Four confusing questions, including Sixers' Jimmy Butler drama and Tom Thibodeau's untimely exit
Also: What's up with the Jazz? How the heck are the Spurs doing this?
We are halfway through the regular season, which means it's time to prematurely hand out awards and assess every team's performance and all that other stuff that basketball writers do. This column is different (but that stuff is coming, I promise!) in that I will just focus on the things that still don't make sense to me. Fortunately, there have been a lot of surprises so far and I am apparently easily confused, so it was actually rather difficult to narrow this list down. Let's start in Philadelphia.
Why are the Sixers always so dramatic?
Anyone who wants to share a take about the Philadelphia 76ers should be required to preface it with this stat: Their starting lineup, featuring Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler and Joel Embiid, have outscored opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions in 205 minutes.
From a macro point of view, this is one of the few things that matter: Philadelphia's Big 3, with one of the best shooters in the league and versatile-ish forward, is doing what it should be expected to do. As the 76ers get better at understanding each other's tendencies and, more importantly, acquire or develop a better supporting cast, they should be a force.
The problem is that, even for a fan base and media contingent that lived through The Process, it is difficult, maybe even impossible, to cling to this big-picture perspective these days. Butler has been so frank about his confrontational leadership style that, even if you don't buy his and coach Brett Brown's assertion that he didn't cross the line in a recent film session, it's hard to believe he didn't approach it. Embiid voiced his own displeasure with his touches on the record. Oh, and the Markelle Fultz situation remains unresolved.
The Sixers have been many things in the past few years, including both a tanking team and a fringe championship contender. There has always, however, been something -- from the Fultz trade to the Bryan Colangelo scandal and Zhaire Smith's medical issues -- making sure they are not dull. I wonder if, in the second half of the regular season, that might change.
A recipe for normalcy: Fultz either returns to the lineup with a not-horrible jump shot or is shelved or traded. The front office signs or otherwise acquires a couple of rotation-caliber players to balance the roster, like it did last buyout season. Butler refrains from doing anything that would lead anyone to speculate about his future in Philadelphia. The Sixers win with such frequency and ease that people stop wondering whether or not it's a problem that Embiid hasn't invited Simmons over to play a board game like he did with T.J. McConnell.
I cannot in good conscience predict that all these things will happen, and I am not the kind of person who would suggest that Philadelphia's 26-14 record means everything is absolutely fine. This team has too much talent, though, for the story to always be about Butler's attitude, Simmons' lack of a jumper and whatever Embiid says after a frustrating loss. There is a real dissonance between how the Sixers are performing on the court and how it feels to take part in the conversation about them. A combination of raised expectations and unlucky breaks means that the stakes are extremely high, even in the regular season, and there is pressure on everyone involved to make this thing work right now.
I kind of miss The Process.
Where are the Wolves going?
Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has said a bunch of things since firing team president and coach Tom Thibodeau, but none of it explained why he did this in early January, after a 22-point win, with franchise player Karl-Anthony Towns playing as well as he ever has in his career. Throughout the Butler debacle, when it was clear that Thibodeau and Taylor were not on the same page, I couldn't believe that Thibodeau wasn't fired. The day it finally happened, I was even more dumbfounded.
The players were reportedly shocked by the timing, and it's not clear what they should think about the direction of the team now. Taylor said he hoped 32-year-old coach Ryan Saunders would lead the team to the playoffs and keep the job, but there are already rumors about Fred Hoiberg replacing Thibodeau again. Scott Layden is the leader of the front office for now, but he and Thibodeau were originally a package deal. When owners decide a leadership change is necessary, they don't usually go for half-measures.
In the short term, Minnesota is putting out a thoroughly average product. Towns is special, obviously, and Derrick Rose's newfound efficiency gave the Wolves more depth than expected. They are 19-21, though, with a plus-0.3 net rating, in the middle of the pack both on offense and defense. Maybe Saunders can modernize their shot selection and create a looser atmosphere, but he can't change the fact that Andrew Wiggins is in the first year of a five-year, $148 million contract. That deal is a microcosm of Minnesota's unfortunate reality: It is not even close to being championship-caliber, and it cannot credibly be called a young or rebuilding team.
Thibodeau's front office traded for Butler and signed Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson because it wanted to end the franchise's playoff drought, get Towns and Wiggins experience playing games that matter and incrementally improve from there. Everyone knows how things ended with Butler, and I have an idea what Teague and Gibson would do if they could Bandersnatch their way back to the summer of 2017. The NBA does not let you choose your own adventure, though, so the Wolves just have to try to make the best of this. I don't quite understand how this was bungled so badly, but I do have one request for Saunders: Let's see Super Dario again.
What is up with the Jazz?
The only time I felt like I understood the Utah Jazz was in the preseason. They won all five of their games, and after the way they finished the 2017-18 regular season, I figured they were going to earn home-court advantage in the Western Conference. Today, that seems unlikely: Utah is 20-20 and is completely unpredictable from night to night.
Early on, the Jazz won three straight games, then lost four straight, then won three straight. Since Nov. 23, they have neither won nor lost more than two games consecutively.
The weird thing is that, if you catch these guys on the right night, they still look like they did at their best last season. If you only look at wins, they have the highest net rating in the league. On paper, they are deep and pretty versatile. Everybody loves coach Quin Snyder. They don't feel quite as disjointed as they did a couple of months ago. And yet, Utah is still .500 at home and .500 on the road.
Whenever it seems like the Jazz are turning a corner, they don't. On their recent trip East, they could have knocked off Toronto and Milwaukee, but they couldn't get the second-half stops they needed. Their next six games are against the Magic, Lakers, Bulls, Pistons, Clippers and Cavaliers, and they have the talent to run the table. If that happened, though, it would be a total departure from what they have been.
It would also, however, feel pretty familiar to Utah fans. Through 40 games last season, the Jazz were 16-24. You probably remember what happened from late January onward. Recent history might repeat itself here, but I don't have a feel for whether or not this version of the team can find that same flow. Even though few saw last year's run coming, it made sense in retrospect: Rudy Gobert got healthy, Donovan Mitchell got confident and Ricky Rubio got comfortable. Maybe the defense can get marginally better, maybe the offense can be what optimists like myself thought it'd be, but if you have a strong argument for why we should expect a massive jump, feel free to hit me up. All I know is that continuity was supposed to be an advantage for this team, and that has not been the case at all.
The Spurs are at it again, huh?
The San Antonio Spurs have been so good lately that I couldn't write about them just once. Since Dec. 7, they've had the best offense and third-best defense in the league, per NBA.com, and this has generated all sorts of discussion about their shot profile and whether or not this is for real. My contribution to the discourse: I don't like the shot selection, but it's working, and I keep waiting for them to slow down.
As usual, the offense is getting most of the attention. While the Spurs' bench does a pretty good job spacing the floor, nobody takes fewer shots at the rim or 3-pointers and nobody takes more midrange shots. It turns out that it might not matter where your shots are coming from if you're basically making all of them.
The stingy defense, though, is even more confounding. San Antonio has no problem playing a bunch of slow dudes, and, on the wing, it does not employ anybody who's even close to being considered a lockdown defender. The Spurs communicate well, though, and they tend to switch effectively and keep opponents out of the paint.
If this all keeps up, it would certainly not be the first time that Gregg Popovich has succeeded with a team that has been written off as too old and not athletic enough. The part of me that wants to believe this is just the Spurs being the Spurs, though, has trouble accepting that the days of dismal defense in November were meaningless. You can count me as thoroughly impressed, but, even after 13 wins in 16 games, still somewhat skeptical.
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