Breaking Down the Lakers’ Playoff Push

After the Lakers’ utterly baffling and confusing loss to the AD-less New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday night, I had a thread on Twitter describing the Lakers’ remaining schedule, as it relates to how many wins they likely will need to beat out the other teams in the hunt. Now, after the Lakers’ comical loss to a new-look and hardcore tanking Memphis team, I will reevaluate everything that I had discussed and pointed out in that thread in greater detail. Before I do that, however, here is the original (and now outdated) thread detailing the situation LeBron and the Lakers find themselves in:

Feel free to follow the boy while you’re at it, I have great Corey Brewer takes.

To begin, the Lakers currently have a record 29-31. While there is no hard game limit needed for them to get into the playoffs, many projections see them falling short of either the Kings or Clippers in win total, meaning they would sit at 9th at most. According to one projection, 538, the Clippers (currently 34-28) are now expected to win 44 games. At the time of the original post, it was 43, which I conservatively adjusted to 42. Since they are now 1 win further along, I will now use a projected 43 win total as the threshold needed to be passed for the lower LA to squeak in.

Let’s assume that losing Tobias Harris and attempting to work new pieces in eventually takes a toll on LAC, and that they only win 9 out of their remaining 20 games and finish at 43 wins on the year. This would mean that the Lakers would need to match this number and win the series to break the tie, which is up in the air with two games left between the two (series is 1-1 at the moment). The Clippers are likely to have a better conference and divisional record, so unless the Lakers get to 44 wins, they’d have to beat the Clippers in both of their next two games against them to break the tie in their favor. Otherwise, the Clippers would win.

“He had a triple-double, what more do you want from him?!” I’m not sure, but maybe risking defensive 3-seconds to disrespect an open shooter isn’t top notch defense.

So, assuming a modest sub-.500 record down the stretch for the Clippers, the Lakers would need to win a tie-breaker resistant 15 games out of their remaining 22, 14 at minimum unless something seriously goes wrong for LAC or Sacramento. As stated in my tweet thread, the Lakers can, in theory, win in all of the following games: NOP, @PHO, @CHI, @DET, @NYK, WAS, CHA, and @NOP (Memphis was originally one of these games, so they aren’t off to a great start against their easier schedule). This is 8 of their remaining 22, and let’s assume they win 7 out of these 8.

If so, that means they would then need 7, ideally 8 wins against their tougher opponents, which include: MIL, LAC, DEN, BOS, @TOR, @MIL, BRO, SAC, @UTAH, @OKC, GSW, LAC, UTAH, and POR.

That is…tough. Many of those teams, including LAC, are Western Conference teams fighting for playoff seeds, and while many are at home, some of the toughest teams are away, and many of the easier games are away. The easiest of their hard games are at home, but teams like the Clippers and Kings who are fighting just as hard for the playoffs, or Brooklyn who can never be counted out (especially against defenses like the Lakers’) are not going to go down easily. It’s worth noting, also, that Home for the Lakers is also home for the Clippers. Either way, games like @ Bucks and @ Raptors are near unwinnable, and Boston, Denver, OKC, Portland, and Utah are all fighting for playoff seeds in their respective conferences.

So, against the toughest opponents in their schedule left to play, they need to get 7 wins out of those 14, and this is assuming they go 7-1 at least in their “easy” games. If LAC only wins 43 games this year, and the Lakers win all 8 easy games, and go .500 in the hard games, they would be at a tie-breaker resistant 44 wins. This, of course, would be an impressive feat. This also implies that the Clippers under-perform their projected record of 44 wins. Every game above 43 that the Clippers (or less probably, the Kings) win is just another one of those tough, tough games that the Lakers need to win, on top of winning 7 or 8 of those easy games, many of whom won’t go down easy, like Detroit, who is a solid home team and is also fighting to hold on to a playoff spot. Charlotte is in the same boat, although the Lakers see them at home.

The moral of the story is, the margin for error in the Lakers final stretch is as small and narrow as it could possibly be. They can’t take a night off against the Bulls, they sacrificed that luxury when they lost a must-win against Atlanta. They can’t just rely on offensive prowess to save them, either. They need to make serious changes on the defensive end. Teams like Brooklyn, Sacramento, or the Blake Griffin-led Pistons are not teams you can get into a shootout with, despite their somewhat weaker records. You mean to tell me you want to crank the pace in a game where Kyle Kuzma is on Blake Griffin the whole time? Good luck with that, Luke.

Either way, I can’t wait until they don’t make it and we hear “He was never fully healthy from his groin injury!” from Bron-fetishists non-stop. I, personally, am on the “I’ll believe LeBron misses the playoffs when I see it” camp, because he’s pulled heroics before, just none quite comparable to this.

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The Re-imagination of Blake Griffin

One of the most curious story-lines in the past decade of NBA basketball is the career of Blake Griffin. The 6’10, 250 pound-er has been nothing short of noteworthy every single year of his career, even in seasons cut short by injury.

With the highlight of his career being behind him as one of the key figures in the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers, Griffin was presented with a choice once Chris Paul left: adapt, or get left behind.

After Paul’s departure from Los Angeles, and as DeAndre Jordan’s best years appeared to be past him, the writing was on the wall that it was time for the Clippers to build anew. They got many, many pieces back in exchange for Paul, but nobody as integral to the system they had prior as CP3 had been. And while players like Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams continue to put in work for LAC, the ownership group seemed to believe that a team of an aging DJ, Blake, and a bunch of good rotation guys had a clear ceiling, and it wasn’t as high as they had probably hoped. As unexpected as the move was at the time, you could pretty easily understand their rationale. They got back a good return for him too, as they gained, among other things, Tobias Harris and the pick that became Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Harris would later be flipped in rookie Landry Shamet and 2 first rounders courtesy of Philadelphia. So, the rebuild turnover was quick and effective, as the Clippers now have 2 max cap spots, multiple quality role players, and plenty of picks to surround any high caliber free agents with young talent.

The metrics of the Clippers’ trade business aside, the reality for Blake Griffin seemed to settle in fast. It’s not that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was; although maybe that thought crossed his mind. It was moreso that he needed to embrace the way the league was changing, and utilize whatever skills he had in order to keep pace. One of the defining characteristics of “modern” basketball is the embrace of the 3-point shot across any and all positions. It’s not a necessity for every player, but when available, it is something that should be taken advantage of, with some bigs like Meyers Leonard, Brook Lopez, and Mike Muscala having the 3-pointer as integral parts of their value to a team. Blake Griffin, as a power forward, was not immune to this shift.

In the early years of his career, from around 2011-2014, Griffin shot percentages ranging from 12% to 29%, on less than .6 3PA per game through all of those seasons. After the 2015 season, Griffin’s 3-point shooting made a leap into the consistent mid-30s range, which is good for his position and even better considering it wasn’t a foundational piece of his game until that point in his career. However, the most notable thing about Griffin’s shooting isn’t his completion percentage jumping up-it’s his attempts. After Chris Paul left LA, Griffin’s 3PA jumped from 1.9 to 5.6 per game, and since the start of his first full season in Detroit, it’s been 6.8 attempts per game from 3. Compared to even his 4th year in the league, this is nearly a tenfold increase in 3-point shots taken, and with a completion percentage about as good as he’s ever had.

Some things improve naturally over the course of a player’s career. Griffin, for example, is shooting about 10% better on free throws than in the early years of his career. This is expected with the natural progression of a player’s skillset. What isn’t expected is taking 10 times as many 3-pointers, and making nearly twice the proportion of them. That’s not a natural progression, that is a player taking their game back to the drawing board and redefining their play.

The trade to Detroit was surely a hard one to swallow for Blake. One thing is for certain, though, is that the free roam he has on that talent and shooting deprived team, along with a new look coach in Dwane Casey, Blake Griffin has had the breathing room to make these kinds of sweeping changes to his play-style, and it’s seemingly all for the better.

Trade Deadline Thoughts: Elton Brand Has Balls of Steel

This trade deadline was expected to be a relatively quiet one with the exception of Anthony Davis likely being on the move. Davis is still in New Orleans, and many other very surprising moves happened in addition.

Many teams seemed to be waiting for the AD dust to settle to do anything, and once it became clear that a Lakers/Pelicans deal was unlikely, the trades started flowing. Among the most active teams at the deadline was one Philadelphia team, who easily created some of the most remarkable trade headlines this year.

In addition to the Butler trade at the beginning of the year which made waves, the Sixers started this week out hot by making a surprise move for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and Boban Marjanovic. The Sixers essentially gave up two players who would get destroyed in the playoffs, Landry Shamet, and 2 first round picks, only one of our own.

Harris being on the move was one of the biggest surprises of this trade deadline, and his destination even more so.

As sad as I am to see Shamet go, we essentially gave up one real player and one real pick for 2 valuable rotation guys and a near all-star. My first reaction was that it felt like a minor overpay, but considering the fact that we didn’t lose a pick in the Butler trade, it all sort of evened out.

Then today, just in time for the deadline, the news many Sixers fans have been hoping for came: we finally dealt Markelle Fultz. Let me preface this: I really wanted Markelle to succeed here, and I really hope that Orlando helps him and that he can get back to being a functional NBA player. But to have this off of our backs, and to get picks AND a functional rotation player in return? Godlike.

We essentially traded a warm bench seat for a guy who can play reasonable minutes right now, and a Thunder first rounder, as well as a Cleveland second round pick. While the Thunder pick won’t be incredible, it will essentially offset the fact that the Sixers gave up their own first for 2020 in the Clippers trade. There’s not much reason to believe the Thunder’s odds will be much worse than the Sixers, so essentially the Heat 2021 pick is the major piece in that deal, in addition to Shamet.

Finally, the Sixers made two moves for cash considerations. One to Toronto in exchange for Malachi Richardson, and one to Houston for James Ennis. Richardson was immediately waved to make room for Ennis on the roster.

As crazy as a week as it has been, and as risky as both the Harris and Butler trades were, I’m starting to build excitement for this. Harris, while an incredible player in his own right, was essentially insurance in case things go south with Butler, or he simply leaves this summer. Harris and Boban both seem very excited to come to Philly, so keeping both of them would be a huge bonus.

The Fultz trade is more about simply having that drama and attention off of our backs. They can finally just take the players they have and move in the direction of a team with a full and complete roster, no asterisks attached.

Additionally, the James Ennis pickup was very solid. Ennis, unlike some current players on the Sixers roster, is an actual NBA player in the current year.

So what does this mean for the Sixers play? For one thing, this team is big. And I mean BIG. This team’s starting 5 has one player under 6’4 and it’s our shooting guard who wasn’t stopping anyone anyway. Other than that, this 5 has 4 big, mostly switchable and defensively sound players. Harris is the exception, but he’s not a defensive liability, at least. He’s league average, probably has his good and bad nights like most any other player.

Meanwhile, the offense is going to be insane. So many of the problems this team suffered from are alleviated by bringing Harris into the fold. Not only does he shoot well, which fixes some of the spacing issues the Sixers had, but he facilitates other offensive maneuvers like capitalizing off of Embiid getting doubled, Simmons drive and kick, and Embiid-Redick DHO’s.

Another underrated aspect of this trade is that it reduces some of the bench depth issues. We essentially gave up 1 for 3 in terms of real functional players who aren’t one dimensional. Boban will be a great backup center for big lineups, whereas Bolden can fill in for smaller teams. Mike Scott is a playable wing rotation guy, who will probably gravitate towards the 4 a la Mike Muscala, and of course Harris raises the floor of the whole team.

Not only did the bench get better in this trade, but the flexibility of lineups with the bench got significantly better, too. Essentially, Chandler had to be played with any 2 of Simmons, Butler, or Embiid on the floor. Now, Brett Brown can throw a ton of different looks at people. One very obvious concern is managing the shot count for 5 players who need shots, but this will only really matter in the first minutes and sometimes last minutes of a game. Brown can pull Butler or Embiid early, and give Harris and Simmons some run together. Really any combination will be better, as it will require fewer minutes for the guys who need rest, in addition giving Harris, Butler, and Embiid all plenty of room to work as the high usage guys.

This trade deadline said to me one thing, and one thing only. Elton Brand isn’t here to fuck around. He made moves that sacrificed some long-term stability, but raised the floor of this team significantly, and over the 3 major trades, things evened out so that nothing was really over-payed for, not even moving on from Fultz. Hinkie was too concerned with the future (can’t blame him given the roster at the time), Colangelo was scared to make any big moves and drafted like a bitch. This administration essentially traded Mikal Bridges and a first for Tobias Harris, and fixed the wrongdoing of the previous regime while getting a pick back. It’s still early yet; we still haven’t seen any of these new guys play yet. But one thing is for sure: Elton Brand is here to make moves.

Simmons, Embiid Shine as Sixers Win an Absolute Thriller

In a late game surge that involved two 4-point plays, multiple defensive stops, and clutch time management, the Sixers slid in a W against San Antonio tonight.

Embiid posted a 33 point and 19 rebound double-double, and Simmons put up 21 with 10 rebounds and 15 assists for the triple-double. Notable was the team’s strong shooting tonight, making a collective 17 3-point shots from 7 different players, including 10-day player Corey Brewer, who started for Butler who sat tonight. Simmons made a couple cute turnaround jumpers and hooks, which helped him tack points on from further out.

The young fellows came up big tonight to pick up the slack left from missing Butler.

The team as a whole, but specifically Embiid and Simmons, came up strong defensively late in the game against one of the most efficient shooting teams in the league, and kept turnovers to an absolute minimum for the night.

The Sixers are now 3-1 in their hell stretch against teams with winning records, now winning 2 in a row at home before they take on a 4-game West Coast swing.

Coming out with a win tonight was huge, as the Spurs are one of the most well-coached teams in the league, and they play a very unique type of basketball in the current NBA. For all of their flaws on defense, one of the Sixers’ strengths in that regard is their ability to force their opponents into taking mid-range shots. The only problem is, the Spurs make those shots. Up and down the entire roster are players who not only survive but thrive in the mid-range, specifically Aldridge and DeRozan, with some deadeye 3-point shooters like Bryn Forbes, to boot.

Additionally, leaving with a win despite not having star forward Jimmy Butler in the rotations was big for the team. Not only were they short a man, as they almost always are, but they were simultaneously working Corey Brewer into the lineup and into a starting spot during a 10-day contract. Thankfully, Brewer and the rest of the bench have stepped up so far, which has made the occasional night off or bad day for the Big 3 easier to work through.