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NBA Daily: Raymond Felton’s Career Will End On His Own Terms

Spencer Davies speaks with longtime basketball veteran Raymond Felton about the ups and downs of his career, why he’s not done playing, the NBA bubble and more.

Spencer Davies

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For all of his life, Raymond Felton’s never been a tattoo guy.

Jermichael Wright, his best friend, makes a living in the world of ink design as an artist with his own shop.

Together at Latta High School in South Carolina, the two won back-to-back state championships in 2001 and 2002. With career averages of 39 points, 9.1 rebounds 8.9 assists and 5.6 steals per game, Felton led the Vikings to a 104-9 record over four seasons and earned the Naismith Prep award his senior year among future household names, including upstart junior LeBron James, before making a memorable run at the University of North Carolina.

But it wasn’t the accolades and personal accomplishments that stuck with Felton; it was the message he and Wright lived by that made it possible — GBMS, the very phrase the longtime NBA veteran had tattooed on his right arm this past year.

“It means God Bless My Success,” Felton told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive phone interview. “It’s an everyday thing for me. Every dang day.”

One week ago today marked a full year since Felton became a free agent. Following a two-season stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he didn’t end up signing with a team. It’s the first time that the recently-turned 36-year-old hasn’t played professionally since entering the Association in 2005.

That’s quite an adjustment for somebody who’s been around hoops his entire life; however, his everyday regimen hasn’t really changed. Felton is not done with the game yet. Still residing in Oklahoma City, he’s been training, staying in shape and, most importantly, maintaining a healthy diet as he gets older.

“It was tough, mentally, not being able to do something that you love to do and have a passion for,” Felton said of missing the action. “I love basketball. I’d do it even if I wasn’t getting paid to do it. But me, understanding that I’m 36 and getting towards the end of my career, I just didn’t want it to end like that. So that’s why I’m not retiring.

“I feel like I can still play. If I get to the point where I feel like I can’t move the way I used to, then that’s letting me know that it’s time for me to let it go. Even if I’ve got to go across the world, I’m going to play basketball for another two years to satisfy myself and how I want to end it.”

This past spring, erroneous reports surfaced that Felton was signing with Czech Republic Second Division club GBA Jindrichuv Hradec to continue his playing career. So what happened?

Felton spoke with a trainer for the team, who happens to be a friend of his from North Carolina. The trainer tried to persuade him to come overseas and join them for a tournament, so Felton did some research out of curiosity. It didn’t go far. He was offered money and had a conversation with the general manager of the club, but terms were never agreed upon, nor close to agreed upon. In fact, his agent didn’t even speak with the team’s management.

“I started getting all kinds of phone calls from people saying, ‘Hey man, you signed with the Czech Republic and you can’t even go to the Czech Republic,’” Felton said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m at home. I’m not going anywhere.’ I don’t know. It was just a big mix-up with that.”

The closest Felton came to playing was last summer. He was working out with the Houston Rockets frequently and felt the organization would offer him a contract. They didn’t even invite him to training camp in the fall. Ideally, Felton would love to pick up where he left off in the NBA with a team that values his presence.

“I still feel like I’ve got a lot that I can offer, but you know how that goes sometimes in the league now. They want to go young. They want to do different things. It can be unfortunate sometimes.”

It’s not the first time that Felton’s been on the wrong side of lady luck. After four losing seasons with the then-named Charlotte Bobcats, the team made the playoffs and appeared to be set on a franchise turnaround; it didn’t work out the way he thought it would.

Felton went on to sign with the New York Knicks in the summer of 2010, a move that turned out to be outstanding for both the team and himself. Through 54 games, Felton was averaging career-bests in points (17.1), assists (9) and free throw percentage (86.7), all in over 38 minutes per contest.

Led by All-Star big man Amar’e Stoudemire, young talents like Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and promising rookies — Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov — the Knicks were in the middle of the playoff pack with a 28-26 record and things were looking up in The Big Apple.

On the other hand, the organization had an opportunity to strike gold with a hometown superstar, Carmelo Anthony, aching to play for New York. The Knicks went with the latter option and made a blockbuster three-way trade to acquire ‘Melo from the Denver Nuggets. Felton, along with several key contributors and young talents, was made expendable. It’s a scenario that begs the question: “What if?”

“I’ve got the same question you got,” Felton chuckled. “’What if? What if y’all just waited?’ ‘Melo was gonna come anyway. He was gonna come anyway in free agency that summer. Just like…I don’t know man. To me, that team was special and I thought it could’ve been really special. I would like to have seen what we could’ve done, but that’s how the league goes sometimes.”

After finishing the year out with the Nuggets, Felton was dealt yet again to the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent one short season thanks to a lockout. He returned to New York in the 2012 offseason via another trade and ultimately played with the man he was moved for. Under new head Mike Woodson and alongside new teammates, Felton was a part of the best Knicks team since the late ‘90s. Felton thought that group had a “big chance” at a title, and despite a series loss to the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the postseason, it was a great year.

Following his second go-round with New York, Felton bounced around with three teams over five years. When the Knicks sent him to the Dallas Mavericks in June 2014, an injury forced him out of the rotation his first season there. In spite of receiving DNPs for the first time in his career, he credits Rick Carlisle for being upfront with him about his initial role. Felton worked his tail off to earn a spot the next season and did so; he gave key performances for the team in the playoffs. Again, he assumed he’d sign back with the Mavericks when his contract expired, but it fell through the cracks.

So his next decision was signing with the Los Angeles Clippers to back up Chris Paul. It wasn’t a bad call, as Felton received over 20 minutes of playing time per night over 80 games (plus the playoffs). Even in his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder the following year, Felton had a consistent role and appeared in every game. He re-signed with them two summers ago thinking he’d have the same duty. That didn’t happen.

“I had already signed back as a free agent,” Felton explained. “Then [OKC] made that trade later in the summer when they got rid of ‘Melo to go to Atlanta and then they got Dennis Schroder over there. Then they kinda just basically told me that they were gonna play him as the backup point guard. And it was just like, well, okay, kinda wish I would’ve known that going into free agency before I signed back.”

No hard feelings from Felton, though. He made great friends in his Thunder days and still keeps in touch with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams and Schroder, the young guard that overtook his former role.

He’s learned the way the league works and the unlucky breaks that come with being a part of it, firmly believing that the ability to adapt is the only path to longevity.

It was as recent as the 2019 NBA Playoffs where Felton showed his abilities in spurts, most notably a quick stint in Game 4 between the Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. He scored eight points in rapid fashion and ignited a run that spurred the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd into a frenzy, a moment he felt showed teams, and the world, that he hasn’t lost a step.

Felton isn’t lost of confidence, and he won’t ever be. He knows he can impact winning — shooting, defense, being a floor general — in whatever amount of minutes are given to him, as well as in a mentorship role.

“You get put in a situation where a lot of teams who are winning teams or are veteran teams that kinda already have their team set, and me going to a young team would basically be another coach, a player-coach. So you go into a situation like that and you already know you’re not gonna be playing ’cause they’re rebuilding. They’re trying to handle their young guys.

“And I’m to the point now where I just want to be around the game. I’m willing to do that. I’m willing to be a player-coach to help young guys and help them develop their skills and help them learn the game, mentally. Because pretty much everybody has the physical attributes, but a lot of them miss the mental part of it that’s really important about being an NBA player. So I’m willing to be able to help in that aspect and still just be ready if my number is called.”

If you’re expecting to see Felton in an NBA uniform anytime soon, it probably won’t be during the league’s restart this month. Like many, he has concerns with the bubble environment at the World of Disney in Orlando. From who he’s spoken to, there have been “iffy” feelings toward the plan itself. Between the surge of coronavirus cases in Florida and the fight against racial injustice and police brutality, Felton isn’t sure if the players will be there from a mental standpoint.

“I kinda wish they would’ve just like canceled the season, just really cancel it and just focus on the draft and focus on that upcoming season and just let this one go,” Felton said. “And I know it’s never been done; it’s been a long time since that ever happened, but it’s been a long time since the world’s been dealing with what we’ve been dealing with right now, too.

“Even the guys who feel the way I feel, we miss the game too. I miss it like crazy. I ain’t played in a whole year, so I would love to go play. I would love that, but not to risk getting sick or risk my life or risk something happening to my kids or my family. Nah, it’s just…not to finish a season. (If) we talkin’ about starting up a whole new season, then okay, that’s a different story. But to like finish and do this format that they’re trying out right now, nah. Not in my opinion. That’s my opinion, but not everybody feels that way, so.”

Despite his feelings on the comeback itself, Felton does feel his friends and players across the league will use their platform in a positive manner to affect change. He shared poignant thoughts on the issues happening in our country and our world.

“Anything can help at this point,” Felton said. “What we’re dealing with right now is just something that just needs to stop. It ain’t no racial thing. It ain’t no blacks against whites. It ain’t that. It’s just that these cops, these bad cops — ’cause not all cops are bad, I will say that; I have cop friends — but the ones who are doing something that other cops need to step up and make a stand and say, ‘Look, this is not how we’re supposed to do things.’ You know, you’re not supposed to put your knee down on that man’s neck for that long and they end up passing out and dying. You’re not supposed to shoot a man because they’re running away from you and you shoot ’em in their back. It’s just too many instances where these things are happening, and it’s just like, it’s got to stop.

“And I’m glad that everybody’s protesting and doing the things they’re doing because it’s like…these things are happening, but nobody’s doing nothing about it. It’s getting brushed up under the rug, and it’s like, no. Enough is enough. We tired. We done. We done with this. I shouldn’t have to answer a question to my son asking me like, ‘Daddy I’m scared. Daddy, I’m scared to be black.’ And it’s like, what? When I hear my kid say something like that, now I’m angry, now I’m mad. It’s just things that gotta stop man. We’re dealing with a lot in the world right now with the (coronavirus) and then all this stuff that’s going on with Black Lives Matter, too.

“It’s just tough times right now,” Felton continued. And I still feel like we’re all gonna get past this, we’re gonna get through this. Change is gonna happen because we’re gonna demand change. We’re gonna demand change. And then with the (coronavirus), it’s just something that we just gotta stay strong as a country and just wait this thing out, man. Just be safe and everybody keep practicing the things we need to practice — social distancing, hand sanitizer, keep your mask on, do the things you gotta do during these rough moments. It’s tough, man. These times like this, you just wanna be close to your family, close to your kids and just try to keep ’em safe. You know, it’s kinda hard to concentrate on basketball when there’s so much going on in the world that you can’t ignore.”

While Felton and Wright carry GBMS on in their respective lives, the two have envisioned starting up a clothing line together. Felton’s already got the shirts and sweatsuits, and people have always asked him about the apparel he wears. It’s a love that motivates him to go through with it down the line.

When asked about his future in basketball once his playing days are over, Felton seems unsure. He does know he wants to be around the game. Still, it’s not the time to talk about that right now. There’s unfinished business left to take care of in his eyes.

Felton’s path to this point has been filled with peaks and valleys. He’s had his fair share of moments at the top and at the bottom.

“I feel like you’ve got to make mistakes and do things in life in order to be a better person and learn how to be a better person and a better man in your life,” Felton said. “Whether it’s (as) a father, a husband or a teammate or a friend or a son or a whatever it is. You have to do some wrong in order to learn.

“So I don’t really know if I have too many regrets because I really can’t complain with my life. Yes, I’ve been through some things — I’ve been through some tough things off the court — but I’ve stayed focused, I’ve always kept God first and believed in God and believed that he’s gonna help me get through this. Mentally, physically, whatever. It’s always been that way. I’ve always gotten through everything that I’ve went through.”

Through it all, Felton wouldn’t change a thing about how he got here.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: With Harden in Tow, it’s Championship or Bust for Brooklyn

Adding another former MVP to an already talented Nets team means higher expectations in Kings County. Drew Maresca identifies the major challenges remaining for the Brooklyn Nets.

Drew Maresca

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Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that the Brooklyn Nets pulled off what will go down as the blockbuster deal of 2020-21. Just last week, the Nets added James Harden for Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and future draft swaps and picks. While the deal was more complicated than even that sounds, the fact of the matter is that the Nets added another superstar– and you know what they say, the team that gives up the star rarely wins the trade.

With Harden in tow, the Nets are now equipped to compete with anyone in the NBA thanks to its newly-minted big three. But there is a downside to the Harden deal, too. The Nets entered the season with incredible depth. But after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a knee injury and trading away LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Allen, they’ve thinned out, probably too much, for their own comfort.

The Nets’ depth is an issue that will be challenging to solve. What’s more, how will they arrange Kyrie Irving and Harden to get the most production out of them? And how does rookie head coach Steve Nash respond to the first-time challenges of overseeing a championship-caliber team?

Regardless, our first look at the Nets was pretty darn impressive. Brooklyn beat the Orlando Magic on Saturday, getting 42 points from Kevin Durant and a 30-point triple-double from Harden that also included 14 assists. The Nets will boast one of the league’s most talented starting lineups once Irving returns– which could happen as soon as today – but don’t be fooled, there are still challenges on the horizon, and they’re all internal.

How do Irving and Harden fit together?

Harden might look like a shooting guard and Irving is obviously a point guard, but that doesn’t mean that they fit together. Harden is at his best initiating the offense, and since joining Houston in 2012-13, he hasn’t posted a usage rate lower than 27.8 but has gotten as high as 40.5 (2018-19). Further, he’s averaged 9.5 assists or more in each of the last five seasons, tallying at least 10 assists per game in three of the last five. While his style is clearly isolation-heavy, it looks like he’s finally willing to take a bit of a backseat now that he’s playing alongside his buddy and former-MVP in Durant.

Irving is another player high-usage player, with a usage rate of 30 or more in four of the past five seasons. While he looks more like a traditional point guard than Harden, his career totals don’t necessarily back that up. Unlike Harden, Irving has never averaged 10 assists per game. He averages only 5.7 assists per game for his career with a high of 6.9 in Boston during 2018-19.

Maybe the solution is letting Irving play off the ball. But there’s a problem with that initiative, will Irving accept it? Irving hasn’t been heard from since leaving the team for personal reasons following the Jan. 6 event in Washington D.C. Has his absence been a social commentary? Was it a power play forcing Brooklyn’s hand to trade for Harden? Or maybe it’s all enigmatic of a bigger personal problem with which Irving is dealing? Only time will tell, but Brooklyn can’t be too comfortable – unless they already know the answer.

Lack of depth is a problem

Obviously, the Nets are more than Durant, Harden and Irving. But do they have enough to get over the hump? After all, fair or not, it’s championship or bust. Yes, the Nets also have Joe Harris, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And, sure, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been a great surprise, while lots will be expected of Landry Shamet. But that’s it.

There’s also Nic Claxton, but there are two main problems with expecting significant contributions from him – Nash said he isn’t expected back soon and he’s extremely untested. Sure, Claxton is talented, having drawn comparisons to Chris Bosh, but he only appeared in 15 games during his rookie season, averaging just 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds over 12.5 minutes of action.

But the idea that the Nets are undermanned is about more than a missing piece. Firstly, the Nets don’t have a reliable scorer in the second unit. If Dinwiddie were healthy, they’d be in significantly better shape with him anchoring the second team. Granted, if managed correctly and everyone stays healthy, one of Irving, Durant and Harden will be on the floor at all times. But it’s impossible to ensure that health will prevail and Irving hasn’t even rejoined the team yet, so there is deeper uncertainty around their rotation and the fit for now.

Focusing on health for a moment, we’re still dead smack in the middle of a pandemic. And in 2020-21, teams can’t operate under traditional norms. Losing a player to COVID would do the Nets a huge disservice, losing two or three nearly renders them unable to play. But more importantly, losing any one of their big three hurts badly and changes the entire makeup of the team. The Nets are incredibly top-heavy and once they establish chemistry amongst their three stars, proceeding without one would of them will be a major hindrance. Losing two of them would be a death blow.

Nash’s first rodeo

On top of all of the team’s issues, Nash is in his first season as a head coach – or even being a part of any coaching staff whatsoever.

Throughout his 18-year career, Nash developed a reputation as an extremely high-IQ player – but how will that convert to leading a team from the sideline with such high expectations? Granted, he knew exactly what was expected of the Nets when he accepted the position – but the Harden trade comes even more pressure.

As of the deal, the Nets became easily the most polarizing team in the association. Even before adding another former MVP, the Nets did their best to better position Nash by adding two-tie Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni to their bench, which already featured an experienced assistant in Jacque Vaughn. But while the team may have a disproportionately accomplished coaching staff, all of the questions will be directed squarely at Nash come the playoffs and beyond.

For what it is worth, rookie coaches have fared pretty well of late. While it might not affect the Nets directly, three of the nine rookie coaches to go on to win a championship in their first season did so in the past six seasons –  Steve Kerr, Ty Lue and Nick Nurse. While no two coaches are the same, the fact that rookie coaches have been so successful of late speaks to the idea that teams are doing a better job of identifying raw coaching talent – and Nash is as raw as it comes.

It’s hard to find fault in Brooklyn’s desire to add Harden and the fact that they just added another top-five player to an already insanely-talented roster is flat-out unfair. But now the bar has forever changed: anything less than an NBA Finals’ appearance will be judged as a failure, even that could be deemed an underperformance. While greater expectations mean you’re closer to success in the NBA, the team also ponied up its future through 2026.

Good luck, Brooklyn, no pressure.

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NBA Daily: First Time All-Star Watch

From Christian Wood to Jaylen Brown, these are the breakout players reaching for their first-ever All-Star appearances.

Dylan Thayer

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In this feature for Basketball Insiders, we will take a look at players who have started hot out of the gate, and have vastly improved. The article will touch upon new faces in new roles, as well as players who have expanded their previous roles with their teams. The league has a pretty good amount of guys who have earned All-Star appearances previously in their careers, but the players in this article are ready to add their name to the list 𑁋 so without further ado 𑁋 let’s take a look at five players who are cementing their names around the league. 

Christian Wood

To the casual fan, Christian Wood is having a huge surprise season. But for the people who had him on their radar, and knew he could succeed with more minutes and a larger role, you were right. The 25-year-old began his journeyman career with the Philadelphia 76ers as an undrafted free agent out of UNLV. He then played for the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and now the Houston Rockets. In his first 10 games this year, he is putting up 23.2 points per game to go along with 10.9 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game, per NBA.com. This is a major improvement for a guy who only averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year as a rotational player for the Pistons. Wood’s remarkable season thus far has put the league on notice and shown he is the clear frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award.

Julius Randle

In his seventh season, Julius Randle has finally become a star in the Big Apple for the New York Knicks. Randle spent the first five seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, before signing with the Knicks before the 2019-20 season. This year, Randle has taken the lead role on the team becoming an above-average facilitator, while also raising his shooting percentages and totals.

According to Basketball-Reference, Randle is having a career-best season so far averaging 23.2 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game, and 6.7 assists per game along with shooting 50.2 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from three and 78.2 percent from the free-throw line 𑁋 all career highs. Randle’s play helped the Knicks get off to a 5-3 start before a recent five-game losing skid. Randle’s ascension as a player, as well as providing Knicks fans with a glimmer of hope, make him a good bet to represent the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game this season if there is such an event.

CJ McCollum

Yes, CJ is the well-known sidekick to Damian Lillard for the Portland Trail Blazers, but this season has seen him steal some of the spotlights. Through the first 12 games of the season, McCollum has three 30-point games –including a 44-point and 8-assist performance against the Rockets – plus another 37-point outing to boot. His per-game numbers increased in points, assists, steals and three-point percentage, thus resulting in a very impressive 27.6 PPG, 5.3 APG, 1.4 SPG and 43.4 percent from deep. 

McCollum has done enough as a player to this point to establish himself as an above-average player in the NBA – but with the way he’s playing this year, he could be in line for his first All-Star selection. The lethal backcourt of Lillard and McCollum has led to a hot start this year – but the injury bug continues to haunt the team again this year. Already, they’ve lost Jusuf Nurkic for eight weeks and potentially now McCollum with a left foot sprain too, per Chris Haynes.

Jerami Grant

The Detroit Pistons made a really good decision to bring in free agent Jerami Grant on a three-year deal. The 6-foot-8 small forward has been putting up career-best numbers and his play for the Denver Nuggets during their Western Conference Finals run at the bubble helped get him this deservedly big contract. In the team’s first 12 games this season, Grant is averaging 24.8 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game, while also improving his free throw percentage and shot-creating opportunities. Unfortunately, it’s likely that he’ll miss out on any real All-Star chatter, given his place on one of the worst teams in the league – but the all-around improvement is there. 

Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown, the former third overall pick out of California, has molded himself into a star this season for the Boston Celtics. Brown’s improvement has been no secret around the league, especially after an Eastern Conference Finals run this past season – but this year he looks like he belongs up there with the best. Brown has been relentless in taking the ball to the rim and using his body to create contact when going up. He has also boosted his points per game from 20.3 to 25.8, while also adding more assists to his game with 3.9 per game. Brown should be a first-time All-Star this season with the Celtics currently sitting atop the conference. 

These players are all having breakout seasons and have well-earned consideration for their first All-Star appearances this year. Of course, the game is not happening this year with the pandemic, but the players will still be recognized and added to the history books for their achievements, so the honor remains large all the same. Whether they make it or not is yet to be determined – but with the sample size of games played to date, they’re right in the conversation.  

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NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.

Quinn Davis

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Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.

The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?

Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.

Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.

Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.

A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.

But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.

All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.

That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.

The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.

Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.

Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.

It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.

Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.

If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.

While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.

The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.

In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.

If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.

Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.

Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.

The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.

And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.

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