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2015-16 Houston Rockets Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Houston Rockets’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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The Houston Rockets had an interesting 2014-15 season. They were seriously depleted throughout the season, but still managed to nab a high playoff spot and advance to the Western Conference Finals.

This summer, the Rockets improved in two ways. One, they pounced on Ty Lawson when his relationship with the Denver Nuggets had soured, picking up the speedy point guard without giving up much. But perhaps more importantly, they got healthy. I mean, a 37-year-old Jason Terry was their starting point guard in the postseason once Patrick Beverley went down last season.

Now, they are back at full strength with Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas back. Motiejunas missed the final 11 games of the regular season and the entire playoffs. Jones was injured five games into the season, missed almost three months and thencame back, but was injured a few other times throughout the year. Beverley missed several games early in the season, but then was out for the rest of the year starting in late March with a wrist injury. Superstar Dwight Howard also missed a huge chunk of the year with an injury.

This team seems on the precipice of greatness. They have two superstars in James Harden (an MVP candidate last year) and Howard, and they have good role players and young developing talent. This could be their year if everything breaks right.

Five Thoughts

Even if the Rockets hadn’t have traded for Ty Lawson, they still would’ve been considered among the favorites in the West this upcoming season. But finally getting that much-needed point guard is only going to open things for up this team even more. Guarding James Harden just got a lot more difficult with Lawson in the backcourt, and spreading the court out only means good things for Trevor Ariza’s three-point volume. Dwight Howard shouldn’t be any less effective than he was a year ago, and the power forward rotation (Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Montrezl Harrell) is one of the best in the NBA. This team is going to be insanely entertaining, but more importantly they’re also going to be insanely good.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The Rockets snapped their first-round elimination streak by reaching the Western Conference Finals last season. Once there, though, the Golden State Warriors took the series, 4-1. The Rockets have proven they can win consistently over 82 games; now, the challenge is becoming a team that could win a title. The team gets Patrick Beverley, who missed the postseason due to injury, back while looking to fill the void of Josh Smith, who left for the Los Angeles Clippers. One of the more significant changes is the addition of Ty Lawson. Any time a team brings in a new point guard, especially one who has had troubles with previous teams, there could be a transition period on the floor. Given their talent, the Rockets should still be a lock for the playoffs.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

-Jessica Camerato

The Houston Rockets have posted back to back 50-plus win campaigns and last season reached the Western Conference Finals. The Dwight Howard and James Harden era has gotten off to a solid start. But more will be expected of this unit during the 2015-16 campaign. The low-risk, high-reward addition of Ty Lawson could help push the team over the hump, if the veteran floor general is focused on basketball. Harden is a perennial MVP candidate and although showing signs of decline, Howard remains a force on the interior. Another 50-win campaign is a near certainty, but this team will ultimately be judged on their playoff success.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

-Lang Greene

This is obviously a talented team and I like the addition of Ty Lawson since they didn’t have to give up much and he agreed to make the final year of his contract non-guaranteed. However, when I look at Houston, I still think they’re a tier below the top teams in the Western Conference like the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. They may prove me wrong, but I have them finishing as the fifth-seed at best this year, and I can’t see them representing the West in the Finals.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

-Alex Kennedy

I have a lot of respect for the Rockets and what they accomplished last season. After losing so many of their pieces from the 2012-13 season, there were some who wondered if they would even be a playoff team last year. Josh Smith became an important player for them and Pablo Prigioni gave them good minutes as well, so I think their losses will hurt. I am on the fence as to how I feel about Ty Lawson. His talent is undeniable but he is going to take touches and shots away from James Harden and it’s natural to wonder if that’s a good thing considering the success they had last year. I still think the Rockets are one player away from being a serious contender out West, but I was proven wrong last year. Let’s recall that they were one James Harden buzzer-beater away from being locked into a 2-2 series against the Warriors. I’d be surprised if the Spurs aren’t the top team in the Southwest but I doubt the Rockets will be far behind.

2nd Place — Southwest Division

-Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

“The Beard” is the only person who could fill this slot for the Rockets. He is a scoring machine. He gets to the free throw line with ease, his Euro-step is legendary and his shot is deadly. His offensive prowess can never be doubted.

With his high-usage as the team’s number one offensive option, especially once injuries forced him to carry the team, it’s impressive that Harden shot 44 percent overall and 37.5 percent from deep last year. Also, as the player who attempted by far, the most free throws, he sure made the most of them, shooting nearly 87 percent from the charity stripe. Seriously, in 2014-15 he attempted 170 more free throws over the course of the season than the next closest player (Russell Westbrook’s 654), and 283 more than the third player on the list (DeMarcus Cousins’ 541). Both Westbrook and Cousins missed significant time last year, but it still goes to illustrate Harden’s amazing offensive ability to get to the line.

Top Defensive Player: Dwight Howard

While Patrick Beverley deserves credit for his tough defense too, it’s clear that the 29-year-old Howard (who won Defensive Player of the Year three times in a row from 2009-2011) should receive this spot. Howard has been hobbled a bit by injuries, but when healthy, he’s still got it.

Not only does he block shots (as he does in spectacular fashion, at a rate of 1.3 per game), more importantly he changes shots in the lane and discourages opponents from taking many attempts near the hoop when he is patrolling the paint. That’s all in help defense, but Howard also guards his man well and finishes the play by securing a ton of rebounds to the tune of 10.5 a game in 2014-15. If healthy, Howard could challenge for Defensive Player of the Year honors again.

Top Playmaker: Ty Lawson

Of course, resolving Lawson’s documented off-court issues with alcohol will be a priority for him and the team, but if he can get on the court, he will really help the Rockets get over the hump. If Lawson plays to his full potential and fits with Houston, he helps them in their quest for a title. The 27-year-old averaged 9.6 assists last year, which put him third in the league, only behind Chris Paul and John Wall. If he’s starting or coming off the bench, Lawson will jump-start the offense, getting everyone involved and taking the ball to the hoop if the situation calls for it.

Best Clutch Player: James Harden

This category has to belong to The Beard. With the game on the line, he’s going to have the ball in his hands. He can get to the hoop and finish in the lane if they do a high pick-and-roll, he is one of the best isolation players in the NBA, he can shoot it from deep if you need a three and he can draw a foul and then be money from the line. He’s easily the number one option in crunch time for Houston.

Unheralded Player: Donatas Motiejunas

Motiejunas has been unheralded since he came into the league three years ago. That’s all going to change this year. He is somewhat less physically gifted than starting power forward Terrence Jones, but is more skilled. Motiejunas is a seven-footer, who can shoot and has an arsenal of post moves. In that sense, he is comparable to former Houston mainstay Luis Scola, but is five inches taller, can shoot from deep and is much more agile.

It isn’t far fetched to think by the end of the year, Motiejunas will have surpassed Jones on the depth chart and be in the conversation for the Most Improved Player award. The only question for him is his health. The talent and opportunity are already there for him.

Best New Addition: Ty Lawson

Lawson has to be the best addition to the Rockets. They drafted a couple guys in Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, but Lawson is obviously the biggest addition. He was Daryl Morey’s splashy move that could put Houston over the top if all goes as planned.

He is fast. Really fast. Lawson can handle the ball, meaning that the offense won’t stall if Harden doesn’t have it. Harden will usually have the ball and initiate the offense, but now he won’t have to. Lawson can run the break and defend his position (not as well as Beverley, but he brings a lot more to offense) and he should take some of the load off of Harden.

-Eric Saar

Who We Like

Trevor Ariza: He is a good all-around player. He can do pretty much everything well, but nothing at an elite level. With defenses focusing all their attention on Harden on the perimeter and on Howard in the paint, Ariza will fill it up as a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s a good 3-and-D player to have in the starting lineup around superstars, and he makes up for the deficiencies of the other players in the starting five. For example, Houston can switch the defensive assignments of Harden and Ariza so Harden doesn’t get torched and so he can save his energy for offense.

Terrence Jones: As of now, Jones is the starting power forward for the Rockets. He is an energy guy for sure, but he’s more than just that. He has some definite skill. While he doesn’t shoot much from deep, last year he converted on a little over 35 percent of his three-point attempts, which is quite good for someone his size. He may lose his starting spot to Motiejunas as the season progresses, but possibly not if he can consistently hit the deep ball with more volume, spacing the floor to help out Howard and Harden.

Patrick Beverley: Depending on the status of Lawson, Beverley could be starting alongside Harden like last year or be an absolute lockdown defender on the second unit. There is something to be said for a team being able to lockdown their opponents’ “spark off the bench.” If the opposing team’s bench can’t get anything going offensively, their starters have to come back in earlier than usual, causing them to be more tired at the end of the game. If Beverley is coming off the bench, he’ll need to work on his playmaking as he won’t be able to rely on Harden to initiate the offense. It’s also possible we’ll see Lawson and Beverley alternate as starters depending on matchups.

Corey Brewer: Brewer is like that energy guy in pickup basketball that plays intense defense on one end and is also somehow the first guy to leak out for the easy “almost cherry-picking bucket.” The 29-year-old journeyman can hit the occasional three-pointer, but doesn’t have a great percentage from behind the line. He is that spark (in every facet of the game) for the Rockets and always give them a chance to get back in the contest with his smart hustle plays.

Sam Dekker: Dekker, along with Montrezl Harrell, were great additions to Houston’s depth acquired through the draft. Dekker will probably play more than Harrell because he is a bit more polished and can stretch the floor with his three-ball. There aren’t too many minutes available for Dekker or Harrell, but regardless, they could make an impact for the Rockets, especially if there’s an injury.

Clint Capela: Right now, Clint Capela is the only backup center to Dwight Howard, although Motiejunas can play center in a pinch if called upon. The 21-year-old from Switzerland hasn’t played much, but there certainly is potential there. The Rockets could be in a bind if Howard gets hurt, because Capela is so raw, but the young center will be able to learn from Howard, continue his development and potentially make an impact in his reserve role.

-Eric Saar

Strengths

You can certainly see Daryl Morey’s fingerprints on this team’s offensive philosophy, as they focused on threes a lot last year. The Rockets were first in three-pointers attempted and made last season, while they were dead last in two-pointers attempted. They also excel at playing fast, as they had the second-fastest pace in the league.

Led by Harden and Ariza, the Rockets ended up third in the league in steals with 777 on the season, which ends up being just under 9.5 steals per game as a team. To further illustrate this point, Houston forced their opponent into a turnover 14.6 percent of the time, which was fifth-best in the league. Also, last season, the Rockets were great at causing poor shots from deep. Houston ranked first in opponents’ three-point percentage in 2014-15.

-Eric Saar

Weaknesses

Many players on the Rockets can’t shoot free throws. They were second in free throws attempted and fifth in free throws made, due to the Hack-a-Howard strategy some Rockets’ opponents employed and Harden’s knack for getting to the line. All of Houston’s big man rotation from last year (Howard, Jones, Motiejunas, etc.) shot free throws basically right at 60 percent or worse, bringing down the team’s average to 71 percent, making them the fourth-worst free throw shooting team in the NBA.

While the Rockets are the seventh-best offensive rebounding team, they are horrible rebounders on the defensive end. They grab the defensive rebound 72.9 percent of the time, which is third-worst in the NBA.

The Rockets are a turnover and foul prone team. They committed 16.7 turnovers per game, which puts them as the third-worst team in that category. They were also the fourth-worst team in terms of committing fouls with 22 per game.

-Eric Saar

The Burning Question

Will the Rockets be able to stay healthy enough to reach their full potential?

Really, health is the biggest question with this team. They clearly have the talent (in superstars and quality role players). They have a good coach in Kevin McHale. They have continuity and chemistry within the team, aside from adding a talented piece in Lawson over the summer. The only obstacle is can this team stay healthy enough throughout the season to make the playoffs (almost certainly) and will they be at full strength for a Finals run? The answer to that question will largely determine just how well this season goes for Houston.

-Eric Saar

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NBA Daily: With Harden in Tow, it’s Championship or Bust for Brooklyn

Adding another former MVP to an already talented Nets team means higher expectations in Kings County. Drew Maresca identifies the major challenges remaining for the Brooklyn Nets.

Drew Maresca

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Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that the Brooklyn Nets pulled off what will go down as the blockbuster deal of 2020-21. Just last week, the Nets added James Harden for Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and future draft swaps and picks. While the deal was more complicated than even that sounds, the fact of the matter is that the Nets added another superstar– and you know what they say, the team that gives up the star rarely wins the trade.

With Harden in tow, the Nets are now equipped to compete with anyone in the NBA thanks to its newly-minted big three. But there is a downside to the Harden deal, too. The Nets entered the season with incredible depth. But after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a knee injury and trading away LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Allen, they’ve thinned out, probably too much, for their own comfort.

The Nets’ depth is an issue that will be challenging to solve. What’s more, how will they arrange Kyrie Irving and Harden to get the most production out of them? And how does rookie head coach Steve Nash respond to the first-time challenges of overseeing a championship-caliber team?

Regardless, our first look at the Nets was pretty darn impressive. Brooklyn beat the Orlando Magic on Saturday, getting 42 points from Kevin Durant and a 30-point triple-double from Harden that also included 14 assists. The Nets will boast one of the league’s most talented starting lineups once Irving returns– which could happen as soon as today – but don’t be fooled, there are still challenges on the horizon, and they’re all internal.

How do Irving and Harden fit together?

Harden might look like a shooting guard and Irving is obviously a point guard, but that doesn’t mean that they fit together. Harden is at his best initiating the offense, and since joining Houston in 2012-13, he hasn’t posted a usage rate lower than 27.8 but has gotten as high as 40.5 (2018-19). Further, he’s averaged 9.5 assists or more in each of the last five seasons, tallying at least 10 assists per game in three of the last five. While his style is clearly isolation-heavy, it looks like he’s finally willing to take a bit of a backseat now that he’s playing alongside his buddy and former-MVP in Durant.

Irving is another player high-usage player, with a usage rate of 30 or more in four of the past five seasons. While he looks more like a traditional point guard than Harden, his career totals don’t necessarily back that up. Unlike Harden, Irving has never averaged 10 assists per game. He averages only 5.7 assists per game for his career with a high of 6.9 in Boston during 2018-19.

Maybe the solution is letting Irving play off the ball. But there’s a problem with that initiative, will Irving accept it? Irving hasn’t been heard from since leaving the team for personal reasons following the Jan. 6 event in Washington D.C. Has his absence been a social commentary? Was it a power play forcing Brooklyn’s hand to trade for Harden? Or maybe it’s all enigmatic of a bigger personal problem with which Irving is dealing? Only time will tell, but Brooklyn can’t be too comfortable – unless they already know the answer.

Lack of depth is a problem

Obviously, the Nets are more than Durant, Harden and Irving. But do they have enough to get over the hump? After all, fair or not, it’s championship or bust. Yes, the Nets also have Joe Harris, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And, sure, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been a great surprise, while lots will be expected of Landry Shamet. But that’s it.

There’s also Nic Claxton, but there are two main problems with expecting significant contributions from him – Nash said he isn’t expected back soon and he’s extremely untested. Sure, Claxton is talented, having drawn comparisons to Chris Bosh, but he only appeared in 15 games during his rookie season, averaging just 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds over 12.5 minutes of action.

But the idea that the Nets are undermanned is about more than a missing piece. Firstly, the Nets don’t have a reliable scorer in the second unit. If Dinwiddie were healthy, they’d be in significantly better shape with him anchoring the second team. Granted, if managed correctly and everyone stays healthy, one of Irving, Durant and Harden will be on the floor at all times. But it’s impossible to ensure that health will prevail and Irving hasn’t even rejoined the team yet, so there is deeper uncertainty around their rotation and the fit for now.

Focusing on health for a moment, we’re still dead smack in the middle of a pandemic. And in 2020-21, teams can’t operate under traditional norms. Losing a player to COVID would do the Nets a huge disservice, losing two or three nearly renders them unable to play. But more importantly, losing any one of their big three hurts badly and changes the entire makeup of the team. The Nets are incredibly top-heavy and once they establish chemistry amongst their three stars, proceeding without one would of them will be a major hindrance. Losing two of them would be a death blow.

Nash’s first rodeo

On top of all of the team’s issues, Nash is in his first season as a head coach – or even being a part of any coaching staff whatsoever.

Throughout his 18-year career, Nash developed a reputation as an extremely high-IQ player – but how will that convert to leading a team from the sideline with such high expectations? Granted, he knew exactly what was expected of the Nets when he accepted the position – but the Harden trade comes even more pressure.

As of the deal, the Nets became easily the most polarizing team in the association. Even before adding another former MVP, the Nets did their best to better position Nash by adding two-tie Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni to their bench, which already featured an experienced assistant in Jacque Vaughn. But while the team may have a disproportionately accomplished coaching staff, all of the questions will be directed squarely at Nash come the playoffs and beyond.

For what it is worth, rookie coaches have fared pretty well of late. While it might not affect the Nets directly, three of the nine rookie coaches to go on to win a championship in their first season did so in the past six seasons –  Steve Kerr, Ty Lue and Nick Nurse. While no two coaches are the same, the fact that rookie coaches have been so successful of late speaks to the idea that teams are doing a better job of identifying raw coaching talent – and Nash is as raw as it comes.

It’s hard to find fault in Brooklyn’s desire to add Harden and the fact that they just added another top-five player to an already insanely-talented roster is flat-out unfair. But now the bar has forever changed: anything less than an NBA Finals’ appearance will be judged as a failure, even that could be deemed an underperformance. While greater expectations mean you’re closer to success in the NBA, the team also ponied up its future through 2026.

Good luck, Brooklyn, no pressure.

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NBA Daily: First Time All-Star Watch

From Christian Wood to Jaylen Brown, these are the breakout players reaching for their first-ever All-Star appearances.

Dylan Thayer

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In this feature for Basketball Insiders, we will take a look at players who have started hot out of the gate, and have vastly improved. The article will touch upon new faces in new roles, as well as players who have expanded their previous roles with their teams. The league has a pretty good amount of guys who have earned All-Star appearances previously in their careers, but the players in this article are ready to add their name to the list 𑁋 so without further ado 𑁋 let’s take a look at five players who are cementing their names around the league. 

Christian Wood

To the casual fan, Christian Wood is having a huge surprise season. But for the people who had him on their radar, and knew he could succeed with more minutes and a larger role, you were right. The 25-year-old began his journeyman career with the Philadelphia 76ers as an undrafted free agent out of UNLV. He then played for the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and now the Houston Rockets. In his first 10 games this year, he is putting up 23.2 points per game to go along with 10.9 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game, per NBA.com. This is a major improvement for a guy who only averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year as a rotational player for the Pistons. Wood’s remarkable season thus far has put the league on notice and shown he is the clear frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award.

Julius Randle

In his seventh season, Julius Randle has finally become a star in the Big Apple for the New York Knicks. Randle spent the first five seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, before signing with the Knicks before the 2019-20 season. This year, Randle has taken the lead role on the team becoming an above-average facilitator, while also raising his shooting percentages and totals.

According to Basketball-Reference, Randle is having a career-best season so far averaging 23.2 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game, and 6.7 assists per game along with shooting 50.2 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from three and 78.2 percent from the free-throw line 𑁋 all career highs. Randle’s play helped the Knicks get off to a 5-3 start before a recent five-game losing skid. Randle’s ascension as a player, as well as providing Knicks fans with a glimmer of hope, make him a good bet to represent the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game this season if there is such an event.

CJ McCollum

Yes, CJ is the well-known sidekick to Damian Lillard for the Portland Trail Blazers, but this season has seen him steal some of the spotlights. Through the first 12 games of the season, McCollum has three 30-point games –including a 44-point and 8-assist performance against the Rockets – plus another 37-point outing to boot. His per-game numbers increased in points, assists, steals and three-point percentage, thus resulting in a very impressive 27.6 PPG, 5.3 APG, 1.4 SPG and 43.4 percent from deep. 

McCollum has done enough as a player to this point to establish himself as an above-average player in the NBA – but with the way he’s playing this year, he could be in line for his first All-Star selection. The lethal backcourt of Lillard and McCollum has led to a hot start this year – but the injury bug continues to haunt the team again this year. Already, they’ve lost Jusuf Nurkic for eight weeks and potentially now McCollum with a left foot sprain too, per Chris Haynes.

Jerami Grant

The Detroit Pistons made a really good decision to bring in free agent Jerami Grant on a three-year deal. The 6-foot-8 small forward has been putting up career-best numbers and his play for the Denver Nuggets during their Western Conference Finals run at the bubble helped get him this deservedly big contract. In the team’s first 12 games this season, Grant is averaging 24.8 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game, while also improving his free throw percentage and shot-creating opportunities. Unfortunately, it’s likely that he’ll miss out on any real All-Star chatter, given his place on one of the worst teams in the league – but the all-around improvement is there. 

Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown, the former third overall pick out of California, has molded himself into a star this season for the Boston Celtics. Brown’s improvement has been no secret around the league, especially after an Eastern Conference Finals run this past season – but this year he looks like he belongs up there with the best. Brown has been relentless in taking the ball to the rim and using his body to create contact when going up. He has also boosted his points per game from 20.3 to 25.8, while also adding more assists to his game with 3.9 per game. Brown should be a first-time All-Star this season with the Celtics currently sitting atop the conference. 

These players are all having breakout seasons and have well-earned consideration for their first All-Star appearances this year. Of course, the game is not happening this year with the pandemic, but the players will still be recognized and added to the history books for their achievements, so the honor remains large all the same. Whether they make it or not is yet to be determined – but with the sample size of games played to date, they’re right in the conversation.  

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NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.

Quinn Davis

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Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.

The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?

Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.

Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.

Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.

A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.

But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.

All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.

That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.

The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.

Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.

Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.

It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.

Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.

If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.

While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.

The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.

In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.

If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.

Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.

Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.

The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.

And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.

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