When you take a look around the NBA you see a landscape that is home to an array of offensively impressive basketball teams. In Golden State, the Warriors may have the best offense ever assembled. Oklahoma City has three of the best scorers in the league in their starting lineup. Houston shoots three-pointers at a blistering rate. LeBron James is still dominating in Cleveland. And Boston has arguably the league’s best finisher on its roster.
Over the last four years, when making your way down the list of offensive threats, the Philadelphia 76ers showed up last. Dead last.
Since 2013-14, the Sixers have registered the worst offensive rating in the league each season. While some of that may have been by design, and not putting guys on the floor that could make the shots necessary to generate wins, the team still maintained the worst offense in the NBA. On the other side of the ball, Philadelphia has made strides over the last handful of seasons, registering the 17th best defensive rating just a year ago.
But new days are on the horizon for the Sixers. With a host of new players at his disposal, head coach Brett Brown has hit the ground running during his first two days of training camp and likes the look of his team’s offensive potential.
“I think the personnel is going to help shield some of those problem areas that we have,” Brown said Wednesday at Sixers training camp. “Let’s go straight now to Ben (Simmons). I think with his skill package, talent, and height, that he’s going to see things ahead of him in a different sort of vision line, I’ve said that. I love the pace T.J. (McConnell) plays with, Ben can play fast as well. I think both T.J. and Ben are going reap the benefits of having a healthy Joel (Embiid), or J.J. (Redick) flying in. Or how do we use Markelle (Fultz) and Jerryd (Bayless)? I think all of those things will happen. I think we sort of expect our offense at some point will catch our defense.”
This offseason, the Sixers’ additions to their roster have been well-noted. 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz brings his silky smooth offensive game to the gym, J.J. Redick inked a massive contract to provide lights-out shooting from beyond the arc, and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons will finally be able to hit the court after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Simply put, Philadelphia shouldn’t finish with the worst offense in the league this season.
During camp on Wednesday, the team ran some live-action five-on-five scrimmaging. Simmons was acting as his team’s point guard, as Brown has been on record saying he will do, and for the majority was running with the likes of Fultz, Redick and Robert Covington as his perimeter players.
In a particular sequence, Simmons was able to grab a defensive rebound and used his ball-handling ability to push the tempo into a fast break situation. The end result was a corner three-point basket by Covington.
During the same span that the Sixers have been the worst offensive team in the NBA, they’ve actually maintained one of the league’s fastest paces. Last season, Philadelphia ran with the 5th ranked pace in the league, and during Brown’s first season with the team, they had the fastest pace of all 30 NBA clubs.
The bread and butter of Brown’s offense will be to outrun the opponent. With a 6-foot-10 point guard like Simmons now available and ready in the team’s stable, pushing a team into transition becomes a much easier task to accomplish. Running a well-executed transition offense can lead to a lot of open looks, and Simmons’ teammates are already taking notice.
“Ben puts a lot of pressure on defenses,” Covington said. “He can bust out get open ahead, kick it ahead, there are so many things he can do that come second nature to him. We’re just reading off of him. A lot of the time the ball’s going to be in his hands so we’re getting accustomed to him pushing the ball and attacking defenses and everything. He’s finding open guys, and a lot of guys been getting open shots.”
Through the first few days of training camp, Simmons wants to make sure that he stresses to his teammates if they are open in this new-look offense, he’ll find them.
“It’s not easy to play the point position, but I’m enjoying it,” Simmons said. “I’m getting better at that. Going up the floor, they know if they get to the corner I’ll find them.”
When the Sixers selected Fultz with the top pick in June’s draft, they did so with his potential pairing with Simmons in mind. Fultz is a scoring guard with the size to play either guard position and the shooting touch to play off of the ball. During his lone season at Washington, Fultz not only averaged over 23 points per game, but he also recorded nearly six assists a contest as well.
On the court together, Fultz and Simmons present a unique attack that defenses are going to struggle to stop.
“He played the one some, I played the one some,” Fultz said. “I love it. You don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s gonna push it sometimes, I’m gonna push it. I get to run the floor. I can set screens for him, he can set screens for me. It’s unpredictable. I feel sorry for the teams that have to go against that.”
Along with the culmination of Simmons and Fultz hitting the floor together, the Sixers are also returning this season their biggest free agent acquisition from last summer, Bayless. Last July, Bayless became the first notable player to sign a long-term deal with Philadelphia since the team embarked on The Process. However, a wrist injury forced Bayless to miss all but three games last season.
After coming over from the Milwaukee Bucks, who have an oversized ball-handler in their own right, Bayless brings another point of attack for the Sixers this season. Just two years removed from shooting 43.7 percent from deep, Bayless is looking to hit the court this season and remind the league why the Sixers gave him $27 million in the first place.
While it appears the noise around the Sixers and their budding potential has overshadowed the role Bayless could play this season, Brown certainly hasn’t lost sight of his potential to contribute.
“In the role that he’s at right now, and we’ve talked a lot about it, is trying to be that sort of lightning in a bottle scorer off of the bench at the start of the game,” Brown said. “We had Manu (Ginobili) do that, you see Jamal Crawford, everybody sort of has that type of guy.”
As the Sixers have shaped an offense that will focus on pace, they should be able to generate a lot of open looks on most nights. During training camp on Wednesday, that was on display more than a few times. As a result of that concept, the Sixers decided to pay Redick $23 million this summer to make sure that when they do get off and running, someone will be there to knock down the shot. A career 41.5 percent three-point shooter, Redick fills the mold nicely as a player who can make defenses pay for helping.
“Open the floor up, easy,” Fultz said of Redick’s ability. “Whoever’s guarding him can’t help, and if you do he’s gonna make the shot. He’s not only a shooter, he’s a playmaker, he sets screens, he drives to the rim. He does a little bit of everything.”
For a team that has struggled to fill up the scoreboard over the last four seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers and their new players are in a position to run all over opposing defenses this year.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.