The NBA continues to break into the middle part of the season, with every team now having played 20 or more games. So, without further ado, here is this week’s docket of exciting and interesting games with non-Sixers teams:
Nuggets @ Raptors: The Nuggets (15-7) and Raptors (20-4) both sit in the upper echelon of their respective conferences, with Toronto leading the East and Denver at number 2 in the West. The aspect of this match is how Denver’s star big man Nikola Jokic will perform against Toronto’s deep rotation of defensive bigs in Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and occasionally flashes of defensive strength from Pascal Siakam. The biggest knock on Jokic, for obvious reasons, is his lacking defense-especially against other bigs. As complete as he is on offense, you can’t score points if you get benched for being in foul trouble, which has proven to limit Jokic’s ability to shift a game in Denver’s favor. Further developing storylines also include Kawhi Leonard, who despite sitting games now and again has stepped up offensively in the past few weeks, and continues to assert his defensive dominance.
Spurs @ Jazz: This game takes place Tuesday night, and it comes at a big crossroads for both teams. Despite being only two wins back from the 8th seed, both sit in the bottom 3 of the Western Conference, record-wise. Both teams are usually great defenses that have struggled incredibly often this year, as the Spurs have allowed 130 points or more multiple times this year, and the Jazz just look clumsy sometimes, despite having reigning DPOY Rudy Gobert. On offense, the Jazz need to find a way to continue to empower shooters like Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles, although Mitchell’s success usually comes at a very high volume and with low assist numbers, making efficiency a problem as well. The Spurs have struggled to find a coherent gameplan, as often individual players have good performances, but not enough to match the amount of points they’ve been allowing lately. A win means a lot for both of them, and boy, they both need a reason to celebrate, too.
Warriors @ Bucks: Last week, the Warriors saw the Raptors for an overtime thrilled in which Kevin Durant scored 51, but the Dubs fell short. This time, GSW will visit another Eastern Conference leader in the Milwaukee Bucks, who despite their long win streak to start the season have begun to falter. The Bucks’ shooting has regressed a little bit as was expected, and it will be a test on Mike Budenholzer’s ability to manage how many shots players are taking if all of them aren’t shooting the lights out, and of course, how Giannis factors into all of that. The Warriors, thankfully, graciously, have regained Steph Curry from injury, which couldn’t have come enough for the Warriors or my sanity. I just can’t hear about Draymond and KD beefing anymore. It’s boring and dumb and the media is annoying me by trying to force a storyline, but that’s neither here nor there. It is perfectly reasonable to expect this game to be into the 125-135 range for both teams, especially once Steph has had a game or two under his legs again.
This stretch of the season has the potential to be a large stratifying force in both conferences. Will those in the hunt fall further behind? Can those in the playoffs solidify their position? Will the West ever get a clear pecking order, or at least win records that actually reflect a team’s capabilities? This is what keeps the middle of a season, what could normally be the doldrums of garbage time games, fun and interesting.
Unlike the West, the Eastern Conference projects to have a reasonable level of stability with who is in the top 8 seeds going into the playoffs, and while individual seeds may shift a bit, there’s little reason to believe that the 8 teams currently in can’t stay there. In the West, the 1 seed and 9th seed are only 4 wins apart, albeit with differing game totals, so there is plenty more opportunity for moving and shaking: being in or out could be decided by a few 4 game win streaks in February and March. Likewise, being the 3 seed vs being the 8th seed might come down to a single game. The order of the East is not nearly so fragile and has way fewer asterisks. So with this current group of 8, what does the Eastern Conference have in store for the post-season?
While I will look at the playoff picture with these 8 teams, I will change the seeding just a bit. This is partially due to certain seeding placements currently being very subject to how many games have been played, and teams that have better outlook going forward (i.e. Indiana getting Oladipo back). With that said, this is the playoff bracket I would expect, using the 8 teams currently qualifying:
1 Toronto Raptors vs. 8 Orlando Magic 4 Boston Celtics vs. 5 Indiana Pacers 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6 Detroit Pistons 2 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 7 Charlotte Hornets
Going match by match, here are some expectations:
Raptors/Magic: Not much to say here, most likely a sweep as the defensive prowess and overall depth of the Raptors would be very difficult to overcome for the extremely inexperienced Magic, even for a single game. Raptors win 4-0.
Celtics/Pacers: The C’s are a team that got moved from their current seeding, as despite their slow start they are perfectly capable of figuring it out, and possibly making some trade-deadline moves. The Pacers should also improve as they’ve been coasting without star guard Victor Oladipo. The 4/5 match-up is logically going to be the closest, and it will be on Indiana role players like Darren Collison, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner to make their value known in order to contend in a 7 game series against a deep but somewhat vulnerable Celtics. In this simulation, the Celtics have home-court advantage as well, adding another burden to Indiana’s load: winning a game in the Garden. I see a Celtics win 4-3, however this could easily be an upset, and is probably the most likely candidate for one of the first 4 sets.
Sixers/Pistons: Embiid might have a chance to cash in on his real estate in opposing big men’s heads again in round 1, as the current trends would have the Sixers playing Andre Bumm-I mean, Andre Drummond’s Pistons. Like Hassan Whiteside before him, Drummond will probably get exposed just a little bit, which will put so much more of a burden on Blake Griffin to keep his all-star level play up in a playoff series. Likewise, the moves the Sixers are likely to make before the post-season will only make the matchup harder on Detroit, as they lack any capable shooting outside of Griffin and some streaky guards like Ish Smith. I think the Pistons take one at home, Sixers win 4-1, although this could easily be a sweep as well with the lack of playoff experience some of the role players have, and how problematic the team vs. team match-up can be.
Bucks/Hornets: Similarly to the previous matchup, the Hornets simply do not have enough surrounding Kemba Walker to make this an appealing set. He could go for 60 each of 4 games, and it wouldn’t matter because the Bucks have too many people capable of shooting 3-balls to cover, even if their numbers regress a little bit into the post-season. Oh, last I checked, the Bucks have that greek dude too. I’ve heard he’s okay. I think Bucks win 4-0, but the Hornets can steal one if Kemba detonates and freaking Brook Lopez has a bad shooting night, or something.
That about wraps up the first round, leaving the following sets in the Semis:
1 Raptors vs. Celtics (possibly Pacers) and the 2 Bucks vs. 3 Sixers, which I think is all but a lock to occur unless Boston breaches the top 3 seeds. So what would those sets look like?
Raptors vs. the 4/5: I think the Raptors win this one convincingly, as well. Toronto is hard as hell to play in, and unless you have LeBron you need that home-court advantage badly. Kawhi is the perfect player for modern basketball, as he locks down the perimeter and prevents any and all funny business from the arc. If Boston wins the first round, I could see a 7-game series as the Garden is extremely hostile and Brad Stevens is a chess-master in the post-season, who might just out-coach rookie HC Nick Nurse enough to win at home. If Indiana wins the first round, I see this as a sweep. Oladipo isn’t enough to overcome full-court defense that strong, and the depth Toronto has in the paint will likely prevent Turner and Sabonis from getting any real value. Raptors win 4-3 over the Celtics, or 4-0 over the Pacers.
Bucks/Sixers: This is, by far, the most difficult game for me to try and parse for a 7 game series. The Bucks are deep, and are playing the modern NBA like a fiddle to maximize Giannis Antetokounmpo, and blow out nearly every team they beat. Moreover, the Sixers as currently constructed are relying on inexperienced players like Shamet to keep the shooting up, or Mike Muscala who could get hunted on defense. The Sixers are likely to make a move before the trade deadline to bolster their bench, and that is what makes this a hard one. Additionally, the shooting that makes the Bucks so proficient as a regular season team is bound to regress, and at that point you’re relying on Brook Lopez to score against Embiid, or Khris Middleton to score at the arc against Jimmy Butler or Ben Simmons, two guys who can at least force some tough shots. Essentially, this would come down to who wins between a team with 1 crazy guy and 6 average guys, versus a team with 3 extremely talented guys but not quite to the level of Giannis, and 3 guys who can back them up. Does the trifecta of Simmons, Butler, and Embiid outweigh the gravity created by Giannis, or is the supporting cast not good enough to capitalize on the mismatches? Who knows, as so much could change come round 2 of the playoffs. Simmons is just getting hot for the first time all year in the past few weeks. Butler is doing well but still nestling into his role. Embiid is playing like an MVP but needs to stay healthy and not be too worn by April. Giannis is shooting plenty of 3’s to get his confidence up, but can he do that if the shot doesn’t solidify before the end of the season? What if any of the Bucks role players get hurt? There is so many questions both ways in this match-up, but I think that will make it all the more fun to watch.
Thank you all for sticking around through this slightly longer post. I’m going to cut it off there as being unable to decide what makes the match-up between the Process and the Deer makes it equally difficult to decipher their respective matches against Toronto, who might win either way. I do plan on doing something similar to this for the West soon, but I’ll definitely have to change the formula to account for the insanity going on in those standings.
The Sixers were always going to need a third guy around Simmons and Embiid. Not necessarily in the sense of a “Big 3,” but just 3 high level players who work well enough together on the court, yet are capable of producing when they aren’t all together. Markelle Fultz’s destiny with the Sixers was to either develop into that third guy, or to develop into a valuable trade piece in obtaining that third guy. We managed to secure our “guy” in Jimmy Butler in the most Process way imaginable, and we did so without involving Fultz in the deal. At the time that we drafted him, that would have sounded like a perfect outcome. We got our 3 guys, all without giving up the PG that they traded in order to draft first overall, although few could have imagined the reason Fultz ended up being left out of the deal, in that he’s simply not trade-able. However, with the state of his play being as it is, and the extreme lack of professionalism coming from Markelle’s people, it’s about time the Sixers move on. They no longer consider him a part of their long-term plans and have been shopping him on a trade market, which makes sense in all honesty. This core has a window, and it’s completely fair that the team doesn’t want to sit around with their thumb up their ass, wasting Jimmy Butler’s precious healthy prime years, waiting for this kid to get it together and attack his issues head on. With all of that said, here are some potential trades for pieces that fill out the roster in a way that gets them off Fultz and into the future of contending for titles.
For Kyle Korver: The case for Kyle Korver can be made in that he’s a veteran, he’s an all-time great shooter who can play off the ball. He has a favorable contract moving forward over Fultz, yet they’re close enough in salary that this trade could likely be made straight-up, if Cleveland is in. The glaring flaw in this deal is that Korver is a complete minus defensively. The one corollary I’d add is that the Sixers have enough players who are good 1-on-1 defenders that it could be feasible to play him and not sacrifice too much in that regard. It would certainly be a better trade for the regular season than the playoffs, as Korver’s defensive limitations are truly exposed in the post-season more than ever, and that brings questions to how valuable this trade really is in the Sixers’ championship aspirations.
For Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: The nice part of the KCP trade is that he is a much more fluid defender than some of the other available trades. He’s also a much less consistent shooter, which might defeat the whole purpose of bringing him on as the Sixers simply need a solid 3-ball shooter who isn’t a statue on defense (is that too much to ask?). KCP is on a pretty favorable deal at 1 year, $12 million as he becomes trade available on Dec. 15th of this year. He would have to be made a trade for later on, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world as he’s easily one of the more flexible options out there, and he can be resigned next year for maybe a more team-friendly deal then that’s great; if he doesn’t, there’s no hard commitment from a cap-space perspective.
For Trevor Ariza: The idea behind the Ariza trade is that he’s the perfect 3-and-D guy. He was an integral part of the Rockets’ system both offensively and defensively last year, and is the least concerning come playoff time. The downside of this trade is he is on a 1 year, $15 million contract in which he first becomes available in January, much later than the team likely wants to wait. He could also become a waiver signing later on, but if the team wants to secure him fast they could give up more salary balance like Bolden or Jackson, and possibly a scrap heap draft pick? Who knows. The timeline for Ariza makes the least sense since it’s very possible he could be signed without a trade, and since his trade restriction ends so much later than is ideal. He’s the best fit by far, though, as he’s a solid 35% 3 -pt shooter and 42% field goal shooter, on top of his strength as a system defender.
Unfortunately, as is usually the case for the Sixers, nothing is clear or ideal for trading Fultz. I, more than most possibly, am completely ready to put this drama and nonsense behind us even if it takes paying a small price to get off of him. The team just doesn’t need to hang around waiting for more developments in a story that’s gone 2 years with no significant movement, and continues to cause headaches for everyone involved.
Welcome all, to the second installment of my new Monday column The Other 29, in which I seek to examine some exciting match-ups in the upcoming week for the 29 non-Sixer NBA teams. I’m still experimenting with exactly how I’d like to format the column, but for the meantime I’m gonna keep going day by day, match-up by match-up. Without further ado, here is the week’s marquis games:
Celtics @ Pelicans, Monday 11/26: Both Boston and New Orleans enter this battle of conflicting styles with records of 10-10. For Boston, this is much more comfortable as .500 is still good for the playoffs for right now, but I digress. New Orleans is a steamrolling juggernaut with AD on the floor, but lack any semblance of an identity without him. Alternatively, the Celtics look like they lack an identity no matter who is on the floor for them, even when Kyrie Irving is playing well. It’s easy to assume that the point guard playing better would make the offense improve as a whole, but this has not been the case in Boston. They still sit at the bottom of the barrel at 25th in offensive efficiency and 23rd in PPG, and they just can’t seem to find their footing on that end of the ball. Defensively, they’ve still been a bastion, as Al Horford continues to anchor a switchable, efficient defense. With that said, Boston’s wins have come from dragging the game into the mud and trying to play a physical game while attempting to improvise on offense. New Orleans, however, has dealt with having to sit AD for health concerns off-and-on, leaving them with two potentially very different teams on a nightly basis, depending who they have in. As good as Nikola Mirotic has been offensively, the team struggles to mount a cohesive game-plan without AD, and the offense has suffered. This game will be a battle between one team who wants to throw for 140 and one team that wants to hold their opponent to 90. Mostly, this game matters in order to see the ways in which a win or loss shakes up the rankings, as the Pelicans need to climb the rankings and the Celtics are at risk of falling down.
Warriors @ Raptors, Thursday 11/29: This will be the first meetup of the Western Conference and Eastern Conference leaders and the respective favorites to make the Finals entering the season. Rumor has it that Steph Curry will be playing again after a brief absence due to injury, and the Raptors offense has looked much more optimized in recent games, with Kyle Lowry doing more to initiate plays and Kawhi Leonard being a threat for 25 or so every night. Additionally, Toronto’s bench and role players have stepped up; the Raptors look like far and away the deepest contending roster in this year’s NBA. It will be interesting to see how quick of an impact the return of the senior splash brother will have, as the point guard responsibilities have diminished Klay Thompson’s offensive efficiency and the team just looks like a panicked scramble without Steph to hold it all together.
Nuggets @ Trailblazers, Friday 11/30: Both Portland and Denver are two of the more deep rosters contending for high playoff seeds in the West, however they both also seem to struggle to maintain consistency. So much of the Nuggets’ offense relies on Nikola Jokic initiating plays and staying out of foul trouble, neither of which are very easy for a ball-dominant big man with defensive issues. Meanwhile, Portlands’ backcourt continues to look like one of the very best out there, I’d say truly only the Warriors have them convincingly beat in that regard. At the end of the day Denver continues to face a decision between strong offensive but weak defensive backcourts, or more stable but less efficient lineups on offense. No matter which pill they take, it will be interesting to see how CJ and Dame try to exploit either weakness, and the big-man battle between Nurk and Jokic will determine a lot as to which team mounts an offense easier.