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State of the Lakers: Where To Go From Here?

The Lakers are suffering through their worst season in franchise history. Where should they go from here?

Jesse Blancarte

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Many fans and NBA analysts predicted this would be another down year for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team hired a new head coach in Byron Scott, Kobe Bryant was returning from a torn Achilles tendon, Steve Nash was recovering from debilitating leg and back injuries, Pau Gasol left to play with the Chicago Bulls and the rest of the roster lacked overall talent.

Unfortunately, this season has gone even worse than many of those fans and analysts predicted. Nash re-aggravated his back injury while carrying some bags, which would sideline him for the entire season. Heralded rookie Julius Randle broke his leg in the Lakers’ season opener against the Houston Rockets and has been rehabbing all season. Bryant played heavy minutes early in the season and eventually tore his rotator cuff in January, which ended his season prematurely. Because of the shallow roster and bad luck with injuries, this has turned out to be the worst season in the franchise’s proud history.

The Lakers currently have the fourth-worst record in the league, and as a result have an 82.8 percent chance of retaining their top-five protected 2015 first-round pick. If the Lakers end up falling outside of the top-five, their pick will be transferred to the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired the rights to the pick in a deal with the Phoenix Suns at this year’s trade deadline.

So who will Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss target with their potential top-five pick?

Many analysts believe that the first pick in the draft will either by Jahlil Okafor of Duke or Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky. Either player would provide the Lakers with a talented big man to put next to Julius Randle in the front-court next season. However, if Okafor or Towns is not available when it is the Lakers turn to pick, they can look to draft a guard to put next to rising rookie Jordan Clarkson, such as D’Angelo Russell from Ohio State or Emmanuel Mudiay, who played for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. Any of these four players would be a great addition for Los Angeles and would be a significant step in rebuilding the team.

The Lakers will have another first-round pick in the upcoming draft, which they acquired from the Houston Rockets in the deal that landed Jeremy Lin in Los Angeles. This pick will likely end up being one of the last picks in the first-round, but with some luck, the Lakers could end up with another solid player to help rebuild the roster around (especially when you consider that Clarkson was selected 46th overall in last year’s draft by the Washington Wizards and then acquired by the Lakers for cash considerations).

Taking care of the draft is the first order of business for the Lakers this upcoming offseason. The next matter to address is free agency.

The Lakers can potentially have as little as $35 million in guaranteed salary next season. However, the Lakers do have a team option on Jordan Hill for next season at $9 million, which they are reportedly leaning toward exercising. With Hill, the Lakers will have roughly $44 million in salary, which will leave them with around $23 million in cap space, assuming the cap is set around $67.4 million next season.

Ed Davis also has a player option to exercise the second year of his deal, which would pay him $1.1 million next season. However, Davis will likely not exercise that option and instead test free agency, where he is likely to land a significantly better deal than his current one with Los Angeles. Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black and Jabari Brown each have non-guaranteed salary for next season at $845,059, while Robert Sacre has non-guaranteed salary set at $981,348. Considering their age, potential and affordable salary, it is likely that the Lakers bring Black and Sacre back, while it is a foregone certainty that Clarkson will be back.* With at least Clarkson, Black and Sacre back (though Sacre may be squeezed out based on what the Lakers do in the draft and in free agency), the Lakers will then have closer to $20.3 million in cap space.

*For a breakdown of each individual player and whether the Lakers should bring them back, check out this piece by our Jabari Davis.

Now that we know how much money the Lakers can potentially have to use in free agency this upcoming offseason, the next question is, who should they pursue? The Lakers as a franchise have always swung for the fences, unafraid of pursuing prime time free agents and making splashy deals for star players. Here is a list of some, but not all of the best players who will be free agents this upcoming offseason:

Marc Gasol (unrestricted)
LaMarcus Aldridge (unrestricted)
Paul Millsap (unrestricted)
DeAndre Jordan (unrestricted)
Greg Monroe (unrestricted)
Rajon Rondo (unrestricted)
Robin Lopez (unrestricted)
Wesley Matthews (unrestricted)
Omer Asik (unrestricted)
LeBron James (player option)
Kevin Love (player option)
Al Jefferson (player option)
Goran Dragic (player option)
Monta Ellis (player option)
Dwyane Wade (player option)
Jeff Green (player option)
Roy Hibbert (player option)
Brook Lopez (player option)
Kawhi Leonard (restricted)
Draymond Green (restricted)
Jimmy Butler (restricted)
Khris Middleton (restricted)
Brandon Knight (restricted)
Reggie Jackson (restricted)
Iman Shumpert (restricted)
Patrick Beverley (restricted)
Tristan Thompson (restricted)
K.J. McDaniels (restricted)
Enes Kanter (restricted)

The most attractive names on this list include players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol, both of whom are unrestricted free agents. The problem with guys like this is that they are most likely going to re-sign with their current teams. Then, there are players like Kevin Love, who could conceivably join a new team in free agency based on his current circumstances. But these players will have the option to opt into the last year of their current contract, which may be beneficial for them with the cap set to raise significantly in 2016 because of the NBA’s new TV deal. And gambling on restricted free agents is always risky, especially ones who are likely to be retained by their current teams at any price. Signing a restricted free agent to an offer sheet ties up that money for several days while the player’s original team considers whether to match the offer or not, which creates the possibility of missing out on other free agents.

So what strategy should the Lakers take? Like most things in life, it depends. If the Lakers are trying to maximize their final year with Bryant, then they should probably go after veterans that can help them immediately, irrespective of age. But does it make sense to commit serious, and perhaps long-term money to players just to cater to a star player in his final season? Kobe has certainly earned such consideration, but that course of action could hamper the Lakers’ ability to compete at a high level for years after Kobe is gone.

With this in mind, the Lakers should probably go after players that represent good value, rather than simply pursuing stars and big names. Specifically, the Lakers could go after someone like Wesley Matthews, who is currently recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Yes, going after a shooting guard with a surgically repaired Achilles is risky, but Matthews is still just 28 years old, has only been in the NBA since 2009 and is one of the hardest workers in the league. He has established himself as one of the best three-point shooters in the league and the Portland Trail Blazers’ recent play without Matthews has shown us just how valuable of a contributor he is. The market may be lukewarm for him this upcoming offseason because of the injury, and the Lakers could potentially land him on a team-friendly deal to take over as the starting shooting guard moving forward (similar to how the Golden State Warriors locked Stephen Curry into a long-term, team-friendly deal because of his recurring ankle issues).

Or how about someone like Omer Asik? Rather than offering someone like DeAndre Jordan a max (or near-max) contract, why not try to lock up a gritty rim protector like Asik on a multi-year deal averaging around $7-8 million a season? Asik isn’t an exciting, above the rim player like Jordan, but he is still 28 years old, isn’t heavily reliant on his athleticism, has a proven track record of anchoring defenses, and plays within his role.

Of course, Matthews and Asik may not be the answers for the Lakers in free agency, but they are examples of realistic free agents that the Lakers arguably should target: players who could still have a lot of miles left and could be had for a reasonable price. But if the Lakers want to go after younger players, which isn’t a bad idea, they could go after someone like Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Middleton has made a name for himself this season with impressive improvements on both sides of the ball. He doesn’t put up huge box score numbers, but he ranks well in some notable advanced metrics. For example, he is ranked eighth in the league in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric (6.39). That, and he is only 23 years old. But again, the problem with young, valuable players like Middleton is that his current team, and the rest of the league, knows how good he is and is willing to pay big bucks for him. The Lakers could try to snag him away on a deal similar to the one the Dallas Mavericks gave Chandler Parsons, but the Bucks still may decide to match the deal and retain him regardless.

Whatever strategy the Lakers take in free agency this upcoming offseason, it should be rooted in concern for their long-term outlook. Giving a player like Rajon Rondo a near-max contract to make Kobe happy makes sense if the team is one veteran point guard away from making a legitimate run for a championship. But that’s not where this team is or is likely to be next season. And with Clarkson’s rapid development, it may be more beneficial for the Lakers to develop him, rather than spending a huge amount of money on a veteran point guard.

The free agent market is a fluid place where a lot of unexpected things can happen. If the market doesn’t shape up in a favorable way for the Lakers, they should probably hold on to a sizable portion of their cap space and carry it over to 2016, rather than overpaying an older player just to make a splashy acquisition. However, if someone as talented and young as Love becomes available, then yes, the Lakers should go after him (despite the questions about his game that have bubbled to the surface this season).

Beyond personnel moves, the Lakers, and specifically head coach Byron Scott, need to strongly consider revamping their offensive system.

Before the season started, Scott said the Lakers would limit their three-point attempts because they aren’t conducive to winning championships. However, a look into past championship teams shows that three-pointers are in fact a major component of past championship teams. In addition, the best offenses in the league this season come from teams that shoot extremely well from three-point range, including the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks. Also, the modern NBA has collectively moved toward motion-based offenses that include constant off-ball movement, spreading the court with three-point shooters, heavy doses of pick and roll, and limiting inefficient shots like mid-range jumpers. Yet, Scott and the Lakers seem to be going in the opposite direction, and the results speaks for themselves.

According to NBA.com, the Lakers attempt the second-most mid-range field goals per game in the league (29.3). Mid-range jumpers are statistically inefficient shots and really should only be taken in volume from exceptional mid-range shooters like Chris Paul. In addition, the Lakers attempt less than two three-point attempts from the corners, which is one of the most efficient shots there is. Consider that the only team that takes a higher number of mid-range jumpers per game than the Lakers, and almost no shots from the corners, is the woeful New York Knicks.

And as previously mentioned, the Lakers don’t move the ball particularly well either. The Lakers average the third-least amount of passes per game (273.2), are 20th in assists per game (20.9) and 27th in points earned off of assists per 48 minutes (46.6). Earlier this week, Zach Lowe of Grantland pointed out a great illustration of the sort of isolation plays the Lakers run, which feature little to no passing and almost zero off-ball movement. Lowe pointed out that Scott will oftentimes run a play out of the huddle to get Jordan Hill an isolation jump-shot from around 18 feet out. That is not kind of play that is featured in efficient offenses and is a shot that defenses try to force opposing teams to take.

There is potential to turn the offense around, however. Scott doesn’t need to adopt every popular offensive trend. During the preseason, Scott was running elements of the Triangle offense, which looked promising. However, that system was quickly abandoned at the beginning of the season. Rather than running the Triangle, Bryant started putting up a huge number of shots and the Lakers offense became stagnant and iso-reliant. The Triangle may not be as effective in the modern NBA as it used to, but Steve Kerr has proven with the Warriors this season that a team can successfully utilize elements of it with great results.

The defense also needs to be revamped, but that has a lot more to do with personnel than anything else. Adding players like Asik, Middleton or Matthews would go a long way toward addressing the defensive side of the ball. This year’s squad simply did not have the players to create a top-10, or even league average defense. Guys like Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin just aren’t great defensive players and there is only so much scheming a team can do to get around these sort of limitations. Scott preaches defense, and it’s up to the Lakers to acquire players that are willing to buy in and dedicate themselves to that side of the ball.

The Lakers currently have two young players who are clearly part of their future plans. Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle both have the potential to be starters for the Lakers next season and both are on cost-controlled rookie contracts. Assuming the Lakers land a solid rookie with their first-round pick, they will have at least three players to constitute their young core, and can start plugging in pieces from there. But the Lakers need to avoid taking shortcuts in their re-building process. They should pass on pursuing past-their-prime stars and focus on younger impact players who can grow together on manageable contracts.

The Lakers are down, but shouldn’t be counted out. It may take a few seasons to really turn things around, but the opportunity to start building a sustainable, contending team will be present this upcoming offseason. A combination of smart acquisitions and internal growth are essential elements of that process, which is something that falls on the front office, coaches and players.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Reliable Burks Thriving In Long Sought-After Opportunity

Spencer Davies takes a look at Alec Burks’ outstanding start to the season with the Golden State Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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If you go back and look at the 2011 NBA Draft, you’ll see big names all around.

Champions such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. All-Stars like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic.

19th overall pick Tobias Harris turned out to be a maximum contract player. “Mr. Irrelevant” was Isaiah Thomas, a player that made an All-NBA team in a near-MVP season.

But there’s still time for another man to prove himself as one of the best talents in his class and, so far this year, he has given us a reason to believe he will.

Once plagued by injuries and often dealt with inconsistent roles, Alec Burks finally has the opportunity he’d been seeking — and this time around, he’s doing the stepping up instead of being the one on the sideline.

Last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Burks exploded for 29 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists, plus a block and a steal. It’s the most he’s scored in a single game since Dec. 2017 and the fourth game where he’s eclipsed the 20-point mark this season already.  And in the nights that he’s played over 30 minutes, he’s averaging 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

While that is an impressive accomplishment in its own right, the way Burks is going about getting his points is the real encouraging story. Healthy and fearless, he’s attacking with purpose and being rewarded with results, one way or another.

Burks is drawing fouls at a high rate with his aggressiveness. He’s getting to the line at will and knocking down his free throws, an astounding 23-for-25 over the last three games. A knack for disrupting opposing offenses, he’s been able to capitalize on the other end with a team-leading 5.5 points off turnovers per 100 possessions. That would also explain his success in transition, where he’s made a living on the open floor.

Don’t mistake Burks as a one-tool guy, either. He’s one of Golden State’s top threats in the pick-and-roll, using his dual-threat ability to either penetrate or pull up from distance. Trailing just Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and James Harden, the veteran combo guard is deadly off handoffs with 1.67 points per possession in such situations.

In addition, Burks has had a noticeable impact on the defensive end. The Warriors suffer when he’s not on the floor, as the opposition’s effective field goal percentage is 8.4 percent better when he sits. According to Cleaning The Glass, that ranks in the 99th percentile in the league. Furthermore, those teams are scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions if he’s on the bench.

The 28-year-old has been a top-10 defender when it comes to guarding his assignments coming off screens, too, holding those players to 33 percent from the field.

Watching Burks operate with a clean bill of health is a gift from the basketball gods who have been cruel to him over the last three years of his career. It’s a shame that this chance has been given to him with his teammates on the mend, but how many times has he been on the other side of that battle?

Selected by the Utah Jazz at No. 12 eight years ago, Burks started his NBA career on a high note. He was a part of a franchise built around Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, playing a complementary bench role while developing with the likes of Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Then, Trey Burke was added to the mix along with Rudy Gobert in Burks’ third season, one where he appeared in a career-high 78 games.

That following year when he signed an extension, things took a downturn. Already having to adjust to a new head coach in Quin Snyder, Burks began having shoulder issues and played through them until electing to have surgery in late December. The Jazz also brought in Rodney Hood and Dante Exum as rookies.

Burks came back from the setback and, again, had been on the floor consistently in the 2015-16 campaign — except the injury bug decided to rear its ugly head in another way. Almost one year to the date that his season ended with shoulder surgery, he suffered a fractured left fibula that once again cut his year short. Snakebitten by misfortune in way too many occasions, his role in Utah never really was the same. His minutes diminished, his rhythm was off and Snyder had his backcourt rotations set.

Utah ultimately parted ways with Burks via a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, and while he did show flashes of his abilities and even snuck in a game-winning dunk during that 34-game stint, it wasn’t long before the organization moved on. The Cavaliers flipped him to the Sacramento Kings, where he had 15 DNPs and played less than 10 minutes per game.

Burks admitted at Warriors media day that being traded twice after spending seven years with one organization took a toll on him and his family. By the same token, he also knows that things happen for a reason.

Originally signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, Burks pivoted to Golden State because he wanted to reevaluate his following the trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He was sold on the Warriors’ team culture and an opportunity to play for a winner. Unfortunately, Stephen Curry went down with a major injury early this season, D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple of weeks and Draymond Green has missed some time as well — so championship aspiration is aiming high.

At the same time, the Warriors need a veteran to show young guys the ropes. Steve Kerr needs a guy to produce at a high-level to keep up with a fast-moving, deep Western Conference. Burks is proving each night that this group can rely on him.

That first-round pick all those years ago with so much promise, so many obstacles to overcome is now on the other side of the spectrum. The chance he’s been starving for is staring him right in the face.

Believe that Burks won’t take it for granted.

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NBA

Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Philadelphia Castoffs Finding Success Elsewhere

After failing to make it with the Philadelphia 76ers, three players have stood out by gaining traction with new franchises as solid contributors. Chad Smith sheds some light on how these individuals have changed the narrative of their careers.

Chad Smith

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Trust The Process.

That was the slogan that the Philadelphia 76ers plastered on billboards and etched into the minds of their fans. They stressed patience to their fan base and were transparent about the entire plan. The tanking of not just games — but seasons — delivered the Sixers’ front office what they so desired: draft picks.

More valuable than cash considerations and better than expiring contracts, the draft picks offered an unknown quantity. Hope and potential for greatness were the selling points for their dynamic plan. It was easy to convince anyone and everyone that would listen. At the time, it appeared to be a solid plan, so long as everyone could stomach the losing.

While the exciting element of a draft pick is the unknown, that has also proven to be a double-edged sword. If selecting the right talent was easy, Michael Jordan would have never worn a Chicago Bulls uniform. Kevin Durant would have never played in Seattle and the Detroit Pistons probably would have rather had one of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh instead of Darko Milicic.

Maybe that wasn’t the plan, though. Perhaps the plan was just to get as many bites out of the apple as possible and hope to strike gold on a couple of the picks. If indeed that was the plan, it would be difficult to argue that it didn’t work. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are already All-Star players and the faces of the franchise.

Philadelphia finally molded into a playoff team during the 2017-2018 season. The organization quickly went to work on tweaking the roster, trying to find the right pieces to fit this puzzle together. But outside of its two cornerstones over the past five years, there were three notable players that were labeled as busts or clearly were not going to make it with the Sixers. And many wondered if these guys would even still be in the league in the coming months.

These guys needed a fresh start. They needed a reset button on their careers. Now, they appear to be in the right environment with the right people bringing out the best in them. They have thrived in their new roles and, ultimately, have changed the narrative of their careers.

Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

The most obvious success story seems to be playing out right before our eyes. The Sixers selected Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, but it turned sideways very quickly. After captivating college basketball fans at Washington, expectations were extremely high as he prepared for his rookie season.

The Orlando Magic have been starving for a star point guard for quite some time. They took a gamble on the 21-year old, and it is paying off in a big way. Fultz being used as a combo guard alongside a strong and youthful roster seems to be an ideal fit. He is getting to the basket and finishing strong. He is also knocking down his free throws (82 percent) and collecting steals (1.3 per game) at a high rate.

Heading into tonight’s game in Toronto, Fultz is averaging just under 11 points and 3.1 assists per game. He had an effective field goal percentage of 42 percent in his 33 total games as a member of the 76ers. Through 13 games this season, he’s upped that to 51.4.

Both Embiid and Simmons missed their entire first season in Philly and turned into All-Stars. This small sample size is just that, but things are definitely trending in the right direction for Fultz to develop into the caliber of player everyone thought he would be when he was drafted. The mental hurdle has been cleared, and his confidence seems to have been been restored.

Jahlil Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans

The 2015 NBA Draft had some exceptional talent. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell went just before Okafor, but many people thought that was a mistake. While the former third overall pick won’t ever reach the same pinnacle as those two in his career, he has been a tremendous success story nonetheless over the past two years.

After three seasons of below-average production in Philly, Okafor was traded to the Brooklyn Nets where he was seeking a fresh start. His 26-game stint there did not yield positive results, and it appeared as though the promising big man’s future was near the end. In the summer of 2018, Okafor signed a minimum salary contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. He remains on a partially-guaranteed deal, but is outperforming that so far this season.

With so many athletic wings and a bevy of guards in New Orleans, Okafor has found the perfect role as the man in the middle. No longer seeming rushed, the big man is patient with the ball and has the ability to finish himself or find the open guy on the perimeter. He is much more efficient shooting the ball and is averaging 1.1 blocks per game.

Despite suffering an ankle injury that has him temporarily sidelined, Okafor has been playing well. With the absence of rookie sensation Zion Williamson, New Orleans has needed his solid play to keep the train rolling. He won’t be what many had envisioned him becoming after leaving Duke, but Okafor has carved out a nice role for himself in the league.

Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

Another member of Philly’s 2015 draft class has found his opportunity in a different zip code. Despite playing 156 games for the Sixers, Holmes was never really given the opportunity to become a vital role player for the team. He started just 20 of those games and played less than 17 minutes a night. With so many injuries in Sacramento, that opportunity has come for him, and he has stepped up and excelled in his new role.

The overall numbers for Holmes have risen quite a bit, but the blocks are what stand out the most. Through 13 games this season, the active big man is averaging nearly as many blocks per game (1.4) as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. He is averaging career-high numbers in virtually every statistical category.

The former second-round pick has always been known as an energy guy, and he is thriving off of that on this young and hungry Kings squad. His rebounding has been tremendous, especially on offense. Sacramento ranks in the top half of the league in second-chance points, largely due to Holmes being so active on the glass.

Whereas many of the trades that the 76ers executed involved more talent coming back in return, this one was different. Philly traded Holmes to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2018 for $1 million. Nearly a year later, Holmes signed a two-year deal with the Kings for $9.77 million. Consider that money well-earned by Holmes, and well spent by Sacramento.

For every Embiid and Simmons that comes along, there are guys like Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. What is important for these guys is to embrace a fresh start and a different role with a new team.

By doing so, they can assure themselves of a future in the league as opposed to watching from the sidelines.

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