A Busy Night in the NBA, Broken Down

Yesterday had an unprecedented amount of noteworthy things occur, in a variety of ways. LeBron came back somewhat unexpectedly, the Sixers man-handled the Warriors on the low, and of course, the Knicks dealt the best player they’ve drafted in a generation for a low-tier point guard and cap space. Without any more introduction, here is each of those stories in more depth.

A King’s Return

LeBron James returned from the longest absence of his career in last night’s game against the Clippers, an overtime game in which James played 40 minutes for 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 9 assists. One question, though: How irresponsible can the Lakers be? LeBron is coming off the most significant injury of his long career, at a point in his life where he’s up against Father Time now more than ever. LeBron is 34, and there’s more reason for precaution now than there has been so far.

Look around. Dwyane Wade is on his final year, and is a shell of himself. Carmelo Anthony wasn’t even good enough for the Bulls to keep him. LeBron can’t be looking at the people around him from his own draft class and think that it’s no big deal. Nick Collison is having his jersey retired. Chris Paul, who was drafted two years later but is only a year younger, can barely stay on the court for more than a month at a time, and was injured for the most important game in his career. Sure, LeBron is superhuman, but he is human. For a team that has aspirations to trade for Anthony Davis, they can’t mess around like this.

What happens if they trade all of the young players for AD and LeBron pulls a hammy? All you’ve got left Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, Javale McGee, and Lance Stephenson. That’s your supporting cast for Anthony Davis.

Maybe LeBron was further along in his recovery than previously thought, but even so, if you have to lose one game against the Clippers to ease him back in, then so be it. While the Lakers won this game, they could have probably still done it if LeBron played just over 30. And even if they did lose, what’s the matter with that? The Clippers are a fine loss compared to some of the teams the Lakers lost to while LeBron was out. Maybe they needed to stop the bleeding, ASAP, but LeBron is going to need to be healthy for the playoffs, and 40 minutes a night on his first game back from the most severe injury he’s ever had, at age 34, is simply not worth it. This ended up pretty preachy, but who the hell cares. The Lakers are a very poorly run team at the moment and they need to wise up or risk being mediocre again with an injured LeBron, AD, and a gang of nobodies around them.

Mr. Brown’s Wild Ride

In the Sixers’ 113-104 win against the Golden State Warriors, Ben Simmons played what HC Brett Brown referred to as his best game in the NBA thus far. While he had a game that was undoubtedly fantastic, it was a pretty uncharacteristic stat line. We tend to imagine good Simmons games as 20+/10+/10+ since he’s so proficient at the various responsibilities he has, but Simmons had a fantastic scoring game, himself, while still initiating for others as he went for 26/8/6. Simmons and Embiid had 26 points each, and Curry and Durant combined for 66.

One extremely noticeable aspect of this game was Jimmy Butler’s struggle offensively. Nevertheless, he had a huge impact on the game down the stretch, making strong defensive plays and exploiting the gravity he creates on the court to dime up others.

Another very palpable facet of this game, as an individual observer and Sixers fan/writer, was how hard Brett Brown out-coached Steve Kerr. The lineups, as well as the elevated play of the whole bench, made life consistently difficult for nearly everyone on the court besides Steph Curry, and even he struggled in the 4th quarter.

Playing through your center is hard late in the game, and Brown’s recognition of the mismatches down low and playing Klay Thompson’s absence allowed Embiid plenty more room to work than he normally is allowed. He was fed the ball, allowed to take Cousins to work, and continued to get fouled which helped the Sixers keep the Warriors at arms length.

As I said, the role players really stepped up tonight, but Brett Brown’s ability to put out lineups that gave Embiid and Simmons rest (keeping them fresh in the final 5 minutes), without sacrificing defense or scoring, was an integral part of this win for the Sixers. Brown got to ring the bell after the game, as even the players recognized the impact his decisions had last night.

The Knicks Fucked Up

I really don’t have a clever title for this one. The Knicks fucked up, plain and simple. They gave up the best player they’ve had since Patrick Ewing who was still young and capable of improving for Dennis Smith Jr., a mid-tier point guard even within his own draft class, and salary matching contracts who they don’t even intend on keeping. All of this in hopes of establishing enough cap room to potentially sign two max free agents this summer. There’s only one problem, and that’s the fact that no free agents probably want to touch that shit-show of an organization with a 10-foot pole.

Sure, maybe the Knicks draft Zion, and sure Kyrie Irving could change his mind about staying in Boston, and sure if Golden State somehow doesn’t win the title this year KD might leave, but I’m saying right now: none of that is worth it. First of all, the Knicks might not get the no.1 overall pick. Second of all, Kyrie isn’t good attractive enough to attract other FAs to follow him if he goes. Third, GSW is most likely going to win the title, meaning KD is most likely staying the fuck in place.

Think about the kind of stuff that has to happen for the Knicks to have justified this trade. Golden State has to lose in the post-season (LOL), Kyrie has to decide he wants to leave a franchise that gave him so much free reign, AND the Knicks have to win the lottery. And even if KD does decide to leave (again, extremely unlikely if GSW wins) what makes NY think that KD would be interested in playing there? They’re such a mismanaged team it’s unbelievable. He wants to go somewhere he can keep contending for titles, and while the East is weaker, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Kyrie, KD, and a bunch of goons is any more prepared to win a title than Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, or Philly.

Long story short, the Knicks need to get rid of that entire front office if this doesn’t work out. If your name isn’t Zion Williamson, David Fizdale, or whatever free agent ends up going there (if any) you should be on the chopping block. There is absolutely no reason for this team to keep the daydream of cap space alive just because they’re New York. Brooklyn is a team that can capitalize off of a big market. The Knicks are so shitty that being in New York basically doesn’t mean anything anymore. Just think about that.

Anyways, this became a longer, more rant-y piece than I originally intended. But hey, when a lot of stupid teams do stupid things while the Sixers are turning up, I guess I have a lot to talk about.

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Losing to the Cavs? Lakers Need to Make a Move or Risk Running in Place

Since the 2016 Finals, LeBron-led teams have done one thing and one thing only: spun their tires. Despite making the finals every year, there was clear evidence that the Cavs hit the ceiling of what a LeBron-and-the-peanut-gallery team can achieve.

Last night, the Lakers lost to the now 9-35 Cleveland Cavaliers, who were riding an 11-game losing streak, and were on the road at the Staples Center, in pretty embarrassing fashion even though it was a 6-point game. The Lakers were, of course, short LeBron James whose absence due to a groin injury was extended at least until mid-January. The Cavs, however, were short both Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr., both of whom are among the sole talents on this barren team.

This begs the question: Did LeBron leave the Cavaliers only to play with a team just as bad? Basically, yes, he did. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that it’s widely accepted that LeBron going to LA was significantly impacted by the size and profitability of the LA market, compared to Cleveland. However, the King’s absence has shown that the Lakers, without LeBron, would essentially be bottom-feeding in the West along with the Suns. To my best estimation, I’d say they would be lucky to break 32 or 33 wins.

So, if the Lakers want to make anything out of LeBron’s precious remaining healthy years (which are now jeopardized by the first major injury he’s sustained in years) then they need to make a move, and fast. There is no time to waste. First of all, they need to stop the bleeding during the remainder of LeBron’s sabbatical. Even if he comes back at full-strength, which is far from a given, then they will need to step it up to get themselves back into the playoff race. They are still barely above .500, but if you’re trying to stay in the top 8 bubble, you cannot and I mean cannot lose to the Cavaliers. There is a very, very reasonable chance that a team like the Jazz, Pelicans, or Timberwolves start knocking on the door of the 8th seed.

More importantly, LeBron is 34, and just sustained a pretty significant injury unlike what he’s seen in this stage of his career. They can’t wait until Anthony Davis is a free-agent to realize it’s go time. So, what can the Lakers do to get themselves an even competent supporting cast for LeBron?

First, the obvious move is trading for Anthony Davis. This, of course, implies that the Pelicans are interested in moving him, which is not likely with the current landscape. In fact, the Pelicans are more likely to be buyers than sellers in this trade market, but that’s a different story. Let’s assume that Davis requests a trade before the deadline. The Celtics, without trading Kyrie Irving, cannot trade for Anthony Davis. Now, if I’m Danny Ainge, there is not a single player that is safe in an Anthony Davis trade, but the important thing here is that Boston is unlikely to make a move until after this trade season.

Aside from his unbelievable talent, AD fills a lot of holes for the Lakers, specifically. Their defense in the paint is abysmal, and they lack a true starting-caliber center. McGee has been unreliable, Tyson Chandler is fine off the bench but is also old as dirt, so he’s not a guarantee going forward. Zubac is, like, fine if you’re a middling team. But are any of these guys going to take care of business against, say, recovered-Demarcus Cousins? Or more realistically, Rudy Gobert of AD himself? Doubtful.

Aside from his defensive strength and versatility, Davis is a do-it-all scorer who has positional flexibility to play with other centers or other power forwards. If you could somehow get the trade done without giving up Kyle Kuzma, which would be extremely difficult, there would be a lot of interesting rotations with him, Davis, and LeBron, not all at the same time, even. That would be an indisputable upgrade defensively and offensively, even if you lost some depth to make it happen.

If Magic could get the deal done by giving up Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, someone else of marginal value and a pick? I would do that, easily. Of course, if I’m New Orleans, I’d want Kuzma, and honestly there is little guarantee that Kuzma would mesh well with AD and LeBron, despite the fact that he’s the best performer of the moveable pieces.

The important thing about AD is that the Lakers cannot afford to wait until after this season to move for him, if they decide that’s what the move is. They will not win a bidding war with Boston. They simply won’t. They have more valuable assets, both present and future, and are arguably a more desirable destination in the Eastern Conference, and on a team where you aren’t playing second-fiddle to a balding 34-year-old, or watching Ingram, who’s playing like a mumble-rapper-Andrew-Wiggins, miss mid-range jumpers.

Another trade I’d be interested in as the Lakers front office is for Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic. The Magic may still believe they can slide into a playoff spot, but any responsible front office will realize that losing in the first round won’t help you much, when next year will be nearly equally as wide open, and just coast for this season.

The smart move is to become sellers in this market, for Orlando. Vucevic is a potent scorer, and he’s on a pretty modest contract at about $12M, although he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. This trade, for say, KCP and a pick, or maybe any one of Hart, Ingram, or Ball, could pretty reasonably be balanced. KCP makes sense as their salaries are pretty balanced, and they both would be off the books after this year.

If Orlando could gain a pick or a player under contract for Vucevic, who might easily leave this year anyway, would be a score. Even if the Magic might make the playoffs, which is a stretch in and of itself, Vucevic probably isn’t a part of their long-term vision.

I went into further detail with those two scenarios than I originally intended, but the general idea is the more important aspect of this piece than the hypothetical trades themselves: the Lakers cannot sit this one out. With this injury as a potential turning point in LeBron’s career, there is absolutely no guarantee that they will have any more chances to win a title. The Warriors are the most vulnerable they’ve been, and with the potential to lose KD or Klay Thompson after this season, next year is really the last possible year before we’re talking about post-prime LeBron.

If they want to win a title, in the span of LeBron’s contract specifically, there really is no time like the present. There’s always a chance that this team finds it’s rhythm in the post-season, as LeBron always does, but none of the young guys on this roster have playoff experience, and many of them (Ball and Ingram specifically) have glaring, exploitable flaws akin to those that get exposed in the playoffs. Even assuming all of that, if the Lakers don’t do too hot into the end of the regular season, they may be playing a Golden State, Denver, Oklahoma City type team in the very first round.

I may be beating a dead horse here, but if this team wants to avoid the fate of the Cavaliers, they need to do more than spin their tires in the mud.

Editor’s Note: I do think that if the Lakers happen to make a significant move, they will in all likelihood try to move Ingram. This is mostly due to fit,    as Ingram is just the odd-man out. He’s too inefficient to play in a team with, hypothetically, LeBron        and AD. Kuzma is too valuable as a role player, and Lonzo is actually the ideal point-guard for a LeBron team, for all of his faults. 

Who Can Tame the NBA’s Western Conference?

As the 2018-2019 NBA season trudges on, it is becoming increasingly clear who is a real contender and who is not. There is still plenty of stratification that has yet to occur, but in the meantime, many pundits have been asking who they believe is the West’s 2nd best team (presuming the best is still the Golden State Warriors, which is the right assumption in my opinion).

I find this question problematic for a number of reasons. For starters, win/loss record is not always indicative of who the “best” team is. The best team might have the 2nd best record (like GSW last year) and the 2nd best team might have the 4th best record. 

The consensus answer for the West’s second best team at the moment seems to be the Denver Nuggets, who sit at the top of the WC standings with a record of 18-9. While I do think the Nuggets aren’t a bad choice, I disagree with the logic that they are the West’s second best team because they have the best record near 25% of the way through the season. I think there is a much more accurate and interesting way to find out who’s for real in the West: Who is likely to host a first round playoff series? In other words, who will finish with one of the top 4 records in the Western Conference?

The reasoning behind posing the question in this way is two-fold. First, it allows for a lot more room for interpretation of how you determine who is the “best.” Second, with the depth of the Western Conference as currently constructed, you need every advantage you can get, and home court advantage in the first or second round can be the difference maker. Styles make fights, and you don’t want to be taking any risks when you might be playing against Anthony Davis or the deep, deep LA Clippers in round 1. Not necessarily in any seed-based order, here are the 4:

Warriors: The first team that I believe will keep a top 4 spot is obviously the Warriors. I think they likely take the 1 seed, as I don’t think any team can beat their long term win/loss record. Regardless, they are easily a lock for a top 4 seed even with taking some minor injuries along the way. With that said, if Steph Curry were to suffer a season-ending injury (knock on wood) the Dubs could be in trouble. I still think they’d be fine, though.

Nuggets: The second team that I think is taking a top 4 seed is the Denver Nuggets. As I said before, they currently lead the West and look poised to keep on rolling over mid-tier teams. They have racked up impressive wins, and star big-man Nikola Jokic really can do anything except jump. He still shows weaknesses defensively, but the team has stepped it up as a whole in that regard making it less of an issue. They will likely add even more depth as the season goes on, as they look to incorporate Isaiah Thomas as he returns from injury soon, and we still haven’t heard a peep about Micheal Porter Jr. whose status is still pretty unclear as far as this season is concerned. Regardless, the Nuggets are one of the more flexible, amorphous teams in the league. Denver has shown they’re more than a statistical anomaly and shows no signs of slowing down in their current state.

Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder, who started out the season painfully sluggish, have displayed that they can do it with or without Russell Westbrook, and this team looks like a defensive bastion as of late. Steven Adams is top 5 in the league in offensive boards, and with weapons like Paul George around the perimeter, that pays dividends. Speaking of George, he leads the league in steals, and continues to show his prowess as a two-way player. Now that they’ve worked the kinks out, the best way to describe the Thunder appears to be one word: consistent. Of course they have their fluke losses like all teams, but for the most part the Thunder eat mid to low-tier teams for breakfast. That alone should be good enough to keep them in the playoff bubble, and the teams’ upside as a whole gives me reason to believe they’ll land in the top 4.

Paul George’s night to night production allows a necessary buffer for the other primary scorers on the team.

Lakers: I did some light research on this one, and last I checked, LeBron James is still on the Lakers’ roster. They have definitely figured out their defense, and since the start of the season have completely turned around on that front. More importantly, the team has figured out which players of their young core function next to LeBron, which is basically the key to succeeding with LeBron. It’s not easy to play on-court with the King, but if they figure it out and stick to their guns from there (the guns seem to be Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma) then they can make waves. Not to mention, even the guys they have that aren’t particularly good fits with LeBron are still solid, athletic players. If they can rest LeBron a few more minutes per night without that throwing the game into the fire, that could go a long way in terms of wins through the rest of the season and into the playoffs. LeBron will turn it on when he needs to, and albeit this may be an earlier time to do so than in years past, nothing is guaranteed in the West right now. Having home court matters way more this year than in his past decade of being in the East.

So, there are my 4, not in any order. I could see any of those 4 in any order being logical at the end of the regular season.

Some notable omissions would be the Houston Rockets who topped the seeds last year. They look stronger, but if they want to even see the playoffs this year, they need to get it together-and fast. 

I think the surprise teams of the Clippers and Grizzlies will stay strong, but I think they will have to falter a little bit, the Grizz especially. They are one multiple-week injury away from a serious losing streak. The Clippers are one of the deepest, most well-rounded teams in the league, meaning they are less prone to regression and more likely to adapt long-term, but I also think they are due for a little bit of cooling off. That said, Doc Rivers is making a Coach of The Year case. 

Aside from those two, who have flirted with top positions thus far this year, everyone else is in the hunt to even make the playoffs. The Spurs, Jazz, Pelicans, and Trail Blazers all have the talent to make it, but cannot spare a single loss. Those are the types of teams that I’d be skeptical of being able to win consistently enough from night to night to clinch a top 4 seed.

The Prince, The Process, and The Closer: How The Sixers Can Maximize Their Best Players (Part 1, Ben Simmons)

There’s an old adage that the best way to build around a good player is to surround them with shooters. While this is true in many situations, it tends to get thrown around a lot and grossly over-simplifies how easy it is to get that many good shooters on a roster (and also how problematic rosters like that can be defensively, but I digress).

The reality of the case of Ben Simmons, and how we can get the most value out of him, is not far off from such a scenario in which that popular wisdom would ring true. This is for more reasons than just to space the floor and give him room to work; it has far more to do with covering for Simmons’ weaknesses at the present moment. Although spacing the floor is in fact a way to get more for your money with Ben, he needs to be surrounded by shooters simply to make up for some of the shots he isn’t taking.

Simmons has so much gravity on the court it’s quite honestly impressive. He commands so much respect with the ball in his hands, even when playing in situations in which he isn’t as strong in like low post-ups. However, if he’s behind the arc, all you really need to respect are the shooters he can pass the ball to, and his own drives. Within his effective area he has so many ways to be an effective point guard, and his ability to finish around the rim is impressive for a second year player. But in order for the team to get the most out of Simmons, Simmons needs to get the most out of himself, in some regards.

As much as I hate to say things like this, Simmons really does have the upside to be the Heir to the Throne of LeBron James, but in order to take said throne, he needs to do what LeBron did for many years in his career: play to his strengths, and strive relentlessly to fix the holes in your game and become as good as you can at as many things as you can. Simmons is already so proficient at what he does, and at his size he is certainly a candidate to become a positionless player in the league today, but that will only come as he continues to become a better version of himself. So what would that look like?

Going with the less obvious area of weakness first, Simmons has got to get better at free throws. By the nature of his game, he is going to get fouled a lot in crunch-time. Think about why LeBron James is famous for choking on crunch-time free throws. You can’t take free throws in crunch-time if you don’t get fouled in crunch-time. If he’s going to be iffy at best from the line, it makes the decision to intentionally foul him a lot easier, because unlike say Embiid, there is a very good chance he doesn’t make both of them. At that point, it’s simple math.

Simmons’ free throw success has proven to be an advantage for opponents.

He needs to get better at them generally as well, of course. The new NBA rules regarding freedom of movement benefit him. He is big enough, fast enough, and strong enough to get to his spots on the floor sometimes before he even needs to dribble the ball, and that presents plenty of shots at the line for him. Even something as simple as being capable of hitting a free throw on And-1’s would make a significant increase in his value, because they will happen, especially if he continues to improve at his strong areas, like attacking the rim.

The more obvious area he needs to improve in is 3-point shooting. It’s barely even the need for improvement; it’s more so the need for existence in that area of the game. The last time he shot and made a 3-pointer was at LSU, and it’s not for lack of opportunity. His lack of even attempting shots has made for some comical stills of him at the top of the key with no defenders within 4 feet. The other team simply doesn’t need to respect a shot he won’t take.

If Simmons can drain them from the corner like this in shoot-around, what’s stopping him from taking them when he’s uncovered at the top of the key?

This brings me to the bottom line for Simmons 3-point shooting. He doesn’t need to shoot the lights out like JJ. He doesn’t even need to be above average, truly. As long as he has a realistic chance of making it, and the confidence to take them when he’s wide open (which he always is), the opposing teams will have to acknowledge that option.

Not only does this make the game easier for himself, but for Embiid as well. Simmons, Embiid, Butler, and 2 shooters would be so, so dangerous. Butler and Embiid can shoot, but would both benefit from having more room to work in the paint. Plus, Simmons building a shot won’t take away from his capacity to draw defenders as he drives, and kicks out to an open shooter. In fact, it will probably make it harder to react to.

I apologize for mentioning LBJ so much in an article about Ben Simmons; I hate LeBron comps, for any player, but there’s a reason he is a good analog. James is a perfect example of someone who came into the league with incredible upside, and worked year after year to not only accentuate his strengths, but to build in his weaker areas as well to become a more complete player.

Simmons is already a great player within the existing system, but he can become a player that exceeds his role within a system if he continues to develop. I’m not worried about it much either, as he’s still one of the better point guards in the league and is only in his second year.

I know it may seem like a cop-out to say the way for the Sixers to get the most out of Simmons is for Simmons to just be the best he can be, but as the youngest player of the core 3, as well as the point guard, it’s the most essential that he continues to develop in as many ways as possible. This isn’t all on his shoulders, either; the team and his teammates need to continue to support and guide him through that grind. 

If he keeps working behind the scenes, once he does decide to take shots, he’ll be all the better for it. I also have a huge amount of faith in Brett Brown’s ability to be proactive in taking on challenges like this. Cheesy as it may be, the headband thing with him and Butler is an example of this. He knows that Butler is a hard worker, and if he has an investment in helping the young guys like Simmons and Embiid develop, it will be good for the locker room and for the team’s future with him, and their long-term success together. After all, Butler isn’t getting younger and he is a very experienced player. If he is going to get that 5-year deal this summer, his experience will be invaluable as a leadership tool for a guy like Ben with so much to accomplish in this league.