This week at Basketball Insiders, we’ve taken a trip back in time together. Since we haven’t seen any NBA action since mid-March, we’ve gone ahead to take a look at how drafts of the past have worked out.
The 2016 NBA Draft can be classified as “studs and duds,” with the duds almost outweighing the studs. It says something that its undrafted free agents — Fred VanVleet, Danuel House, Dorian Finney-Smith, Derrick Jones Jr. — have been more successful than most of the first-round crop. It’s also notable that some of these players have had success outside of the organization that originally drafted them. That’s why it’s hard to evaluate whether picks are good or bad. Is it due to the players themselves or the franchises who took them there? It’s a fine line to toe, so we’ve broken it down into four categories.
A. The Hits
B. The Misses
C. The Sleepers
D. Jury Is Out
So without further ado, a look at the class of 2016!
Ben Simmons, No. 1
Well, not exactly right away. Simmons, as per Philadelphia 76ers first-round pick luck, had to miss the entirety of the 2016-17 campaign with a foot injury. He returned with a vengeance in his “rookie” second season — take that up with Donovan Mitchell and Utah Jazz faithful — and made an enormous impact as the Sixers finally got to see what waiting “The Process” out could look like when their pieces were healthy. Nobody expected Simmons to be a shooter, but the expectations placed on the 6-foot-10 Aussie have been tough to meet.
Once marveled over by his innate vision, poise in transition and size as a ball-handler, Simmons is no longer treated like the All-Star he truly is. It’s just easier to make jokes about his lack of threes, apparently. The debate over whether he and Joel Embiid can take that next step as championship-caliber teammates, however, is a question we’d all like the answer to.
Brandon Ingram, No. 2
Ingram is a good case study for staying patient with young prospects. At 22 years old and in his fourth season, he was just selected to the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. Would you have believed that if you were provided his statistics as a rookie? They’re not exactly pretty, nor was the situation in Los Angeles. Structure and player development can have a symbiotic relationship. Clearly, the environment was not conducive to growth back then. That doesn’t mean Ingram was completely faultless, though, and the following seasons were a major bounceback in shaping who he became elsewhere.
His length is quite problematic on both ends. He’s been letting it fly from deep at a career rate and is converting 38 percent of those, forcing the opposition to close out. Now a primary option with the New Orleans Pelicans, we’ll find out what he and the other promising youngsters are made of as this franchise moves forward
Domantas Sabonis, No. 11
Little did the Oklahoma City Thunder know that they had a future double-double machine just camping out on the perimeter as a spot-up guy. That’s why the general public was up in arms when Sabonis and Victor Oladipo were the pieces going back to the Indiana Pacers for superstar Paul George. Funny how we grade that trade in the present day now, isn’t it? Nate McMillan has utilized Sabonis as an elite, physical screen-and-roller that can rebound the heck out of the ball. The son of Arvydas earned his first All-Star honors this season, too, so Domantas’ best is likely still ahead of him.
Jaylen Brown, No. 3
It’s not normal for a team that was in the playoffs to have the third overall pick, but the Boston Celtics had this luxury for two straight seasons thanks to the Brooklyn Nets. It allowed the C’s to establish their cornerstone pieces moving forward, starting with Brown and then with Jayson Tatum the following year. While Brown received playing time in his rookie season, the focus was on learning behind the team’s young mainstays. Despite a surge in his second season alongside a first-year Tatum, both players hit a bump in the road during 2018-19. Fortunately for Boston, this current version of Brown is exactly what they’ve envisioned — aggressive, unafraid and gritty. As Tatum’s star begins to shine, his partner shouldn’t be too far behind. Danny Ainge oughta send a thank you card to Billy King for Boston’s two franchise faces.
Buddy Hield, No. 6
Jamal Murray, No. 7
Both of these guards are hits in the sense of producing big numbers and taking their games to new heights with each season. They should be considered solid picks at these positions, albeit not home runs. Hield was traded in the middle of his rookie season to the Sacramento Kings, where he’s blossomed as a top-tier volume scorer just getting into his prime. Murray has hovered around the same level player as he’s been the last few years, forever waiting for fewer passive nights and more attack-heavy outings in which the Blue Arrow can shine.
Dragan Bender, No. 4
Often (incorrectly) compared to Kristaps Porzingis coming into the draft, Bender was ironically selected in the same slot as he was. The seven-foot Croatian big man was highly touted as the best prospect coming from overseas. In reality, he wasn’t even close to ready. He was too slow on his feet to keep up with faster wings and too small to guard players in the post. The shooting touch was supposed to be his most consistent quality, and even that portion of his game didn’t come through aside from a decent effort in year two. Sure, it didn’t help that the Phoenix Suns were a bottom-dweller – but that doesn’t mean Bender did himself any favors. He’s got one silver lining going for him — he’s 22 years old and there’s nowhere to go but up, as evidenced by a 23-point night for the Golden State Warriors before the league shut down.
Kris Dunn, No. 5
It’s really difficult to include Dunn on this list because he is a legitimate individual defender that can lock up a lot of talented guards and change momentum with just a few plays. In fact, he could be a real steal for a team looking for a specialist this offseason. His road is far from ending. That said, you can’t justify a top-five pick being a specialist — even if it was in a class scarce of upside.
Marquese Chriss, No. 8
The majority of what we’ve seen with Chriss is a well-below-average shooter that has a ton of athleticism… without the skills necessary to succeed consistently. However, an opportunity with the Warriors has given Chriss the stage to showcase what some hands-on learning and hard work can accomplish. We’ll see if his name gets removed off the “miss” list in the future. That’s a long way away though for the former eighth overall pick.
Thon Maker, No. 10
When the Milwaukee Bucks decided to select Maker with the 10th overall pick, most agreed that the South Sudanese center would be a raw prospect in need of major polishing. Those concerns were valid to this day, as he has yet to average 20 minutes per game. He just isn’t consistent enough to warrant valuable playing time. When you can’t stretch the floor and struggle with players that overpower you, it doesn’t help your case. Similar to Bender, he’s got age on his side. The Detroit Pistons have taken a less is more approach with Maker, leading to an uptick in efficiency as a decent backup big — not at all worthy of a top 10 selection.
Georgios Papagiannis, No. 13
Considering the slew of disappointments in this draft class, Papagiannis actually put up respectable production as a rookie with the Sacramento Kings… in 22 games… after the season was given up on. He played 16 more games with them afterward — never more than 16 minutes — before being waived at the 2018 trade deadline. Papagiannis would appear in exactly one NBA game for the Portland Trail Blazers following that. Currently, he is playing for Panathinaikos back home in Greece. So, in other words, thumbs *down* for a lottery pick.
Guerschon Yabusele, No. 16
Wade Baldwin, No. 17
Just because they were mid-round picks doesn’t exclude the Celtics and Grizzlies from their swings and misses on these two. Yabusele and Baldwin had made their fair share of noise in the G League, but that’s not enough. The former is in year four with no role and the clock ticking, while the latter is playing for Olympiacos in the Euroleague.
Malik Beasley, No. 19
DeAndre’ Bembry, No. 21
Furkan Korkmaz, No. 26
Ivica Zubac, No. 32
Patrick McCaw, No. 38
Jake Layman, No. 47
Georges Niang, No. 50
Pascal Siakam, No. 27
The year-to-year rise of Siakam has been astounding. It’s the beauty of what can happen with a little time and a plan. He waited his turn, observed the players ahead of him and starred in his role off the bench. Eventually, that turned into a promotion to starter and the man they call Spicy P just took off from there. His determination to expand his game manifested itself into becoming Kawhi Leonard’s right-hand man en route to a Toronto Raptors championship. Now, he’s an All-Star, one of the top point forwards in the Eastern Conference and very well could be its best player in the near future. Shame on me for thinking he’d struggle to handle alpha status.
Malcolm Brogdon, No. 36
It’s not often that the class Rookie of the Year is considered a sleeper. A second-rounder had never won the prestigious award until Brogdon came along. As he did so well under Tony Bennett at Virginia, the upperclassman point guard proved to be a true floor general with an advanced feel for the game right from the jump in Milwaukee. He alternated backcourt roles in his first three seasons with the Bucks, punishing the opposition from deep and on the defensive end. He’s fought some injury issues here and there as well. In his debut season with the Indiana Pacers, we’ve seen more pick-and-roll wizardry from the talented guard with Sabonis. And though his shooting numbers have dipped noticeably, that’s probably an outlier. Indiana’s got a solid future with Brogdon running the show alongside a pair of All-Stars.
Jury Is Still Out
Caris LeVert, No. 20
Injury issues plummeted LeVert down to No. 20. He’s been plagued by a few of them here and there in the NBA, but none have stopped him from putting on the show he’s capable of. He’s one of those players that when he sees one shot go in, there’s no telling how far his hot hand will go. All you have to do is go back to his 51-point outburst in a comeback win back in early March. LeVert’s 6-foot-6 frame with a wide wingspan is perfect for the modern NBA. If he puts on a little more weight, the Nets could see him taking a giant step forward with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant leading the charge.
DeJounte Murray, No. 29
The San Antonio Spurs know how to draft. Murray was the first of two 29th overall picks that they’ve seen promise from, the other being Derrick White. Murray’s a stat-sheet stuffing, athletic, long pest of a player on both ends. Defensively, he doesn’t give you an inch to get by, nor does he make it easy for a clean pass anywhere. His hands are among the quickest in the league. The offensive portion of his game is slowly but surely coming back to him after a devastating ACL injury last season caused him to miss all of 2018-19, but there’s been no sense of fear whatsoever. He’s driving and dishing and knocking down his triples. Let’s just hope those injuries are behind Murray for good and he can continue to ascend the way he has.
Jakob Poeltl, No. 9
You know the saying “the best ability is availability?” That’s been Poeltl’s MO since he entered the league. Unfortunately, there’s little a traditional big man can offer if he doesn’t excel in more than one area. The former Ute is adept at protecting the rim and snagging rebounds and… that’s pretty much it. Even so, his advanced statistics point to a big improvement since his move to the Spurs. Not enough to be declared a hit, but surely not enough to be called a miss either. He’s in the middle for now.
The 2016 class is, for lack of a better word, a weird one to look back at. There’s plenty of first-round names that have succeeded, while others have flamed out of the league. Even the second-round picks were slim pickings if you want to go that far. But still, there are stars in the room and those are the standouts we love to watch play the game — and we could see more pan out if we’re lucky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.