Every once in a while, the basketball gods align things just right and we wind up with two conference finals comprised of the two top seeds in each conference. That’s precisely what’s on tap as we await today’s tip-off of the Eastern Conference Finals between the top-seeded Indiana Pacers and the second-seeded Miami HEAT. Tomorrow, of course, we’ll see the West’s top-seeded San Antonio Spurs take on the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. As we eagerly anticipate the start of what is sure to be a competitive week of basketball, here are five things we’ve learned about the NBA during this year’s postseason run.
1) Stars need help to win a playoff series. It is absolutely true that you need multiple superstars to get deep into postseason play, but what isn’t generally understood by casual observers of the league is that it is not those stars alone who ultimately determine the outcome of series. Yes, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have been unbelievably good for Oklahoma City, but without Nick Collison and Steven Adams stepping in for Serge Ibaka (calf injury) and Kendrick Perkins (foul trouble), respectively, the Thunder could very well be at home watching the Los Angeles Clippers play the Spurs. Likewise, if Patty Mills doesn’t fill in admirably for the injured Tony Parker, the Portland Trail Blazers might still be alive. Meanwhile, Ray Allen’s scoring has been key for Miami’s otherwise anemic support for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Stars are incredibly important, but to win key games in postseason play every team needs someone from the supporting cast to step up.
2) Washington Wizards are impressive. The Washington Wizards were intriguing on paper to start the 2013-14 campaign, but most pundits were asking if they might be a playoff team, not if they might be contenders. Next season, the latter question might just be legit. Of course, they have a couple of key free agents that must be locked up in Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza, but the Wizards are starting to turn the tide on national opinions about the long-suffering squad. John Wall looks like someone who really could lead the Wizards deep into postseason play, and with another year together their core group might find the chemistry they need to overcome an ever-older HEAT team or the Pacers team they knocked around a bit this season. For more on the Wizards, see below.
3) Sam Presti does it again. The Oklahoma City Thunder are somewhat of an enigma in the modern NBA. They play in a small market and they don’t relish paying luxury tax, yet they are consistently among the top teams in the league. No other team north of San Antonio has managed that feat. The reason, of course, is that Thunder GM Sam Presti is one of the best in the business when it comes to drafting promising players, while Scott Brooks and his coaching staff do an equally good job of developing that talent. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were terrific picks, and guys like Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson have benefited from the development they have undergone with OKC. Next in line? Keep an eye on backup center Steven Adams, who was drafted with the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft and has taken several significant steps forward both this season and in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if he is one of the next really good starting centers in the NBA next season.
4) San Antonio’s sustained brilliance. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is a method to Gregg Popovich’s madness. It’s not just about saving the legs of older players like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, Popovich’s careful method of managing minutes has an even more beneficial side effect. No one on the team averaged more than 29.4 points per game, and while that certainly reduced the wear and tear of the 82-game marathon, it also meant that most of the players on the team were in games at critical times at one point or another over the course of the year. When Patty Mills is called upon to play big minutes and help deliver a win, it’s not his first time being in that situation. If Boris Diaw has to shoulder extra minutes, it’s not anything he hasn’t done during the year. Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli, Mills, rest assured these players and others will have their moments at critical times as the Spurs look to add one more ring to Duncan’s collection. Thanks to Popovich’s minutes dispersal system they will be ready when called upon.
5) Pacers/HEAT 2.0 could disappoint. One of the most exciting series of the 2013 NBA playoffs was the Eastern Conference Finals showdown between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami HEAT. This time around, it could be a very different story. The Pacers have struggled to find their identity since the moves that shook up their chemistry at the trade deadline, and while they showed signs of being the dominant defensive team they once were in eliminating the Wizards, their fragile psyches – especially at home – have to be a major concern for head coach Frank Vogel and his staff. Meanwhile, the HEAT have not exactly been blowing away the competition themselves. Though they are vastly better than any other team in the East beyond Indiana, the HEAT have gotten far too few contributions from their supporting cast and Dwyane Wade has been visibly slowed by his knee. Perhaps, now that the stakes are higher, we’ll see these two teams emerge as the powerhouses that they were last season. It’s also easy to imagine one or the other of these two teams crashing and burning in cataclysmic fashion, leaving coaches and free agents-to-be sprawling in the aftermath.
Wall, Wizards Raise the Bar
Last season, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall had to stare down some unsettling criticism. Famed NBA agent David Falk, who is a Wizards season ticket holder, launched into a premature rant about the team, focused primarily on Wall.
“You guys are in dreamland, because this team [stinks] so bad you guys want John Wall to be someone he will never be,” said Falk. “I’m serious. He doesn’t have a feel for the game. He only knows how to play one speed. Magic Johnson had a great feel, a court sense, by the time he was a sophomore in college. Chris Paul had it by the time he was a sophomore in high school. … You can develop your jump shot all you want, but if you don’t know how to play more than an up-and-down game by the time you’re about 20 as a point guard, the chances of learning are very slim. I don’t see it happening.”
Those comments came in the midst of a year in which Wall took significant steps forward developmentally, averaging 18.5 points and 7.6 assists per game despite being set back by injuries. This year he was even better, averaging 19.3 points and 8.8 assists while appearing in all 82 regular season games.
“I could not be more pleased with what they have done,” head coach Randy Wittman said of his backcourt duo after being eliminated by Indiana. “Bradley Beal, in his two years, and John now in his fourth, really could not. This kid [Wall], I think tonight was our 101st game of the year counting exhibition, he did not miss a game. He did not want to miss a game. He was there for me for 101 starts. As a coach, that means a lot. That is the type of person he is, competitor he is and that is why he is going to continue to get better. Bradley Beal is on the same line on what he has done with his first two years and the growth that he has had from year one to year two.”
Wall’s commitment to the team has, indeed, been impressive, as has his determination to be the leader both on and off the court. Slowly but surely he is proving to be the franchise player the Wizards hoped he would become when they drafted him.
“Nobody expected us to be here,” Wall pointed out. “I just want to thank God for giving me this opportunity to be here and compete as a team. I think we got a lot of effort from a lot of teams. I think a lot of teams respect us now. We definitely made Indiana earn it. Give them a lot of credit for coming out and just giving us a lot of experience to know what it takes to win and compete, and close out games and get to the next level. We just want to say thanks to everybody that supported us, and our family, friends, the organization and definitely our fans.”
There is an air of finality to those comments, but Wall is anything but finished. This was a huge season for the entire Wizards team, developmentally, and we can expect that they will be back with a vengeance next season.
“When we were coming out of the game, I was just shaking my teammates’ hands it kind of hit me that the season was over,” Wall said. “To have guys come out and support us all season, it was tough. You didn’t want it to end. We got into the locker room and coach came in, you could see it before he could say a word, he was very emotional. All of us were. We knew how far we came. And you know you can’t just jump the hurdle and get to the Eastern Conference Finals. We just were shocked and amazed what a heck of a season we had to get this far. We were one game away from forcing a Game 7 against the number one team in the East. It was a successful season for us as far as we went, [something] that a lot of people didn’t expect.”
Whether or not you’re a fan of the Wizards, you have to appreciate everything that struggling franchise has been through and how far they have come. One of the league’s long-suffering organizations has turned an important corner, and if they handle free agency right they should be even better next season. Best of all, a young player who brought high hopes to the team when they drafted him is starting to prove he was worth every bit of the hype.
NBA Chat with Bill Ingram: In case you missed my last NBA chat, find it by clicking here! You can also go ahead and submit a question for this week’s chat, which you can find here! I make an effort to answer every non-repeat question, and early questions are virtually guaranteed to be answered, so drop yours in now!
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.
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.
Point-Counter Point: Biggest Surprise In The NBA So Far?
While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?
From time to time there are things that surface in the NBA landscape that requires a little debate, we call that Point – Counter Point. We have asked two our of writers to dive into the biggest surprises in the NBA so far this season.
While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?
Ariel Pacheo and Chad Smith look at both sides of the equation.
No one could have predicted Julius Randle’s hot start after coming off a rough 2019-20 season. However, now that it’s here, there’s reason to believe it’s built to last. He’s averaging a career-highs across the board and almost none of it is unsustainable.
While his production is up, the way he is playing is what is more significant than the numbers.
Randle has always had the ability to set teammates up, but he is now making a concerted effort to get teammates involved. He’s finding shooters in the corner and setting up his frontcourt counterparts for dunks. His usage percentage is currently at 27.2, just 0.1 higher than last season, but his assist percentage is at 38.2%, which is 17.3% higher than last season. This shows that Randle has the ball in his hands the same amount as last season, but is creating for others at a much higher rate.
His playmaking has been his best skill and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue. Randle’s decision-making is much-improved. It seems as if he has a better understanding of how defenses want to play against him and he’s using it to his advantage to pick apart defenses.
Randle’s scoring may take a small hit, as his mid-range shooting numbers are unsustainable. He’s shooting 57.4% from mid-range, so that should drop some. However, if the Knicks were to play Randle in more lineups with shooting in them, he could turn those mid-range jumpers into drives to the basket. He is attempting the most free-throws per game of his career at 6.8 a game. He’s also converting them at a career-high 78.1%. There’s reason to believe he can sustain this, as he has been aggressive driving to the rim and drawing fouls all season.
Randle is having the best rebounding year of his career, as he’s been attacking the defensive glass. The added benefit of Randle’s defensive rebounding is he’s able to bring the ball up and immediately attack. He’s also been a lot more active on the defensive end this season. He’s had good one-on-one moments on the defensive end against guys like Domantas Sabonis and Kevin Durant.
Another reason to expect Randle’s play to continue is that the Knicks need him to be this good to have a chance to win games. They will continue to look to Randle to be the focus of their offense every single night. Randle is not only the team’s best playmaker, he’s one of the only few reliable ones on the roster. The ball will continue to be in his hands and he has consistently made good decisions up until this point.
Randle’s always had the talent to be a nightly triple-double threat, but it’s starting to come together for him. He’s giving full effort on both ends, all while being third in the league in minutes. Other than his rookie year when he broke his leg, Randle has proven to be durable. Even if his production drops off some, his effort and newfound style of play are what’s making Randle have this hot start. He’s playing at an All-Star level, and that should continue.
There is a new sheriff in town, and his name is Tom Thibodeau. After a long stint in Chicago where he earned Coach of the Year honors and guiding the lifeless Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, Thibodeau has made his way to the Big Apple. Skeptics were not sold on the hire when it happened, but perhaps he is making believers out of them with the help of Julius Randle.
It is no secret that Thibodeau’s calling card has always been defense. He has the Knicks playing aggressive on that end of the floor. Another skill that he possesses is the ability to put his players in a position that will maximize their talents. To that end, Thibodeau has made a world of difference. However, another common theme in his coaching style is eventually wearing his players out. While that is not his intention, he has done it with his best players at every stop along the way.
This is where some of these improved numbers come into play for Randle. Entering this season Julius was averaging 29.4 minutes per game. So far this season, he is playing 38 minutes per game. That is the 2nd highest in the entire league – trailing only his teammate RJ Barrett.
All of that being said, the individual numbers are very impressive. Averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists is nothing to sneeze at, even in this small sample size. The assist numbers, in particular, are quite astounding when you consider he has never had a season in which he averaged more than 3.6 per game. Part of the reason for this is that he is passing out of double teams, instead of trying to force up a shot.
Randle was the only bright spot in the Battle in the Big Apple on Wednesday night. Still, it felt like an empty calories game for the big man as he repeatedly fired away mid-range jumpers. It was New York’s fourth consecutive loss as they fell to the undermanned Nets, who were without several bodies due to the James Harden trade just hours before tipoff.
Unfortunately for Knicks fans, this same story has been played out before with Thibodeau and Joakim Noah in Chicago. His two All-Star seasons were filled with career-high numbers, but it didn’t necessarily translate to success in the playoffs. Right now Randle leads his team in points, rebounds, and assists. The only other players that are currently doing that are Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
Finding open shooters on the perimeter has worked early on, but New York’s shooting has come back down to earth in the past week. They now rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of three-point shooting, and Randle himself figures to follow suit. After shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc last year, Randle was shooting at a 38 percent clip to open the season. A ten percent jump just doesn’t happen overnight. The seven-year pro is a career 29 percent shooter from distance. He is taking the same amount of shots as last season and averaging nearly four more points per game.
Even if the shooting numbers come down a bit, it doesn’t put New York back in the basement. The ball movement and effort on defense are the catalysts for the Knicks, not their scoring – in which they rank 29th at the time of this writing. Looking at Randle specifically, he is actually averaging more passes per minute than Steph Curry.
Randle is the main reason why this team has displayed a pulse for the first time in two decades. He was the 7th overall pick for good reason but the Knicks don’t necessarily need the talented lefty to be the star of the show. They need him to share the stage and allow the spotlight to showcase others.
Should he stay the course, Randle will undoubtedly be in line for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. If he regresses like I believe he will, he can still play a vital role in changing the culture and the perception of one of the league’s most popular franchises. The 26-year old has been a pleasant surprise this season, in what will surely be another roller coaster ride for Knicks fans.
– Chad Smith
NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?
Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?
The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East?
The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.
The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.
Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills.
Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line — in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.
RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.
But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.
The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games.
There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.
Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games.
That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.