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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.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA

LaMelo Ball vs. Tyrese Haliburton: Two Different But Equally Impactful Rookies

LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton have turned heads during their rookie campaigns. Quinn Davis takes a look at their very different yet equally impactful play thus far.

Quinn Davis

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With apologies to Immanuel Quickley, Anthony Edwards, Saddiq Bey and a few others, the league’s best rookie is a two-man race. Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball have staked their claim at the top of the rookie ladder and both show no signs of relinquishing.

The two young guards are helping to elevate a mediocre draft class, both showing a precocious ability for their respective teams. While they play similar positions, their games are nearly polar opposites.

Ball thrives in chaos, sometimes even creating that chaos himself to gain advantages for his team. His size and vision make him a weapon in transition and he has a knack for turning a loose ball scramble into a positive play.

He will often make decisions on the fly rather than planning things out, relying on his incredible instincts. Below, he slips a screen, draws two defenders as he goes to the rim and makes the last-second call to drop it off to PJ Washington just before he travels.

Haliburton creates structure, filling in gaps and connecting dots for a team that has desperately needed that kind of consistent presence. Watching Haliburton play, you’ll see a surprising amount of orchestration for a rookie. Where Ball sniffs out opportunities seemingly out of nowhere, Haliburton sees multiple steps ahead. Take this play against the Miami HEAT, where Haliburton comes up with a steal, directs the fast break and gets an open three for Kyle Guy.

Notice Haliburton immediately points to the player he wants Hassan Whiteside to pass it to. Whiteside obliges, Haliburton gets it back on the wing as planned and waits for his teammate to cut to the rim, drawing defenders and freeing Guy for the three, which he missed.

Haliburton’s fastidiousness has made him averse to turnovers as he is averaging only 2.6 per 100 possessions. Conversely, Ball’s moxie leads to few more giveaways, with the Charlotte Hornets rookie posting 4.6 turnovers per 100.

Both have shot better than expected from deep. Haliburton has shot 46 percent from three while Ball, considered a non-shooter coming into the league, has shot 37.

The tracking data helps tell the story of the differences in their shooting. Haliburton, who has a slow and slightly funky release, mostly attempts wide-open threes and has made nearly 50 percent of them. Ball’s quicker release has allowed him to shoot 41 percent on triples where defenders are within 4-to-6 feet.

When attacking the rim, Haliburton relies almost exclusively on a floater. While he hits it at a decent clip – 51 percent from the short mid-range area per Cleaning the Glass – it’d be nice to see him get to the rim and try to draw contact. Only 15 percent of his total shots come at the rim, and he draws a shooting foul on a measly three percent of his attempts.

Due to his lack of downhill explosion, Haliburton can often be too eager to pass when the right play is to go up for the layup. Here, Ivica Zubac is clearly playing the pass while Marcus Morris stays home on the shooter in the corner. With a more aggressive mindset, Haliburton could have had a decent look at the rim, but instead, it’s a turnover.

Ball attacks more frequently but isn’t yet a great finisher. He often attempts wild layups, looking to avoid defenders rather than go through them. In the next clip, he tries to switch to his left hand to go around the shot blocker, rather than go into the body, and the attempt is promptly swatted.

Still, he draws fouls on 7.8 percent of his attempts and has improved steadily at finishing throughout the season. It is common for rookies to take time adjusting to NBA athleticism around the rim, so the fact that Ball is at least willing to attack is a good sign.

Defensively, a similar pattern emerges. Ball is an occasional gambler whose risks can lead to big rewards but also causes his fair share of breakdowns. Haliburton, meanwhile, is wise beyond his years as an off-ball defender – his advanced understanding of positioning pairs well with those great instincts.

Ball leads all rookies in steals per game at 1.6 and is 12th overall in the league – already adept at lingering around in the backcourt and swiping the rock from unsuspecting rebounders.

But Ball’s biggest weakness as a defender right now is his closeouts. He tends to hang around the paint a bit too long when guarding the weak side, forcing him to close out hard, thus leaving him very susceptible to pump fakes and fouls. Often, his ball-watching leaves him caught on a screen, then recovering too hard to a non-shooter in Tyrese Maxey, allowing for the drive.

Even with his flaws, Ball’s energy and feel make him a decent defender for a rookie. Of course, he should only improve as he becomes accustomed to the speed of the game.

Haliburton’s defense, like his offense, is more carefully approached. Haliburton can be caught on screens and fooled by good fakes as many rookies can, but it is rare. Watch as the Kings double Ben Simmons in the post, leaving Haliburton to guard two shooters. He plays a brief game of cat and mouse with Simmons, forcing the pass to the wing. The talented youngster then feigns the closeout to Danny Green before pouncing on the swing pass to the corner – all in all, this is a veteran play.

Overall, Haliburton and Ball are yin and yang. The introvert and the extrovert. Each could probably use a dash of the other’s game to take themselves to the next level.

While their styles are opposite, their impacts and intangibles are similar. Both players rely on their brains first and foremost. More importantly, both have gained the trust of their coaches.

Haliburton earned it almost immediately and has been a mainstay in the Kings’ crunch-time lineup. That five-man group, featuring the rookie along with DeAaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes, has been incendiary, outscoring opponents by just over 20 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

Ball took a little more time to get there but has since shown flashes of brilliance. Just watch the second half of the Hornets’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season to see how Ball can take over a game on both ends when everything is clicking.

Ball will likely win Rookie of the Year, his counting stats and occasional standout showings give him the edge in that race. Haliburton’s efficiency and mistake-free play might give him the edge as the better player right now, though.

Ball’s ceiling is demonstrably higher as he does things on a basketball court that not many in the league even attempt, let alone other rookies. Haliburton will be a consistent contributor and likely have a long career, but it is hard to see a path to superstardom.

There will be many years ahead to dissect their games as they improve and begin competing at a higher level. For now, we can appreciate two bright spots in a previously dismissed draft class.

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NBA

Has the NBA Passed Andre Drummond By?

Andre Drummond is being held out by the Clevland Cavaliers while they look for a trade, but does anyone want Drummond? And can he help a good team compete for an NBA Championship?

Zach Dupont

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The NBA has seen a revival of the center position over the past few seasons. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have become front-runners for MVP, Rudy Gobert is anchoring the defense of the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz and Anthony Davis co-led the Los Angeles Lakers to last year’s NBA title.

Not among those centers is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Andre Drummond, who is currently being held out of games while the Cavs look for a trade to move him out of town.

On a surface level, Drummond’s numbers are quite impressive. This year, Drummond is averaging 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, his rebounds per game mark is even good enough for second in the NBA, trailing just Clint Capela’s 13.9 rebounds per game. It’s not as if these numbers are an outlier for Drummond either; Drummond has averaged at least 15 points and 13 rebounds per game since his 2017-18 season. Drummond has been dominant on the boards his entire career averaging at least 13 rebounds per game every year of his career after his rookie season. Drummond also manages to secure a lot of blocks and steals, averaging more than 1.1 of each per game every season since 2015-16.  

But on deeper inspection, Drummond’s gaudy numbers begin to falter. Despite Drummond putting up more than 17 points per game, he isn’t doing it efficiently enough to justify taking as many shots per game as he currently does. Drummond’s field goal percentage of 47.4 percent isn’t an alarming number, but Drummond has taken 288 of his 380 field goal attempts from within five feet of the rim. Drummond has only taken 21 field goal attempts from more than 10 feet away from the rim all season, per NBA.com.

With this information, it’s no surprise that Drummond has a less than stellar true shooting of 50 percent, well below league average. To make matters worse, Drummond is a player who needs the ball in his hand to put up big scoring numbers. Drummond currently has a usage rate of 30 percent, the 16th highest number in the NBA, higher than players like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic. Drummond is also one of just two centers in the top 20 in usage percentage in the NBA, the only other center in the top 20 is Joel Embiid. Drummond also provides very little as a playmaker, holding an assist to turnover ratio of .79, averaging 2.6 assists and 3.1 turnovers per game. 

Drummond has been in the NBA for nine seasons now and has only made the playoffs twice, and both were first-round sweeps with the Detroit Pistons. Drummond has never played for a real contender, and a significant reason why is because of his style of play. There isn’t room for a high-usage, low-efficiency center with questionable defensive effort on teams trying to compete for an NBA title. It’s not because of Drummond’s position, it’s because his style of basketball isn’t conducive to productive scoring in the modern NBA.

But all hope is not lost for Drummond; it’s just going to take a rebuild of who he is as a player. Every good NBA team still needs productive big men, but the role these teams are looking for differs from what Drummond has been doing his entire career. These teams need big men to provide sufficient defense and rebounding, specifically in matchups against the NBA’s best bigs come playoff time. That’s what Drummond will have to do to be able to have a shot at a ring. The good news for him is that he possesses the skills to make that happen for himself.

Drummond is still among the NBA’s best in grabbing rebounds, and while that provides limited value on the defensive end, it does have a lot of value on the offensive boards. Drummond is fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage at 15 percent and fourth in offensive rebounds per game at 4.0. Drummond is also capable of providing a team with rim protection and solid defense from the center position. At 6-foot-11 and 280 lbs. Drummond has the frame that not many have to compete physically against star bigs like Jokic, Embiid and Davis. Drummond has also made the Cavaliers’ defense slightly better when on the court, holding a defensive rating of 113.2 compared to Cleveland’s team rating of 114.4, per NBA.com. Drummond also has no issue collecting blocks and steals, maintaining a steal percentage of 2.7 and a block percentage of 3.7, both respectable marks.   

There aren’t any good NBA teams looking for the player Drummond currently is, but there are plenty looking for the player Drummond is capable of being. The Brooklyn Nets have needed depth at center since trading away Jarrett Allen, and the Clippers could use depth at center behind Ivica Zubac, to name a few. Drummond doesn’t need to be traded to another non-contender and continue to put up empty scoring numbers because if he does that, Drummond’s shot at a ring will continue to fade.  

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NBA

NBA Daily: Will We See The Real Andre Drummond?

Now that Andre Drummond is on the verge of switching teams again, Matt John looks into if he could thrive in a lesser role wherever he ends up.

Matt John

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Andre Drummond is available. Repeat. Andre Drummond, the two-time All-Star, four-time rebounding champ, walking double-double and ball-swatter, is available. Not just available. Available for cheap.

Cheap in the sense that you wouldn’t have to give up a whole lot of assets outside of matching salaries to get him. You probably won’t do much better for such a low price. Who wouldn’t want someone who averages 17 points, 13 rebounds, almost three assists, and at least one block and one steal a game for pennies on the dollar?

The only reason why the Cleveland Cavaliers are getting rid of him is that they got the younger, more effective big in Jarrett Allen who fits their timeline like a glove. The Land wasn’t big enough for both Allen and Drummond from the start, so the latter’s exodus seemed unavoidable.

But what will hang over both his and Cleveland’s heads is that when they got him for spare parts last year, which signified what his value truly was to NBA teams. Now, asking for spare parts in return for Andre Drummond might be too optimistic when this situation is done and over with.

There aren’t a whole lot of teams that have $28.75 million in deadweight contracts or trade exceptions for that matter – the one that the Boston Celtics possess from the Gordon Hayward trade is $250,000 (give or take) lower than Drummond’s current salary, and even if they could match, they’d have to get rid of $5+ million to fit him into their team salary. The ones that do aren’t in dire need of someone like Andre Drummond or would probably rather save what they have for someone better.

But any NBA viewer who’s watched Andre Drummond knows the real issue with acquiring him. His numbers can wow you as much as his winning percentage can put you off. But that red flag has been the monkey on Drummond’s back for quite some time now.

OK, so Andre Drummond is never going to be ‘the guy’ on a championship team, or even be included in a vaunted ‘Big 3’ that the NBA has so heavily popularized. That ship has sailed. The question that remains is if he can be an effective player on a winning team in the NBA. The fact remains that Drummond has minimal playoff experience – eight games total – and zero playoff success to his name. But is that on him?

Let’s go back to the most team success Drummond has ever had as a pro. The best team Drummond ever played for record-wise was the 2015-16 Pistons. They went 44-38, snagged the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and were promptly swept by the LeBron-led Cavaliers. Drummond was not all that great in that series, putting up around 17 points, nine rebounds, and nearly two blocks per game to go with almost 52 percent shooting, according to Basketball-Reference.

But for a player whose harshest criticism centers around his stats being empty calories, the Pistons were demonstrably better when Drummond was on the floor. According to NBA.com, Detroit’s offense scored 8.8 more points per 100 possessions and surrendered 11 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. The Cavaliers may have taken care of business against Drummond and co., but he was doing his part.

It’s worth mentioning that the Pistons gave the Cavaliers a better fight than your typically-swept eighth seed. The point differential between the two over the four games was 5, 17, 10 and 2. Not bad for a team going up against the soon-to-be-crowned champions in the first round.

But that was the furthest Drummond ever went, all back when he was considered the face of the Pistons. The best players surrounding him at that time were Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. All of whom were either previously or are currently reliable supporting cast on good teams, but none of them would ever be considered the main ingredient on a championship team.

Five years later, we’ve known for some time now that Drummond isn’t that guy either. However, what we don’t know is what he would look like if his role was relegated to more of a complementary type. When this saga with Cleveland concludes, that’s probably where he’s headed.

If there’s one thing interested suitors should be excited about with the prospect of bringing in Drummond in a smaller role, it’s that we’ve seen players in similar situations as Drummond thrive in it. Take Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins came into this league with expectations that, at this point, he’s never going to fulfill. One could argue that the results make him look like a disappointment while another could counter that point by saying that maybe our expectations were a little too high. In any case, that doesn’t matter now because, in Golden State, he’s had a fresh start, and he’s rolled with it.

In his first full season with the Warriors, we’re not seeing Andrew Wiggins as an All-Star. We’re seeing Andrew Wiggins, the efficient and reliable two-way wing.

Just look at the shooting numbers. An effective field goal percentage of 53.6 percent? A true shooting percentage of 55.7 percent? A three-point shooting percentage of almost 37 percent? All career-highs for Wiggins according to Basketball-Reference. The 17.7 points per game are definitely lower than what we’ve seen in the past from Wiggins, but Golden State never asked for him to be their go-to guy for that.

With more energy at his behest, we’ve also seen Wiggins step it up on the defensive side of the ball that… he might actually be making a case for NBA All-Defense?!

Some guys just need to find the right role for them. Andrew Wiggins has seemingly found who he truly is in Golden State. We shouldn’t care anymore if that means he’s never going to be a star. On the flip side, some guys are just meant to be in a starring role. Gordon Hayward flustered Celtics fans with his inconsistency and indecisiveness because being fourth in the pecking order was not what he was used to nor he was brought on to do in the first place. Now we’re seeing a renaissance from Hayward because Charlotte has tasked him with much more responsibility.

We’ve seen Drummond in a starring role, and from what we’ve seen, even though he can put up bedazzling numbers, his team doesn’t benefit much from what he does on the court. But maybe, just maybe, it might be because they expected too much from him much as we all did with Wiggins.

Now, of course, we need to confront the elephant in the room: Wiggins is a wing while Drummond is a big. Those are two very different positions, especially in the modern NBA. There’s no telling if we’re going to see Drummond make the same adjustment. We’ve seen centers – specifically ones that possess similar skillsets as Drummond – have to adapt to lesser roles, and it hasn’t been pretty.

Hassan Whiteside was one of Miami’s go-to guys before Portland acquired him to be Jusuf Nurkic’s temporary replacement. Now, he’s playing spot minutes as Sacramento’s third center on their depth chart. DeAndre Jordan was a vital cog in Lob City before he went to Dallas and was used as salary filler to acquire Kristaps Porzingis. Now he’s the starting center for one of the worst defenses in the NBA.

When that time arrives, we’ll see if Drummond really is an empty calorie big as his critics have pointed out, or if he’s a product of mediocrity just dying to prove he can contribute to a good team.

Glass half-empty would say it’s the former. Glass half-full would say it’s the latter. But for now, only time can tell.

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