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 Before I do that, however, here is the original (and now outdated) thread detailing the situation LeBron and the Lakers find themselves in: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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How Do the New Sixers Affect Philly’s Celtics Problems?

I’ve always rationalized last year’s embarrassing 2nd round loss to the Celtics as the product of rookie mistakes, and had a few key things happened differently it could have been a victory if not at least a competitive series.

And I still believe that, to be extremely frank with you. I think that series really was a turnover, a Belinelli foot being an inch further back, and a Covington 3 or so from being a win. But with all of that said, the Celtics are still, despite all of their drama and struggles, one of the most difficult matchups for the Sixers in the league (result of tonight’s game notwithstanding). It’s not an uncommon take to say that the Sixers would probably be better off against Milwaukee than Boston in a 7-game series.

First things first, though. Let’s talk about why this is. One thing that is clear from this year so far is that the Sixers tend to struggle against teams with guard depth. Brooklyn is a perfect example of this. D’Angelo Russell looks like Steph Curry against them. Spencer Dinwiddie looks like he’s ready for a starting job. Why is this?

I think the Sixers’ guard problems can be traced back to the fact that Simmons is not a traditional point guard (obviously). For as strong and switchable as he is, certain smaller guards, particularly those with good handles and mobility, can give him trouble. Specifically, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, and players in that vein. I have a feeling Iverson would destroy Simmons. This isn’t counter-intuitive, either: it’s easier to move a 6’1 body than a 6’10 body.

So in that regard, the Sixers are already starting defense mismatched, which leaves some question marks for the rest of the squad. Is Butler better suited for small guards? Is Simmons capable of hanging with true small forwards in Butler’s absence? All of this uncertainty arises from the mismatch created by particularly crafty and slippery guards.

But that isn’t all that works in Boston’s favor over Philly. Big men who can play the perimeter more and drag Embiid out from under the hoop also present a defensive problem. Bigs who can shoot, specifically like Horford, Baynes, and others like Aldridge, weaken Embiid’s incredible ability to protect the rim and abuse his physicality. This displacement of Embiid makes life easier for those small guards, as well, providing them more room to drive and collapse the defense on to them.

So, teams with bigs who can shoot and small, handl-y guards give them trouble historically. But how do the recent acquisitions impact that? For starters, Tobias Harris is a more athletic player than Wilson Chandler, so he’s an upgrade defensively purely from a physical standpoint. However, his pure 3-point shot makes the offense lethal, as you simply account for both Redick and Harris while properly handling Embiid or Simmons down-low. Butler, of course, can kind of play anywhere in between, as well, with great post skills and a respectable jumper.

Underrated, however, is the impact that the new role men in the rotation impact their matchup favor-ability. In last year’s playoffs, the Sixers simply had too many guys who could only hang on one end of the floor. Belinelli could shoot the lights out, but he makes Redick look like a lock-down defender. Covington could handle anyone at the perimeter on D, but went ice-cold from 3. Players were too easy to circumvent on any one side of the court.

However, the new Sixers, such as James Ennis, Mike Scott, and John Simmons, all have the basics covered on both ends of the floor. Simmons has shot poorly as of late, but he at least has that in his arsenal. Scott and Ennis both play hard and physical, and make you work to get your shot off from the arc. Harris is no different, mind you. He is a passable defender and a pivotal offensive piece.

Tonight’s game was an interesting case study into this idea. For one thing, Harris went 0-6 for 3. That’s…not good. But obviously, things like that are in part due to chance. Embiid had two 3-pointers rattle around inside and bounce out. Things like that just suck when the team was already struggling offensively.

Some of the teams’ struggles were Boston’s defense, like how Horford gets away with murder against Embiid. But some things, like Korkmaz and Harris missing open looks, and Redick having an off night, are just shit luck.

I’m not going to try and justify this outcome as frustrated as I am by another loss to Boston on the season, but man would this have felt good. How Sixers-y is it that Harris goes cold the one night we really need him not to? Or, among other things, the refs blowing calls and Butler missing 2 free throws late in the game? All of these things aside, I think the matchup was about as we expected. Players like Horford and Morris drew the front-court away from the rim, and Al Horford is just more mobile than Embiid. And he’s certainly more mobile than Boban.

The likelihood of the Sixers and Celtics meeting in the postseason is low, save for the Eastern Conference Finals, or, if Indiana keeps playing well, in the first round. Neither of which are likely, as the odds that the Pacers outplace both the Sixers and Celtics are pretty low, despite having a one game advantage right now. And moreover, I think the Raptors or Bucks would beat the Celtics in round 2, as Boston struggles on the road and neither have answers for Milwaukee’s system or the Raptors size and strength. So, for the sake of my heart health, it’s probably good that the two won’t meet up.

Ghosts of Process Present

You may remember that about a month ago I wrote a piece titled The Ghosts of Process Past that highlighted the biggest mistakes throughout the history of the Sixers’ Process. Now, you may also remember that I mentioned it was the first article of a three part mini-series, and while it has taken much longer than I wished for me to get around to it, I present to you part two: The Ghosts of Process Present.

Now much like Ghosts of Process Past, I am going to avoid talking in retrospect as much as possible. What I mean by this is I am not going to be talking about why the Sixers can’t win a championship this year. With the way the league is currently constructed, it is incredibly difficult for really the 28 other teams outside of the Warriors and the new look Raptors to contend for a title this year when they are healthy. Will the journey to the Championship series be exciting? Probably, just as we saw last year’s Western and Eastern Conference Championship series each go to 7 games. But really, the Warriors and Cavaliers were both chalked up to compete in their fourth straight title series since before the season even started.

Rather, my desire is to discuss the biggest issues with how the Sixers are currently built, why these problems are taking away from them truly reaching their potential, and how it may affect them in the years to come. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 Ghosts of Process Present:

5. The Markelle Fultz Mystery

It should come to no basketball fan’s surprise that Markelle Fultz found his way onto this list. What may be a bit surprising is why I have it so low, so hear me out. Markelle Fultz’ rookie year was incredibly disappointing, and it makes it even more so because Bryan Colangelo traded up to select him with the first overall pick. With uncertainty surrounding him and the team concerning whether it was an injury or a mental issue, there have been questions circling whether or not Fultz will ever be the same since the first time he suited up for a preseason game. But the fact is the Sixers were a 52 win team without him. Sure, the Washington Markelle Fultz could have easily been the piece that turned a good team into a great team, but with the new addition of Jimmy Butler, Fultz does not need to be the guy to fill that role anymore. With all of this in mind, its fair to consider the Fultz issue as more of a “non-positive” rather than a negative.

However, there was a lot of anticipation that Fultz could have very well been ready to return in full form this year after working all summer with shot doctor Drew Hanlen. But as we all saw, Fultz clearly was not at 100% and his improved shot and mentality quickly deteriorated as the season went on. With Fultz currently out rehabbing what was officially declared as thoracic outlet syndrome, there is hope again that Fultz can come back ready to play like he did as a collegiate athlete, but it was also recently reported that Fultz may not be able to return this year at all.

Even if he never becomes the player he was supposed to be, he could very well play an important role off the bench as the team’s future sixth man if he is able to find any sort of footing in the NBA. With all of this to consider, it puts the Sixers in a very difficult situation: should they trade him or keep him? The benifits of trading him is freeing up $10 million in cap space they can use to strengthen their depth next offseason. But if they trade him for a pile of second rounders and an aging vet (which, lets be honest, is all they can get for him right now) and Fultz turns around his career, it could haunt the Sixers for upwards of a decade. It remains to be seen how the situation will turn out, but it will be incredibly interesting to see what happens.

4. Spacing

It has been about a month and a half since the Sixers traded Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and some change in return for All-Star Jimmy Butler. Since then, the Sixers are 13-4 in games Butler has played since making his debut in a Sixer’s uniform (0-2 when he sits). So there is no doubt that the trade has made the Sixers a much better basketball team. However, as much as Butler helps the Sixers, there has been one noticeable drawback from the trade: three point shooting.

Now, when you look at the team stats from three point range, there is not a glaring difference from before and after the trade. The Sixers struggled collectively from three early this season but last year they shot 29.8 3PA on 36.9% per game (29.8 3PA on 37.9% per game after the start of the New Year when the Sixers really started rolling). Since the trade, the team has been shooting 30.4 threes per game at 36.9%. While the team’s three point production has not exactly changed, it is hard to ignore trading away two of the team’s three best three point shooters for a guy who makes a living in the mid-range like Butler. Butler is currently shooting a career high 38.8% from three, but it remains to be seen if he can keep this pace up as he has only played 27 games this year. With Embiid not exactly a prolific three point shooter and Ben Simmons yet to attempt a legitamate three in his career, the Sixers lack of premier perimeter shooting could very well be exposed futher down the road like in last year’s playoff series against the Celtics.

3. The Phantom of the Process

While yes, this heading is an ode to Embiid’s self imposed nickname from last year’s playoff run, I do not mean this in a good way. Just like a phantom, or a ghost, can disappear into thin air, so can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons against the better teams in the league. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s take a look at the Sixer’s performance against the Celtics and the Raptors, the Sixers’ two biggest obstacles in the Eastern Conference, over the last two seasons. In the regular season alone, the Sixers are a combined 3-9 against these two teams (1-4 against Boston and 2-5 against Toronto). The Sixers might have won big the other night against Toronto, but the Raptors were without three of their best players in Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valencuinas. And then of course we all remember losing to the Celtics in 5 games in last years playoffs: a series in which the Celtics were without their two best players and a game where Ben Simmons could only manage one singular point.

On top of all that, with the Sixers recent win against a depleted Raptors team, they improved to a mere 4-7 against teams with a winning record this year and face 16 more teams with a +.500 winning percentage through February 12th. It will undoubtedly be the biggest challenge of the season for the team, and will show us truly what this team is all about.

Nevertheless, the Sixers are still a young team learning to grow with eachother, and I have faith they will get this issue sorted out, especially with the talent they have at the top of their roster.

2. Brett Brown Being Just… Ok

While the “Fire Brett Brown” crowd has not been as loud this year, they still exist, and they have a tad bit of a valid argument. Before I get into it, I just want to preface this by saying Brett Brown is not a bad coach, by any means. But that being said, he is not a great coach either. Now, I love Brett Brown. He has been here since the beginning of the Process and deserves every chance in the world to be able to win a title with this team. He is an excellent X’s and O’s guy, as he’s been able to develop very effective offensive and defensive systems. The Sixers were even one of the best defensive teams in the league in the middle of the Process Era led by a rookie Nerlens Noel. On top of that, the organization loves him and his players believe in him.

However, in the heat of the game, Brown is prone to some questionable rotations and even more questionable time management. Time in and time out, he fails to stop the clock, give his guys a rest, and draw up a play to get the team rolling when they are on the wrong end of long scoring runs. I would not place him in my top 10 coaches in the league and I’m not convinced he is in the top half either. With a young, inexperienced team, it is incredibly important for the team to have a coach that can guide them through close games and the playoff grind, and judging by the collapse against the Celtics in last years playoffs and their inexplicable habit of losing 20 point leads in the 4th quarter, I am not convinced Brown is that guy.

My stance? The Sixers should not fire Brett Brown, yet. While the Sixers could do a whole lot worse at the Head Coach position, I don’t think they could do a whole lot better at the moment, as there are not exactly any desireable coaches available on the market. Brett Brown is still figuring things out just like his players, so only time will tell if good ole BB can coach his guys to a long playoff run.

1. The Bench

Any Sixers fan who’s watched their fair share of games this year knows that the Sixers’ depth, or lack there of, has been a major issue. This also ties in with Markelle Fultz’ disappearing jumpshot, as his ability to create shots off the dribble is exactly what the Sixers need off the pine. Currently, the Sixers rotation includes TJ McConnell, Furkan Korkmaz, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, and more recently Jonah Bolden. Shake Melton, Demetrius Jackson, and Amir Johnson round out the reserves. While most of these players are solid rotational guys and could very well earn minutes on a majority of teams around the league, there are two glaring holes in the rotation: shot creating and rim protection.

As far as the guards go, Shamet and McConnell are the first two guys off the bench. Shake Melton and Demetrius Jackson have been getting more looks as of late, but their youth and inexperience show when they find themselves on the hardwood. Shamet has been one of the most surprising rookies in the league, going head to head with Luka Doncic for the rookie leader in three pointers made. McConnell has been a fan favorite for years with his gritty defense and incredible moments over the years, like his game winner against the Knicks two seasons ago.

But both of them come with significant draw backs. McConnell is not exactly an offensive force. He is a game manager that is great in his role, but he cannot be called upon to come off the bench and give the team a bucket. Additionally, after posting a career high in three point efficiency last season, he has taken a significant step back in that department. Shamet on the other hand is used as essentially JJ Redick lite, which is perfect on the offensive side of the ball. However, much like JJ, Shamet struggles on the defensive side, especially against more athletic players.

Furkan Korkmaz is currently the only wing coming off the bench for the Sixers, and he poses the same advantages and disadvantages as Shamet. However, he has proven that he could earn an important role off the bench come playoff time, as he has been playing more than Shamet lately.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the backups to All-Star Center Joel Embiid. Jonah Bolden, Mike Muscala, and Amir Johnson are not bad players, but none of them can effectively guard the rack. Bolden has shown some defensive upside, but much like Amir, he just does not have the athleticism to keep the other team outside of the paint. While Muscala plays an excellent stretch role at the five and four, he is a giant hole on the defensive end.

The season is far from over, and the Sixers’ roster is far from complete. I expect them to address this issue with a trade and free agency after the Buy Out Deadline, but as of now the Sixers’ bench greatly hinders the team from reaching their fullest.

Well, there you have it: The Ghosts of Process Present. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Keep an eye out for the final edition of this three part docu-series: The Ghosts of Process Future.

The Playoff Picture: Who’s in and what does that mean? (Eastern Conference)

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.