Brotherly Love Dive-In
During that special playoff run by Kawhi Leonard in 2019 leading to his second NBA championship, people often forget how much of a juggernaut that Philadelphia 76ers team was. Led by All-Star wing Jimmy Butler and young co-stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers were just a couple bounces away from advancing to their first Eastern Conference Finals since Allen Iverson was lifting the MVP trophy in front of screaming Sixers fans in 2001. Embiid burst onto the scene solidifying himself as one of the NBA’s elite averaging 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds a game during the 2018-19 regular season while shooting 48% from the field and 80% from the free-throw line, marks that have only been reached by NBA Hall of Famer and member of the 75th anniversary NBA all-time team Bob McAdoo.
During their short tenure together as teammates, Embiid and grit and grind guard Jimmy Butler hit the floor running building an instant rapport with their unforgivable personas. During a sit down with Sam Amick of the Athletic Butler had high regard for his ex-teammate. “That’s my guy. Outside of basketball, I love that man to death. He knows that. I tell him every opportunity I get, and I appreciate him for making me a better player, a better leader, better at understanding so many different things. I talk to him all the time, and I tell him, ‘I wish you were still in the playoffs because you deserve a championship.’ Because he works. He works at it, and that’s just my guy. Yeah, I saw it, and I know that he still wanted me to be on his team. And I still wanted to be teammates with him. Let’s not get that misunderstood. But here, with these guys, I’m not trading that for the world either.” When Jimmy Butler, who averaged 22/7/6 in that 2019 Easter Conference Semifinals series while sharing defensive responsibilities of Kawhi Leonard, took on more on-ball duties in crunch time over Ben Simmons throughout the series that’s when the first domino that ultimately fell in the sudden downfall of the process. Per The Athletic’s Zach Harper back in September reported “Butler “didn’t view [Simmons] on par with someone like himself or [Joel] Embiid when it came to mental makeup.” Brett Brown ultimately making a decision in that very series to hand the keys over to Butler in crunch time for the betterment of the team caused an inadvertent rift between Simmons and Butler. Suddenly the rift was soon magnified after that Game 7 loss to the Raptors as Butler was due to enter free agency that summer seeking a max deal and many teams were lurking. The front office’s debacle of making their then franchise player’s future (Ben Simmons) more of a priority over their leader, two-way proven All-Star (Butler) who’s shown to be more transcendent is ultimately how the 76ers took their first step towards where we are now.
Fast forward Jimmy Butler’s made a Finals appearance in 2020 and Joel Embiid’s made numerous All-Stars, All-NBAs, and All-Defensive teams. The Cameroonian giant has further cemented himself as one of the most talented big men our game has seen with his improved shot-making ability along the perimeter. We often declared Anthony Davis ironically as the most fluid, athletic, offensive force we have at the big man position with his upscale off-the-dribble-shot creativity. As great as Giannis Antekounmpo is and the strides he’s made with his jumper we all know he’s most effective when on the attack and making a living in the paint. With additional attention drawn this season, Joel Embiid is averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists for the 76ers. He’s currently on pace to have a second consecutive season posting at least 25 points on 45% shooting from the field, 35% from the three-point territory, all while attempting 10 free throws a night in NBA history. Only Karl Malone (1989-90), Kevin Durant (2009-10), and Paul Pierce (2005-06) can say they have a season as such under their belt. With his vast impact on both sides of the court, it’s only been injuries and some unlucky postseason success that have hinged Embiid to this point. Though his two-way production has kept him heavily mixed in the top five players in the world conversations. Embiid has been getting quality contributions from his supporting cast throughout his monstrous first half this season.
Tobias Harris, who’s been riding shotgun throughout this bumpy up and down ride, has been one of the Sixers go-to all-around scorers. (18.8 points per game). The reason Ben Simmons’ absence has been so magnified as predicted is partly due to the emergence of combo guard Seth Curry and second-year guard Tyrese Maxey. Being the younger brother to the NBA’s greatest shooter of all time does not mean you’ll never get your flowers as a jump shooter. Seth Curry has been one of the under-the-radar bright notes for the 76ers this season. The former Blue Devil is currently averaging 16 points a night (career-high) on 51% shooting (career-high) from the field. Through December 20th of all players that have attempted 80 mid-range jumpers, Seth Curry has the highest efficiency percentage at 60.8% at 101 total shot attempts from that area on the hardwood. A higher percentage than some of the greatest mid-range jump shooters the game has seen such as Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan. Seth surely has mastered his ability to kill his opponents from intermediate-range and still shoots above 40% from deep.
Maxey was a late first-round pick out of Kentucky who was trying to adjust to the pace of the NBA on the fly and make the most out of his opportunities. Maxey’s averaging 16.5 points and 4.7 assists a night on 47/36/87 shooting splits. Still a raw athlete who’s not even close to a finished product but has shown brief flashes as a future elite shot creator. Shake Milton, who returned to action last night in a win vs the Brooklyn Nets after missing the last four contests due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols has become a solid go-to scorer off the bench for the Sixers as well. A player that’s very capable of getting hot in a couple of possessions, fulfilling that Jamal Crawford role expeditiously. Maxey and Curry aren’t traditional floor-generals and often share the ball-handling duties amongst themselves. They all have carried their weight in the backcourt rotation this season giving the Sixers a different wrinkle in the shot-making and creativity department that they simply didn’t get from their previous primary ball-handler, Ben Simmons.
Though the 76ers are 19th best in defensive rating (109.5) they still lead the association in blocks per game (5.9) and are tenth in steals per game. Led by rim protector and three-time NBA All-Defensive Joel Embiid, the Sixers also possess one of the game’s elite defenders Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle made the NBA All-Defensive second team for the first time in his young career. There are a lot of teams that are fortunate for the Ben Simmons’ situation unraveling the way it did due to the fact that the 76ers would have had three All-Defensive caliber players on one roster. Absolute nightmares for some of the Eastern Conference’s heavyweight scoring teams such as the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, and Boston Celtics. Simmons has finished top four in Defensive Player of the Year voting each of the past two seasons. Thybulle is sixth in the NBA in deflections per game. This combination of length, athleticism, and flexibility from two perimeter defenders hasn’t been seen since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were causing hell for opposing backcourts in the entirety of the 90s. The difference is the Sixers could have really opened the floor up for Simmons perhaps if they moved him to the 5 spot when Embiid needs a breather, similar to how the Golden State Dubs have utilized Draymond Green his entire career. The switch would definitely enhance his capabilities and strengths to use his 6’10 frame and freak athleticism to attack the rim relentlessly as he did in his 42/9/12 assist outburst against the Utah Jazz. There was definitely more to unlock from Ben Simmons for sure but it’s fair to say he has burned all bridges with the organization. The Sixers have informed the rest of the league that they’re here to fight and they’ll be one of the more formidable forces in the Eastern Conference with or without Ben Simmons.
“Oh, Cam Reddish… In D.C, we ain’t gon talk about it though” A direct quote from Minnesota Timberwolves young star Anthony Edwards back in 2019 on Ballislife’s All-American Part 2 video series after being asked who was the hardest player he’s had to guard. Cam Reddish was projected as an NBA-ready prospect and lottery pick since he first stepped foot in Durham. A Blue Devils squad that was headlined by Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, Reddish’s skillset still helped him fit seamlessly as an athletic wing that can score at all three levels. With not enough mouths to feed during his freshmen year and a stat line that didn’t quite match his talent ceiling, Reddish was still taken with the 10th pick in the NBA draft. Even though he averaged double-figure points in each of his first two seasons, injuries and inconsistent playing time had plagued him up until now. In fact when Reddish returned for the playoffs last season after missing the final 42 games of the regular season and the first two Hawks’ playoff series with an Achilles tendon injury he dropped 21 points including 6/7 shooting from downtown. Reddish’s defensive efforts on Milwaukee Bucks All-Star wing Khris Middleton also ignited the Hawks to push the defending champs to a hard-fought six games in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
“He’s one of the few guys in this league that actually – that’s his game. That’s where he draws his energy from. It’s not so much the offensive end of the floor. He comes out from the start wanting to play defense.” Those were remarks from Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan postgame after the Hawks had beat the Bucks in Game 4 while down superstar point guard Trae Young. Since joining the Hawks starting lineup back on December 22nd Reddish is averaging 21.8 points, three rebounds, and two assists on 43/43/85 splits including a 33 point scoring barrage against the two-seeded Chicago Bulls. From a scoring standpoint, Reddish doesn’t have any blemishes in his arsenal. He’s capable of pulling up from anywhere mid-range to the three-point line, catch and shoot, creating off the dribble, attacking the rim, you name it. With continued opportunities, Reddish may join the likes of Jayson Tatum and Anthony Edwards as the next three-level star scoring forward. “I wish y’all were there. Before the season started, we were having scrimmages and I remember Cam would be like dismantling. I used to look at Cam in awe, like, this dude can hoop,” Williamson said. “I come from a small high school. Cam is out here hitting five threes in a row, then go dunk it in the lane. I used to be in awe watching Cam in practice.” This was Zion Williamson during a sit down with the Athletic’s Michael Lee back in 2019. Reddish doesn’t need to dominate the ball like Trae or depend on someone else to create a shot for him in order for him to be effective. Reddish, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Kevin Huerter are all wings that can play multiple positions and stretch the floor. Bogdanovic and Huerter aren’t the same scorers as far as talent goes compared to Reddish but all three can generate instant offense with secondary lineups. The Hawks can be very flexible when all of them are available and should definitely take advantage of all the different assortments of lineups that can be used to match up with opposing small/big lineups. If Reddish continues to get the green light, he might just be the final puzzle piece that can take this organization to the next level.
Presti Strikes Again?
Sam Presti has been considered one of the NBA’s best general managers since he took on the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2007. His peak was also his biggest downfall, drafting three future Hall of Famers and MVPs at the time with zero rings to show for it. Trading legendary combo guard James Harden instead of paying him the desired money he earned was the first domino to fall. Things were undoubtedly going to be fine led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at first but after some unlucky season-ending injuries to each of them over the course of the next four years and failure to reach the NBA Finals after Harden’s departure, Durant soon departure to Golden State. Presti did his best to make the most of his franchise point guard Westbrook’s prime, surrounding him with talents such as Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Victor Oladipo but each squad failed to get past the first round. Eventually in a Paul George blockbuster trade to the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason of 2019, Presti brought back what would turn out to be one of the NBA’s best young stars, guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Another guard product of the John Calipari tree, Gilgeous-Alexander showed signs of stardom in his rookie year averaging 14 points and three assists in a first-round series against the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors pushing them six games. Shai is fresh off winning the NBA’s Western Conference of the Week for week 10 this year averaging 27.5 points, six rebounds, and seven rebounds in four contests (3-1 W-L record). Shai has used his length and wingspan to fend off smaller guards when heading towards the rim but what has made him one of the game’s deadliest isolation scorers is his new comfort to create perimeter jumpers off the dribble. Shai’s the league leader in field goals made per game in isolation settings at 2.3 makes a night. Marks are higher than James Harden, Jayson Tatum, and Kevin Durant who’re arguably three of the best in the association in that category. Though Shai’s 3P% has unexpectedly dipped from 42% last season to 28% currently on the year he’s expanded his shot creation skillset on the perimeter with more side step and step backs. Once a talent like Shai adepts those types of shots in his repertoire with his 6’6 height and 6’11 wingspan he’ll become one of the game’s best scorers. Despite the talent Shai’ possesses and superstar ceiling, the Thunder have had an unlikely rookie provide a spark in the backcourt as well.
Josh Giddey was the 6th overall pick in this past NBA draft from Australia. Giddey’s frame and physique don’t leave you in awe but his all-around ability on the hardwood may leave you at least surprised. Giddey is averaging 10.8 points, 7.1 boards, and 6.1 assists a game. He recently became the first Thunder rookie to achieve consecutive 10-plus assist games since Russell Westbrook in 2009. Giddey also joined LaMelo Ball as the only teenager to have 20 rebounds and 20 assists in a two-game span. Giddey brings a lot more to the table than you’d anticipate and can reduce some of the burdens Shai’s responsible for being the primary source of offense. This dynamic is very similar to the same dynamic that exists between the Sacramento Kings guards De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. A team that also features promising young players like Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley still has ways to go especially in a deep competitive Western Conference but before you know it Sam Presti might just turn this organization around, as he always does.