The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 1/21/20
Michael Porter Jr. has forced Mike Malone’s hand in Denver, scoring so well that the redshirt rookie must see more playing time. As a result, he enters the conversation for most-impactful bench player in the league. Douglas Farmer revisits Basketball Insiders’ Sixth Man Watch.
Unlike most other NBA awards, the Sixth Man of the Year can be won with only half a season’s worth of impact. That is an innate wrinkle to a conversation about players coming off the bench, anyway. So while most the league obsesses over defense, MVP-worthiness and postseason position jockeying, there’s another important award that has begun to heat up in a big way. Heading into the trade deadline and winter months can make or break many chances here, so check the standings, statistics and storyline of all mentioned below.
That said, and to kick things off, it may be unlikely, but a young player forcing his coach to play him more due to a blossoming scoring run can thus enter this conversation.
Michael Porter Jr. — Denver Nuggets
Porter has reached double digits in 7 of Denver’s last 12 games, including averaging 16.8 points in the last four games. At this point, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has no choice but to play the redshirt rookie more often.
Michael Malone: “Guys like Michael, Malik and Mason off the bench. … How valuable were those minutes for Michael Porter?”
Malone said Porter is going to play every night moving forward.
— Mike Singer (@msinger) January 17, 2020
Porter’s emergence has included shooting 44.8 percent from three in the last 11 games, and 40.6 percent beyond the arc on the season. While his defense remains questionable — not a shock for a player in his first year — and his assist numbers are practically non-existent, Porter’s ability to stretch the floor around franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokić fills a need Denver has struggled with for years.
If he continues grabbing rebounds with the same frequency as he has of late, tracking down 14 on Monday — and 8 and 10 in a back-to-back this week — then Porter’s strengths will inarguably outweigh his weaknesses. A second-half surge filled with double-digit scoring efforts will gain notice, and deservedly so.
Derrick Rose — Detroit Pistons
Now that the Pistons are actively shopping Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin is sidelined for the year, Rose is once again the best player on an NBA team. Yet, he continues to come off the bench.
Being the best player on a team finally embracing a long-needed rebuild may be a backhanded compliment, but it is Rose’s reality, nonetheless. Across Detroit’s last eight games, he has averaged 24 points per night, cracking 20 in all of them and in 10 of the last 11. On top of that, Rose is averaging 6.3 assists per game in the last seven.
Maybe his bench role is a version of load management for one of the league’s most injury-crossed players. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of Rose’s inefficient shooting as he has needed 18.6 shots per game to reach these recent marks. It might be the byproduct of a quiet tank. Whatever the reasoning, it keeps the Pistons’ most consistent player out of the starting lineup.
As the rebuild gains momentum, Rose’s $7.7 million deal for next season may be palatable for a team chasing a low playoff seed. Detroit cannot expect to get too much in return for the 31-year-old, but anything would probably be more than anticipated when the Pistons signed Rose.
Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s not just that Oklahoma City is in the No. 7 spot out West or that it is five games ahead of the lottery. It’s that the Thunder are as close to the Utah Jazz at No. 4 as they are to missing the playoffs. This may not have been the rebuild expected, but it is one welcomed by the small market, and Schröder has made himself an indispensable piece of it.
His on/off rating of plus-12.8 ranks in the 97th percentile among point guards, per cleaningtheglass.com — something even more impressive when realizing backup point guards often suffer diminishing statistical returns due to the reserves they typically play with. Still, Oklahoma City outscores its opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions including Schröder.
He obviously benefits from playing alongside Chris Paul. Without Paul, Schröder’s net rating is minus-4.0, but when playing with the star point guard, the Thunder outscore opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.
As long as Oklahoma City intends to make life miserable for the rest of the Western Conference, and indications are that will extend past this season, then keeping Schröder and Paul together is in the Thunder’s best interest, even if one of them is stuck to the bench to start games.
Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
Even for the walking bucket known as Sweet Lou, averaging 24.8 points across a six-game span the last couple of weeks stood out. He shot 53.8 percent from the field during the stretch, including 50 percent from beyond the arc. Career 35.0 percent 3-point shooters are not supposed to find stretches that scorching.
Unless, of course, they are Lou Williams.
What may have stood out even more, though, were the 37 assists Williams dished out in those six games. That fits right in line with his season average of 6.2 assists per game, but that marked career-high remains the most surprising part of yet another stellar season from the 14-year veteran.
Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
Naturally, many of those Williams-tossed assists continue to land in Harrell’s hands. By just about every advanced metric, Harrell has been the second most important player to the Clippers’ season, behind only Kawhi Leonard — Paul George’s extended absence admittedly colors this gauge. Los Angeles is better on both ends of the court with Harrell involved than with him on the bench. Only Leonard’s absences are more noticeable on both ends, statistically speaking.
Porter’s rise may have pushed the Nuggets past the Clippers in the standings for the moment, but Harrell has a substantial lead on him in the race for this piece of Sixth Man hardware.
NBA Daily: Trade Targets – Pacific Division
David Yapkowitz takes a look at what teams and names are generating buzz in the Pacific Division in Basketball Insiders’ Trade Targets series.
The NBA Trade Deadline is a couple of weeks away. Here at Basketball Insiders, we’ll be breaking down which teams should be looking to make a move and which players could — and maybe should — have a new uniform by February.
In the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers have established themselves as being among the league’s elite. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should stand pat as they both could stand to improve their rosters.
The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings are both entrenched in a battle with five other teams for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Realistically, the Suns have a much better chance as they are not too far behind the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently hold the eighth spot. But Sacramento is only two games back in the loss column. There could be a player out there who can bolster their playoff chances, but is it worth it?
The Golden State Warriors are clearly out of the playoff picture, and they have some veterans on the team who they could move to playoff contenders and perhaps net a draft pick.
Here’s a look at the teams and players in the Pacific Division who could be active leading up to the trade deadline.
1. Los Angeles Lakers – $120,604,780
Relative to the rest of the league, the Lakers are middle of the pack when it comes to team salaries. Not bad for a team widely considered to be one of the favorites to contend for a title. Outside of last night’s debacle in Boston, they’ve been playing very well and recently had a big road win against the Oklahoma City Thunder without LeBron James or Anthony Davis.
There isn’t anyone on the team whom they should move necessarily. Kyle Kuzma has had his name come up in trade rumors, but the Lakers should keep him if possible. What the team needs is a point guard who can break down defenses and hit the open shot. If they can trade for one and manage to keep Kuzma, the better. They should inquire about D.J. Augustin in Orlando; he certainly fits the bill.
2. Dario Saric – $3,481,986
Saric was part of the big draft-day trade that netted the Minnesota Timberwolves the sixth overall pick (Jarrett Culver) in the draft. He had shown a lot of promise to that point and looked to be a nice addition to Phoenix’s young core. He’s since seen inconsistent minutes in the rotation and doesn’t quite appear to be in the Suns’ future plans. He’s since returned to the starting lineup, but the Suns will have to make a decision on him.
He probably has some value around the league as a stretch big man who crashes the glass and could certainly help some teams. He’s still only 25 years old. The Suns are knocking on the door for the eighth spot in the West, and perhaps Saric could be part of a package that nets them a player to solidify their playoff hopes. It’s worth a shot for a team that could certainly benefit from a postseason appearance.
3. Los Angeles Clippers – $130,766,746
The Clippers went all-in on a championship run for this season and have the payroll to back it up. Injuries have given them an inconsistent lineup throughout the season, but when they have been healthy, they’ve definitely looked the part.
Where they could stand to improve is also by looking to add a true point guard who can handle the ball and run the offense. Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams are great at what they do, but neither is a true point in that sense. They should also inquire about Augustin, and since you never know what Sacramento is going to do, they should place a call about Cory Joseph as well.
4. Dewayne Dedmon – $13,333,334
It’s public knowledge by now that Dedmon wants out of Sacramento. He was recently fined by the league for publicly stating that. He was initially thought of as being a great pickup for the Kings this past summer, but he’s fallen in and out of the rotation and his numbers have been down across the board.
He can certainly help quite a few teams out there. To this point, he’s been a solid stretch big who protects the paint and rebounds well. His former team, the Atlanta Hawks, has been mentioned as a possible landing spot. He’s probably a prime candidate to be moved at the deadline, but you never know with the Kings.
5. Alec Burks – $1,620,564
In a season that’s now become a developmental one for all the young players on the Warriors’ roster, Burks stands out as one of the lone healthy veterans who has turned in a solid campaign thus far. He’s dealt with injury issues in the past, but has proven to be healthy and able to be a solid perimeter scorer off the bench.
His name has come up already in trade chatter, and he could certainly help some playoff teams looking for instant offense in the second unit. The Warriors probably can’t expect too big a return for him, maybe a second-round draft pick. Or they could opt to keep him and see how he’ll fit next season when everyone is healthy. But if they’re looking to free up more minutes to play the youth, he’s a likely candidate to be moved by the deadline.
As the days leading up to the trade deadline continue to pass, more and more trade chatter will likely emerge. Rumors run rampant this time of year, and it’s important to remember that they are just that, rumors. Ultimately we won’t know until the deadline is actually here, but it doesn’t look like the Pacific Division will have any earth-shattering moves this trade deadline.
NBA Daily: Title Contenders Should Covet Derrick Rose
After rejuvenating his career over the past four years, Chad Smith explains why now is the time for a contender to make a move for Derrick Rose.
Every season, simply put, there are teams that fail to live up to expectations. Whether they are the fans’ expectations, the organization’s or our own, teams will consistently fall short for whatever reason. Often times it can injuries or team chemistry that are to blame. In the case of the 2019-20 Detroit Pistons, both of those would apply.
After a successful return to the playoffs last season, the Pistons were seemingly on the verge of taking the next step. If the then-injured franchise player in Blake Griffin returned to his All-Star level of play, they appeared to have the parts and pieces to make it happen. Unfortunately, Griffin’s campaign only consisted of 18 games before he opted for season-ending knee surgery.
After missing the first ten games, there was plenty of concern permeating through Motown. Even when Griffin returned to the court, it was evident that their star player just wasn’t right physically. As the losses mounted, so did the speculation that Andre Drummond was going to be dealt before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
The market has gone quiet on Drummond’s potential suitors, but the Pistons do have one more strong trade chip that they can and should play. That would be Derrick Rose, a former MVP and a saving grace for the franchise this year. Halfway through this season, the point guard has already put up some monster stat lines.
In his first season in Detroit, Rose has played just about every role for the team. He has started games, filled in after injuries to Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard, took over the scoring load and has played off the bench whenever needed. Right now Rose finds himself as one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year in many’s books around the league.
Rose has had plenty of experience in each of these roles throughout the course of his 11-year roller-coaster career. The Chicago kid was selected with the top overall draft pick by his hometown Bulls — where, of course, he earned Rookie of the Year. He elevated the Bulls back into championship contenders in the Eastern Conference. After the devastating injuries zapped much of his athletic ability, many people considered his career to essentially be finished.
After unsuccessful stops in New York and Cleveland, Rose was given a serious second chance by former head coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. The three-time All-Star re-invented himself as a member of the Timberwolves over the next two seasons. By resurrecting his career — and despite his lingering off-the-court issues — he won the hearts of many fans as he had become one of the best feel-good stories in the league. While he understood his value as a franchise player was no more, he did not let that become a roadblock to what the rest of his career could be.
Last year Rose played 51 games for the Timberwolves and finished with an average of 18 points per game. Better, he has increased that this season in Detroit, while also having more steals, blocks and assists. Moreover, his average of six assists per game right now is the most since his 2011-12 season in Chicago. Rose’s shooting efficiency numbers are up all across the board as well — his 55 percent from inside the arc and 88 percent from the free-throw line marks are both career-highs.
After signing multiple minimum contracts, Rose earned himself a two-year deal with the Pistons worth $15 million this past summer. He will be owed over $7.6 million of that next season, which is still considered a bargain for any team that covets him. There are several teams that could use this Rose 2.0 version player, including the title contenders.
Pistons owner Tom Gores has said that he is open to an extensive rebuild if that is what it takes. With the injuries and the probability of moving Drummond, the next order of business should be finding a new home for Rose. Dwane Casey won’t like losing his two best players, but he understands the return value for each is probably as high as it will ever be.
Finding the best fit for the 31-year old guard is interesting. Neither team in Los Angeles seems idealistic, as the Clippers already have a solid backcourt and scoring options off the bench. Playing alongside LeBron James didn’t work out well in Cleveland, while the Lakers will want to surround their star players with shooters. Assuming the Pistons would want draft picks in return, there isn’t much there from either of those teams either.
There isn’t a clear fit in the loaded backcourts in Denver, Houston, Oklahoma City — plus, Utah has already waived Rose once before. Staying in the Eastern Conference may be his best opportunity.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the clear class of the East, who hold a 38-6 record at the moment. They have been dominant, but acquiring Rose may come at the cost of losing George Hill, who has been fantastic for them off the bench this season. That being said, he would be a tremendous option for when Giannis Antetokounmpo needs a break. His scoring and slashing should keep their dynamic offense in full throttle.
Heading to the Miami HEAT would be another intriguing scenario. The obvious question would be the fit next to Jimmy Butler, as the two had issues playing together in Chicago. Toronto might be a sneaky team to monitor here, but Masai Ujiri may have something bigger up his sleeve. Boston doesn’t seem likely at all. Indiana is not likely either, as they have a nice 1-2 punch with Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo who is set to make his season debut in one week.
That leaves Philadelphia as the last true contender in the Eastern Conference — but one of that has displayed an interest in Rose already, nonetheless — and perhaps the worst fit of them all. Yes, their biggest need is clearly shooting and it would be a difficult pairing with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid clogging up the lane. On the other hand, it would allow him to propel their second unit when those two are not on the floor. It would give the 76ers another ball-handler as well and could even allow Simmons to play off the ball as a rim-runner off of ball screens.
For seven seasons, it was Rose to the rescue in Chicago. After all that he has given during his time in Minnesota and Detroit, it is now time for someone to rescue him.