Sink or Swim: Outlook After the All-Star Break

The All-Star break is kind of like that point in the semester where you sit there and say to yourself, “Okay, my grade sucks right now, but I still have X-amount-of-assignments and Y-number-of-weeks to get it up to a B.” For many teams, this is the last time they can really make adjustments to better position themselves in the post-season, and in some cases, make the post-season at all.

With that said, here are some extra credit homework assignments for teams with a little work to do in the final third or so of the season.

Philadelphia 76ers: Work out the Kinks

It’s not a difficult observation to see that the Sixers, for all of their raw talent, need to gel a little bit before attempting a post-season run. So what does this look like for Philly?

For starters, they need to figure out their lineups mid-way through games. Of course, all of the starters would be out in the beginning and sometimes ends of games, but figuring out how to balance scoring and defense in the middle of games would do wonders for Philly in terms of their ability to maintain a lead down the stretch (an area they struggle with, even against significantly worse teams). This was usually a by-product of their depth issues, but the trade deadline mitigated that in a big way, although it’s still a problem. But now that you have more functional pieces, it’s time for Brett Brown to put them together. He’s already gone offense/defense in crunch time with JJ Redick and guys like John Simmons or James Ennis, guys with a little more pep in their step.

One key aspect of Philly’s transformation throughout the season has been the slight increase in their usage of the pick and roll, despite using it significantly less than most teams even now. If Brown can find lineups to make pick and roll work, then he can throw a lot of different looks at the defense by integrating pick and roll into the fold of already lethal plays such as Embiid-Redick dribble handoffs, and Simmons drive and kick in transition.

While it is important for Philly to get a top 4 seed, it’s more important that they have all of this figured out come playoff time, and even so, they’re only a game or so back from the 3-seed and are currently tied in record with Boston at 4.

Los Angeles Lakers: Make the Playoffs

I mean, you all knew this was coming, right? This is moreso homework for Magic, Pelinka, and Luke Walton than it is for the roster itself, but still. If you sign the best player in the world in free agency, sacrifice nothing to make it happen, and miss the playoffs with him for the first time since his prime started? After all of the noise they made after that signing, in the most profitable market in the league? That sounds like a recipe to get any or all 3 of those guys out of a job.

LeBron’s groin injury couldn’t have been foreseen, but at the same time, the man is 34. He shouldn’t need to play 82 games for you to scrape the playoff bubble, and even then, probably get swept in the first by Golden State. His absence was certainly longer than originally expected, but if there was some semblance of competence in the personnel and coaching, they wouldn’t be so reliant upon Lonzo Ball of all people staying healthy. More importantly, the trade deadline was a PR disaster for the this team, as they completely alienated their entire team in full public view while getting played like a fiddle by a now-jobless Dell Demps. The point is, this team needs something to feel good about, and fast, or else this whole experiment could get really, really ugly.

Houston Rockets: Conserve James Harden

For the Houston Rockets with James Harden playing as he is right now, there is not a single team that they cannot beat on any given night. With that said, Houston has got to be more reserved with the minutes and offensive load Harden is bearing. What’s more important, a second MVP for Harden, or making it past the first round?

Doing this for as long as he has thus far, Harden’s level of play is not sustainable long term. If it was, he’d be the best offensive player of all time and would have more than one MVP by this point. One thing is for sure, however: Harden has a troubling history of disappearing at important moments in the playoffs. Mike D’Antoni himself has stated that he believes this to be a product of how cumbersome the regular season is for Harden, and this has been one for the record books. What truly did the Rockets in last year, when they were 2 quarters away from essentially winning a title, was Chris Paul getting hurt mid-series. You truly never know when Paul, in his 30s, may just need a game or two to recover. With that said, the Rockets are comfortably deep enough into the playoff race to have some wiggle room, and against many teams, Harden probably doesn’t need to go Super Saiyan for them to win games.

With that said, my advice to Houston is to do some load management with Harden. If he’s still got the juice come May, this team could easily make another Western Conference Finals run, if he is capable of elevating his level of play to even part of what we’ve seen out of him this year.

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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.

Life Post-Trade Deadline: So Far, So Good

In possibly the most explosive game since the trade deadline last Thursday, the new look Philadelphia 76ers absolutely imposed their will upon the Lakers (boy does that feel good to say). Despite Kyle Kuzma’s 39 points, the Sixers won 143-120.

The Lakers, who are often touted as a strong defensive team, gave up 34 points in the 4th Quarter, and 33 minimum for each quarter.

LeBron James looked like he’s still working his way back in after the longest absence in his career.

Life with Tobias Harris has gone great thus far, he posted 22 points including 3 3-balls and on 9-14 from the field.

Embiid was the man of the night, with 37 points, 14 rebounds, and a steal. He posted his career high in points last season against the Lakers. The Lakers situation is dire at best, as Javale McGee still plays well within his limited minutes, and Tyson Chandler is lacking offensively when he takes over for McGee. As such, it’s not surprising that Embiid was able to beast on this Lakers squad.

One underrated aspect of this game was how well the Sixers shared and moved the ball. Butler had a good game with 15 points, as well as doing some great on ball defense on players like Brandon Ingram, who it seemed to be easy for Butler to force into errors or poor shot selection. Ingram had 19 points but was a -8 on BP/M.

JJ Redick had 15 points on only 3 3-point makes, which was that absolutely insane and-1 shot from nearly behind the backboard in the corner.

Ben Simmons struggled tonight, which isn’t all that surprising: he seemed a little bit passive and unsure immediately after the Butler trade, but found his rhythm again just before the Harris trade. However, Simmons was operating on no shortage of aggression this time. He took his very first pull up 3-pointer, which was an unlucky rattle away from going in. He also took many more shots from outside of the paint, and was intent on hitting turn-around jumpers out of the post. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if Simmons looks a little uncertain in the near future, as this team clearly still has to figure out effective ways to share the ball with as many high-usage threats in their starting 5.

Simmons was a +6 on BP/M, despite having no double digits on the stat-line. He did, however, play some fantastic defense, including one impressive block down-low against LeBron James.

While wins over a strong Denver team and a LeBron led clown-fest feels good, the Sixers’ true test post-deadline comes Tuesday at home against Boston. They lost the first game of the season against Boston, and lost a close OT game against Boston Christmas Day, both of which were away. The Sixers are great at home, but Boston has historically been a bane for Philly. Although it’s important to note, this is not the same Philadelphia squad as was seen in either the first nor second meeting between the two. Boston is also in a shaky place culturally, after their crazy comeback lost to the Sixers-er, I mean the Clippers’ own Landry Shamet. Man, that will never stop hurting to say.

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.