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NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series with a look at the best free agents from the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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To say the events of the past three or so weeks were irregular would be the understatement of the year. And during an already tragic year for the NBA, the league made the tough choice to postpone the season, prior to government intervention, on Wednesday, Mar. 11.

In the two-plus weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutdowns, players have continued to entertain the league’s fans in creative and interactive ways. But watching our favorites play Call of Duty is no substitute for NBA action. Considering the remainder of the 2019-20 season isn’t a given at this point, Basketball Insiders has instead shifted its focus on the next guaranteed league-wide event – free agency.

Ben Nadeau covered the best free agents from the Northwest Division on Tuesday, while Spencer Davies identified the best free agents available from the Central Division yesterday. Next, let’s shift our focus to the Atlantic Division.

The Atlantic Division’s class is lacking true star power. There is no Anthony Davis, Mike Conley or Paul Milsap, either – and most of the established talent in the Atlantic is locked up well beyond 2020. But what the division lacks in established free agents, it makes up for in promise. A number of the following players are younger guys who have yet to fulfill their full potential and there might even be a few future All-Stars listed below.

So, for the next five or so minutes, forget about everything going on outside and dive into a rundown of the best free agents the Atlantic Division has to offer.

Most Likely To Be Priced Out Of His Current Team

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $9,346,153

Without question, VanVleet will be the most sought-after free agent from the Atlantic Division this offseason, whenever that is.

VanVleet turned 26 years old last month and was originally signed by the Raptors after going undrafted in 2016. He’s accumulated approximately $20 million in career earnings. While that’s better than more than 99% of us, his next contract will probably feature two commas and eight zeroes – that’s the kind of money most of us can’t fathom. And while there should be at least one more big payday for VanVleet after this one, the uncertainty of recent events might convince himself to secure his family sooner rather than later.

All indications point to VanVleet’s satisfaction with Toronto, too. He had this to say about his impending free agency last October in an interview on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid: “But, I mean, I’ve been on record about how I feel about this place,” the fourth-year guard said. “This organization knows how I feel about this place. So in a perfect world, we know what would happen.”

But in light of the volatility in global financial markets, does Toronto still believe that it can successfully build a contender around VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, knowing that it might be impossible to add more top-tier talent?

VanVleet is arguably the best point guard prospect in the 2020 class. While some teams will feel like paying more than $25 million per season for VanVleet is overkill given his height and limited athletic ability – others will see his season-to-season development, scrappiness and clutch play as more than worth it.

Most Likely To Look Elsewhere Due To Coaching Change

Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets – Unrestricted – $7,666,667

Harris’s situation is similar to VanVleet’s. Harris was the 33rd overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft by way of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite being in the league for two more years than VanVleet, they’ve made approximately the same total amount in career earnings.

Harris’ star has also never been brighter, except for maybe last season. He posted career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (4.3) and minutes per game (30.9) in 2019-20. He also shot a more-than-respectable 41.2 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per game this season, down from a ridiculous 47.4 percent in 2018-19. And he did all this inside the flow of the offense.

So why would the Nets let Harris leave, you ask? They won’t, if it is up to them. Harris is an unrestricted free agent, so where he plays next year and beyond is entirely up to him.

Why, then, might Harris explore leaving the Nets, a team with whom he would almost certainly compete for a championship next season? He probably wouldn’t have – until Mar. 7, when the Nets mutually parted ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson. Atkinson was the Nets coach for Harris’ entire tenure with the team, while the latter was a huge supporter of the former.

Additionally, there are the inevitable disruptions that playing alongside megastars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will bring – like decreased role and increased media scrutiny. Still, Brooklyn gave him a home after he was unceremoniously dumped in the G League — so, for now, only time will tell.

Most Likely To Prefer A Fresh Start  

Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks — Restricted — $3.551,100

Judging by Trier’s body language and decreased availability in the Knicks’ locker room in 2019-20, it’s safe to assume that he was less-than-pleased in New York this season.

He entered the NBA last season as an accomplished scorer whose draft stock took a hit after testing positive for Ostarine, a performance-enhancing drug. And despite inconsistent playing time, Trier’s rookie campaign reinforced the idea that he was more prepared to score at the professional level than scouts and executives thought. He averaged 10.9 points over 22.8 minutes per game during his rookie campaign and most people around the team felt he would develop into a dependable sixth man capable of providing off-the-bench punch.

But Trier’s role changed this year and he has played in 24 of the Knicks’ 66 games and posted just 6.5 points in 12.1 minutes per game.

Trier is already 24, older than most sophomores. But he’s also played for the Knicks, whose rotations have impeded the progress of a number of other younger players in the recent past (see: Frank Ntilikina). It would be shocking if new team president Leon Rose prioritizes a long-term deal for a player that’s been out of the rotation all season when the Knicks have so many other holes to fill.

But fear not, Iso-Zo fans, someone will take a chance on Trier. And he’ll look significantly better on a playoff roster, capitalizing on the spacing that talent affords.

Most Likely To Seek One Last Payday

Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,604

The Raptors are a tough team to peg. In spite of many proposing a rebuild in the days post-Kawhi Leonard, Toronto played out 2019-20 with their roster as is. As of the most recent day of the season, the Raptors were 46-18 – good for the third-best record in the entire league.

But like most great minds, team president Masai Ujiri is probably motivated by succeeding at seemingly impossible challenges – like a full-on rebuild. And this might be his best shot. The Raptors have a number of players entering unrestricted free agency, including headliners like Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet.

While the VanVleet situation is probably out of the team’s control, Ibaka and Gasol are realistic returnees – so long as it’s desired by the Raptors.

Gasol fits the profile of someone that can be brought back on an inexpensive deal. He’s already 35 and would dictate far less on the open market than Ibaka. On the other hand, Ibaka is somehow only 30 and played incredibly well in 2019-20, averaging 16 points and 8.3 rebounds over 27.5 minutes per game.

While his defensive prowess isn’t what it once was, he’s still more than serviceable and makes up for any regression with three-point shooting (39.8 percent) and versatility.

With tough financial decisions ahead, the Raptors will probably let Ibaka walk without making too strong of a recruiting pitch. But what team offers him the kind of money that lures him out of Canada is anyone’s guess.

Most Likely To Leave Early To Cash In On A Weak Class

Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics — Player Option — $32,700,690

This one is probably a stretch. Elfrid Payton is more likely to be cut loose by New York, as is Bobby Portis and Wayne Ellington. Further, Brad Wanamaker is more likely to leave Boston than Hayward. But it’s infinitely more fun to consider the possibility of Hayward fleeing Beantown, isn’t it?

This concept is complicated by two key points: Hayward won’t command anywhere near the $34 million he’ll walk away from next season, while he’s probably never been happier with a coaching staff considering coach Brad Stevens was also his college leader at Butler.

But there’s a key incentive driving this hypothetical, too –  if Hayward opts out, he can guarantee himself a multi-year contract worth more in 2020 than he’ll be able to negotiate in the competitive class of 2021. And in the eternal words of DJ Quick, if it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.

It may even be the right time for Hayward to seek a new contract, too. He’s scoring 17 or more points per game for the first time since 2016-17. Better, he’s proven to be healthy, score in bunches and make players for those around him. The long-time Jazz-standout is now averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 33.4 minutes per game – all as he shoots 39.2 percent on three-pointers and slightly above 50 percent from the field.

And if Boston is unwilling to spend because it understands future needs like Jayson Tatum must be met, the situation between Hayward and the Celtics can become contentious.

Most Likely To Split For A More Defined Role

Glen Robinson III, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted – $1,882,867

Dust-ups happen and teams and players do their best to publicly make nice afterward for the greater good. Basketball Insiders’ own Spencer Davies broke the news in February that Robinson III was confused with his role in Philadelphia.

The 76ers are well-stocked at the wing position and, as a 26-year-old journeyman, Robinson III certainly knows that he’ll only get so many opportunities to cash out in the NBA. The Athletic recently reported that Robinson III is not ruling out a return to the Warriors despite the presence of Andrew Wiggins, and he’ll obviously explore other situations, too. Already though, his time in Philadelphia looks like a thing of the past.

Robinson III finally broke double-figures in scoring this season at 11.8 per game. He also set career highs in assists (1.6 per game) and rebounds (4.3), while hitting a career-best 48.6 percent from the field. Wherever he signs, Robinson III will be a relatively-inexpensive and serviceable bench player who could develop into a regular part of a rotation.

Most Likely To Chase The Biggest Opportunity

Alec Burks, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted — $2,320,044

Burks is the most established of the remaining free agents on this list. He averaged 10.7 points per game this season — but he’s proven he can do more, like the year he put up 16.1 over 48 games with Golden State in 2019-20. Burks is an inconsistent defender, but he’s shown flashes of competency on that side as of late. Still, what he adds offensively typically outweighs his defensive limitations.

Burks has been set back by a series of injuries and he’s already 28 years old, so it’s unlikely he’ll expand past much more than he’s done thus far. But that’s more than enough for a number of contending teams in need of scoring off the bench.

He can always fall back on Philadelphia given their need for depth, but his scoring punch should enable a deal beyond the likes of that franchise can afford. If he’s stuck between offers, Burks will probably go with whichever team offers him the biggest role.

Maurice Harkless, New York Knicks — Unrestricted — $11,011,236

The eight-year NBA veteran has averaged 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1 steal per game throughout his entire career. Beyond that, Harkless’ per-36 numbers are surprisingly consistent year-to-year, which, long story short, means that you know what you’re getting in the established wing.

But that’s not a bad thing as Harkless is an above-average defender. He’s long and versatile, possessing the ability to switch in most pick-and-roll scenarios. Further, Harkless doesn’t require touches, but he can score when needed.

The February trade that landed Harkless in New York probably threw a wrench in his already up-in-the-air plans. He didn’t spend enough time with the Knicks to gauge the rotations, while it’s assumed that the coaching and overall roster will undergo a major revamp this offseason regardless. In that case, Harkless will probably leave New York and he’ll have a number of suitors.

The Atlantic Division’s free agents might lack star power, but there are some big-time role players available. Some will walk with big money, whereas others will be forced to settle for less than they’d hoped — but that’s what free agency is all about right, isn’t it?

Regardless of who gets what, we can all agree that the world is a better place when basketball is being played. Stay tuned as Basketball Insiders continues our free agent series tomorrow.

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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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