Dedmon and Ariza will bring plenty of value to the Kings, especially on the defensive end. Dedmon is likely going to be the starting center and a good fit next to Bagley in the frontcourt. He isn’t particularly quick, but he is mobile enough to be a deterrent at the rim when opposing guards attack the basket, plus a decent man defender in the paint.
Ariza may be getting up there in age, but he is a veteran guy who still can be a positive on the defensive end and cover multiple positions. It’s currently unclear how much Ariza will actually be deployed, but what the Kings really need from him is to be a defensive leader. Or, Ariza’s role should be someone who will help set the tone defensively and cause a ripple effect trickling down to the rest of the team. He spent last season shuffling between lottery teams in Washington and Phoenix and, now on a team looking to win, his defensive mindset should really stand out.
Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox
Hield may be the Kings’ best offensive player at this moment — but with the game on the line, there’s nobody else on the team who you would want the ball in the hands of over Fox. Two years ago as a rookie, Fox hit several game-winners and stepped up in late-game moments. He proved he wasn’t afraid of the moment and he’ll continue to be the player the Kings will trust with the game on the line.
Part of what makes him so dangerous in crunch time situations is that he can make the right play. In the clutch, the correction option isn’t necessarily shooting the ball. Sometimes the best move is reading the defense and making a play for someone else on the team. Fox is a solid playmaker and, in late-game situations, he’s that much more difficult to defend in that he could create a shot for himself or find a teammate for a better look. Look for him to continue his growth and cement a reputation as one of the league’s best clutch players.
Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox
Just like the Kings will want the ball to be in Fox’s hands late in the fourth quarter, they’ll also want the ball in his hands throughout the majority of the game. As mentioned before, Fox has the ability to make the correct play whether that’s as a scorer or as a facilitator, and the young guard is always willing to get his talented teammates involved.
One area that Fox excels in is in transition. He’s incredibly quick on the break, and he’s constantly got his head up looking to see who’s running with him. If you get out on the break with Fox, there’s a high chance he’ll find and get you an easy look at the rim. He averaged 4.4 assists per game as a rookie, and he almost doubled that last season with 7.3. He’s got all the tools to solidify himself as one of the NBA’s elite playmakers.
The Unheralded Player: Marvin Bagley III
It’s hard to imagine a player who was a top-two pick in the draft being unheralded, but here we are. While Luka Doncic, and to a lesser extent, Trae Young, dominated the top rookie conversation last season, others, including Bagley, had great years. He may have been hit with injuries at key times last year, but he still averaged 14.9 points per game on 50.4 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds. And that was with him coming off the bench.
Bagley should be the team’s starting power forward from day one. He is already a solid scorer in the paint, but where he stands to improve is his shooting. He’s a pretty good shooter from mid-range, but he can really add another dimension to the Kings offense by becoming a more consistent three-point shooter. He could also become a better player on the defensive end of the floor, where he has the tools to be a player who can guard multiple positions. With increased minutes this season, expect him to take a bigger leap in year two.
Best New Addition: Cory Joseph
The addition of Joseph was big in that he gives the Kings a legitimate backup point guard who can give Fox a breather. Throughout his career, Joseph has been solid. He’s a player who knows his role and doesn’t try to overstep that. He runs the offense with the second unit and he provides a defensive spark off the bench. Needless to say, that’s all the Kings will likely ask him to do.
Fox hasn’t really had a reliable backup and now he does. Although facilitating and defense will be the main things he will be asked to do, Joseph can score if necessary. He’s a decent shooter from both mid- and three-point range. The Kings have a couple of other options offensively with the second unit, so Joseph will do a solid job quarterbacking them when the starters need a rest.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Harrison Barnes
Barnes is just a solid player that plays hard on both ends of the floor. When the Kings acquired him at the trade deadline last season, he immediately made an impact. His scoring might have dropped slightly from Dallas, but he wasn’t asked to do as much on the offensive end as the Mavericks needed him to do. He shot pretty well with the Kings too, 45.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range. Along with Fox and Hield, Barnes helps form a very good perimeter trio. He’s also capable of playing power forward in some small-ball lineups.
2. Richaun Holmes
Holmes has quietly become one of the better backup centers in the league. All teams need solid second units and the Kings did a good job this summer of solidifying their bench. Holmes is very active around the rim both offensively and on the defensive end. He’ll crash the glass for second shot opportunities, always ready to catch a lob. Defensively, he can protect the paint and alter shots when opposing players attack the rim. On the cheap, that’s an absolute win for Sacramento.
3. Harry Giles
Giles is the real wild card here on the roster. His potential development could be the key for Sacramento to really take another step forward. Of course, Giles missed his entire rookie year with an injury and then he started off predictably slow as he adjusted to the NBA game last season. As the campaign went on, however, he started to show glimpses of the player who was once considered a highly-touted prospect. He has a very versatile skill set that is perfect for a big man to thrive in today’s NBA. Alongside Bagley as well, the Kings are in a great position for youthful big men.
4. The Kings’ Front Office
The Kings’ front office was once synonymous with incompetence. And even in the early days of Vlade Divac, both as the general manager and president of basketball operations, they still made some very questionable decisions. But in the past two years or so, they’ve actually put forth some great moves. Even better, their drafting has seemingly been spot-on. Their free-agent acquisitions have been wise and thrifty. The trades they’ve made have made sense. Hope springs eternal in Sacramento and this front office led by Divac is a big reason why. The Kings finally showed improvement on the court last season — let’s see if it will all continue in harmony.
Wing scoring, that’s a major point of strength for the Kings. The trio of Fox, Hield and Barnes have the potential to be one of the most lethal scoring units in the league out on the perimeter. All three shoot at 45 percent or better from the field, as well as 37 percent or better from the three-point line. They all can create their own shot, and Hield is rapidly improving in that regard. Simply put, they’re players that you can give the ball to and be comfortable as they try to generate some offense. Best, all three are relatively young too with their best basketball ahead of them. Laugh now, but don’t be surprised if we’re talking about this group quite a bit this season when it comes to perimeter scoring.
Defense was still a major issue for the Kings last season, and they’ll need to improve in that regard if they want to seriously enter into that upper echelon in the Western Conference. Thankfully for them, some of their new additions should help in that regard. Ariza, Dedmon, Joseph, and Holmes are all capable defenders. They’re also going to be coming off the bench, with the exception of Dedmon who will likely start. Barnes is a good defender in the starting lineup, but it’s going to take a collective effort from each starter to be a better defensive team.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Kings finish with a winning record?
Sacramento actually had a winning record early in the season. They only finished two games under .500. With continued development from their core guys and the impact of their new free-agent additions, yes, the Sacramento Kings will finally finish the season with above .500 for the first time in over a decade. Will it be good enough, however, to make the playoffs? That remains to be seen as the Western Conference has plenty of good teams. But an injury here or there on another team and that winning record could come with a Sacramento appearance in the postseason.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.
The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.
Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division
Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.
It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.
What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.
The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.
In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.
Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers
Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.
Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.
It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.
Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers
Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.
The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.
They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.
San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers
The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.
With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.
Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers
Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.
Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.
Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers
This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?
The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.
This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.
Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.
Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.