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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The 76ers’ Road Struggles

After dropping four straight away games last week, the Philadelphia 76ers fell to 9-19 on the road. The gargantuan split between that and their 25-2 home record leaves the door open for questions regarding their fit and playoff feasibility. Quinn Davis breaks down their entire road schedule so far to identify the changes that need to be made going forward.

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The Philadelphia 76ers are the NBA’s greatest enigma.

At home, the Sixers are a powerhouse. Their 25-2 record speaks for itself, but that number still fails to encapsulate their impressiveness in their own arena. The 20-point drubbings of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the teams with the best record in each conference, add a little context. As does the 30-point rout against the Miami HEAT back in November.

Outside the Philadelphia city limits, though, the team has looked downright feeble. Their 9-19 road record, while fittingly bad, also lacks context. For that, look no further than the 30-point beatdown dished by the same HEAT team, or the 20-point waxing handed to them by the Boston Celtics.

To say the Sixers have been two different teams is an understatement. They have been playing two different sports.

How does this wide of a gap come to be? Is it simply an effort issue, as some believe, or is there something more going on here? To best answer that question, Basketball Insiders did a little research on all 28 of these road games, broken into stretches. The statistics are taken from the Cleaning the Glass game logs unless otherwise noted.

The First Two Weeks

Record: 3-3

For the first stretch of road games, the Sixers had moderate success. The started the season 3-0 on the road with wins over the lowly Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons, and then a wild win in Portland that saw them come back from down 21 late in the game.

They did lose Joel Embiid to a suspension and Ben Simmons to a shoulder injury in this stretch, so the ywent 0-3 to close out a west coast road trip against the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.

Each of those games was hard-fought, however, and came down to the wire. The Sixers put themselves in a position to win against good opponents.

In summation, the first two weeks of road games went about as you would expect given the circumstances. The Sixers went 3-3 in this stretch, with four of those games and all three losses coming without one of their two best players. They probably should’ve lost in Portland, but it can be argued they should have won in Denver. The effort level in these games was not of much concern and there was no reason to set off any panic signal just yet.

The Rest of November

Record: 2-3, 5-6 overall

While the effort level may have sufficed over the first two weeks of road contests, it did not continue. The Sixers went down to Orlando after a two-game homestand and were trounced by the Magic 112-97. It is notable that this was the second night of a back-to-back and without Joel Embiid yet again, but that still does not excuse the low energy level that becomes clear on the stat sheet.

The Sixers only attempted 17 shots at the rim and 13 free throws in this game. You can credit the Magic defense for some of that, but a team with Ben Simmons and Al Horford playing should be able to carve out a little more space inside. They also rarely go out in transition in this game, something that should’ve been a priority with a Simmons-centric lineup. This can be chalked up as the team’s first truly worrisome road performance.

The Sixers then lost a very tight game on the road in overtime to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was also the first game they lost on the season with the full starting lineup available. They followed that tight loss up by taking care of business against the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

The next road game came up north against the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, who have had a lot of success defending the Sixers dating back to last season, shut them down again and most notably held Embiid scoreless.

Not only did the Raptors stifle Embiid, but they also kept the Sixers out of the paint and out of transition as a team. The Sixers were able to keep it close by going 15-for-38 on threes and outrebounding the Raptors by 11. The Sixers received a lot of criticism for this loss and rightfully so, but the Raptors’ defense also deserves credit here. This one should go in the outplayed by a good team column, rather than lack of effort.

The Sixers would close out their November road schedule by eking out a six-point over the New York Knicks. While the margin is concerning, a win is a win. The team imposed their will in that one, getting to the charity stripe for 40 attempts.

That brought the team to 5-6 on the road. A mediocre record for a team with title aspirations, but given the context of only two of those losses coming at full strength and only being truly blown out once at the hands of Orlando, it wasn’t so bad.

Onward to Christmas

Record: 2-2, 7-8 overall

The Sixers entered December looking like a pretty formidable team. Undefeated at home with some impressive beatdowns, they seemed like a tough out in the playoffs.

After a few more home wins, the Sixers took to the team bus once again, this time heading south down I-95 to Washington D.C. to play the Wizards, who were near the bottom of the East standings. The Sixers laid what was probably their second true egg of the season in this one, falling 119-113. They were without the services of Josh Richardson in this one, who had recently pulled his hamstring.

A sign of weak effort, the Sixers transition defense was horrid in this game. They allowed the Wizards to score 1.5 points per play after live rebounds. The Wizards shot eight more free throw attempts than the Sixers, nabbed five more offensive rebounds and won the turnover battle 21-11. All of that combined led to the Sixers dropping one to a weaker team while shooting 48 percent from three.

After this, the Sixers returned home for three more wins before heading up north to face the Celtics. Before this game, Embiid had a quiet night against the Nuggets, which prompted the ire of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. The criticism seemed to light a fire, as Embiid dominated the Celtics in Boston, leading the Sixers to their best road win.

It wasn’t just Embiid who came to play. The Sixers, who were without Al Horford in this game, outrebounded the Celtics by 12, took four more free throws and only turned the ball over 11 times. They also shot 50 percent from three.

The three-point shooting is an outlier, but the rest of those statistics are replicable based on the personnel if the effort is there.

Two games later, the Sixers did not replicate that effort. They fell by 20 points in Brooklyn to the Nets, who were without Kyrie Irving. The Sixers were without Joel Embiid themselves and unable to get anything going offensively.

They only attempted 15 shots at the rim and 17 free throws, compared to the Nets’ 44 attempts and 18 free throws. They shot 5-for-26 from three as well, en route to an offensive rating of 87.8.

The Nets, starting a lineup featuring Taurean Prince as the nominal 4-man, outrebounded them by 13, which included 12 offensive rebounds. The effort culminated in the Sixers’ third true egg-lay of the season.

The Sixers went back out on the road right before Christmas to play the Pistons in Detroit and actually took care of business in this one. They dominated the glass, won the turnover battle and played solid transition defense.

Heading into the Christmas showdown with the Bucks, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road, with only one of those losses coming while at full strength. Three of the losses could be largely attributed to effort issues.

The Disney on Ice Trip From Hell

Record: 0-4, 7-12 overall

When Disney on Ice rolled into the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia was feeling good about its basketball team. The Sixers had just dominated the best team in basketball on Christmas Day, putting the league on notice in regards to how good they could be.

Rather than feed off of the momentum from that win, the Sixers sputtered. At full strength, they could barely muster any offense against the Magic in Orlando. The effort statistics seemed to be there. The rebounding battle was tight, transition defense was not an issue and the Sixers attempted more free throws than the Magic. In this game, some bad shooting and a good Magic defense held them to 97 points in a one-point loss. The game ended with Horford missing an open three to win at the buzzer.

The very next night, the Sixers stayed in Florida to play the HEAT. The team lost another tight one, falling by one point in overtime. Similar to the Magic game, the Sixers rebounded well and attacked the paint, but were unable to seal the deal late. In fact, Tobias Harris missed a dunk late that would’ve put the Sixers up five. Embiid followed that miscue up by allowing himself to get stripped with the Sixers up three with less than 20 seconds left. The ensuing fastbreak led to a Tyler Herro three-pointer to tie the game.

With two winnable games lost, the Sixers marched on to Indiana for a New Year’s Eve Matinee and got roasted by the Pacers. Embiid missed this one, so the Sixers were once again not at full strength, but it was unlikely his presence would have made any difference. The Pacers shot 55 percent deep while the Sixers shot 15 percent. Perhaps the holiday had something to do with it, but this was another laid egg on the road.

After that beatdown, the Sixers headed to Houston where they were handled by the Rockets. They once again shot very poorly from three and had difficulty keeping the rockets out of the paint defensively. It wasn’t a debacle like the Pacers game, but it was the culmination of a four-game road losing streak that dropped the team to 7-12 on the road.

Embiid Injury to Present Day

Record: 2-7, 9-19 overall

After the four-game losing streak, the Sixers regrouped with a win at home over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but lost their star center to a dislocated finger. The Sixers would go 2-3 in their five road games without Embiid.

The first two of these came against the Mavericks and Pacers. The Mavericks made short work of the Sixers, just as they did in Philadelphia before Christmas. It’s safe to say the effort wasn’t there in this one. The Mavericks outrebounded the Sixers handily and got to the free-throw line at a much higher rate. The Sixers also shot 23 percent from deep compared to the Mavericks 40 percent.

Two days later in Indiana, the Sixers put forth a much better effort, but fell in a tight one to the Pacers. They actually had a lead in the fourth quarter but were unable to generate any offense down the stretch. They did do a solid job of defending and controlling the glass.

Almost a week later, the Sixers went back on the road for three straight games against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. The Sixers eked one out against the Knicks and then put together one of their best road efforts of the season against the Nets. The Sixers defense’ took over the game in that one, racking up steals down the stretch to seal a victory.

The last road game without Embiid came up in Toronto, where the Sixers ran into a tough Raptors team that controlled the paint. The Sixers took a ton of threes in this game and hit 40 percent of them, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of scoring around the basket.

The Sixers kept that game close for most of the contest and did a good job of getting out in transition. The Raptors just outplayed them in this one.

After this, the Sixers came home for a big win over the Lakers before heading back out on the road for their most recent four-game trip. The Sixers would be without Richardson for this trip, as he pulled his other hamstring a week earlier. Embiid would also be playing with a heavily taped left hand.

It started in Atlanta, where the Sixers were outrebounded by a very small Hawks team. They were also unable to guard Trae Young all night. This one could be attributed to lack of effort on the defensive end as the Hawks had their way with the Sixers interior.

After letting that one slip, the Sixers embarked on a brutal three-game stretch which just recently concluded against the Celtics, HEAT and Bucks. They lost all three.

In terms of effort, the games against Celtics and HEAT were sorely lacking. Both games were not close. The defense was especially bad in Miami, where the Sixers gave up 138 points per 100 possessions. In both the Celtics and HEAT games, the Sixers allowed those teams to control the paint and get to the free-throw line.

The game against the Bucks saw a much better defensive effort, but one that wasn’t good enough to overthrow the team with the league’s best record. The offense floundered in this one as the Sixers could not get into the paint yet again.

Now that we’re all caught up, here are the key takeaways from the road struggles.

The Sixers have played eight games on the road with their full starting lineup available, in those games, they are 4-4. Three of those losses came on the Disney on Ice road trip, and all of them were within one score late in the game except for the loss to the Rockets.

The road struggles truly became an issue post-Christmas, as the Sixers are 2-11 on the road since then. Before Christmas, the Sixers were 7-8 on the road and 4-1 when the full starting lineup played.

A lack of effort played a large role in at least seven of the losses. The first Magic game, the Wizards game, the first Nets game, the first Pacers game, the Mavericks game and the most recent Celtics and HEAT games. The rest of the games, the effort level was at least high enough to not show up on the stat sheet.

The Sixers as a team are shooting much better at home on the road, as most teams do. The issue is that when the shots are not falling, the defense seems to slip. The Sixers go from a league-best 101.9 defensive rating at home to a middling 110.8 on the road. The key for the Sixers going forward will be bringing their defensive mindset with them to other arenas.

Basketball Insiders asked head coach Brett Brown about this after a recent game at home against the Grizzlies.

“I think it’s human nature, sadly,” Brown said. “It’s the great challenge coaches go through, if teams always let their offense dictate their defense, it means they’re really not that good of a team and they’re not going to be playing that long. The connection is real and it’s a human nature thing. It’s easier to play defense when you’re happy and scoring, and it’s tougher when you’re grinding it out. But grinding things out equals May and June. That’s the miss that I am on as it relates to stuff going on on the road with us.”

Brown is right, the offense will only become more of a grind as the playoffs begin. If this team has any chance of advancing into June, they will need to commit to the defensive end even when the offense isn’t working.

Basketball Insiders asked Horford the same question.

“Coach has talked about that. He’s told us that, regardless of how it’s going, we need to have that defensive mindset and that toughness to stay together,” Horford noted. “At times we haven’t been as consistent as we need to, but earlier in the year, I thought we were really, really good at that. It’s something that we need to continue to do regardless of whether shots are going in or not, we have to defend and rebound.”

Horford’s comment about the Sixers being better at that earlier in the year lines up with the numbers. As mentioned, the road struggles really became jarring after Christmas.

Given the record with the full roster, it may be too early to sound the panic button just yet. If the team continues to lack a defensive edge on the road, though, Philadelphia could be staring down the barrel of a first-round exit.

If this group is able to make the mental changes required to become as good defensively on the road as they are at home, then all the talk of the Sixers being built for the playoffs may come to fruition.

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 Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors

Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.

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The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.

Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.

With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.

After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.

Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.

The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.

Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.

After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.

One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.

While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.

As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.

Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.

As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.

Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.

Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.

Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.

Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.

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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.

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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.

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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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