The Outlet Pass: The All-Star Game Deserves Some Fresh Blood
Also: The play that Simmons/Embiid optimists fear, Brooklyn's surge, and Aaron Gordon buyer's remorse.
Photo by Tannen Maury - EPA
For a few reasons, both of this year’s All-Star teams could be littered with more than a few new faces. In each conference, several household names (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Kyle Lowry, Al Horford, Victor Oladipo, and Draymond Green) are either hurt, enduring down years, or both. Some of them will coast off name recognition and fundamental respect to make it over more deserving players, but some won’t. Here are a few candidates that could/should break through for the first time in their career.
Bet-Your-Life Locks: Nikola Jokic
Denver’s lack of playoff experience in key areas has me skeptical about their legitimate chops as a contender, but that’s not what this is about! Jokic is an MVP candidate on a team that has the best record in the Western Conference. He’s a starving hippopotamus on the block and probably the smartest, boldest passer his position has seen in 30 years. Congratulations, Joker! You’re one of the most obvious All-Stars in the entire league!
If they don’t qualify it’s OK to say they got robbed: Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Ben Simmons, Khris Middleton
Harris is on a quality playoff team, averaging 21.1 points and 8.0 boards with near 50/40/90 shooting splits. Duh.
Vucevic is (still) a hipster’s MVP candidate. I’d take him over every center in the East, except Embiid.
Simmons is a bullet train whose size, speed, and vision couple with a non-existent jump shot to make him the most polarizing and unique player in the league. He isn’t better than Jimmy Butler, but has more responsibility in Philly’s offense and was built to collect triple-doubles. It’ll be fascinating to see if he makes it or not.
Middleton is the second-best player on the NBA’s best team, but that’s less impressive than it sounds. Milwaukee reminds me of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, with Giannis as Dirk and then everyone else existing as a perfect supplementary fit. Middleton is one of the league’s unsung tough-shot-makers, but he also has a lower True Shooting percentage than last year despite jacking up way more threes. It’s also really hard to only choose one All-Star from a team that’s been so impressive.
Crucial pieces on good teams who deserve recognition: Pascal Siakam, Marcus Morris, JJ Redick, Domas Sabonis
Siakam is the third-best player on a title contender but on some nights that feels like an insult. The way he races up the floor throws the entire sport into a different frontier. Spicy P forever.
Morris has the ninth-highest True Shooting percentage in the league and helped save Boston’s season. In 19 games as a starter he’s comfortably in the 50/40/90 club and probably deserves an invite (at the very least) to the three-point shootout. What a ridiculous contract year for Morris.
Here are far too many words about Redick’s case.
Sabonis might low-low-low-key be Indiana’s best player. He’s shooting 74 percent at the rim, is one of the five best passers at his position, and in big minutes holds his own on the defensive end.
Too soon?: Luka Doncic, De’Aaron Fox
These are two of the most enjoyable spectacles in the NBA who’re virtually guaranteed to play in at least half a dozen All-Star games before they retire. Their numbers are terrific and they play for OK teams that have overachieved primarily because nobody expected either Doncic or Fox to be this good. Coming up with a case against them isn’t particularly fun, but unless Sacramento or Dallas goes on a winning streak that stabilizes their playoff status, actually playing in the All-Star game this soon won’t be easy.
(An honorable mention goes to Devin Booker, who’s 22 years old, has the third-highest usage rate in the league, and is averaging 25 points per game. Sadly, injuries and his team’s terrible record have kept him from serious consideration.)
An unofficial albeit acceptable lifetime achievement award: Mike Conley
Memphis’s recent slide has been a painful kidney punch to Conley’s All-Star campaign. But I’d still like to pretend he can be Martin Scorsese, with his value to the Grizzlies standing in as The Departed. The team is wet trash when he sits and 17.7 points per 100 possessions better when he plays; his partnership with Marc Gasol is still roughing up everyone else for the 276th season in a row, and Conley is fifth in Real Plus-Minus among all point guards. But Memphis’s offense isn’t particularly great when he’s on the floor and some of that’s because he isn’t finishing at the rim or drilling pull-up threes like he used to. He isn’t a six-foot roman candle like so many others at his position. I don’t really care. The man deserves this.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s Awkward Fit, Summed Up in One Play
Fair or not, the on and off-court chemistry between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is one of those relentlessly fascinating storylines that won’t disappear until A) the Philadelphia 76ers make the Finals, or B) one of them—most likely Simmons—gets traded.
The good news for Philly is they outscore opponents by nearly six points per 100 possessions when Embiid and Simmons share the floor. The bad news is that number was almost three times as high last year, and the Sixers have been better this season when Embiid is on the court without Simmons, which wasn’t the case during the 2017-18 season.
What’s most glaring when you watch them co-exist is how unusual it feels whenever one directly complements the other. Sure, Simmons will push in transition, cause panic, and create advantageous mismatches that everyone enjoys. And Embiid can consistently draw two defenders on the block then find Simmons on a duck in, or launch him towards the rim by screening his man around half-court. But they also get in each other’s way with a higher frequency than any two franchise players should, and that’s before Jimmy Butler even enters the equation. Simmons can’t space the floor and Embiid sort of can but asking him to do so on a regular basis is like buying a new iPad because you need a nightlight in your bathroom.
What’s most concerning, though, is how the evolution of their two-man game has truly become an escalator to nowhere, particularly when they run a snug pick-and-roll. This action is a disaster almost every time they run it. It’s predictable (opponents switch every single time) and unnecessarily congests the floor.
It’s not like the Sixers run this action a ton (by my count it didn’t occur once in their recent back-to-back against the Wizards), but it’s a micro issue that speaks to their macro dilemma. The best way to mitigate Simmons’s greatest flaw (one that matters a lot more in the playoffs than the regular season) is to play him as a point center, which is difficult on a team that also employs Embiid. Let Simmons push the ball in transition and post up, but also utilize his size, physicality, and speed by making him an unstoppable roll man, someone who can live above the rim and pick you apart as a playmaker on the move. Again, that’s hard to do with Embiid on the floor:
One radical solution may be to make Embiid the ball-handler. It won’t work against every team, but with the floor spaced it could be an opportunity to attack switches in an unorthodox way. I’m not sure if Embiid can/should assume this type of responsibility, but it’s better to try every option than concede too soon and do something rash (for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Sixers sold high on Simmons before his next contract kicks in).
Philadelphia is very good as is, but “very good” isn’t what you punt four years away for. Most teams would be thrilled to have talents like Embiid and Simmons on their roster. Fit be damned, the rest will figure itself out, yada yada yada. But we’ve yet to see these two lift each other in a way that should make anyone think they can claw through two playoff rounds, let alone win a championship. Simmons doesn’t need a jumper to be an All-Star-caliber force, but to compete at the highest level, in a half-court setting, on the same team as a high-usage, low-post big? Of course he does. Brett Brown has the hardest job in the business.
Should Orlando Have Buyer’s Remorse With Aaron Gordon?
Let me preface this section by saying my expectations for Aaron Gordon are borderline irrational, and have been that way ever since he entered the league. A 23-year-old who should harness his multiple position-less powers to become Shawn Marion 3.0 crossed with an entire Cirque du Soleil troupe, Gordon has not been that. And the first year of his $84 million contract has been somewhat of a dud. His points, rebounds, usage, free-throw rate, and True Shooting percentage are all down from a year ago, and the Orlando Magic have to be wondering if the leap his physical advantages promise will ever come.
The buffet of options Gordon’s athleticism provides tend to have a negative effect. There’s decision fatigue. He’ll hijack entire possessions behaving like the star he’s convinced himself he already is, then jack up a terrible shot. (Put another way, Gordon will expend too much energy figuring out what he should be doing instead of doing it.)
The volume isn’t high, but on shots where he holds the ball for at least six seconds Gordon is only shooting 31 percent. That’s atrocious. And on plays where he’s the first option, Gordon will often force the issue before he reads the defense. Assists are slightly up, but many come off swing passes in the flow of Orlando’s offense; it’s too early to claim he’s grown in this area.
Now, all that said, Gordon is perfectly fine when functioning in a structured environment. Be it careening into the paint off a dribble handoff or bullying a switch in the post, then surveying the court for cutters and shooters. He isn’t a dumb player and not everything is his fault; Orlando’s point guard situation has been puke his entire career, he plays a lot of minutes beside guys who’re shooting below 30 percent from deep, and is now on his fifth head coach.
Those are obstacles, but don’t totally absolve Gordon from his failure (thus far) to build on the jump he made last year. The Magic probably won’t make the playoffs again, and some of that has to fall on Gordon. (Vucevic’s All-Star-caliber season isn’t enough!) Again, I’m irrationally high on Gordon and still feel he can be a net-positive player on a good team. But he needs boundaries, a tighter shot selection, and more talent around him to be the best version of whatever it is he can be. It’s increasingly doubtful that ever happens in Orlando.
The Adaptability of the Brooklyn Nets
Who would’ve thought after Caris LeVert’s gruesome injury that the Brooklyn Nets would become the most unflappable team in the entire league? They’re 15-14 since then, with an offense and defense that are about league average. That doesn’t sound impressive but in case you skipped over the first sentence in this section we’re talking about the Brooklyn Nets! It’s ridiculously impressive!
Their net rating in the past month (15 games!) is higher than Philadelphia, Denver, and Toronto. Their depth is startling. Their talent is dramatically overlooked. Their coaching is beyond respectable. Instead of excuses, whenever there’s an injury (be it to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe, LeVert, whoever) Kenny Atkinson simply adjusts his rotation in a way that brainwashes you into thinking the team just got better.
D’Angelo Russell looks like an All-Star. Spencer Dinwiddie is quietly a step-back devil. Jarrett Allen has emerged as a critical offensive weapon and projects to contend for Defensive Player of the Year at some point in his career. Rodions Kurucs has a 7’7” wingspan, size 20 shoe, and is often asked to defend the other team’s primary ball-handler, which he does without withering.
The Russell, Dinwiddie, Shabazz Napier lineups we’ve recently seen are a tornado, and Kenneth Faried (who’s completely out of rhythm but also shooting corner threes) is an overqualified 15th man. Also, veterans like Jared Dudley and Steady Ed Davis are here doing positive things, while Joe Harris just drilled nine threes since you clicked on this column.
Brooklyn’s upcoming schedule is a rollercoaster, with the Raptors, Celtics, and Rockets followed by Magic, Kings, Magic, and Knicks, right before another game against...the Celtics. But this team appears to have found itself on both ends. It’s resilient, poised, intelligent, and really hard to guard. What happens when LeVert returns should be interesting, and if he looks like the All-Star he was before the injury none of the Eastern Conference’s top-four teams will particularly enjoy going up against them in the first round.
But this feel-good surge impacts the long-term. Last month, Atkinson was on the block and a top-10 draft pick felt certain. That's no longer the case. Dinwiddie has already been locked into a team-friendly deal, but so many of the veterans are set to hit unrestricted free agency, and Russell will want a massive pay raise. It’s possible they dip out of the playoff picture and land a lottery pick—they’re only 2.0 games up on the ninth place Detroit Pistons—but that feels unlikely.
Will the momentum behind a reputable playoff showing be enough to convince a marquee free agent that Brooklyn is right for him? If not, do they hope Russell receives no outlandish offer sheets and roll it back with everyone onboard as a tradable asset? The Nets were bad for so long that the joy they’re currently going through overshadows those important questions. Until then, who cares. This team has been super fun.