Basketball Insiders continues it’s “Fixing” series for teams who have been eliminated from playoff contention. Today’s team: the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns shifted into a full rebuild in 2015. Four years later, the roster makeup has changed, but their state remains the same. In what may have been the tightest playoff race we may have ever seen from the Western Conference, Phoenix was the one team early on who was doomed to fail from the start.
What Is Working
Devin Booker. Besides that, not much else.
Okay, that over-generalization is a little harsh. Not everything in Phoenix outside of Booker has been a disappointment. In fact, a few things have gone right for Phoenix. Keyword being few.
First, is their rookie class. So much was made of how exceptionally deep this year’s draft was that its first overall pick – Deandre Ayton – had a rookie season that fell under the radar. It’s hard to get noticed when you’re on one of the worst teams in the league. In Ayton’s case, he didn’t make the same headlines as Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson or Marvin Bagley III. He did, however, do enough to make Phoenix believe they have something good on its hands.
Averaging 16/10 in your first rookie season is pretty impressive no matter how your team does. Ayton’s 10.3 rebounds per game ranked 14th overall in the league and his 58.5 field goal percentage ranked him ninth overall in the league. Even if it didn’t amount to much, those achievements point to a very promising future for Deandre.
It is very possible that Ayton does not have as prosperous of a career as his fellow top-five 2018 draftees, but he’s shown that he’s far from a Darko – or a “Thabeet” type.
There’s also Mikal Bridges. His stats won’t jump out at you – 8.2 points on 43.2 percent shooting and 33.7 percent shooting from three – but the fact that the Suns are plus-4.1 with him on the court shows that Bridges is a keeper.
There there’s who they acquired this season. Many have given Phoenix’s front office grief for some of the moves they’ve made since they decided to rebuild, but stealing Kelly Oubre Jr. from Washington for an aging Trevor Ariza – who had no business being there in the first place – had to be one of the better ripoff trades that nobody paid much attention to.
Oubre’s been excellent since he arrived in the desert. He’s put up almost 17 points a game on 45.3 percent shooting (a career-best) while averaging nearly five rebounds a game. His play has been so encouraging that it’s almost unbelievable that all he was cost was Ariza.
Last, but certainly not least, is Devin Booker.
We already knew Booker was a scoring sensation. We just didn’t know that he was capable of being more than that. Many will bring up his career-highs in both his scoring output (26.6 points a game) and efficiency (46.6 field goal percentage) to show that he’s the real deal. However, what’s most impressive is that when the Suns decided to run the point through him, he ran with it.
Booker’s 1.64 assist to turnover ratio placed him 84th in the league, which won’t turn any heads. Still, dishing out 6.8 assists per game and having an assist percentage of 34 percent when you are designated as a shooting guard shows that there’s more to Devin’s game. Of course, we can’t talk about the guy without mentioning his late-season explosion.
Before his ankle injury the other night, Devin was going off. In the month of March, Booker averaged 34 points on 49/34/88 splits, with his standout performances coming in the last three games, where he put up point totals of 59, 50, and 48.
That didn’t translate into much success for the Suns. They went 5-11 in March and lost every game where Booker had 48 or more. This has brought up a question that many are sure to bring up over the next few years: Is Devin Booker an effective player?
There’s no definite answer to that question presently. Hopefully, there will be when and if they surround Booker with a better roster. Phoenix has a special talent in its young shooting guard. The question the team may have to ask itself is how much patience will he have?
What Needs To Change
Pretty much everything. When you are 27th in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating, that means an upgrade at pretty much every facet is needed.
The one silver lining is that Phoenix was dead last in both categories last season, which means there’s been some improvement. Devil’s advocate would say that since the Suns have hovered around the bottom ten in both offensive and defensive rating over the past three seasons, that casts some strong doubt as to whether the Suns have made any real progress.
It doesn’t look good when you see where the team places in individual categories. The Suns are the worst three-point shooting team in the league. They are the worst rebounding team in the league. They rank behind only Atlanta in most turnovers on average. They rank behind only Cleveland for highest opponents field goal percentage and are behind only Cleveland and Minnesota for highest opponent three-point field goal percentage.
Here’s where it gets odd. Despite having the league’s 27th-rated offense, the Suns have the 16th-highest field goal percentage in the league (45.9 percent). Despite having the league’s 29th-rated defense, the Suns rank second in steals per game (8.9) and are tied for 13th in blocks per game (5.1).
So it sounds like the offense isn’t a total disaster and there is a legitimate effort on defense. It’s just not leading to any favorable results. There are no quick fixes for the Suns, but there are ways in which they can translate their efforts into victories.
Get a Point Guard – Credit to Booker for doing what he could, but he needs someone who can handle the offense in the backcourt beside him. Booker posted a career-low in three-point percentage at 32.6 percent. If he has a point guard who can find him in the right spot, his efficiency as a shooter could improve drastically.
The Suns tied for 18th in assists per game despite not really having a true point guard on the roster. That would be impressive if it weren’t for the previously mentioned low offensive rating. Getting a point guard who can help the offense pick its spots can help it reach new heights.
Get a three-point shooter – Outside of T.J. Warren and Troy Daniels – who both played less than 50 games – the Suns did not have any player who shot 36 percent from distance or better. Booker is enough of a scoring threat and an underrated distributor that having three-point shooters will force opponents to stay on their heels.
That is easier said than done, but the Suns’ offense could see a lot of improvement if they just had more floor spacing around their young star.
Get a rebounder – The Suns’ rebounding issues may have very well contributed to their defensive issues. Phoenix surrendered the highest average of offensive rebounds a game with 11.7, which led to them giving up the most second-chance points in the league with 15.3.
Ayton’s proven he can get on the boards, but he can’t do it alone. If the Suns add someone who can give him help in that department, the defense could take another step forward.
There are more problems on this squad than just the ones mentioned above, but these are the most basic holes that Phoenix needs to have filled.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Even after trading Ryan Anderson’s team-friendly deal for Tyler Johnson’s bloated contract, Phoenix should have a fair amount of cap flexibility on its hands.
With Tyson Chandler, Austin Rivers, Darrell Arthur and Wayne Ellington among others all coming off the books, Phoenix will have a shade under $87 million on its cap. Some of that free cash should go into a possible extension for Kelly Oubre Jr.
Oubre’s inflated numbers have come at just the right time since he’ll be a restricted free agent and hence, will probably have a fair amount of suitors. More teams will have money this season and may look to spend their money elsewhere when the big fish are off the table. His shooting percentages are not and never have been the prettiest, but Oubre has shown that he is a fit. Don’t be surprised if he winds up staying long-term.
With the Suns not picking up Dragan Bender’s player option for next season, his return isn’t likely. Troy Daniels, Richaun Holmes and Jamal Crawford’s returns are all up in the air. Phoenix could take or leave any of them.
Even though they should have cap room, the Suns’ lack of success will probably prevent them from being serious bidders for the best free agents on the open market. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the lookout for productive players who could come on a bargain.
One player who could be the ideal target would be Clippers forward JaMychal Green. With LA hoping to get in the sweepstakes for a star or two, Green just might be available if the Clippers’ plans succeed.
Green would solve a fair amount of the Suns’ problems by himself. Not only is he a career 36.6 percent shooter from three, but his rebounding numbers per-36 (10) are excellent for a guy his size, and have steadily gotten better every season. With presumably more minutes with the Suns, he’d show the league what he’s made of.
Focus Area: Draft
By finishing with one of the three worst records in the NBA, Phoenix has a 14 percent chance of getting the first overall pick in the draft while also having a 42.1 percent chance of getting a top-four pick. If they get No. 1, then things get a little interesting.
Zion Williamson is believed to be the best prospect to come out of this draft and one of the best prospects the league has had in years. Phoenix would be foolish not to take him obviously, but they should not brush off their point guard issues. Williamson is undisputedly going to have the most glorious career in the draft, but Ja Morant showed he’s no slouch in the NCAA tournament this season. It is worth pondering who to take if it came to that.
Now if the Suns get No. 2, then they’ll have no problem taking whoever is left between the two. If it’s No. 3 or lower, then Phoenix will have a conundrum.
There are some appealing prospects after Williamson and Morant, but they are not sure things. Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett, and De’Andre Hunter have something to offer. The problem is that their cloudy ceilings will make the Suns have to gamble, which has not worked out too often for them in the past.
The Suns do not have the best track record when it’s come to the draft in recent years. After hitting a bullseye with Booker – in a season in which they weren’t trying to tank – they then whiffed on Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, then selected an enigma in Josh Jackson before getting Ayton.
The Suns have had four picks in the top eight over the last three years, and the only one who looks like a sure thing is Ayton. If they don’t get a top-2 pick, then the pressure will increase tenfold.
Some rebuilds are quite short while others take seemingly forever. In the Suns’ case, their rebuild has taken longer probably than they would have liked. Everyone involved in the franchise wants to see the team take its next step forward.
That just might come from this summer if they play their cards right.
NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Houston Rockets
Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by analyzing the Houston Rockets.
Over the course of July and August, Basketball Insiders embarked on grading all 30 NBA teams for their offseasons — additions, subtractions, draft picks, trades, etc — and their potential headed into the 2019-20 campaign. Between today and autumn, franchises will be tasked with figuring out how their roster pieces, both new and old, might mesh together on the floor. At long last, the journey has nearly reached its conclusion but a reshuffling of the hierarchy has left the recently-superior conference in a state of unpredictability.
Between Kevin Durant leaving for new opportunities, Anthony Davis finally getting his way and Kawhi Leonard teaming up with Paul George, the Western Conference, for now, is anybody’s best guess. Among those with an imaginable volatile future, the Houston Rockets will be a mystery box of highs and lows, anchored by two ball-dominant MVPs and former teammates. James Harden and Russell Westbrook need no introduction, but their fit has been questioned since the latter was snagged in a shock deal for the oft-injured Chris Paul.
There are other pieces here, most definitely, as general manager Daryl Morey continues to find gems in the league’s tiniest nooks and crannies, but make no mistake: The Rockets’ ceiling will only rise as far as Harden and Westbrook can co-habitat. It’s both the million-dollar query and a philosophical wonder, a beard-sized challenge that’ll come to define the new-look NBA by January — for better or for worse, however, that remains to be seen.
But before any Westbrook-related fireworks can commence, it’s worth looking back on a mostly successful campaign for Houston in 2018-19.
Despite experiencing major turnover to a roster that was once an ill-timed Paul injury away from eliminating the perpetually historic Warriors during the previous postseason, Houston recovered better than many expected. An early, ugly spat between Paul and the Lakers’ Rajon Rondo, a long-time rival, helped to put the Rockets in a 1-5 hole to start the season, where an ever-so-slight inkling of worry began to creep in. But Harden — the eventual runner-up in a contested MVP race, only bested by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s other-worldly efforts — erased those apprehensions with an electric effort every night.
For the Rockets, that was often more than enough.
Harden played 36.8 minutes per game, practically a dead tie with Bradley Beal and Paul George for the league lead, and finished as one of two players with a PER over 30 (Antetokounmpo). The feared iso-ball mastermind tallied 36.1 points per game — a staggering eight full points ahead of the second-placed George — and ended as the seventh-best assister (7.5) on the ladder too. The former MVP made 4.8 three-pointers and nabbed an even two steals per game too, numbers that placed Harden, once again, as second-best in the NBA. Not a single player attempted or made more free throws than Harden either — a result largely thanks to the bearded-assassin’s flat-out insane 40.47 usage percent, the second-highest season-long rate in basketball history.
(Westbrook’s 41.65 rate in 2016-17, his MVP-worthy campaign, ranks first all-time, but that is a detail better suited for another section.)
To cap off a list of personal achievements that could truly run the length of this entire piece, Harden scored 30 or more points in 57 games, topped 50 in nine of them and hit 60 twice. For everybody else that stepped on the court for Houston in 2018-19, they reached the 30 point-mark a combined total of five times (Eric Gordon, 3; Clint Capela, 1; Paul, 1).
After the All-Star break, when Harden embarked on the equivalent of a nirvana-induced bender in all the best ways, the Rockets went 20-5 and secured the conference’s fourth seed. Unfortunately, a significantly tight race in the standings left Houston on the same side of the bracket as Golden State, who dispatched them in a tough six-game series during the second round and eliminated the Rockets for the fourth time in the last five postseasons.
All and all, it was a concentrated, historic effort for a franchise that was doubted after losing key rotation pieces like Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza the summer beforehand.
But what they did next might’ve been even more unbelievable.
So, Russell Westbrook — let’s get into it, finally.
On Jul. 11, the Rockets pushed all-in by trading Paul and first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, plus pick swaps in 2021 and 2025, for Westbrook. Apparently, James Harden was a loud, positive voice during the acquisition of the point guard and believes that the union can work.
In any case, Westbrook is an upgrade over Paul, if nothing else, given his nearly clean bill of health over the last half-decade. 80, 81, 80, 73 in the games played department for Westbrook compares so generously to Paul’s injury-riddled count of 74, 61, 58, 58 that the Rockets might consider the reliability worth the blind leap of faith alone. Since Harden and Durant departed Oklahoma City, Westbrook turned into a usage beast and evolved into the type of No. 1 option that many had envisioned for the floor-running, high-flying future Hall of Famer.
Additionally, Westbrook’s 10.7 assists per game crushed second- and third-placed Kyle Lowry (8.7) and Paul (8.2), respectively, while his rebounding efforts should help a Rockets side that ranked almost dead-last in rebounds per game last year at 42.1. On offense, the ball-hawking, aggressive duo should get Houston in transition early and often, a place where they succeeded all year long by putting up 18 points per game off opponent turnovers. When considering a near-perfect outcome, the pair would have to reignite their dynamic partnership, equally share responsibilities and not end up watching alternate possessions as the other isolates.
However, the Rockets have built their brand on volume three-point shooting — that, naturally, is one of Westbrook’s weakest tendencies. At 16.1 three-pointers made (and a ridiculous 45.4 attempted), Houston blew away opposition from behind the arc in 2018-19. The season before that, they did it again (15.3, 42.3) — but how about the year prior? You guessed it: The Rockets’ 14.4 three-pointers made on 40.3 attempts per game during 2016-17 also lead the entire league. Simply put, it’s the key tenant of Houston’s up-tempo offense and the forward-thinking Morey often fills out the roster with like-minded players during free agency to boot.
Westbrook has only shot over 34 percent from three-point range on one occasion over his 11-year career and is coming off a disappointing 29 percent effort during his final season in Oklahoma City. Like most professionals, Westbrook can get scorching-hot from deep but it’s inconsistent enough to question his perimeter fit alongside Harden, an elite penetrator that often drives and kicks to open three-point shooters. Still, mixing two recent MVPs, and getting out from under Paul’s albatross-sized deal, is a chance the Rockets will swing on every time — so, at this moment, the only thing left is to wait and see.
Of course, Houston made other moves too — that certainly happened!
Danuel House, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green all returned to the fold after dipping their toes into free agency — more of those athletic, adequate three-point shooters, obviously — while Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried both departed. On Jul. 19, the Rockets snagged Tyson Chandler to backup the blossoming Capela, then took fliers on Ben McLemore and Anthony Bennett a week later.
As a small note, Houston left the 2019 NBA Draft with no new additions.
PLAYERS IN: Russell Westbrook, Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, Ben McLemore, Anthony Bennett
PLAYERS OUT: Chris Paul, Kenneth Faried, Iman Shumpert
Lots of prayers, right?
There’s an undeniable magnetism in joining Harden and Westbrook together once more — two former MVPs in their respective primes — but how that practice plays out is still a relative unknown. The Rockets will continue to shoot a metaphorical truckload of three-pointers — hopefully, with some better looks than he got in Oklahoma City, Westbrook can get closer to the league-wide average. Even if he doesn’t, Houston holds plenty of deep-hitting cards to use at head coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced, high-volume mercy.
Clint Capela, bless him, has taken a backseat in discussions all summer because of Westbrook, but the 25-year-old has continued his ascent and recently averaged 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds, both career-highs, on 64.8 percent shooting. He’s still range-limited but with Harden and Westbrook dishing open looks, and surrounded by many capable three-point shooters, Capela fills his role perfectly. In spite of some draft-time chatter of a possible Capela trade, Morey held onto his 6-foot-10, rim-protecting stalwart — a decision that’ll keep the Rockets from bleeding points in the paint for years to come.
So, then, what is next? Is their ceiling higher than last year? Lower? With an injured Thompson and departed Durant, could this be their year to enact revenge on the Warriors? Or did they fall behind the other conference risers? In August, these are some heavy questions that don’t have answers today, understandably.
Honestly, it’s impossible to fully and accurately predict the Rockets’ forecast — still, there is one fact already written in the stars, however:
It’ll be fun as hell, so buckle up and enjoy the show.
OFFSEASON GRADE: B
High-Performance Mindfulness: Energy Psychology – The NBA’s Best Kept Secret
Jake Rauchbach takes a deep dive into the positive correlation between the effectiveness of leading-edge Energy Psychology techniques in removing mental baggage and improving on-court statistical performance.
With the NBA’s latest initiative requiring all 30 teams to have mental health professionals on staff, the door has now been kicked wide open on in regards to High-Performance Mindfulness and mind-based holistic methods that support the well-being of the player both on and off the court.
As teams all around the league begin to expand their mental health groups, and the scope of their player development departments, the next logical step in player support could be the application of Energy Psychology-based techniques. These techniques zero in on the elimination of subconscious performance blockages for the direct aim of exponentializing on-court statistical improvement.
Before we discuss how NBA, college and international professional teams are implementing these High-Performance Mindfulness modalities to move the dial on on-court statistical performance, let’s first discuss the foundational mechanics of the player mindset, starting with the subconscious mind.
Energy Psychology techniques interface directly with the subconscious mind of the athlete for the goal of unlocking the player’s full potential.
The Subconscious Mind
Science tells us that the conscious mind makes up 1-10 percent of total brain capacity, while the subconscious mind makes up 90-99 percent. The conscious can focus on one to two things at any given time (reading and writing, e.g.), while the unconscious can manage thousands of tasks all at once, doing so while a person is generally unaware that it is happening.
The subconscious mind is about habit, pattern and muscle memory. For a player, tending to the subconscious is vital, because all hours of practice, training and repetition get logged there. A player’s subconscious is like a supercomputer, storing all programs (thoughts, emotions, feelings, images) from life’s past experiences.
Subconscious Performance Blocks
If not fully processed on the mental and emotional levels, thoughts, emotions, feelings and images from negatively-charged past experiences can often become trapped within the player’s subconscious mind. When this happens, performance blocks occur, ultimately throwing a wrench into instinctual response, muscle memory and on-court performance execution.
A prime example is Nick Anderson’s missed free throws in the 1995 NBA Finals, and the unresolved subconscious loop of blocking thoughts, emotions and feelings that ensued and sabotaged the remainder of his career.
Mental blocks can stem from on and/or off-court experiences. Off-court situations that seemingly have nothing to do with basketball frequently present the biggest challenges when improving performance by working through the mind.
Many times, players are unaware that the unresolved thoughts and feelings from their past are acting as performance impediments to success. Furthermore, these players generally do not have the skills to resolve these performance-blocking imbalances on their own.
From the pool of NBA, college, international and national team players that I have observed, below are some of the most common subconscious blocks to on-court statistical improvement:
1. Epic Failure: Epically failing the team, no matter the level of basketball, is one of the most commonly observed performance-blocking experiences. Often, the anxiety, embarrassment and shame attached to these unresolved memories can be carried throughout a career, effectively hampering performance. Case in point is Nick Anderson.
2. Freshman Year of College: When a player has not quite solidified their role or found their confidence and rhythm within the context of the team, volatile experiences on both the mental/emotional and performance levels can occur. The first few games of a college career can be overwhelming. Players often carry forward emotional discord from these events, until resolved.
3. DNPs & Injuries: When a player does not play for an extended period, it can mess with the psyche. NBA veterans who have experienced these stretches often carry it with them throughout their career with emotions such as lack of confidence, confusion and frustration. Watching teammates contribute while they are resigned to the bench can be debilitating.
4. Family & Home Life: Many performance issues at the deepest levels map back to off-the-court issues. It is important to note that the older the blocking emotional discord, generally, the more debilitating to performance it can become.
5. Recent Poor Performances: Subconscious blocks relating to recent hiccups in performance are common. It is prudent to address these immediately when fresh in the mind of the athlete so that long-term performance barriers do not occur.
With this breakdown, we are providing context to what coaches and players intuitively already understand: past negativity can affect future performance if it is allowed to linger.
This being said, when performance blocks exist, there is generally no amount of additional skill-development repetition, film study or strength and conditioning work that will help to unblock or unlock big time improvement for the player. The root cause of down trending performance held at the unconscious level has to be eliminated first.
This is something that many player development approaches have historically overlooked.
The Gap Within the Traditional Player Development Model
Although closing fast, a gap has existed within old constructs of traditional player development strategies.
Players have been viewed as purely mechanical commodities as if they were robots repeatedly able to generate top-level performance by the click of a button. Outside of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and maybe a couple of other all-world players, this is simply not the case.
Players are multi-dimensional beings requiring customized, specific support at all levels of their awareness (especially the subconscious, where performance habits are created and fostered).
Only addressing the physical component (on-court work/strength and conditioning), or only addressing the conscious mind/analytical component through film analysis and scouting, neglects possibly the most important aspect of the athlete – the subconscious (muscle memory) element, which directly influences the player’s effectiveness in each one of these areas.
Tweaking the player development model, by addressing this aspect, may present the best opportunity to date for helping players consistently optimize on-court performance throughout a season and a career.
This, then, begets the question: What is the most effective way to do this when incorporated within the context of an overall team dynamic? Enter Psychology.
Closing the Gap Through Energy Psychology
Energy Psychology or EP is quite possibly the best-kept secret in basketball player development, and may be on the verge of breaking out big-time as a way to facilitate massive statistical on-court performance improvement for players.
Based on ancient traditional Chinese healing principals, and rooted in empirically-based results, EP works directly with the natural energetic flow, or meridian system of the body, to unburden and unblock past lingering experiences still residing within the subconscious mind of an athlete.
This has the effect of freeing up the player’s ability to perform better and, quite possibly, could be the fastest way to supercharge on-court statistical performance when integrated within the totality of an existing player development program.
Once deemed nonsensical and out there, techniques like Touch-Point tapping, muscle testing and Reiki and Quantum-Touch are now being implemented by NBA teams, high-major Division-1 college programs, and European ball clubs, as ways to supercharge performance.
Players and coaches are beginning to turn to these methods to dramatically improve three-point shooting percentage, free-throw percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, VAL analytics, plus-minus offensive efficiencies and defensive efficiencies, mental focus, confidence, decision-making and leadership qualities, just to name a few.
This past season, the Los Angeles Clippers and their Integrated Player Development Department, employed the next level skill-sets of Dr. Laura Wilde, a cutting edge High-Performance Consultant who has been working with professional athletes for years. Dr. Wilde is a pioneer in this space, applying advanced Energy Psychology methods as a way to promote player well-being and to improve performance.
The Utah Jazz rely on Graham Betchart’s expertise as a long-time Elite Mental Skills Coach to star NBA players as a way to support their players both on and off the court.
As awareness around this space continues to build and these practices become common knowledge for helping players, roles for the High-Performance coaches who administer these Energy Psychology–Player Development-based techniques will become more defined.
For now, the most effective implementation of this type of specialist is likely as an embedded, trusted resource within an overall coaching staff or player development department.
The bottom line: The trend for improving performance through unlocking the mind is growing, and so too are the innovative and proven ways for producing positive change for players.
Energy Psychology and other types of High-Performance Mindfulness methods like it are now coming on-line as player development – secret weapons – in facilitating big-time statistical performance improvement for players.
NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Philadelphia 76ers
In this edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series, Matt John takes a look at the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the most talented albeit confusing teams in the league
When evaluating a team’s offseason, it can take a while to complete.
Between going over what happened last season, what they did this summer and predicting what lies ahead – it’s quite the exercise. You could almost call it a process.
Oh hey, speaking of processes, the next team up in this series? The Philadelphia 76ers.
Philadelphia has to feel good about itself. It came within a literal buzzer-beater from overtaking the reigning champion Toronto Raptors. They don’t have the same team that they did three months ago, but they still have a team that, should things break their way, can feasibly win its first title since 1983.
Their roster makeup is a tad confusing at the moment. Then again, saying that would imply that their roster construction has always made sense in the Embiid-Simmons era, which it hasn’t.
One thing is for sure, though: This team is going to be good. With Kawhi Leonard out of the Eastern Conference and Kevin Durant probably out for the year, the Sixers have a bigger window than they’ve had in decades.
Give Elton Brand credit. In just his first year as general manager, the guy didn’t shy away from shaking things up. Between Philly’s so-so start to their season to the trade deadline, Brand made the following moves.
- Traded for a bonafide scorer who was available for cheap (Jimmy Butler)
- Gave up on a prospect whose lack of progress was not helping the team (Markelle Fultz)
- Acquired a pseudo star whose abilities fit like a glove next to Simmons and Embiid (Tobias Harris)
Since starting from scratch in 2013, Philly has always been about the future. The moves they made signified that the future was now. Butler wasn’t the best fit next to Embiid and Simmons, and Harris had never been on a team with aspirations nearly as high as Philly’s, but the talent that the Sixers had at their arsenal was gargantuan – gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated-like gargantuan.
Though Butler and Harris clearly made the Sixers a bigger threat for a title, progress was kind of slow after adding both of them.
Without Butler/Without Harris: 9-6 (Winning percentage of 60), Offensive Rating: 106.8 (19th overall), Defensive Rating: 106.9 (9th overall)
With Butler/Without Harris: 25-14 (Winning percentage of 64), Offensive Rating: 113 (7th overall), Defensive Rating: 108.9 (13th overall)
With Butler/With Harris: 17-11 (Winning Percentage of 61), Offensive Rating: 112.1 (10th overall), Defensive Rating: 110.3 (15th overall)
There are other factors that played into this. For example, it could’ve been the opponents who they played in those time frames. Or maybe it was Joel Embiid missing 18 games. Still, the Sixers somehow didn’t really take that next step they were hoping for. They finished the season 51-31, which qualified them for the third seed.
With Toronto and Milwaukee as their primary competition, that’s a mark the Sixers should be proud of. Maybe it would have been different if they had Butler and Harris from the get-go.
In their defense, some growing pains are in order when you shake up the roster to the degree that the Sixers did. When the playoffs come around, you can’t afford to wait for progress. When the Sixers entered the postseason, the progress they desired came, and it came swiftly.
After making quick work of the upstart Brooklyn Nets – and making someone look really dumb in the process – Philadelphia had quite the duel with Toronto. There were times where the Sixers looked completely outmatched against the Raptors. There were times where they completely outclassed the Raptors. To make a long story short, the craziest buzzer-beater – perhaps in playoff history – took them out for good.
As heartbreaking as that was, when you look at how the rest of the postseason turned out, the Sixers were the closest to eliminating the team who ended the Golden State superteam. Even if things didn’t end the way they wanted to, last season proved that Philadelphia is on the right track.
In a perfect world, the Sixers would have retained all three of Butler, Harris, and J.J. Redick. As we know, not everything went according to plan. That doesn’t mean the Sixers had a bad offseason. Far from it.
It all started with the draft. The Sixers had five picks coming into the draft and wound up keeping two of them. They wound up with Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok. There’s not much to say about Shayok besides that the best hope for him is adding some guard depth.
For Thybulle, he could add so much to the 76ers. He was one of the best defenders coming out of this draft. At the very least, he should make Philadelphia much stronger on that end of the floor. He’s not necessarily a future star, but his potential as an impact player is very high. Expect him to be in Philly’s rotation sooner rather than later.
As for free agency, well, the Sixers were among the teams that went through quite a bit of turnover.
Let’s just get to the main course. Jimmy Butler decided to take his talents to South Beach, which honestly was a “surprised, but not surprised” type of move. Unlike say, oh, Kyrie Irving and Boston, Butler didn’t leave Philly on bad terms. In fact, he didn’t leave the Sixers empty-handed either.
While Butler is gone, in comes Josh Richardson. There is definitely a talent disparity between Butler and Richardson. In fact, there were many times where Butler carried the Sixers on his back when the team could not get things going. Richardson doesn’t command the same kind of respect, but he brings certain advantages that Butler does not.
-At 25 years old, Richardson fits better with Simmons and Embiid’s timeline than Butler does
-As a career near-37 percent shooter from three, Richardson is a better floor spacer than Butler is
-At $10 million, he’s one of the best bargain contracts in the league with his production
Brand probably would have preferred keeping Butler, but considering the alternative – letting Jimmy Buckets walk for nothing – getting Richardson expertly salvaged the situation.
That wasn’t the only sly move Brand made this summer.
When you’re building a contender, nothing helps your chances better like taking away a valuable piece from one of your biggest rivals. Philly took Al Horford right under from Boston’s nose, simultaneously giving the team another dimension while knocking the Celtics down a peg.
Over the last two years, Horford has established himself as one of the better defensive bigs in the league. He’s not a rim protector, nor is he the best pick-pocket, but his elite defense comes from his smarts. You wouldn’t think he could match up against Embiid’s girth or the footwork to contain Ben Simmons’ speed, but he can and he has.
As one of the few players who has shown the ability to slow both Simmons and Embiid, Horford has been Philly’s worst nightmare since “The Process” went full-throttle. With him on board, both of their young stars should be able to play their games more smoothly, especially against Boston.
That would be more plausible if Horford’s fit on the Sixers was a perfect one, which it isn’t. Horford is slated to start at power forward, which he only played eight percent of the time last year. At 33 years old, Horford’s footwork is on the decline. Plus, last season, he struggled to play well on back-to-backs. The Sixers already have enough worries on their hands with Embiid’s conditioning. With Horford, they’re going to have all their fingers crossed.
The Sixers also brought in plenty of new faces to help round out the roster. Raul Neto and Trey Burke are good flyers to take when looking for a second or third-string point guard. Kyle O’Quinn didn’t do much for the Pacers last season, but he’s an upgrade over the likes of Greg Monroe and Amir Johnson.
This offseason hasn’t just been about who they brought in, but who they brought back.
Considering what they gave up for them, the Sixers had to keep at least one of Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris. Butler leaving for Miami increased the urgency to keep Harris at all costs. The Sixers definitely took that to heart, as they gave him a five-year/$188 million extension.
Harris is a talented scorer. Before he was traded to Philadelphia, he gained a lot of well-deserved All-Star recognition. He didn’t put up the same numbers as a Sixer – with some of that understandably coming from less touches – but those numbers fell further in the playoffs. Being traded mid-season gives him the benefit of the doubt. With more time, maybe he’ll figure it out.
That’s going to be hard though, because with Horford on the team, Harris is going to be playing a lot more at small forward now than he’s played in years. His best position is playing a stretch four because he’s not quick enough to cover wings, but his strength holds up against power forwards.
He could make the proper adjustments, but if he doesn’t, that could spell trouble. What makes it more troubling is that the Sixers paid Harris superstar money when the man, as good as he’s been, is not a superstar. If he’s put in the right role, keeping Tobias could be the right move no matter what he gets paid. Finding that role is going to be hard with the frontcourt logjam.
The Sixers wanted to keep their wing depth this summer. Along with Harris, management brought back James Ennis III – who carried his weight in the playoffs – and Mike Scott, who, regardless of his production, will get plenty of attention because of The Office.
Oh, and the Sixers are going to have to adjust to losing three-point marksman that is J.J. Redick. Redick’s three-point shooting was a threat. Richardson and Horford have a respected deep ball, but they don’t command the same respect that Redick did. He fit perfectly next to Simmons/Embiid. Playing without him is going to take some time to adjust to.
Losing Butler and Redick bites, but Philadelphia compensated well in response to their departure.
PLAYERS IN: Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, Raul Neto, Trey Burke, Kyle O’Quinn, Shake Milton, Isaiah Miles, Chris Koumadje, Norvel Pelle (two-way), Marial Shayok (two-Way)
PLAYERS OUT: Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick, Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic, TJ McConnell, Amir Johnson
Boston, Milwaukee, Toronto and Philadelphia all lost a player(s) that played an important role in each team’s success. The difference between Philadelphia and the aforementioned teams is that they brought in a fair amount of talent to cover its losses. But was it the right talent?
This has been said about the Sixers all summer, but it bears repeating: This roster doesn’t make a whole lot of sense right now. Brett Brown is a good coach, and he redeemed himself pretty well in the playoffs following an embarrassing loss at the hands of the Celtics in 2018, but he’s got a lot on his plate this season.
This can go right or it can go so very, very wrong. It’s not just about who the Sixers gained and lost this summer. There still remains the question as to whether Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can reach their full potential when they play together. Simmons may never get a respectable jump shot, and Embiid’s conditioning is still an issue.
Both are two of the best young players in the game. If the Sixers are serious, they may have to choose between one or the other going forward. This isn’t something that needs to be taken care of now, but it is something that the Sixers should be paying close attention to.
This season could be the one where the Sixers finally cash in on the process just as much as it could be the confirmation that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will never co-exist on a championship team.
OFFSEASON GRADE: B+