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The Los Angeles Lakers always like to kick the offseason off with a bang, for better or worse. It wasn’t too long ago when midnight stuck on July 1st only for the Lakers to reach quick agreements with Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Last winter, the first domino to drop was the Lakers making the move to acquire Dennis Schröder from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Danny Green and the 28th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft (which eventually became Jaden McDaniels of the Minnesota Timberwolves). General Manager doubled down once the marriage with Schröder began to go downhill, trading for former MVP Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards in a package that includes Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and the 22nd pick of the 2021 NBA Draft (which eventually became Isaiah Jackson who is heading to the Indiana Pacers). It isn’t a perfect marriage between Westbrook and the two superstars the Lakers currently employ in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But the move was one worth making to get the best out of the 28-year-old Davis, which is what the goal of this offseason seems to have been.

Let’s start with Russell Westbrook. The fit with him next to James is where his deficiencies as a shooter and off-ball cutter will come to a head at some point this season and likely fester throughout the entirety of it. Westbrook is literally one of the worst three-point shooters in NBA history when accounting for volume. He’s a career 30.5% three-point shooter and hasn’t shot less than three a game since the 2010-11 season. To make matters worse, Westbrook is nothing as a mover, screener, or cutter either. Once Westbrook gives up the ball he typically chills out and watches the play go on. When you aren’t a good shooter, not moving makes it so much easier for the defense to ‘guard’ him and neutralize possessions when his team has the ball. Heck, if anyone knows about those holes in Westbrook’s one would be the Lakers who actively went out of their way not to guard him when they faced the Rockets in the bubble in 2020.

But if there’s anything Westbrook provides, he allows the Lakers to preserve their identity as a transition behemoth and unleash Anthony Davis as a roller when LeBron is not on the floor. The Lakers hoped to get something resembling that from Schröder. We saw it in glimpses, but he is nowhere near the playmaker Westbrook is. Davis is athletic a big man the NBA has to offer and often loves to leak out in transition when he forces a miss on the perimeter. When the opposing team shoots free throws, Davis almost always camps out on the other end of the floor in hopes to get a quick mismatch. Rajon Rondo sought those transition oop opportunities any time he could when he was a Laker, while Schröder typically tried to do it himself and missed some of these chances. Not only can Westbrook do a little bit of both, but he will also bring zip and playmaking in the halfcourt that neither of those two could. According to the B-Ball Index via Alex Regla of Silver Screen and Roll, Westbrook ranked in the 99th percentile at ‘getting to the rim,’ ‘box creation,’ and ‘high-value assists.’ Essentially, Westbrook is still really damn good at getting to the rim and feeding bigs with dump-offs or kicking out to shooters. If Westbrook can Daniel Gafford is getting these types of looks, then imagine what he can do with Anthony Davis.

Getting an upgrade from Dennis Schröder to Russell Westbrook as a second playmaker is one way to maximize Davis, but another is to get more shooting around him. I love the holdovers from the 2020 Championship team and appreciate all their contributions over the years, but they often left hands holding their breath with the hope their open threes would go in. They made up for it and more with great effort and tenacity on defense (more on that in a bit), but the shooting was inconsistent, to put it nicely. The Dwight Howard signing aside, amongst the Lakers free agent signings of Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn, only one of those new Lakers additions have made so far shot worse than 38% a year ago and only two hit threes at worse than a 40% clip. All the additions are far better shooters on catch-and-shoot and wide-open threes than the discarded Lakers of a year ago. Davis should feast with more room to operate. Perhaps he could even be used differently; maybe he gets more chances to operate out of dribble handoffs that can lead to him either keeping the rock himself & driving into open space or dishing to teammates. Davis is not a great passer out of the post but certainly a good one. On top of it all, he’s a total mismatch with the list of players actually capable of guarding him 1v1 is about as many as the number of fingers on a human body. Better playmaking and more space to facilitate that playmaking should make life all the easier for Davis to dominate the paint.

The last two seasons of Lakers basketball may have been frustrating when it comes to perimeter shooting, but they hung their hat on defense. Despite the fact that LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two of the best defenders in the NBA, missed a boatload of time to injuries last season, the Lakers still finished with the best defense in the NBA. It was their identity. Alex Caruso (now depressingly a member of the Chicago Bulls) is legitimately one of the best defensive guards in the NBA and the Lakers will miss his help and feel on that end of the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggled against bruising wings but was very good at chasing around guards off screens. Kyle Kuzma transformed his reputation from scoring chucker to a guy that could hang with some of the best scoring wings the NBA has to offer. No one is going to mistake the Lakers’ new additions with the quality of defender those guys, but the Lakers should still be fine on that end of the floor as long as Davis and James are on the floor and Davis plays more at the center spot. Both Jovan Buha of The Athletic and Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times has reported that Davis will play more at center this season. Signing Dwight Howard is a fine depth move, but he was mitigated to the bench during the Lakers’ title run in 2020 save for banging with Nikola Jokic. He and the incumbent Marc Gasol are the only centers on the Lakers’ roster so far. Even if Davis didn’t want to play center, he has to play more of it this season, and the Lakers typically dominate and modernize when he does. I still don’t suspect he will play center exclusively with Gasol still on the roster, but it should be more than what we’ve seen from him so far. We’ve seen centers be able to anchor a mediocre cast of defenders surrounding them to remain amongst the top of the NBA, and Davis is right up there with the best of them. The Lakers’ defense kind of hinges on Davis’ dominance, but he’s shown he’s up to the task.

The Lakers trade for Westbrook was a gamble, but after the dust has settled on the moves that surrounded that big trade, it looks like the risk was worth it. With the overhaul of playmaking and shooting, life should come much easier for Anthony Davis offensively. It shouldn’t be overlooked any time a team attempts to go all-in for their star(s) and brings in someone that can help them on the basketball floor, and that’s what the Lakers have done. For the first time since Davis arrived in Los Angeles though, the Lakers have questions defensively. Davis can answer a lot of them himself, however. This season we could be the best version of Anthony Davis we have seen yet, and he’s already been damn good. We’ll see if that holds up to be true.

The 2020-21 NBA season has finally reached its conclusion. An exciting start, followed by a tumultuous and injury-riddled middle was then proceeded by a thrilling and exhilarating finish with the addition of the play-in format making every possible playoff seed worth more than it was in normal NBA seasons. With the playoffs underway, every year there are players who step up and help their teams reach the levels they ultimately want to achieve; an NBA championship. Unfortunately, only one team can win that, but that won’t stop the others from trying, so we’re going to run through some players throughout the week who will be of note in determining how these playoffs go down. This is now the fourth part of our miniseries, with this one sizing up Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers. 

We’ve been down this road with Ben Simmons before. In the more open regular season style game, Simmons rampages down the floor in transition and creates just as many drive-and-kick opportunities as anybody in the league like a baby version of LeBron James, but finds himself cluttering up the lane for his All-Star running mate Joel Embiid. Except, we didn’t last year, because Simmons got injured during the bubble and missed the entirety of Philadelphia’s sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics. Simmons is back, but not much else has changed about his game. We know Simmons is still a defensive player of the year candidate, is one of the greatest creators for others in the game, but still doesn’t shoot. There’s a reason why just two years ago, Jared Dudley (then playing for the Brooklyn Nets before they got their big 3) said that Simmons was ‘kind of average’ in the halfcourt of basketball games, which coincidentally is what the majority of playoff basketball is. Can he rectify it this time around?

If you’re a Ben Simmons and Philadelphia 76er optimist, you’d point to the cast around Simmons and Embiid. When those two burst onto the scene, they were surrounded with top-notch shooting in the form of JJ Redick and Robert Covington, amongst others. Their starting lineup was no joke, racking up a Net Rating of +20.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Though their starting lineup went through different players and iterations through the years, they remained a great offensive team despite the lack of shooting and traditional perimeter playmaking… that is until last season. After a series of puzzling roster moves that included basically trading Jimmy Butler for Al Horford and Josh Richardson, Philly’s starting lineup Net Rating from a year ago was still a solid +8.4, but their offensive rating was a lagging 105.4, a far cry from the team that put the Sixers back on the map from years prior. Newly-hired GM Daryl Morey rectified that this winter after he acquired Seth Curry from the Dallas Mavericks for Josh Richardson, flipped Al Horford and a pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Danny Green, and acquiring George Hill at the trade deadline from the same Thunder squad. And shockingly, the Net Rating skyrocketed as a result. This season, the lineup of Curry-Green-Tobias Harris-Simmons-Embiid has a Net Rating of +14 and a blistering offensive rating of 117.7. Weird, shooting matters at a time when NBA teams want to exploit the three-ball as much as possible.

This has helped ease the concern regarding the Ben Simmons – Joel Embiid pairing despite the overlapping skillset between the two. A year ago with less space to work with than Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca in the Death Star’s garbage shoot, the effectiveness of the Simmons-Embiid duo cratered. When the two shared the floor a year ago, the Sixers’ Net Rating sat at just +0.6. The two years before that when Philly had more shooting and playmaking surrounding them? The Sixers’ Net Rating with those two on the floor sat at +15.5 (2016-17) and +7.6 (2017-18), respectively. This season, that same Net Rating is back up to +15.5, so Philly’s shooting has definitely buoyed the performance and effectiveness of their two stars.

What also has helped is that the Sixers have not needed to rely upon Simmons much at all for their halfcourt offense. Sure, we know Joel Embiid is a monster and dominant force on the block, but Tobias Harris’ continued improvement this season has been key for this Sixers’ team. Harris has dropped in nearly 20 points a game on almost 50/40/90 (51.2/39.4/89.2) shooting splits on the season. He’s also dropped a career-high 3.5 dimes per game this season. Most notably though, Harris has just looked more comfortable and aggressive this season. When Harris has gotten a smaller defender matched onto him (not uncommon with the presence of Seth Curry and Danny Green setting screens for him), Harris has looked much more decisive and confident going to work against them. This is a good example against a team they may match up against in the playoffs: the Brooklyn Nets. Harris seeks a screen from teammate Furkan Korkmaz to go against the smaller Joe Harris. Once he gets the switch, Tobias goes right after Joe, gets in the lane, and hits a nice running hook shot over Joe. Tobias Harris has generated 1.08 points per possession in isolation-type plays this season, according to Synergy data via NBA.com, placing Harris in the 87th percentile. That’s a big number. Embiid is going to get his. He’s also going to get double and tripled teamed aplenty. It’s harder for big men to be the primary weapon of your offense in today’s NBA, though certainly possible. Someone else is going to need to get weapons to not only help Philly close games but keep them afloat if Embiid isn’t scoring. Harris has stepped up to be that guy this season.

So if Embiid is dominating, Harris is scoring, Green and Curry are shooting, then Ben Simmons should be ok, right? Well, not exactly. Simmons’ confidence in his offensive game has fluctuated at points during this season. One stretch, he’ll bulldoze through everybody like it’s nothing. Another stretch, he fails to take advantage of mismatches such as this against Duncan Robinson. No one would mistake Ben Simmons for Hawkeye when it comes to shooting, but he has to continue putting pressure on defenses as a driver, even if it means going to the free-throw line. Simmons is a career 59.7% free-throw shooter, and only a 61.3% shooter this season. Yet despite that, Simmons himself is too an efficient isolation player (at least in the regular season), ranking in the 76th percentile in isolation points per possession. He also generates 0.96 points per possession when posting up, putting Simmons in the 54th percentile. That’s okay… It shows Simmons is equipped enough that he should be able to take advantage of mismatches (a nifty tool to have in the postseason) but doesn’t always do so. Simmons is capable of being better in that department, and Philly will need him to do so.

Most importantly though, Ben Simmons can get in the way of his MVP candidate teammate Joel Embiid. It showed up big-time against the Miami Heat about a week ago. Knowing Simmons isn’t much of a shooter, the Heat went to a zone against the Sixers. It flustered them immensely. Embiid was at the three-point line more often than the block where he dominates. This play right here is a good example of this. Though Miami is not in a zone, Embiid is still camped out at the three-point line. He only gets the ball after a Simmons dribble-handoff goes nowhere, only to be doubled by Simmons’ man with the possession resulting in a turnover. Simmons (at times! Not always!) can make life more difficult for his MVP candidate Embiid. It should be the other way around. If that continues in the playoffs, new Head Coach Doc Rivers has some tough decisions to make, or Philadelphia’s playoff turmoil will repeat itself yet again. The questions surrounding the Sixers’ two All-Stars will only get louder and louder regarding a potential change. And if change were to come, they sure as hell wouldn’t move Joel Embiid out of town (I think. Nothing is ever impossible in the NBA, including stupidity ruling the day.).

Ben Simmons is a great player. He’s arguably the best defender we have in the NBA. No cap. But his reluctance to shoot has definitely impacted the Philadelphia 76ers’ chances of competing in the postseason. Simmons now has a golden chance to prove his detractors wrong and that the Sixers can win a championship despite him not shooting jumpers. It feels like he is amongst the players with the most to prove in this postseason. Let’s see how he responds.