In an ongoing attempt to continue to get you your basketball fix, Basketball Insiders is taking a look back at recent draft classes and assessing them relative to the expectations that were in place as of their respect NBA Drafts.
We are grading according to the following criteria:
The Hits – the players that panned out
The Misses – the players that did not pan out
The Sleepers – the players that exceeded minimal expectations
The Jury Is Out – those that have shown flashes
Matt John did a fantastic job assessing the 2014 NBA Draft. Ben Nadeau and Spencer Davies did an equally impressive job reviewing the 2015 and 2016 draft classes, respectively. Up next, we’ll dive into the controversial 2017 NBA Draft class.
The 2017 NBA Draft appeared to be as stocked with high-end talent as any of the other recent draft. But for those of us who needed a refresher on the old “everything that glimmers isn’t gold” adage, 2017 served that purpose. No one anticipated the struggles that Markelle Fultz would face due to a shoulder ailment and a case of the yips; Fultz is probably the highest-profile “bust” since Greg Oden.
And while Fultz has at least gained some traction in Orlando since his challenging time with Philly, there are plenty of other interesting storylines from the 2017 draft. It was seen as the year of the point guard, but its best players don’t exactly fit that bill. Now with all of that being said, let’s jump in.
Jayson Tatum, No. 3
Tatum was special in his lone season at Duke. No one thought he’d be this special, though. Tatum fits perfectly in the modern NBA. He’s as smooth as they come offensively, and his length and mobility make him an above-average defender and rebounder. He’s a dead-eye shooter and he’s one of the best tough-shot makers in the league. Tatum is the rare talent who can put a team on his back for extremely long stretches. Oh, and he also plays nice with others. No one expected Tatum to be THIS good.
De’Aaron Fox, No. 5
Fox was viewed as the steal of the draft before the draft was even over. He was a boom-or-bust prospect whose style fit the league perfectly. He’s a lightning-quick lead guard who wants all of the smoke. Despite being ranked as a lesser prospect, he took it to Lonzo Ball in just about every matchup they’d had in college. And he’s continued to impress in the NBA. Fox is the kind of player around whom you build your franchise. While that’s always been thought of as his ceiling, it’s rare to see players live up to their potential to the degree in which Fox has.
Jonathan Isaac, No. 6
Entering the draft, Isaac was seen as the prototypical stretch-four. He took time to develop – averaging only 5.4 points per game in his rookie season. But he blossomed in his third season in the league. Isaac supplanted Aaron Gordon as the Magic’s best defender, and his defensive versatility gives the Magic options they’d only dreamed of prior to this season. He’s also a pretty efficient offensive player who poster a better than 50% effective field goal percentage. Isaac still has to prove he can play at a high level with consistency, but he made major strides this year – living up to his draft position, and then some.
Donovan Mitchell, No. 13
Mitchell is the major surprise of the 2017 NBA Draft. The Louisville standout was seen as too small to succeed in the NBA. But that way of thinking was quickly debunked as Mitchell proceeded to average more than 20 points per game as a rookie – and he hasn’t looked back since.
Mitchell since established himself as the cornerstone of the Utah Jazz, and he’ll probably hold that title for the next decade or so – if he wants it. Mitchell easily outperformed pre-draft expectations. Phil Jackson, then president of the Knicks, saw potential in Mitchell. Few others did with the exception of the Jazz. And now they’re reaping the rewards.
Bam Adebayo, No. 14
2019-20 was Adebayo’s coming out party. Prior to this season, Adebayo was a reserve. Still, his per-36 numbers projected an effective and versatile big man. This season, he delivered, averaging 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Adebayo affects the game in every way possible. And considering his relatively low profile entering the draft – Adebayo was projected to be drafted 17th overall by NBADraft.net and was called “raw” and an “energy big” by various outlets– he turned out to be a steal in the late lottery.
Markelle Fultz, No. 1
Fultz got all of the hype you’d expect a first overall pick would receive. Despite missing the NCAA tournament in his lone season at Washington, he was a generational athlete who shot it well from deep and possessed game-changing size and physicality for a point guard.
But Fultz’s rookie season was derailed thanks to shoulder issues. He was (probably) mismanaged by the Philadelphia 76ers and allowed to play too early, leading to a loss in confidence and – ultimately – his departure from Philadelphia. Fultz contributed far more consistently in Orlando in 2019-20, but he still underperformed for his draft position. And he’s still not anywhere near as good as pundits felt he’d be prior to the 2017 NBA Draft. It’s a sad story, but it’s not over yet. At least he’s righted the ship.
Josh Jackson, No. 4
Fultz might provide more interesting – albeit premature – headlines, but Jackson’s path been more painful to watch – mostly because his setbacks are mostly his own fault. Jackson entered the 2017 NBA Draft as the Swiss Army knife of the bunch. He was seen as a do-it-all wing whose game fits the modern NBA’s as perfect as any prospect. Instead of hitting the ground running, Jackson had multiple run-ins with the law, resulting in suspensions and a trade from the Phoenix Suns. But Jackson flourished in the G-League after being dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies, and he continued to play efficiently after being called back up.
Jackson could still easily turn his career around. But the setbacks he’s undergone make his first three years a major disappointment.
Dennis Smith Jr., No. 8
Smith Jr. was one of the more celebrated prospects in 2017. And based on his rookie season, his profile seemed justified. But then Luka Doncic shook up the NBA – and Smith Jr.’s effectiveness waned.
Still, Smith Jr. has shown signs as recently as the end of 2018-19. He was traded to New York as part of the deal that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 20 points and 5 assists in March 2019. And while he might not have looked like a cornerstone, that was more than the Knicks had at point guard in some time. He struggled with personal loss and a back injury early on this season and he never recovered. And while he possesses the athleticism and ability to be a borderline All-Star, he’ll need to prove it on the court before this writer is comfortable calling him anything less than a miss relative to expectations.
John Collins, No. 19
Collins has progressed pretty much exactly how teams like their young stars to do so. His scoring average, minutes per game and PER have all shot up in the last three seasons: 10.5 points in 24.3 minutes per game with an 18.3 PER in 2017-18; 19.5 points in 30 minutes per game with a 21.8 PER in 2018-19; and 21.6 points in 33.2 minutes per game with a 23.5 PER in 2019-20. Further, he’s an excellent three-point shooter (40.1% in 2019-20) and extremely active around the rim.
Collins is not THE centerpiece of a contending NBA team, but he’s got all the right attributes to be a starter and a third option. And at 22-years-old, Collins could get even better. Not bad value at all for the late-middle of the first round.
Jarrett Allen, No. 22
Despite the fact that Allen’s status on his own team is in question, he’s still an elite defender who’s an above-average lob-catcher and screener. He’s versatile enough to switch on to ball-handlers in screen-and-rolls, and he’s already built an impressive highlight reel of blocked shots that includes LeBron James and Giannis Antetokunmpo.
Yes, Allen was an integral part of a playoff team as recently as two months ago. But expectations were nowhere near that high for him. And while there is some uncertainty ahead for Allen, his talent and work ethic will win out. While he’ll probably never develop a consistent jump shot, his motor and defensive gifts render him a starter in the NBA for years to come
OG Anunoby, No. 23
Anunoby was pegged as a breakout player for 2018-19. But Pascal Siakam stole his thunder. While Siakam delivered again this season, Anunoby would not be ignored in two straight seasons.
But rewind a bit and you’ll read about a risky prospect projected to fall into the second round. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Masai Ujiri and his staff saw the potential of Anunoby, and he’s rewarded them for their faith. He came into his own in 2019-20, establishing himself as a legitimate starter in the NBA. Who knows what he’ll look like next season.
Kyle Kuzma, No. 27
Kuzma quickly proved his worth, averaging 16.1 points per game as a rookie. His scoring average jumped in his sophomore season (18.7); but his production took a fairly big hit in 2019-20 after his good friend Lonzo Ball was sent to New Orleans alongside Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and numerous draft considerations in exchange for Anthony Davis.
But Kuzma is still viewed very favorably around the league. His fit alongside the win-now Lakers might not be ideal, but he’s still seen as an extremely valuable building block for most teams – especially ones in the middle of a rebuild. Kuzma was selected late in the first-round, and he’s already outperformed even the highest of expectations for the 27th pick of virtually any draft. In the right situation, he could put up All-Star-caliber numbers. And the Lakers are running low on trade chips. This writer wouldn’t be surprised to see Kuzma playing elsewhere as soon as next season – whenever that is.
Derrick White, No. 29
Thomas Bryant, No. 42
Dillion Brooks, No. 45
Monte Morris, No. 51
Jury Is Still Out
Lonzo Ball, No. 2
Ball entered the NBA with tremendous fanfare thanks, in part, to his father’s loud endorsements. LaVar Ball wasn’t entirely wrong about his son, though; It’s just that Lonzo hasn’t translated as well as his dad predicted.
But Ball’s quickness, court vision and defense render him a huge net positive. His shot, on the other hand, has hurt his ability to stretch the defense and be a scoring threat at all times when on offense – even though it did look significantly better in 2019-20 than in years’ past. Ball isn’t the first player who’s experienced relative success in the league while also undershooting expectations, and he won’t be the last. He could still grow into an All-Star, but he’s not the transcendent talent we were led to believe he’d be.
Lauri Markkanen, No. 7
By the parameters of this series, Markkanen looked way more like a hit entering 2019-20. But then this season happened. Markkanen was used as more of a spot-up shooter than he’d been in the previous two seasons. His minutes dropped slightly, as did his scoring (18.7 to 14.7 per game), rebounding (9.0 to 6.3) and his three-point percentage (36.1% to 34.4%). And his field goal attempts were down considerably from inside the three point line all the way to three feet from the basket.
But Markkanen doesn’t qualify as a bust, either. He still averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in less than 28 minutes per game. He’s a seven-footer who is still an above-average marksman given his size and position, and he’s still just 22. Markkanen might end up as a multi-time All-Star, so no need for too much alarm. And expectations weren’t too high on him as of 2017. But he’s hasn’t established himself as much as the “hits” featured above.
Frank Ntilikina, No. 8
The Knicks were dead set on a point guard in 2017. They were reportedly down to Ntilikina and Smith Jr. – ironically, they now employ both. But where Smith Jr. started off strongly and tapered off, Ntilikina took time to ramp up. In fact, he’s still ramping. Ntilikina is a sneaky good defender whose offensive prowess continues to grow. He’s a high-IQ player who will require more polished offensive talent around him if he’s going to start on a contender. But ultimately, the jury is still out. Ntilikina hasn’t been nearly consistent enough to be deemed anything but an unfinished product. He flashes the ability to oversee the offense, remain aggressive on offense, create for others and (obviously) defend multiple positions at a very high level. He just hasn’t done it regularly. He’s still only 21, so there is still ample time for Ntilikina to fulfill all of his potential and then some.
Every draft class is interesting with its share of hits and misses. While analyzing how well players perform relative to past expectations feels unnecessary, it’s also really fun. And doing so with the 2017 draft class is no different – and it provides even more opportunity than most to examine the draft order really closely and embrace the “what ifs.”
2017 might not have brought us any new entries into the GOAT debate, but it certainly left us with plenty of other items to discuss.
NBA Daily: Post All-Star Breakouts
Many teams were getting into rhythm before the All-Star break, with several set to make big splashes at the trade deadline. Tristan Tucker breaks down which teams are in position to make dynamic runs to the postseason.
With the first half of the NBA season under wraps, some teams have taken longer to come out of their shells than others. The trade deadline is rapidly approaching, currently set for Thursday, March 25, and is sure to define the course of action for several teams. Let’s take a look at which teams are poised for big second-half runs as the regular season ramps up then winds down.
Miami’s bad luck to begin the season is a combination of several factors, headlined by the shortest offseason in league history. Injuries to Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and several others, along with the failure to recoup the skill lost when Jae Crowder departed for the Phoenix Suns, have also played a significant role in the rough early start.
Whatever the case may be, Miami has a chance to right the ship with ease. For starters, a fully healthy HEAT team is scary — Miami is 14-8 when Jimmy Butler plays and 4-10 when he sits. Furthermore, there’s reason to believe that the team will once again be aggressive at the midseason trade deadline, much like last season when it acquired Crowder, Andre Iguodala and Solomon Hill.
That isn’t to say the HEAT will make a big splash, but small moves around the edges help build contenders and sift through the pieces that will be around for a long run for Miami. An underrated aspect of success will come through the league’s lessened restrictions on two-way contract players, allowing coach Erik Spoelstra to clearly define his rotation as Miami has historically gotten significant production from its two-way players.
The Nets were already playing fantastic basketball, an offensive marvel if there ever was one. To add yet another offensive-minded piece in Blake Griffin — broken down extensively here at Basketball Insiders — adds another layer to an already fantastic basketball team.
Jeff Green and Kevin Durant have been dealing with injury while Nicolas Claxton and Reggie Perry aren’t quite ready for a consistent workload in the power forward rotation, though both should shine very soon. Adding Griffin made sense and, though he’s struggled thus far this season, he’s a high-level passer if nothing else. Keep in mind he’s only two years removed from an All-Star appearance while averaging 24.5 points per game.
If that wasn’t scary enough, Griffin signed for the minimum, meaning that the Nets have their full $5.7 million disabled player exception from Spencer Dinwiddie, Dinwiddie himself as a trade chip and the mid-level exception to use to fill out the roster. Perhaps Andre Drummond becomes available on the buyout market. Or, maybe, the team is able to snag a good and healthy player in exchange for Dinwiddie. The options are infinite, a painful realization for the rest of the league.
The Mavericks struggled to start the season but have quickly turned their year around, evidenced by winning three straight and eight of 10 entering the All-Star break. Luka Doncic is playing on another level right now, while Kristaps Porzingis has unlocked more of his offensive potential and Josh Richardson is becoming the wing the team thought they traded for in the offseason. The team will surely add more to its rotation, but it’s already beginning to click on offense.
Even Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson are playing at their peaks off the bench, while the team is playing excitedly in transition. If Dallas is able to add to that offensive punch while improving its defense, there’s no telling what kind of run the team could make in the postseason. It sure helps that Dallas has the second-easiest remaining schedule.
The Nuggets have been sluggish to start the season, no doubt, but they’re tied for the longest win streak in the league with four-straight and have the potential to knock anyone off. That said, there are many questions surrounding this team, such as determining the trajectory of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray or the play of Gary Harris.
Nikola Jokic, however, is playing at an MVP level and the team is getting nice contributions off its bench from rookies Zeke Nnaji, R.J. Hampton and Facundo Campazzo. Bradley Beal may be a pipe-dream acquisition, but those rookies could be part of a package that brings in some serious talent on the wings or gives the team a reliable backup center.
Look for Denver to be aggressive in the trade market with all of its assets. But with or without a trade, Murray’s improved play in the last couple weeks gives Denver the means to make a post-All-Star run.
One of these teams is not like the others. But the Kings have an opportunity to get right back into the mix of things, especially considering the play-in games for the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds for each conference. Sacramento is 14-22, 2-8 in its last 10 games, but don’t forget that it was right in the thick of the playoff mix earlier in the season.
The Kings are the owners of the seventh-easiest remaining schedule but have plenty of kinks left to sort out, especially if coach Luke Walton is still onboard. However, rookie Tyrese Haliburton is only getting better and there’s a significant chance that he joins the starting lineup sooner or later.
On the other hand, the team is set up to be a seller at the trade deadline, which might make it seem like the team would fall out of the playoff picture. But sometimes teams can experience addition by subtraction. The team could ship out any number of its veterans and earn young pieces in return while opening up opportunities for other young members on the roster.
There’s a significant chance that Sacramento doesn’t capitalize on this stretch but, along with teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards, it does have a legitimate shot at a play-in game.
Honorable mentions: Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards
A quick speed round, but both Atlanta and Washington have the means to make postseason bids. Saying that about the Wizards just a couple of weeks ago would have caused most to laugh, but Beal and company are on a roll, shockingly just 1.5 games out of a play-in game. The team can ride improved injury luck, better play from pieces such as Russell Westbrook and Davis Bertans and further growth from Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura.
The Hawks have no excuse not to make a late run after the team gets healthy. The team recently returned Bogdan Bogdanovic and should return De’Andre Hunter soon. That doesn’t even touch on Kris Dunn’s upcoming debut for the team and strong play from Danilo Gallinari. The Hawks are 2-0 after firing then-head coach Lloyd Pierce and are seemingly having the most fun they’ve had on the court all season.
As teams are gearing up for postseason runs, more teams will define themselves as sellers or buyers in the coming weeks. Be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders for all the latest coverage of the NBA trade deadline!
NBA Daily: This Time, MJ Got It Right
Michael Jordan has definitely earned his sour front office reputation, but Matt John explains why recent moves might turn that all around.
All it takes to flip the narrative is one stretch. One prolonged streak – whether good or bad – and suddenly, everything turns on its head. Then again, all it takes is one stretch to revert the narrative back to what it once was. Sacramento seemed well on their way to flipping theirs as the league’s laughingstock two years ago. Two years later, it panned out as one step forward and two steps back for them.
The Charlotte Hornets are often in a similar predicament. They can take pride in that there’s no depressing streak of decade-long playoff misses, but it’s not much better. Since Charlotte got the franchise back in 2004, they’ve made the playoffs three times, only have three playoff wins and haven’t moved past the first round.
In fact, the last time Charlotte moved past the first round of the NBA playoffs was before LaMelo Ball was even born. Every team goes through changes. Some years are better than others. Success and failure usually come in clusters. What goes up must come down, right? For the Hornets, they can’t really say they’ve come down if they’ve never really gone up much to begin with. That all starts at the top, with the most recognizable face in NBA history.
But to put it bluntly, Michael Jordan hasn’t been the best at running professional basketball teams. Both on and off the court, Jordan’s efforts never got Washington back into the playoffs as he ran the ship. Since taking over operations in Charlotte strictly as an executive, it’s been more of the same.
When a team underperforms, the executive gets blamed for generally poor roster construction. For a team to have to consistently underperform as Charlotte has, it requires a much deeper dive for what the executive did wrong, like:
– Missing on high lottery picks
– Turning down deals that could have changed the team’s fortunes
– Giving bloated contracts to role players that kill cap flexibility
– Failing to sell high on the best player when the ceiling’s already been reached
Above, those are all sins that Jordan is very much guilty of committing during his time down south, and it has made for some pretty miserable times in Buzz City. That was, until now. Charlotte heads into the All-Star break with a record of 17-18, which has been good enough for the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Call it a so-so record, sure, but, boy, they’re fun to watch. A roster full of willing sharers, the Hornets dish it well – currently fourth in assists per game at 27.1 – while also consistently canning from deep, hitting on 38.5 percent from three, according to Basketball-Reference.
This might just be the most exciting Hornets team assembled since the days of Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson. And it’s all thanks to… Michael Jordan?!
As it turns out, yes. After years of draft flops, max contract flops and a revolving door of head coaches, Jordan’s work as an executive has given the Hornets newfound stability. As unlikely as it sounds, Jordan might just be building a case for Executive of the Year.
Jordan has a pretty bad history with free agents. Mainly because of the top-dollar he has paid to keep role players on the roster. Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Jeremy Lamb come to mind. The point of emphasis is that he pays a lot to keep his free agents – but bringing in free agents is another story.
Michael Jordan’s history of luring free agents to Charlotte actually isn’t that bad. Before 2019, his most prominent free agent acquisitions were Al Jefferson, who made the 2014 All-NBA Third Team the following year, and Jeremy Lin, who played a role in Charlotte’s most extensive playoff run (technically) on a cheap contract.
Signing up Gordon Hayward on a four-year deal worth $120 million after all that had gone down in Boston certainly left people scratching their heads. And stretching Batum’s massive contract to make room for him on top of that? That meant paying $40 million give or take for Hayward.
If they were getting Boston Hayward, that was another disaster in a laundry list full of them. If they were getting Utah Hayward, it might be another story. So far, they’ve been getting the latter. Hayward’s been putting up pretty much identical numbers those from that last year with the Jazz.
He’s not the only castoff Celtic to thrive in Charlotte. Remember when (almost) everyone trashed the Terry Rozier sign-and-trade? That had to do more with the Kemba fallout (which, in all fairness, made Jordan look really short-sighted) combined with Rozier’s crummy last year in Boston.
Honestly, Rozier wasn’t that bad his first year in Charlotte. Since they weren’t really much more than an afterthought then, it didn’t matter. The Hornets are a League Pass favorite, so Terry Rozier has evolved from ‘Scary Terry’ to ‘Very Scary Terry’ and ain’t that just merry?
Growing into one of the league’s most killer three-point snipers has fueled a career year for Rozier. Averaging 20.5 points on 49/44/82 splits has proven to be quite the rebound from Walker. Again, Jordan acquired Rozier believing that his production in the 2018 playoffs was no fluke. Much like Hayward, he’s been proven right.
And they’re not even Charlotte’s main course.
If there’s one thing Jordan gets wrong more than who he extends, it’s who he drafts. Even the best executives get a dud every now and then. For Jordan, it seems like clockwork.
Adam Morrison, DJ Augustin, Bismack Biyombo, Frank Kaminsky weren’t exactly hailed as good picks at the time, and they’ve only looked worse in hindsight.
Some of his failed picks weren’t seen as such at the time. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Noah Vonleh were praised when they were selected, they just didn’t work out. Even if Cody Zeller hasn’t done enough to justify being picked No. 3 in his draft, it’s not like those picked right after panned out much better. So in Jordan’s defense, some of his bad draft histories can be attributed to horrible luck.
Under Jordan’s tenure, the only Hornets pick before 2020 that panned out incredibly well for them was Walker. From 2006 to 2015, Jordan had a pretty rough stretch. That should all be put squarely in the past now because the last draft pick to flop under Jordan was Kaminsky.
He was picked over two franchise cornerstones, but Malik Monk is quietly having his best year as a professional. Miles Bridges is playing much more efficient basketball, despite lower overall numbers. An improved three-ball and block percentage have pegged PJ Washington as another potential undersized small-ball five in a league that craves them more than ever. But enough putting off the obvious.
Jordan snagging LaMelo Ball wasn’t deemed a bad move. In fact, there was a strong belief that he was Jordan’s smartest selection ever. Though his long frame and excellent vision gave him strong appeal, the iffy jumper and foreign competition bred questions if he could do it on the NBA level. He had the highest ceiling out of everyone in the draft but there were no guarantees. No one knew if Ball was going to reach it – and if he would, he’d need time to do it.
Since James Borrego moved Ball to the starting lineup at the beginning of February, he’s averaged 20.7 points on 46/44/85 splits to do with 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and nearly 2 steals per game. In just half a season, Ball looks like he is the centerpiece of Charlotte’s future.
Ball has lived up to expectations and then some. He’s played so well that the man upstairs admits that he wasn’t expecting the kid to be this good. After years of trying and failing to get that young superstar, it appears MJ’s search is finally over.
Not every brilliant move an executive makes is a slam dunk from the get-go, especially when you’re managing a small market team. In order to be with the best of the best, there must be risks as means of aiming for a higher end.
Jordan hasn’t quite escaped his front office label but the Hornets’ roster construction no longer operates on the sunk-cost fallacy as it did throughout the 2010s. Simply put, for them, it has proven to be Jordan’s best work.
NBA Daily: Should the 76ers Make a Splash?
Midway through the season, the Philadelphia 76ers sit atop the Eastern Conference. Still, if the 76ers are serious about competing for a title this season, they should look to add one more piece.
Against the Utah Jazz, Tobias Harris entered overtime with just nine points. But, at the behest of Joel Embiid — who is himself in the midst of his own MVP season — head coach Doc Rivers chose to feature Harris and fed him in the post.
And, for their trust, Harris rewarded the Philadelphia 76ers with multiple huge buckets to close out a season-defining win.
There was plenty to take away from the game, but those last five minutes stood out. In recent seasons, the 76ers have struggled to close out games consistently, especially on the biggest stage. But, during that most recent game (and through much of the season’s first half), Philadelphia has looked their best when it’s mattered most. They sport the league’s seventh-best offensive rating and fourth-best field goal percentage in clutch minutes, per NBA.com. When faced with a top-10 defense, they jump to fourth in offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass.
While the regular season data is auspicious, it might not mean much. Particularly in this weird season where a lack of offseason conditioning and empty arenas have led many teams into a lull to start the year. Additionally, the clutch data on NBA.com can be a bit unreliable; for reference, the 2017-18 76ers finished fourth in clutch time offensive rating before that number collapsed in the playoffs.
That said, there are certainly differences in this team to be encouraged by.
For starters, Embiid has clearly taken a leap. He’s hitting 53 percent of his long twos and 41 percent of his threes this season, per Cleaning the Glass, while his face-up shooting and post-up game have been as efficient as ever. Arguably his biggest step this season, however, has been his fitness, which would now seem to be at the point where Embiid can stay on the attack for an entire game.
While a bit more subtle than Embiid, Ben Simmons has also improved. While he’s still a non-shooter, Simmons has been more far more aggressive on offense, particularly over the last month. He’s also improved his free throw percentage to just over 70 percent in that span.
The play of those two, along with a rejuvenated and motivated Harris, has been enough to carry the team to the top of the Eastern Conference this season. Now, the question for Elton Brand and Daryl Morey is simple: do they believe those improvements are enough to push the team through the postseason?
Like every contender, the 76ers could and should make some minor additions and adjustments before the trade deadline. While they lead the East, Philadelphia’s net rating is three points worse than both the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, the conference’s second and third seeds, respectively. In fact, the 76ers’ plus-3.1 number is just eighth in the league. The disparity between their record and net rating can be largely attributed to the fragile construction of their bench; when Embiid and Simmons share the court, Philadelphia is crushing teams and posting a plus-15.1 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass; when either of them sits, the number plummets.
As currently constructed, the roster is akin to a house of cards: strong and sturdy when everyone is involved, but when one piece is removed the entire structure collapses. The struggles sans Embiid and or Simmons have been well-documented, but it goes beyond just the two stars. When Seth Curry missed time due to COVID-19, the lack of spacing was near-detrimental to the offense. When Shake Milton missed a few games, the bench went to wrack and ruin without a solid ball-handler to generate offense.
With that in mind, the 76ers are likely to be in the market for at least another ball-handler and a floor-spacing big man. Delon Wright, George Hill and Nemanja Bjelic, three players that would fit and shore up the team’s shaky reserves have been floated as possible additions.
But, was Philadelphia to go on a deep postseason run, those additions would only ever provide spot minutes. If they truly want to make a run with their current core, the 76ers must aim higher.
Morey, more than anyone in the team’s front office, should know this. With the Houston Rockets, Morey went all-in on Chris Paul as James Harden ascended to superstardom. In seven games, they came just short of an NBA Finals appearance, felled by one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen assembled. But, had Morey not pulled the trigger, the Rockets probably never get that far.
If they do look to add a big name, the pickings will be slim. The clear need is in the backcourt, particularly someone with range that can create out of the pick-and-roll.
Of course, that’s arguably the league’s highest-valued skill set. Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine, the two that best fit the bill, are likely unavailable, with both of their teams aiming for a playoff berth. CJ McCollum, another name frequently brought up in 76ers’ trade talks, is injured and just as unlikely to be moved.
So, who is obtainable and could get the job done? Kyle Lowry or Victor Oladipo likely represent the team’s best-case scenario.
Lowry, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, is the heart and soul of a surging Toronto Raptors squad. But the door is open, as parting ways would seem to beneficial to both parties. Unlikely to compete for a title, Masai Ujiri and Toronto could cash out their aging star before his eventual exit and build around Pascal Siakam. Meanwhile, Lowry, 34, might want to compete for another title, with Toronto or not, sooner rather than later.
As for Oladipo, Houston would be crazy not to move him. 28-years-old and also an unrestricted free agent, Oladipo should be the furthest thing from a fixture in the team’s post-Harden plan. Unlikely to re-sign, the Rockets should recoup what they can from a team that might not mind losing Oladipo to free agency.
Lowry would be the more expensive of the two. But, at this point, he is the better player and the Raptors have more reasons to hold the face of their franchise. That said, almost any deal, even if it were to include a young player like Tyrese Maxey or multiple draft picks, would be worth it for a player of Lowry’s caliber. Oladipo would be a decent consolation — and cost significantly less — but he may not be enough to push the 76ers over the edge.
Beyond those two, the right fit is hard to find. Buddy Hield would be nice (and is a rumor mill fixture), but the Sacramento Kings have shown no desire to trade either him or Harrison Barnes. Evan Fournier is another name that could work but, while it seems as if he’s been on the block for years, Orlando has yet to move him; is this the year they finally cut him loose? Given the emergence of Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball, Devonte’ Graham could also prove a cheap but worthwhile addition as well.
Regardless of their target, Philadelphia must seize the moment. Embiid has played like an MVP, Simmons a Defensive Player of the Year and Harris is in the midst of a career-year as well; to let all that come and go and not so much as sniff the NBA Finals would be a major missed opportunity.
There are many reasons to feel good about the current 76ers roster, but they can — and must — think bigger.