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Could It Be One Or The Other In Philadelphia?

The Sixers have had one of the most talked-about offseasons this summer with no one knowing what their fate will be. Matt John provides a theory that could make sense of the moves they made.

Matt John

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When Philadelphia started this whole “process,” the endgame in mind was bringing in multiple franchise cornerstones with high lottery picks that the franchise hoped would come.

From 2013 to 2017, this yielded mixed results. The Sixers had a few disasters along the way, but time was on their side, and they even made up for some of their missteps. When the Hinkie era was done and over with, Philadelphia came away with two of the league’s elite youngsters – Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Look where it’s gotten them. The Philadelphia 76ers are considered among the cream of the crop. They haven’t had the most playoff success tied to their name in the last two postseasons, but through all the hysteria that they’ve gone through, they’re projected to go potentially the furthest they’ve gone in years.

Yet, despite their roster currently possessing enough talent to be a finals contender, there remains plenty of skepticism surrounding how all the pieces fit. This writer’s already dove into why the Sixers have to be optimistic about their chances, even if whether their roster can put it all together the way it’s currently constructed remains a tossup. Twice in fact.

This isn’t meant to be a rehash of what’s already been said. This is meant to try to make sense of this new roster that Philly has on its hands. Let’s begin by talking about the projected third and fourth cog in Philly’s pecking order: Tobias Harris and Al Horford. In order to do that, we have to… well, rehash what’s already been said, but only in a very small portion.

From last week.

“Horford’s best position is center, but he’ll be playing at power forward. Harris’ best position is power forward, but he’ll be playing at small forward. If you put those guys in their natural positions, this is a team that fits perfectly around Ben Simmons.”

First things first, why are those guys best used at those specific positions? In Horford’s case, he’s not a bad option at power forward. In fact, he and Aron Baynes at power forward and center respectively had a killer net rating over the past two years when they paired up together in the frontcourt (plus-20.4 in 2018-2019 and plus-12.1 in 2017-2018). If that Horford shows up, he and Embiid could make some magic.

But the likelihood of that happening isn’t high. As Horford continues to age, his versatility as a big decreases. At 33 years old, Al’s odometer will only climb higher and higher. It wouldn’t be as much of a concern if it weren’t for Horford’s injury troubles last year. Throughout the season, Horford had knee tendinitis bothering him for the majority of the season, especially on back-to-backs.

Al’s played the majority of his career at center. The Sixers could play him and Embiid together in short spurts, but with Al’s prime winding down, that just might be an unplayable option. “Unplayable option” doesn’t sound too sexy when you’re paying the man $28 million a year.

Then there’s Harris. By all means, Tobias Harris was a brilliant addition that was worth the price the Sixers paid to get him. He’s always been an efficient scorer, and despite the low percentage he shot in the short sample of games he played as a Sixer last year – 32 percent – his three-point percentage of 40 or higher over the last three years makes him a deadly option from deep.

His offensive firepower also comes with his defensive shortcomings. Harris has never been a plus-defender in the NBA, which is why over the past few years, his teams have preferred the 6-foot-9 wing playing at the power forward position. The last time Harris played the majority of his minutes at small forward was back in 2015 (72 percent) for a bad Orlando team, and that number has dwindled into the single digits since.

Just look at the five-man lineups Harris was involved in with both the Clippers and the Sixers from this past season. All of the best ones featured him at the four. In fact, did you know that for both Philly and LA, Harris played more of his minutes at center than small forward?

And now he’s going back to the three, where he played exactly two percent of his minutes last year. Much like Horford, this could work, but recent history proves otherwise. In summary, Harris and Horford are slated to play in positions that they may not be suited for, which could send Philly scrambling if they’re not able to put them in a role that they can thrive.

Which ties us back to Simmons and Embiid. Despite both possessing extraordinary talents, their fit together isn’t perfect. The primary concern in regards to them is that in a league that rewards floor spacers and punishes lack of floor spacing, neither Simmons or Embiid are reliable in that department.

Now Embiid definitely tries, Bless him, but his three-pointer has yet to be established as a threat. Despite a gradual uptake in three-point shots taken in his first three years, Embiid’s a career 31.5 percent shooter with no signs of improvement. Simmons is a different story to put it lightly.

Because Simmons’ lack of a jumper stands out more – since frankly it’s shown no signs of existing – it’s become a joke that’s been run into the ground about as much as the “LeBron doesn’t have a fourth quarter” zingers we heard on repeat back in 2011. If not, more so.

Both Simmons and Embiid have shown that they have enough talent to make it work, but their demons shooting-wise are a problem that could show itself in a much worse fashion with JJ Redick headed off to New Orleans. Two years in, nobody’s saying it’s time for a change, but the prospect of those two being split up has been brought up.

If the Sixers were to decide who to trade between the two, the consensus choice would be Simmons because the holes in his game stand out a little more evidently than Embiid’s does. Even though he brings so much to the table, Simmons’ jumper will remain a nonfactor until he proves otherwise. No matter what workout videos may get released.

But here’s a crazy thought- why make a leopard change its spots? Does Simmons really have to change his game if he’s surrounded by good shooters, like the likes of Harris, Horford and Josh Richardson? We’ve seen in small doses that Simmons can be a scoring threat with the right guys around him. In these small doses, Embiid was usually either not playing, not having a good game, or the opponent was too easy for those two to not dominate together.

The one Simmons game that really made him stand out as a scorer was Game 3 between the Sixers and the Nets. In that game, Ben usually put up his usual stats. A stat line of nine rebounds and four assists is like every other Tuesday, but the 31 points that he put up was a new wrinkle. Simmons picked his spots and dominated the Nets. He hardly had any jumper to speak of, and yet he ran the Nets off their own floor.

And his starting center that game was none other than Greg Monroe, who will be suiting up for Bayern Munich in the BBL this season. That was the only game Embiid missed because of a knee injury. Joel didn’t miss another game in the postseason, and Simmons never looked nearly as dominant scoring-wise again. Coincidence? You decide.

So maybe. Just maybe, if the Sixers were to split these two up, would the one that might be on the outside looking in be Joel Embiid? Crazy talk, you might think. One good game and suddenly Simmons one-ups the man who finished seventh in MVP voting this season?

Simmons as of right now has not proven himself to be a better talent than Embiid. That excerpt was supposed to show that perhaps Embiid’s presence is what’s holding Simmons back from reaching the superstar status that many believe is within his grasp.

But there’s a more pressing concern for Joel – his durability. He’s shown that he can run out of gas. As promising as the Sixers’ outlook is, he’s coming off of an all-around awful playoff performance against the Raptors. In that series, he averaged 17.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and four turnovers on 36/32/79 splits.

Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka deserve credit for the job they did on Embiid, but the most concerning stat of all is that he only played 34 minutes in a tight seven-game series. When you’re the best player, you shouldn’t be playing the fourth-highest number of minutes on the team in that series. When the going got tough, he folded.

Now we’ve heard reports that Embiid’s a changed man physically. That he’s changed his diet and is committed to making sure his body will be ready for the long haul. Much like these workout videos with Simmons’ jumper, that should firmly be in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” file.

Besides, when you factor in that Harris and Horford are meant to play the four and five respectively – and that they are reliable floor spacers for Simmons to use to the best of his abilities – maybe Philly doesn’t want to take that risk with Joel again.

If it weren’t for the signing of Al Horford, Philly would have the time to sort out where to go with their two franchise cornerstones, but with Al onboard, that started the timer for Philly’s window. Doing something as drastic as trading one of them is not something that they have to do ASAP, but they should keep in mind.

The Sixers as a whole may not be better off without Embiid, but Ben Simmons has shown that he just might. If Embiid’s conditioning stays the same, that it may be more obvious who Philly should put its trust in.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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