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NBA Daily: The Western Conference X-Factors

Drew Mays takes a look at four Western Conference players whose play will swing their team’s fortunes one way or the other.

Drew Mays

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The NBA is a star-driven league and, as always, it’s almost impossible to win without one. But as important as they are, you still need role players to fill the gaps in-between. To wit, you need an X-Factor, a player that can elevate his game either as a complement or when the stars are struggling.

So with the season now fully underway, Basketball Insiders decided to examine a handful of those players that could have a significant impact on the standings in the Western Conference. To make it even more interesting, we tried to stay away from All-Stars.

You can find our X-Factors in the Eastern Conference here.

Jerami Grant

Denver is a hot pick to run the table in the West this season. Jokic, a hopeful leap from the 170-million-dollar-man-Jamal Murray, general continuity and then even more Jokic will give you those expectations. Mix in the mystery of Michael Porter Jr. and what he could be, and you have a recipe for the No. 1 overall seed in a crowded conference full of turnover.

Even with everyone of note returning, the Nuggets went and got Jerami Grant. Grant was acquired from Oklahoma City in a move that was easy to overlook — but was highly-praised by intelligent basketball minds. Always a versatile defender and ferocious straight-line rim attacker, Grant added to his game in a big way last year at the three-point line. He shot 39.2 percent on 4.0 attempts per 36 minutes, a huge jump from his 29.1 percent mark in 2017-18.

Grant adds the flexibility defensively Torrey Craig provided last year while shooting a much higher percentage from three. Best of all, Mike Malone can feature lineups with four credible shooters around Jokic without sacrificing on the other side of the ball.

Perhaps more importantly: Shooting aside, Grant gives Denver another long, lanky defender on the wing. Players with his makeup are needed to win in today’s NBA landscape. The Clippers are title favorites in major part because they have two of the three best rangy wings in the league. Having Grant as another capable body to throw at Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and LeBron James in April is incredibly useful.

Zach Collins

The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the most divisive teams in the league this season. Half of all basketball analysts seem to have them slated for another overachieving year that ends in a playoff berth. The other half have them missing the playoffs, despite making it the past six years. This divide necessitates Portland having a few players that could be potential X-Factors. Anfernee Simons had a popularity spike during summer league; who knows how many minutes he’ll actually see behind Lillard and McCollum. Rodney Hood is back in the starting lineup after a solid postseason run; but entering his sixth year, we know who he is.

Zach Collins is the unknown. He’s the guy to make or break Portland in 2019-20.

A lot of people love Collins. He’s 6-foot-11 with solid feet, big enough to play center but quick enough to guard some mobile bigs on the perimeter. He possesses some good touch and projects as a shooter. But, so far, he’s also been foul prone, gets moved around by stronger players inside and only averaged 16.7 minutes per game over his first two seasons.

This year, he’ll play far more than 17 minutes per game. He played 31 minutes in the Blazers’ opening loss to Denver and parts of the game were a microcosm of what Portland expects and needs from him this season. He was fourth on the team in shot attempts — behind Lillard, McCollum, and Hood — which will usually be the case. Similarly to another player on this list, he has an expanded role next to two proven stars. Portland knows what they’re getting from Hood, Kent Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside. This is the year they find out what they have in Collins.

His improvement, or lack thereof, will determine which half of those analysts are correct about Portland.

Danny Green

We promise that Green made this list before he went nuclear on opening night.

Green scored 28 points on 10-for-14 shooting, sparked by 18 in the third quarter on 5-for-5 from three-point range. Beyond that, he even grabbed seven rebounds for good measure.

If Tuesday night was any indication, Green will need to provide more scoring punch than he has in recent years. The Lakers looked awkward on offense and a lack of firepower had them repeatedly dumping the ball into Anthony Davis, or standing and waiting for James to do something. While the latter is a typical function of a LeBron-led offense, it’s far more effective he or when his teammates are playing well. Green played well and it was the biggest reason the Lakers stayed in the game.

Green’s most substantial responsibility will be night-to-night consistency. James and Davis will be fine. Kyle Kuzma, despite the unknowns about his game, will likely give Los Angeles. 17-to-19 points per game once he’s healthy. Outside of that, the contributions from other Lakers are in flux. Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hold the same profile as Green, but they are far lesser players. They can’t shoulder the burden of quality 3-and-D performances most nights.

Danny Green can.

And if they Lakers want to live up to expectations, he will have to for all 82 games this season.

Kevon Looney

Another player that boosted his stock with his playoff performance, Looney returns to Golden State after signing a three-year, $15 million contract. He also returns not as a bench player, but a starter on a gutted Warriors team.

Like Portland, Golden State is a semi-popular pick to miss out on the playoffs, notwithstanding their pedigree. The departure of Kevin Durant and injury to Klay Thompson leaves Stephen Curry and Draymond Green as the only remaining stars to pick up the slack. The departure of Andre Iguodala, Quinn Cook and DeMarcus Cousins, plus the retirement of Shaun Livingston, leaves Looney as the only returning role player.

As is the common theme, Golden State knows what to expect from Curry and Green and, to a lesser extent, D’Angelo Russell. Willie Cauley-Stein is a serviceable player, but he’s new. As the incumbent big, Looney has to have a huge season for the Warriors to get back to the postseason.

Small sample sizes aside, Looney impressed in last year’s playoffs. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and will need to replicate those numbers in the regular season. Similarly to Collins, the questions surrounding Looney are focused on whether or not an increase in minutes will lead to a rise in production at the same efficiency. Looney had a true shooting percentage of 63.6 over 18.5 minutes per game in 2018-19. Can he shoot in the ballpark of that range with added playing time?

It’s possible Looney’s biggest strength was his ability to stay with guards on switches. This ability, of course, won’t be affected by more minutes — but his scoring is connected to this. If Looney stays efficient and expands his offensive game, he’ll remain on the floor instead of making way for lesser defensive players.

Looney was the perfect role player on a team stacked with talent last year. To be the perfect role player in 2019-20, he’ll need to increase his production to compensate for Golden State’s personnel losses. Otherwise, the Warriors will be on the outside of the playoff race looking in.

These four may not make an All-Star team this season, but their performances will have just as large of an impact on their respective teams as any other players in the Western Conference. Thankfully, after a long, long summer and offseason — the wait is finally over. Can these players help push their respective teams over the top?

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NBA Daily: Devonte’ Graham’s Unfathomable Breakout In Charlotte

Devonte’ Graham never drew high praise in high school, college or in draft prep. Breaking through in his second season is a rarity unlike almost any other. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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Comparing a sweet-shooting, 6-foot-2 guard in his second year with the woebegone Charlotte Hornets to Draymond Green misses its mark on paper, but the poor-shooting forward in his eighth season — three of which have ended with him and the Golden State Warriors hosting an NBA Finals trophy — may be the only player in the league analogous to Devonte’ Graham.

Teams have sought the next Green since he broke through in his third year, seeking a playmaking forward who could defend all five positions. That largely-fruitless search overlooked what made Green so unique — just how overlooked he was.

The No. 122 player in his recruiting class, per Rivals.com, Green did not break into college basketball’s national consciousness until his senior season when he was named a consensus All-American. That pushed him up draft boards all the way to No. 35. He then toiled on the Warrior bench until stepping in for overpriced veteran and changing the trajectory of the Golden State franchise.

Graham was the No. 36 player in his class, per Rivals.com, but otherwise the parallels are nearly exact, and while not as insulting as Green’s recruiting ranking, Graham’s was hardly flattering. He then became a consensus All-American in his senior season, was drafted No. 34 overall and spent his rookie season primarily on the Hornets’ bench. Now, he has usurped free-agent signee Terry Rozier of his starring role and given Charlotte reason to be excited.

Those reasons to be excited are not limited to the long-term, either, as some of Graham’s 20 points per game have included moments of high drama.

Graham’s second-year explosion has come largely off catch-and-shoot threes, clearly showing how different he is from Green, even if their rises from nowhere are similar. Graham has already made 103 threes in just 27 games, a sample size both large enough to end any “Breakout or Mirage? wonders and put him in the company of James Harden and Stephen Curry.

Only Harden and Curry had made it this far into a season on pace to sink 300 shots from deep, and they are also the only ones to actually do so. Maybe Graham cools off and finishes with a mere 280, but given he spent the first 10 games this season coming off the bench, his current pace will likely send him well past 300.

Either way, Graham was never supposed to end up in a sentence comparing him to two surefire Hall of Famers. 

Recruits who debate between Virginia Tech, Providence and North Carolina State before ending up at Kansas, who never garner genuine notice until they are three months shy of turning 25, do not break out like this. They go onto decent NBA careers, if that.

While plenty of highly-ranked prep prospects do not pan out at all, it is even rarer for second-tier recruits to reach professional stardom. Of the 120 players Rivals ranked between No. 30 and No. 50 in the six recruiting classes from 2010 to 2015, only 14 have gained genuine traction in the NBA.

2010: No. 31 Meyers Leonard, No. 44 Gorgui Dieng, No. 48 Terrence Ross
2011: No. 31 Dorian Finney-Smith, No. 34 Ben McLemore, No. 37 Otto Porter, No. 41 Maurice Harkless
2012: No. 40 Willie Cauley-Stein
2013: No. 31 Semi Ojeleye, No. 44 Zach LaVine
2014: No. 36 Devonte’ Graham
2015: No. 31 Donovan Mitchell, No. 43 Malik Beasley, No. 46 Dejounte Murray

Porter, LaVine and Mitchell all earned enough notice in college to be drafted in the lottery. Their development into NBA bucket-getters has not been astonishing. It was their play in college that surprised.

Graham did not impress then. Nor did he impress as a rookie, averaging 4.7 points in 14.7 minutes per game and hitting only 28.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

Becoming a 42.9 percent 3-point shooter was not anyone’s expectation. Even in college, Graham topped out at 40.6 percent from behind the shorter arc as a senior when he averaged 17.3 points per game.

Now, he casually went 7-of-12 from deep for 40 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds on Wednesday in a 113-108 road win over the Brooklyn Nets. The seventh of those made threes drove the fact one more time that Graham is not a flash in the pan.

“Unconscionable” is an overused word in sports. These are just sports, after all. But if ever a shot was unconscionable, it was that dagger on Wednesday. If not that, it may have been unfathomable.

Unfathomable when only Graham’s late prep development got him to a collegiate blueblood, unfathomable when he hardly flashed at Kansas, unfathomable when he fell into the second round, unfathomable when Charlotte signed Rozier for three years and $58 million.

Graham was never supposed to do any of this, and he shows no signs of stopping.

In the first 10 games of the season coming off the bench, Graham shot 42.5 percent from deep and averaged 17.9 points and 7.6 assists per game. In his 17 starts since then, he is shooting 43.1 percent from deep and averaging 21.2 points and 7.6 assists per game.

His consistency has rendered the 6-foot-1 Rozier not just an overpriced point guard, but a lineup liability. With both of them on the floor, Charlotte has a minus-3.1 rating per 100 possessions, getting exposed on defense with an undersized backcourt. With Graham on but Rozier off, the Hornets are plus-1.6. The offensive ratings are within a tenth of a point, but the latter lineup is 4.8 points better per 100 possessions on defense.

Come Sunday, Rozier can be traded. Finding a taker for his onerous deal may be more difficult than one for Graham’s, which pays him only $1.4 million this year and $1.7 million next. Regardless, if Charlotte moves one of them, the organization will be in a better position moving forward because of Graham’s eruption.

At no point was it considered Graham could change the franchise’s direction like this.

Then again, it was never expected of Green, either.

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Buy Or Sell: Central Division

Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.

By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.

These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.

Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)

Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).

What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.

The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.

Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.

There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.

Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.

Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers

After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.

Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.

That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.

This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.

Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.

Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.

Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers

The Pistons are right where they want to be.

Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.

Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.

But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.

Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.

The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade —  and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.

Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.

Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.

Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers

It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.

Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.

There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.

Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.

Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.

Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers

The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.

Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.

That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.

Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.

Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.

Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.

December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.

Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.

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NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?

Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.

Jack Winter

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The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.

It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.

Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.

A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.

But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.

Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?

“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”

It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.

But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.

The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.

The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.

But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.

Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.

If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.

The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.

It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?

The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.

Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.

Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.

Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.

This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.

But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.

And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.

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