For the third time in 373 days, we will have an NBA season to watch. Seems crazy, but thus the world that we live in. A new NBA season is here, with plenty of predictions and takes to follow. Every year I put out who I think will make the playoffs and win awards at the end of the season. This year, I’ll be doing so in addition to picking over/under lines for each team. We’ll get to revisit this at the end of the season to see how wrong I ultimately will be, but for now, let’s have some fun. Happy new NBA season everyone!
NBA 2021-22 Over/Under Predictions:
Atlanta Hawks (46.5): Over
Brooklyn Nets (56.5): Over
Boston Celtics (45.5): Over
Charlotte Hornets (38.5): Over
Chicago Bulls (42.5): Under
Cleveland Cavaliers (26.5): Over
Dallas Mavericks (48.5): Under
Denver Nuggets (47.5): Under
Detroit Pistons (24.5): Under
Golden State Warriors (48.5): Under
Houston Rockets (27.5): Under
Indiana Pacers (42.5): Under
Los Angeles Clippers (42.5): Under
Los Angeles Lakers (51.5): Over
Memphis Grizzlies (41.5): Over
Miami Heat (48.5): Under
Minnesota Timberwolves (34.5): Over
New Orleans Pelicans (39.5): Under
New York Knicks (41.5): Over
Oklahoma City Thunder (24.5): Under
Orlando Magic (23.5): Under
Philadelphia 76ers (50.5): Under
Phoenix Suns (51.5): Over
Portland Trail Blazers (44.5): Under
San Antonio Spurs (28.5): Under
Sacramento Kings (36.5): Under
Toronto Raptors (35.5): Over
Utah Jazz (51.5): Over
Washington Wizards (33.5): Over
NBA 2021-22 Playoff Picks
1) Brooklyn Nets
2) Milwaukee Bucks
3) Atlanta Hawks
4) Boston Celtics
5) Miami Heat
6) New York Knicks
7) Philadelphia 76ers
8) Charlotte Hornets
9) Chicago Bulls
10) Toronto Raptors
1) Utah Jazz
2) Los Angeles Lakers
3) Phoenix Suns
4) Denver Nuggets
5) Golden State Warriors
6) Dallas Mavericks
7) Memphis Grizzlies
8) Los Angeles Clippers
9) Portland Trail Blazers
10) Minnesota Timberwolves
Finals: Brooklyn Nets vs Los Angeles Lakers: Nets 4-2
No one should be surprised that it was possible for teams led by Devin Booker and Trae Young could make the NBA Finals and Eastern Conference Finals one day, respectively. I don’t think many expected that to happen this previous season, however. But damn it, it did. After years of losing and struggling, brilliant draft maneuvering, sturdy head coaching hires, and slick moves to bring in established veterans to help lead the way, Suns GM James Jones and Hawks GM Travis Schlenk deserve tons of credit for building championship-competitive rosters that fit and maximize the strengths of their superstars. Though it is super hard for even grizzled star-studded teams to advance as far as these two teams did, let alone a team led by young studs, perhaps these two inspired others across the league to follow a similar path. Who could be the next Suns or Hawks?
A team that comes to mind is the New Orleans Pelicans. They already have two players that have been named to All-Star games in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, tantalizing other young pieces surrounding them in Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart (should they be retained in restricted free agency), the rambunctious Nickeil Alexander-Walker (who played a brief stint with the Canadian National Team in their quest to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics), the speedy rookie Kira Lewis Jr., and the bouncy Jaxson Hayes. They have a treasure trove of picks too after they dealt Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to Finals teams in successive seasons (ten first-round pics in the next seven drafts, to be exact). The Pelicans have the start of something special, but they need to clean up some aspects of their team first to get where they want to go eventually.
Let’s start on the basketball side of things, they have to address their shooting woes. The Pelicans’ three-point shooting during the 2020-21 season was reminiscent of a stormtrooper. After they finished 26th in the entire league in three-point percentage. Advanced numbers don’t do the Pelicans many favors. The site bball-index.com tracks how great spacing a player is surrounded by. According to their data, neither Brandon Ingram nor Zion Williamson cracked above the 41st percentile for spacing around them. Just watch this play and see how many defenders are packed in the paint when New Orleans is trying to get their offense going. Luckily, Brandon Ingram is a supreme shot-maker and bailed the Pelicans out of this wretched possession, but these types of possessions were far too common and a nightly routine when Zion and Ingram were mostly surrounded by two complete non-shooting entities in Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams. Despite this, Zion Williamson somehow managed to average 27 points a night while shooting 61% from the field and feasting at the rim, while Brandon Ingram put up a robust 46.6/38.1/87.8 shooting split on the season. The Pelicans’ priority has to be finding more shooting to make life easier on these two stars. It is wholly on the Pelicans’ Front Office (more on them in a bit) to get the shooting required for Zion and Ingram. It was neglected the last offseason and cannot be again.
Defense ailed the Pelicans for much of the 2020-21 season too. New, now former, head coach Stan Van Gundy noted the previous trends of top defenses canceling the paint in exchange for opposing teams to unleash from three at will, and decided to implement that strategy. Let’s just say it took some time for his new young players to get used to. Last season, the Pelicans allowed the fourth most amount of possessions by their opponents to conclude with a three-point shot, according to NBA.com. Those Pelicans opponents shot 38% on those threes, tied for the fifth-best (or worst, whichever way you want to look at it) mark in the league. Oftentimes, it felt like the Pelicans were either overdoing it with their strategy or were too young to properly execute it the way more experienced teams did by leaving certain shooters open and running off the more dangerous ones. Plenty of New Orleans defensive possessions ended like this:
There were more defensive issues aside from their overall structure. Their stars just have to be better, plain and simple. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are capable of being very good defensive players, at least I think so. Zion looked every bit the part of a modern-day small-ball center at Duke, using his freakish athleticism to protect the rim while also staying in front of his man. We’ve seen glimpses of it in the NBA, but it has been far too fleeting. More times than not, unfortunately, possessions with Zion at center have tended to look like this. Oftentimes, he looks as if his feet are in quicksand, or he doesn’t put himself in the right positions to make the correct plays. Williamson only played 86 minutes all season long playing without another big man, according to NBA.com. He just wasn’t ready yet for that type of role. To be fair to Zion too, he played in a zone defense a lot while at Duke, hasn’t had a ton of top-notch coaching before enrolling at Duke, and big men tend to struggle defensively their first couple of seasons (look at none other than Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns). Those growing pains will help Zion in the long run. He still is more than capable of being a devastating defensive force, in my opinion, but he needs to improve defensively to get there.
Brandon Ingram has to be better defensively too. We know he can be a positive defender from his days in Los Angeles, but he hasn’t brought that part of his game to New Orleans quite yet. Sure, you can still beat Ingram with bulk, but too many times Ingram lacked tenacity, focus, or feistiness on defense.
Ingram gets caught ball-watching and loses sight of his man in the corner (Andrew Wiggins). Two of his teammates are already up with Steph Curry, so he has to momentarily cover Draymond Green and Wiggins. However, Ingram is in no man’s land and doesn’t really guard either, letting Wiggins sneak along the baseline for a dunk. Ingram is way better than that. Until he and Zion catch up on that end of the floor, the Pelicans’ chances of competing will hover around where it is now. With the talent of those two players themselves, let alone the rest of the roster, the Pelicans should not be finishing with the eighth-worst defense in the NBA. Once the Pelicans’ defense catches up, then things could get serious in the near future.
The most important job the Pelicans need to do, however, is gain organizational stability. GM David Griffin has done a great job of hoarding draft picks for the future, but his moves and actions other than that have been less than stellar. Drafting a center with the eighth overall pick (Jaxson Hayes) in the 2019 NBA Draft didn’t feel like the best allocation of its value and only looks worse after De’Andre Hunter (who they could’ve had with the fourth pick of the draft as part of the Anthony Davis trade and was eventually flipped to Atlanta for the eighth and seventeenth picks), Rui Hachimura, Cam Reddish, Cam Johnson, and Tyler Herro, all of whom the Pelicans could have drafted and all but Hunter being drafted after the Hawks took Hayes, have had moments of brilliance in the postseason and fit the roster better than Hayes does. Griffin acquired George Hill in the Jrue Holiday trade, yet flipped the sharpshooting (career 38.1% three-point shooter) guard to Oklahoma City for plodding big man Steven Adams, then gave Adams a two-year, $35 million extension! This was disastrous on numerous levels. Adams does not look like the same athlete he was years ago defensively and makes life much more difficult for the Pelicans’ offense.
On top of all that, Adams eats up a ton of the Pelicans’ salary cap. He and Bledsoe combined to make over $35 million next season heading into this offseason. Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are scheduled to be restricted free agents. Zion Williamson will be eligible for a contract extension after next season and Ingram is already on a max deal. Adams and Bledsoe both have contracts that bleed until the 2022-2023 season, though Bledsoe’s money that season is not guaranteed. Though Adams nor Bledsoe are in New Orleans’ long-term plans, they could potentially cost the Pelicans Ball, who likely will get a lucrative deal in restricted free agency, or some of the picks they acquired via the Lakers or the Bucks to try to get more cap space to improve the team around Zion and Ingram. There isn’t really anyone but Griffin to blame for not maneuvering that as cleanly as he did.
David Griffin also hasn’t been the best at maintaining relationships while in New Orleans, both from the player and coaching side of things. Months ago, JJ Redick blasted Griffin on his ‘The Old Man and the Three’ podcast for allegedly lying to Redick about sending Redick to somewhere he’d want to go that would be in close proximity to his family in New York after the trade deadline. Instead, he got shipped to Dallas. Granted, JJ Redick doesn’t have the luxury or leverage a star does, but this stuff matters a lot to players. It didn’t stop there with Griffin either. After firing Stan Van Gundy after hiring him less than a year ago, Van Gundy appeared on the ‘STUpodity’ podcast hosted by Stugotz of the ‘Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz.’ Among many notable grievances Van Gundy aired, the most notable was the fact that he flat-out said that he and the front office weren’t on the same page. That is inexcusable. Sure, some blame can be aimed at both sides, but I’d pin most of that onto Griffin. Griffin is a long-time, experienced general manager. He helped lead a team to a championship for Christ’s sake. He knows how to do this, but he has to be better more so than anyone in that organization to get the Pelicans where they want to go. He has to hire the right coach now for the second time in less than 365 days. He has to be more upfront with his players. He has to value shooting. If he doesn’t this video of Zion Williamson swooning over the lore of Madison Square Garden will loom over the Pelicans like a rain cloud. The Pelicans have pressure. It’s up to Griffin to shoo it away.
David Griffin has done a fine job remedying both fronts so far. The Pelicans recently hired former Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns assistant coach and 12 year NBA veteran Willie Green as his new head coach. With how he just helped the Suns recognize their renaissance run this year with a fairly young and inexperienced team, you’d think he knows what it takes to steer this franchise in the right direction. Griffin also executed one of the first trades of the offseason, dealing Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, the 10th and 40th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and a 2022 first-round pick from the Lakers (while placing a top ten protection over it) to the Memphis Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas and their 17th and 51st selections in the 2021 Draft. While the fit between Valanciunas and Zion seems clunky on both ends of the floor, he still represents a massive upgrade over Adams. Though trading that 2022 first and moving down from 10 to 17 is hardly ideal, it allows the Pelicans to possibly keep both Hart and Ball, or sign another point guard in Lonzo’s place should he walk (Kyle Lowry has long been rumored to be the Pelicans’ target, but Lowry may foil their plans by taking his talents to South Beach). Speaking of the 17th selection, drafting Virginia’s Trey Murphy III should immediately boost New Orleans’ shooting and spacing, as he shot 40.1% from deep during his three-year college career and 81.9% from the free-throw line. The Pelicans need to do more, but this offseason has gone off to a good start to finally get the Pelicans back into the playoffs.
With all that said, there is plenty to be excited about in New Orleans. They have two great young players and ample resources to improve the roster around them. There’s no reason to think the Pelicans can’t find the right supporting cast the same way the Suns and Hawks did. Those two teams proved is that one big and correct offseason can drastically change the outcome of a franchise. Let’s see if the Pelicans can follow in their footsteps and be the next team to surprise with a deep playoff run.
The NBA playoffs are mercifully back, and boy did it deliver as usual. Eight games in 48 hours with seven of those being decided by 11 points or less, two game-winners from the likes of Khris Middleton and Trae Young, and an even split of wins from home and road teams at four apiece. We’re just getting started. The playoffs are all adjustments, so I came up with something in each series that should be monitored that will impact a team’s chances in this crazy first round or later down the road should that team advance.
Bucks-Heat: The Brook Lopez Conundrum
A lot of consternation was made regarding Milwaukee’s utilization of big man Brook Lopez. I can understand head coach Mike Budenholzer’s line of thinking in this sense: Lopez can guard Bam Adebayo effectively 1v1 and forces Miami to guard him with Bam. Jimmy Butler can’t guard both Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday at the same time, so Miami opted for Jimmy to stick with Holiday, leaving Miami at a disadvantage by pinning Duncan Robinson to guard Middleton. Sure. But at the same time, that lets Miami hunt Lopez with Bam Adebayo – Duncan Robinson two-man action, and it worked time and time again. Robinson was 7-13 from deep, and the Heat were 20-50 from three as a whole. Putting in Bobby Portis or PJ Tucker in Lopez’s place still presents some matchup decisions for Miami to make while giving Milwaukee much more defensive flexibility. Milwaukee didn’t play a single second with Giannis and Tucker on the floor without Lopez or Portis. That’s a curious decision, especially with Giannis being able to guard Adebayo and Tucker doing a great job defending Butler throughout the game. Butler went a combined 2-12 from the field while being defended by Tucker and Giannis in Game 1 according to NBA.com. Not only can Milwaukee switch any action involving Miami’s two best players, but they can also switch anything involving Duncan Robinson (or Goran Dragic or Tyler Herro) to limit Miami’s three-point attempts. Portis and Tucker saw fewer minutes (18 and 17, respectively) *combined* than Lopez did (36). Milwaukee got away with one during Game 1. Miami likely won’t let them off the hook again if that type of shooting continues.
Clippers-Mavericks: The Clippers’ Shooting
The Clippers led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage-wise by hitting at a 41.4% clip this season. That came to a screeching halt on Saturday, where they shot 11-40. Even worse was the heavy reliance on contested pull-up jumpers from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Shooting such shots helped in their demise in the bubble, and if their supporting cast isn’t hitting from deep then driving lanes for a team that already struggles to get to the rim will get tighter and tighter. Kawhi and George shot just 15 shots in the paint during their Game 1 loss but did shoot 14 free throws between the pair. Kawhi and George aren’t great playmakers either, and their first instinct is to get theirs rather than set up someone else. Getting those easy points will be crucial to staving off droughts and runs from the opposition. If they don’t get the spacing they need, their ability to do that will be even harder.
Nets-Celtics: The Big 3’s Process
Hot take alert!: The Nets are going to win this series. The Celtics just don’t have the firepower to keep up with them. While the Nets should win this series regardless, the process from their Big 3 did not look crisp. Then again, how could it with Game 1 being just the ninth time all season all three have played together in the same game? I felt a lot of ‘your turn, my turn’ ball, with one possession being consumed by one star trying to get a bucket in isolation and the next a different star trying to do the same thing. They can at least maneuver switches and rotations any way they want by involving two stars in a sequence together and moving off of that. I expect we’ll see more of that going forward because what we saw Saturday night offensively likely isn’t going to get the Nets through the East, no matter how loaded they are on that end.
Nuggets-Blazers: ‘Let Jokic Cook’
Presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic scored 34 points. He shot 27 shots from the field and went 3-4 from the free-throw line. However, Jokic registered just one measly assist. Jokic is the greatest passing big man ever, but the Blazers limited his ability to do so by staying home on his teammates. The numbers bear it out too. According to ESPN Stats and Info via Royce Young of ESPN, the Nuggets shot 1-10 off passes from Nikola Jokic. The process worked. I get the thought process behind it too: if you double, Jokic is so good that he’s going to find an open man somewhere, most times being in front of the rim or along the three-point line. But if you don’t double, there’s no one for him to find against a rotating defense in chaos. I get it, I don’t love the strategy, but the strategy surely worked in Game 1. I could easily be wrong here, but I’m not sure if that strategy will stand the test of time. Jokic is absolutely capable of dropping a 50-60 burger on Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter’s heads. Are you not going to double then? We’ll see. But props to the Blazers for finding a formula to help them take away home-court advantage from the Nuggets.
76ers-Wizards: Ben Simmons’ Aggression
This should be a confidence-boosting series for Ben Simmons. As I wrote about Simmons last week, he hasn’t always capitalized in the halfcourt against smaller defenders. Like I said with Jimmy Butler earlier, Rui Hachimura can’t guard Simmons and Tobias Harris (who had a field day against this Wizards squad, putting down a cool 37 piece early Sunday afternoon) at once. Still, despite being guarded by the likes of Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook, and even Raul Neto, Simmons looked tentative, passing up drives and not looking to attack the rim. Yet in transition, he was still as sensational as always, finding teammates along the three-point line and rampaging to the rim. He still needs to be more of a factor in the halfcourt though for Philly to get to where it wants to go. The 15 assists Simmons provided is great, but scoring just six points on 3-9 from the field is unacceptable for a player of his talent. He’s certainly capable of more with his size and force. Let’s see if he follows through.
Suns-Lakers: The Lakers’ Big Man Rotation
Obviously, the biggest factor to keep an eye on is the health of Chris Paul. That goes without saying, and hopefully, he’s ok to keep pushing through in this series. That right shoulder he tweaked bumping into teammate Cam Johnson bugged him all throughout the remainder of that game. But before and after that mishap, the Lakers got torched in pick and roll. They gave nothing away. Paul and Devin Booker got to their sweet spots at the elbows; Deandre Ayton got layup after layup (and was a beast on the boards); Phoenix’s supporting cast got great looks at the rim and from deep (non-Jae Crowder Suns shot 9-21 from three, good for a 42.85% clip). Lakers center Andre Drummond is an easy punching bag but he feels like food for Paul and Booker every second he’s out there, not to mention how he (and Montrezl Harrell) cramps the spacing for the rest of the offense. Anthony Davis said the loss was on him and he’s 100% right. Montrezl Harrell was able to score on Phoenix’s backups, but he also gave it right back on defense. Much like the matchup against the Houston Rockets a season ago, this doesn’t feel like a matchup for the traditional bigs. Marc Gasol is a traditional big but he’s much more equipped to hang on the perimeter defensively and keep the offense humming. Markieff Morris nearly built a house with the number of bricks he hoisted to end the regular season, but he brings much more mobility defensively that likely will be needed when Ayton rests. I have no doubts that LeBron James and Anthony Davis (who dropped a 42 point, 15 rebound performance on these same Suns just two weeks ago) will respond. Frank Vogel has historically been a game too late to make adjustments in a playoff series, but he will make them. Playing Davis more at the 5, starting Gasol over Drummond, and playing Morris over Harrell *should* work, in my opinion. I think the matchup calls for it. If it doesn’t work, then the Lakers are *really* in trouble.
Knicks-Hawks: The Elfrid Payton Conundrum
The Knicks got 44 points on 21-36 shooting from 6th Man of the Year Finalist Derrick Rose, Alec Burks (who had 27 of them thangs), and Immanuel Quickley. Elfrid Payton had 0 points while missing all of his shots from the field. Defenses have ignored Payton all season long; the Knicks’ Net Rating with Payton on the floor during the regular season was -8.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. That number was the fifth-worst on the team and by far the worst amongst those that get legit minutes on the Knicks, let alone from someone who starts games for New York. While All-Star Julius Randle navigated that minefield all season-long, it caught up to him on Sunday, scoring just 15 points on 23 shots with all the enhanced attention Randle got. The Knicks may not be able to get by with *any* Elfrid minutes for the rest of this series. I would’ve made the change a while ago, but now is probably the time to switch Elfrid’s starting spot over to one of the aforementioned three bench gunners. I’d start Immanuel Quickley in Payton’s place since Quickley, while he can bring the ball up and playmake, doesn’t the ball in his hands as often as Rose or Burks does, can spread the floor better for Randle and RJ Barrett to operate (Quickley shot 38.9% from three during his rookie season), and keeps Rose and Burks in their same super-sub role off the bench.
Jazz-Grizzlies: Utah’s Wing Shortage
The lack of a big, long, rangy, athletic, defensive wing has been apparent all year for the Jazz. I didn’t think it was so glaring that it meant Dillon Brooks would drop 31 points on them though! Utah’s offense stalled in the first half, but Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley nearly brought them all the way back in the second. The return of All-Star Donovan Mitchell will likely resuscitate Utah’s offense once he returns from his ankle injury. It sounded like that could’ve been last night, but Utah held him out an extra game to be cautious. But, and no disrespect to Dillon Brooks (which surely is a signal that disrespect is on the horizon), if the Jazz can’t stop *him* from scoring, then how exactly are they going to slow down either Luka Doncic or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the next round (if they advance) and possibly LeBron James in the Western Conference Finals should that matchup occur. That’s a big problem down the horizon for Utah. First, however, they need to figure out how to cross the Dillon Brooks-sized bridge in front of them before they get to the next one.
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.
The NBA has generally done a good job enhancing its product and growing the game of basketball. The creation and execution of the bubble last October could not have gone more swimmingly to finish off the 2019-20 season. As a Laker fan especially, I could not be more thankful to see my team get crowned as champions, but the basketball was great all the way around. This season, however… has not gone as well. Then again, what else could you reasonably expect traveling from city to city to play basketball during a pandemic? The league is near the finish of its regular season, but I wonder if the juice was worth the squeeze.
When the NBA announced that the 2020-21 regular season would begin on December 22nd, eyebrows were raised. The prior season had just concluded 71 days ago once the Lakers claimed the title. Though this season features 10 fewer games than that of a normal regular season, the NBA could not fit it into a normal NBA calendar with the Olympics at their heels in July after that got postponed a year because of the pandemic, so the NBA had to cram 72 games into roughly four and a half months. Keep in mind, a normal regular season is at least a month longer. Add to it a reduced training camp, and the result from games stacked on top of each other alongside restrictive health and safety protocols (until players opted to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which I encourage anyone to receive if you haven’t already) has led to a diminished product. Typically I don’t buy into much rating talk with cord-cutting become a more viable option, but NBA ratings have been down 13% this season. NBA broadcasts being done from home is certainly a part of this, in my opinion, but also how daunting this season has been on the players has to be another. According to Chris Herring of Sports Illustrated, there have been a significant and nearly historic amount of blowouts this season, especially after the All-Star break. A staggering amount of regular season has just lacked any juice whatsoever. While that isn’t foreign to this season, in particular, the nature of this season has made these types of games more common.
A huge reason why more games have concluded in a blowout? The number of games missed. According to ManGamesLost.com’s Twitter account from a tweet posted on May 11th, just seven teams have lost players for fewer than 150 games. These tracked games missed are solely games missed due to injury, not because of COVID-19. However, in an article posted on February 12th, 2021, by injury guru and tracker Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com, Stotts delivered this amazing nugget: ‘the total number of games lost for illness-related issues during the first 20 games of the 2020-21 season is four less than the five previous seasons combined. Nearly 90 percent of these games can be attributed to NBA players that have confirmed a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Furthermore, these elevated totals do not include the over 150 games lost to players sitting out due to the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols.’ Think about that; that was an article posted in February. This NBA season has lasted THREE MORE MONTHS since that article was published, yet multiple seasons’ worth of games missed due to an illness had taken place in the span of not even two months. Do you want to know why there has been a crap-ton of blowouts? Because just about everyone has missed time, one way or another.
Just think about how many teams have had their season altered because of the nature of this season. None of the four conference finalists (Lakers, Celtics, Heat, Nuggets) from last season are above the fourth seed in their respective conferences. The Lakers built their team around LeBron James and Anthony Davis only for them to appear in 77 combined games. The Nuggets lost Jamal Murray to a torn ACL in perhaps the cruelest injury of this season. Miami is just now getting healthy after just about everyone from their Finals run missed time during the season. The Celtics are the exact opposite, with news that All-Star Jaylen Brown will miss the rest of the season the icing on the cake. No Celtics four-man pairing has played at least 300 minutes this season, according to NBA.com. Only three other teams can say the same: the Houston Rockets (who were forced to up-end their entire franchise), the Orlando Magic (who chose to up-end their entire franchise), and the Washington Wizards. The Celtics’ four best players (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart) have appeared together in just 17 games over the course of only 292 minutes. It doesn’t stop there. The Brooklyn Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden have only played 186 minutes together in just seven games. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ three building blocks of the future (Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell) have linked up for just 251 minutes over the course of 21 games this season. Multiple teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, and Washington Wizards, teams currently in the play-in tournament, literally had to pause their season as if this was NBA2K because the coronavirus got so out of hand in their clubhouse, through no fault of their own. Could they be squarely in the playoff field had that not occurred? It’s tough to say, but maybe! Whatever the case may be, it’s hard to ignore how the contamination of this season has affected the actual product.
The product is one thing, but what concerns me the most is how these contaminated results of this season could affect the health and well-being of its players, coaches, and front office personnel. Another team hit hard by COVID-19 this season? The Toronto Raptors… who are not even playing in Toronto this season. They’re in Tampa Bay for Christ’s sake! After spending multiple months in Orlando in the bubble. Do you think their mental health hasn’t been challenged by this hellscape of a season? On top of that, as I said earlier, they had to deal with actually contracting the virus. Guard Fred VanVleet was very open in the complications he experienced fighting the virus. Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum admitted to using an inhaler before games after his bout with COVID that he continues to suffer symptoms from. I’m not sure there will be a quote or soundbite that will be more noteworthy than Tatum’s admission here. One of the league’s brightest ascending stars that has already been to multiple Conference Finals, multiple All-Star games, and an All-NBA team (3rd team All-NBA in 2020) saying that COVID-19 is still affecting him so much so that he needs help to breathe properly to get back to that star level of production. Tatum most notably went through the wringer in February of 2021, averaging his typical 24 points per game, but doing so shooting less than 40% from the field and just 31.6% from deep. He has responded resoundingly since then, including a 60-point masterpiece against the San Antonio Spurs, but this was only after he said he started to use an inhaler before games. That his production could dip like that lets you know this virus can and has impacted the outcomes of these games. Luckily in Tatum’s case, he’s found a way to be productive in the midst of the virus, but there’s also a good chance this won’t be the last we see or learn about COVID-19 looming over the NBA and its games.
These are just a couple of examples, but surely there are more out there. What if Jayson Tatum has to deal with this for the rest of his career and that hinders his play? What if this was the Nuggets’ best chance at a title that got wiped away because of Jamal Murray’s injury? What if a rotation player who plays the role of a specialist for a team suddenly becomes less effective in the role the team needs from him after contracting the virus and finds himself out of the league entirely? Surely that can’t be out of the question.
Players suffering through injuries and COVID-19 infections have ramifications throughout the rest of the league as well. Odds were recently released for the next NBA Head Coach to be revoked of his duties. Uncoincidentally, many of the top favorites involved teams that have been dealt a tough hand in the age of COVID-19, with Indiana’s Nate Bjorkgren and Portland’s Terry Stotts most notably in the crossfire. If a team were to underwhelm in the playoffs, they could join the numerous teams outside of the postseason to shake up their roster or power structure. The Timberwolves already fired Head Coach Ryan Saunders. The Hawks firing Lloyd Pierce kind of saved their season, yet key addition Bogdan Bogdanovic and rising forwards De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish both got injured early in the season under Pierce’s watch. Maybe that move was a blessing in disguise with how well interim Head Coach Nate McMillan has done, but it also is plausible Pierce could have resurrected the team as well once he had a full squad to work with, yet he lost his job. More will follow, yet I don’t think it’s all that fair under these daunting circumstances.
That isn’t to say this season hasn’t given us something to celebrate. Nikola Jokic is having a historic season that should result in him winning the MVP. Steph Curry scorched the entire earth during the month of April. Russell Westbrook just broke the All-Time NBA record for Triple-Doubles accumulated over the course of a player’s career. We’ve still seen the greatness we’ve been accustomed to watching during an NBA regular season. It’s just been fewer and farther between with the variables of injuries and COVID-19 contaminating a lot of these games. That isn’t to say the NBA is out of the woods either. Someone could easily contract the virus during the playoffs and be forced to sit out the rest of a series potentially and really alter the results of this season. Let’s hope that it doesn’t.
The NBA had to go through with a regular season this season. There was too much money involved for there not to be one or have one with fewer games than the 72 we ultimately got. I’m thankful in the sense that bad or contaminated basketball is better than no basketball. I usually have no problem watching any kind of NBA basketball, but this season felt different. It felt off. Maybe it’s the many empty seats in the stands altering the viewing experience. More likely, it’s because the pandemic threw this NBA season off its axis from the start and it only continued to spiral downhill from there. But, we’re almost at the end, and the end of the regular season means the start of the postseason, with the NBA’s new play-in format being experimented with for the first time and likely not the last time. The NBA kept COVID-19 out of its playoffs once before; here’s hoping it can keep it out again this time around.