That's Pretty Interesting: The undeniable promise of the Sixers' killer starting lineup
Also: The Nets' don't have any easy games left, appreciating Derrick White's defense, checking in on Landry Shamet
Remember when everybody was excited about the Philadelphia 76ers' starting lineup? On Feb. 6, just before the trade deadline, they acquired Tobias Harris, a versatile forward who was leading the Los Angeles Clippers in scoring and playing the most efficient basketball of his career. The bold move meant Harris would replace Wilson Chandler as their starting power forward, and, as long as their stars were willing to share the ball, the upside was obvious.
Five weeks later, there is considerably less buzz around the Sixers. They haven't been destroying teams the way the Milwaukee Bucks have, and they haven't had the same dramatic highs and lows as the Boston Celtics. Joel Embiid missed eight games after the All-Star break with knee soreness, and Jimmy Butler's shot appears to have abandoned him. On Tuesday, they came dangerously close to losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers at home, turning the ball over 21 times and relying on Embiid to save the day in crunch time. While they are tied for the third seed, their are worse than those of Milwaukee, Toronto and Boston, in that order, per Sportsline.
The starting five, however, has been phenomenal. With Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid on the court, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 24 points per 100 possessions. As a point of comparison, the Golden State Warriors' "Death Lineup" has outscored opponents by 22.7 points per 100 possessions.
It's not hard to figure out why this group works. It has rim protection, size and versatility on defense, and it is incredibly hard to stop. The first time these guys shared the floor, the Denver Nuggets had great difficulty keeping track of everybody in transition, leading to wide-open 3s for Redick and Harris:
Denver called timeout after that, and then proceeded to give up open 3-point attempts to Embiid and Butler in transition. They both missed, but the Sixers' starters were plus-14 in 17 minutes the first time they played together. I particularly liked this play for Harris in the fourth quarter, punishing the Nuggets for trying to get away with playing big men Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee together:
Notice that Denver had Plumlee matched up with Simmons and Jamal Murray matched up with Harris at the start of the possession. The Sixers force teams to live with uncomfortable situations like this because of their size -- against the Knicks, Dennis Smith Jr. wound up trying to defend Harris. Earlier this season, Chandler was a safe hiding place for small or poor defenders. Harris is not.
The caveat here is sample size. This lineup has only played 83 minutes over five games: that impressive win against Denver, a relatively easy win against the Lakers, a close loss to the Kyrie Irving-less Celtics, a laugher in New York and Sunday's decisive win against the Pacers. That ridiculous net rating is partially the product of a plus-23 performance against an awful, overmatched Knicks team.
There are things, however, to be learned from those 83 minutes, particularly with the playoffs in mind. Every Philadelphia fan remembers how awesome last year's starters -- Simmons, Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Embiid -- were in the regular season: They dominated teams at both ends, finishing the season with a plus-21 net rating. Every Philly fan also remembers that they fell apart in the second round of the playoffs -- they had a minus-12 net rating against the Celtics.
In Game 4 against Boston, coach Brett Brown replaced Covington with T.J. McConnell in the starting lineup, desperate to get some extra playmaking on the court. Now, with Butler and Harris around, that will not be an issue. No one on last year's team could have done this against the Celtics in crunch time:
… but, when opposing teams are switching, you need multiple players who can put the ball on the floor and create. For Philadelphia, when the first and second options on a possession don't work, it can keep cycling through options until it finds an open shot or the shot clock is winding down. And if the Sixers do find themselves in a short-clock situation, they now have guys who can bail them out:
Having five genuine threats on the court means defenders have a lot to think about. Teams can play way off Simmons and dare Embiid to make 3s, but that doesn't necessarily make it easy to deal with a Butler-Simmons pick-and-roll or Redick screening for Harris away from the ball.
The flip side is that, with all this talent, it is hard to keep everybody happy. So far, Butler has been marginalized.
If this is Philly's Death Lineup, Butler has been Andre Iguodala. He has taken 16 shots and just a single 3 with this group, uncharacteristically passing up open looks. With less offensive responsibility, Butler's efficiency has tumbled in both isolation and pick-and-roll situations. In fact, as dominant as Embiid can be, the numbers suggest that the Sixers have been tilting their offense too far in his direction:
|When starting five is on the court|
If Philadelphia's starters are going to keep dominating, Embiid needs to start making a reasonable percentage of his open 3s and Butler needs to find a way to assert himself. There are other pressing questions about the Sixers -- the big one: how many of their reserves can they actually count on? -- but, if they can get more cohesive in the next month, they could have something special here, something that even the league's best teams have trouble matching up against.
After the Brooklyn Nets' 103-75 victory against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday, a reporter asked coach Kenny Atkinson what would make their imminent road trip a success. Atkinson squirmed a little at his podium, considering what was ahead: a brutal, seven-game stretch against Oklahoma City (a 108-96 Brooklyn loss), Utah, the Clippers, Sacramento, the Lakers, Portland and Philadelphia.
"I don't want to give you an answer," Atkinson said. "I just want to keep getting better. I know that's a weak answer, but when I start doing the schedule and counting wins or losses, that's when I get in trouble."
The Nets have no easy games left. Two days after the trip ends in Philly, they will host the Celtics on March 30, the Bucks on April 1 and the Raptors on April 3. They have a back-to-back in Milwaukee and Indiana on April 6 and 7 before their regular-season finale against Miami at Barclays Center on April 10. It sort of seems like Brooklyn is being punished.
"I honestly didn't even realize how many good teams we were playing towards the end until I just looked," Nets guard Allen Crabbe told CBS Sports. "After this road trip, I was like, wow, we're playing a lot of top teams in the East."
Crabbe did not complain, however. He even said, however unconvincingly, that this was a good thing. Brooklyn, now 36-34 after its 108-96 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday, believes it can beat anybody, regardless of whether or not it is favored.
"I'm pretty sure nobody expected us to be where we're at right now," Crabbe said. "That's all we do, we just prove people wrong, really."
The last time I used this space to write about a difficult schedule, the Sixers rose to the occasion and earned a bunch of good wins. If the Nets are going to do the same thing, they will need to find the best version of themselves, quickly. Now that Spencer Dinwiddie has been back for a couple of weeks, it is possible to envision them finding a new level.
"I think as a team, as a unit, it gives us a chance to come together differently than we have," Dinwiddie said. "We will spend a lot of time together, and getting some wins potentially and hopefully could help define our season."
In a sense, Brooklyn's season will be a success regardless of what happens down the stretch. The front office finally has its own pick, so one could argue that it would be better off falling all the way out of the playoffs. That is not how the Nets see it, though.
For months, the Nets have seen themselves as a solid playoff team. They want to hang on to the sixth spot. I never totally buy it when players say they're "looking forward" to something so daunting, as both Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert did, but what else are they supposed to say? The schedule isn't going to change, so they might as well accept the challenge. As difficult as it looks, it is an opportunity for Brooklyn to prove its rise is for real.
In appreciation of Derrick White's defense
Don't read too much into Luka Doncic's rough night on Tuesday, as he is obviously playing through knee pain. Injured or not, though, it is worth praising the man who spent most of the night defending him. Derrick White not only had 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting plus seven assists, three rebounds and three steals in the San Antonio Spurs' 112-115 win, he pestered Doncic as much as he could, moving his feet and using his length to annoy the Dallas Mavericks' new franchise player. Seven of Doncic's nine turnovers came with White defending him, per NBA.com, and this particular possession stood out:
You are surely aware that Doncic and fellow rookie Trae Young will be linked forever because of a draft-night trade. I hope the two of them become friends as well as rivals, if only so they can talk about how annoying it is to try to evade White:
White's best recent performance on defense was not against a rookie. On March 2, he defended Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook for 50 possessions, per NBA.com, holding him to 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting with five turnovers. Westbrook is one of the league's most powerful guards, but White is strong enough to avoid being bullied:
Few tasks in the NBA are as terrifying as sticking with Westbrook in transition, but here's White forcing him into a contested midrange jumper:
And here's my favorite play, his pesky-as-hell steal when Westbrook thought he had enough of a headstart to get an easy two points:
This is where I must credit the Spurs for going on a six-game winning streak after their brutal rodeo road trip. White missed most of those losses, and he is absolutely vital to their defense: This season, San Antonio has given up 111.3 points per 100 possessions with him off the court and 106.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, which is essentially the difference between being the Celtics and the Hornets defensively.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had extremely high praise for White on Tuesday: "He's become a very valuable player and progressed as quickly in a short time as much as anybody I've ever seen that we've had."
The crazy thing is that White might not even be San Antonio's best up-and-coming, defensive-minded guard. Can't wait to see him and Dejounte Murray lock people up next year.
Checking in on … Landry Shamet
Landry Shamet is making the Los Angeles Clippers look brilliant. It took the guard just three games with his new team to earn a starting spot, and no one's prying it away from him. Since acquiring Shamet, the Clippers have a net rating of plus-12.7 with him on the court and minus-6.7 with him off the court, per Cleaning The Glass. This is an even bigger differential than the Thunder's with and without Paul George, which has been the league's largest for most of the season.
Much of this is because Los Angeles desperately needed shooting. The Clippers take 11.4 percent more 3s when he's on the court, per CTG, and he loves to fire away on the move, without much space:
In Philadelphia, Shamet spent as much time as he could around Redick, and their roles in the offense were essentially the same. It is convenient that he wound up with Doc Rivers, who coached Redick for four years and Ray Allen for five. Rivers knows how to get the most out of a deadly shooter capable of running off screens all game:
Shamet is suddenly one of the league's bigger bargains -- as the No. 26 pick, he is making $1.7 million in the first year of his rookie deal. He is helping the Clippers win right now, and his salary will help them this summer. We all know what Los Angeles' plans are in free agency, and having key players on team-friendly contracts means that the front office could build a superteam without gutting the roster and losing all its depth.
Hmmmm: A LaMarcus-Lillard reunion?
The latest story about LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard's reconciliation appeared on The Athletic on Tuesday, and this one, written by Jason Quick, features Aldridge revealing that he continually tells Lillard they will play together in Portland again.
"Everything happens for a reason," Aldridge said. "He has flourished in that role, and I keep telling him I'm going to come back and finish there. That's something him and I have talked about -- playing together again."
If you have been following this storyline closely, the quote isn't that surprising. Both players keep speaking publicly about how they wished they'd had a closer relationship when they were teammates, and, in a piece for Bleacher Report last May, Ken Berger reported that Aldridge called Lillard two years ago, asking the point guard to approach Blazers manager Neil Olshey about acquiring him. Aldridge wasn't happy in San Antonio at that point, though -- this was before his famous reconciliation with Popovich over dinner, which led to him signing an extension at the beginning of last season.
My takeaway is that we shouldn't be shocked if Aldridge made his way back to Portland in the near future. He will turn 34 this summer, perhaps San Antonio would be willing to explore trading him then. The front office chose not to tear it all down when Kawhi Leonard wanted out, but that doesn't mean it will never be interested in getting younger. I wonder what the Spurs think of Zach Collins.
10 more stray thoughts: Speaking of Collins, uh, the Enes Kanter experiment is kind of driving me crazy … "Can't play Kanter" is still far superior to "I'm so f---ing tired of Draymond" … Jonathan Isaac's 3-point shooting has come a long way … So has Ben Simmons' free throw shooting … Since Dallas never wins anymore, The Mavericks-Hawks draft pick situation is insane … BRUNSON! … I bet Al Horford will still be pretty good at 40 … The Pistons' last two games -- yech! … The Clippers' new starting five, with Shamet and Ivica Zubac, has a plus-13.2 net rating … Sometimes in life, you get second chances.
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