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The NBA Draft Look-Back: 2017

Drew Maresca examines the controversial 2017 NBA Draft, identifying class hits, misses and guys on whom the jury is still out.

Drew Maresca

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In an ongoing attempt to continue to get you your basketball fix, Basketball Insiders is taking a look back at recent draft classes and assessing them relative to the expectations that were in place as of their respect NBA Drafts.

We are grading according to the following criteria:

The Hits – the players that panned out
The Misses – the players that did not pan out
The Sleepers – the players that exceeded minimal expectations
The Jury Is Out – those that have shown flashes

Matt John did a fantastic job assessing the 2014 NBA Draft. Ben Nadeau and Spencer Davies did an equally impressive job reviewing the 2015 and 2016 draft classes, respectively. Up next, we’ll dive into the controversial 2017 NBA Draft class.

The 2017 NBA Draft appeared to be as stocked with high-end talent as any of the other recent draft. But for those of us who needed a refresher on the old “everything that glimmers isn’t gold” adage, 2017 served that purpose.  No one anticipated the struggles that Markelle Fultz would face due to a shoulder ailment and a case of the yips; Fultz is probably the highest-profile “bust” since Greg Oden.

And while Fultz has at least gained some traction in Orlando since his challenging time with Philly, there are plenty of other interesting storylines from the 2017 draft. It was seen as the year of the point guard, but its best players don’t exactly fit that bill. Now with all of that being said, let’s jump in.

The Hits

Jayson Tatum, No. 3

Tatum was special in his lone season at Duke. No one thought he’d be this special, though. Tatum fits perfectly in the modern NBA. He’s as smooth as they come offensively, and his length and mobility make him an above-average defender and rebounder. He’s a dead-eye shooter and he’s one of the best tough-shot makers in the league. Tatum is the rare talent who can put a team on his back for extremely long stretches. Oh, and he also plays nice with others. No one expected Tatum to be THIS good.

De’Aaron Fox, No. 5

Fox was viewed as the steal of the draft before the draft was even over. He was a boom-or-bust prospect whose style fit the league perfectly. He’s a lightning-quick lead guard who wants all of the smoke. Despite being ranked as a lesser prospect, he took it to Lonzo Ball in just about every matchup they’d had in college. And he’s continued to impress in the NBA. Fox is the kind of player around whom you build your franchise. While that’s always been thought of as his ceiling, it’s rare to see players live up to their potential to the degree in which Fox has.

Jonathan Isaac, No. 6

Entering the draft, Isaac was seen as the prototypical stretch-four. He took time to develop – averaging only 5.4 points per game in his rookie season. But he blossomed in his third season in the league. Isaac supplanted Aaron Gordon as the Magic’s best defender, and his defensive versatility gives the Magic options they’d only dreamed of prior to this season. He’s also a pretty efficient offensive player who poster a better than 50% effective field goal percentage. Isaac still has to prove he can play at a high level with consistency, but he made major strides this year – living up to his draft position, and then some.

Donovan Mitchell, No. 13

Mitchell is the major surprise of the 2017 NBA Draft. The Louisville standout was seen as too small to succeed in the NBA. But that way of thinking was quickly debunked as Mitchell proceeded to average more than 20 points per game as a rookie – and he hasn’t looked back since.

Mitchell since established himself as the cornerstone of the Utah Jazz, and he’ll probably hold that title for the next decade or so – if he wants it. Mitchell easily outperformed pre-draft expectations. Phil Jackson, then president of the Knicks, saw potential in Mitchell. Few others did with the exception of the Jazz. And now they’re reaping the rewards.

Bam Adebayo, No. 14

2019-20 was Adebayo’s coming out party. Prior to this season, Adebayo was a reserve. Still, his per-36 numbers projected an effective and versatile big man. This season, he delivered, averaging 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Adebayo affects the game in every way possible. And considering his relatively low profile entering the draft – Adebayo was projected to be drafted 17th overall by NBADraft.net and was called “raw” and an “energy big” by various outlets– he turned out to be a steal in the late lottery.

The Misses

Markelle Fultz, No. 1

Fultz got all of the hype you’d expect a first overall pick would receive. Despite missing the NCAA tournament in his lone season at Washington, he was a generational athlete who shot it well from deep and possessed game-changing size and physicality for a point guard.

But Fultz’s rookie season was derailed thanks to shoulder issues. He was (probably) mismanaged by the Philadelphia 76ers and allowed to play too early, leading to a loss in confidence and – ultimately – his departure from Philadelphia. Fultz contributed far more consistently in Orlando in 2019-20, but he still underperformed for his draft position. And he’s still not anywhere near as good as pundits felt he’d be prior to the 2017 NBA Draft. It’s a sad story, but it’s not over yet. At least he’s righted the ship.

Josh Jackson, No. 4

Fultz might provide more interesting – albeit premature – headlines, but Jackson’s path been more painful to watch – mostly because his setbacks are mostly his own fault. Jackson entered the 2017 NBA Draft as the Swiss Army knife of the bunch. He was seen as a do-it-all wing whose game fits the modern NBA’s as perfect as any prospect. Instead of hitting the ground running, Jackson had multiple run-ins with the law, resulting in suspensions and a trade from the Phoenix Suns. But Jackson flourished in the G-League after being dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies, and he continued to play efficiently after being called back up.

Jackson could still easily turn his career around. But the setbacks he’s undergone make his first three years a major disappointment.

Dennis Smith Jr., No. 8

Smith Jr. was one of the more celebrated prospects in 2017. And based on his rookie season, his profile seemed justified. But then Luka Doncic shook up the NBA – and Smith Jr.’s effectiveness waned.

Still, Smith Jr. has shown signs as recently as the end of 2018-19. He was traded to New York as part of the deal that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He averaged 20 points and 5 assists in March 2019. And while he might not have looked like a cornerstone, that was more than the Knicks had at point guard in some time. He struggled with personal loss and a back injury early on this season and he never recovered. And while he possesses the athleticism and ability to be a borderline All-Star, he’ll need to prove it on the court before this writer is comfortable calling him anything less than a miss relative to expectations.

Sleepers

John Collins, No. 19

Collins has progressed pretty much exactly how teams like their young stars to do so. His scoring average, minutes per game and PER have all shot up in the last three seasons: 10.5 points in 24.3 minutes per game with an 18.3 PER in 2017-18; 19.5 points in 30 minutes per game with a 21.8 PER in 2018-19; and 21.6 points in 33.2 minutes per game with a 23.5 PER in 2019-20. Further, he’s an excellent three-point shooter (40.1% in 2019-20) and extremely active around the rim.

Collins is not THE centerpiece of a contending NBA team, but he’s got all the right attributes to be a starter and a third option. And at 22-years-old, Collins could get even better. Not bad value at all for the late-middle of the first round.

Jarrett Allen, No. 22

Despite the fact that Allen’s status on his own team is in question, he’s still an elite defender who’s an above-average lob-catcher and screener. He’s versatile enough to switch on to ball-handlers in screen-and-rolls, and he’s already built an impressive highlight reel of blocked shots that includes LeBron James and Giannis Antetokunmpo.

Yes, Allen was an integral part of a playoff team as recently as two months ago. But expectations were nowhere near that high for him. And while there is some uncertainty ahead for Allen, his talent and work ethic will win out. While he’ll probably never develop a consistent jump shot, his motor and defensive gifts render him a starter in the NBA for years to come

OG Anunoby, No. 23

Anunoby was pegged as a breakout player for 2018-19. But Pascal Siakam stole his thunder. While Siakam delivered again this season, Anunoby would not be ignored in two straight seasons.

But rewind a bit and you’ll read about a risky prospect projected to fall into the second round. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Masai Ujiri and his staff saw the potential of Anunoby, and he’s rewarded them for their faith. He came into his own in 2019-20, establishing himself as a legitimate starter in the NBA. Who knows what he’ll look like next season.

Kyle Kuzma, No. 27

Kuzma quickly proved his worth, averaging 16.1 points per game as a rookie. His scoring average jumped in his sophomore season (18.7); but his production took a fairly big hit in 2019-20 after his good friend Lonzo Ball was sent to New Orleans alongside Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and numerous draft considerations in exchange for Anthony Davis.

But Kuzma is still viewed very favorably around the league. His fit alongside the win-now Lakers might not be ideal, but he’s still seen as an extremely valuable building block for most teams – especially ones in the middle of a rebuild. Kuzma was selected late in the first-round, and he’s already outperformed even the highest of expectations for the 27th pick of virtually any draft. In the right situation, he could put up All-Star-caliber numbers. And the Lakers are running low on trade chips. This writer wouldn’t be surprised to see Kuzma playing elsewhere as soon as next season – whenever that is.

Derrick White, No. 29

Thomas Bryant, No. 42

Dillion Brooks, No. 45

Monte Morris, No. 51

Jury Is Still Out

Lonzo Ball, No. 2

Ball entered the NBA with tremendous fanfare thanks, in part, to his father’s loud endorsements. LaVar Ball wasn’t entirely wrong about his son, though; It’s just that Lonzo hasn’t translated as well as his dad predicted.

But Ball’s quickness, court vision and defense render him a huge net positive. His shot, on the other hand, has hurt his ability to stretch the defense and be a scoring threat at all times when on offense – even though it did look significantly better in 2019-20 than in years’ past. Ball isn’t the first player who’s experienced relative success in the league while also undershooting expectations, and he won’t be the last. He could still grow into an All-Star, but he’s not the transcendent talent we were led to believe he’d be.

Lauri Markkanen, No. 7

By the parameters of this series, Markkanen looked way more like a hit entering 2019-20. But then this season happened. Markkanen was used as more of a spot-up shooter than he’d been in the previous two seasons. His minutes dropped slightly, as did his scoring (18.7 to 14.7 per game), rebounding (9.0 to 6.3) and his three-point percentage (36.1% to 34.4%). And his field goal attempts were down considerably from inside the three point line all the way to three feet from the basket.

But Markkanen doesn’t qualify as a bust, either. He still averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in less than 28 minutes per game. He’s a seven-footer who is still an above-average marksman given his size and position, and he’s still just 22. Markkanen might end up as a multi-time All-Star, so no need for too much alarm. And expectations weren’t too high on him as of 2017. But he’s hasn’t established himself as much as the “hits” featured above.

Frank Ntilikina, No. 8

The Knicks were dead set on a point guard in 2017. They were reportedly down to Ntilikina and Smith Jr. – ironically, they now employ both. But where Smith Jr. started off strongly and tapered off, Ntilikina took time to ramp up. In fact, he’s still ramping. Ntilikina is a sneaky good defender whose offensive prowess continues to grow. He’s a high-IQ player who will require more polished offensive talent around him if he’s going to start on a contender. But ultimately, the jury is still out. Ntilikina hasn’t been nearly consistent enough to be deemed anything but an unfinished product. He flashes the ability to oversee the offense, remain aggressive on offense, create for others and (obviously) defend multiple positions at a very high level. He just hasn’t done it regularly. He’s still only 21, so there is still ample time for Ntilikina to fulfill all of his potential and then some.

Every draft class is interesting with its share of hits and misses. While analyzing how well players perform relative to past expectations feels unnecessary, it’s also really fun. And doing so with the 2017 draft class is no different – and it provides even more opportunity than most to examine the draft order really closely and embrace the “what ifs.”

2017 might not have brought us any new entries into the GOAT debate, but it certainly left us with plenty of other items to discuss.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

How do Irving and Harden fit together?

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

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

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

Lack of depth is a problem

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

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

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

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

Nash’s first rodeo

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck, Brooklyn, no pressure.

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NBA Daily: First Time All-Star Watch

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

Dylan Thayer

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

Christian Wood

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

Julius Randle

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

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

CJ McCollum

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

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

Jerami Grant

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

Jaylen Brown

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

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

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NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?

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

Quinn Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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