Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The Philadelphia 76ers are fixed
Whether or not the actual framework of a trade was offered, the Houston Rockets could have gotten Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers for James Harden instead of Victor Oladipo and a Brooklyn Nets draft bonanza. That is pretty well-established at this point. I would lean toward taking Simmons, a 24-year-old All-NBA and All-Defensive talent signed through 2025, because he is who you hope to find with the picks.
Maybe Rockets general manager Rafael Stone wanted more. Maybe his former boss and current Sixers president Daryl Morey was not comfortable meeting whatever Stone perceived to be a package of equal value to the Nets’ offer. Regardless, Morey can move forward, selling his team on the notion that he held true to last month’s statement: “We are not trading Ben Simmons — he is an important part of our future.”
That Morey did not meet the reported asking price of Tyrese Maxey and/or Matisse Thybulle on top of Simmons is at the very least an endorsement of the current roster as one that does not need shaking up.
And the early returns this season are his supporting evidence. The Sixers are 8-4 overall, tied for second in the Eastern Conference, 8-1 when both Simmons and Joel Embiid are in the lineup and 7-0 with a starting lineup that also features Tobias Harris, Danny Green and Seth Curry. That five-man unit is outscoring opponents by a whopping 16.6 points per 100 possessions, as sound offensively as it has been defensively.
Regardless of who is on the floor with Simmons and Embiid, they are pounding opponents by double digits per 100 possessions — a massive upgrade from last season, when the margin was almost negligible. Much credit is given to Morey for swiftly fixing Philadelphia’s shooting woes with the offseason additions of Green and Curry. Even if the Sixers are converting slightly worse from distance than last season, the threat is real.
The shot distribution overall is slightly better, and there is room for improvement. They still rank top 10 in mid-range attempts. The biggest difference has been the improved performance of Embiid and Harris, both of whom have been remarkably efficient this season. Philadelphia’s 325.8 passes per game lead the league by a wide margin this season, and oftentimes just feeling like a bigger part of the offense is enough to increase engagement on that end. That is a testament to the cultural impact of new coach Doc Rivers.
The ceiling for the Sixers has always been incredibly high — like Eastern Conference champions high — and that may still be unattainable, especially now that the Nets have Harden, but they are a whole lot closer.
Kyrie Irving should retire
ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith says a lot of incendiary stuff, so I have a tendency to tune him out when he says something like, “Kyrie Irving should retire,” because he doesn’t “want to play basketball bad enough.” I do not pretend to know how much credence his show’s viewers give to his absolutist takes.
Still, this is a sentiment shared by at least one of his colleagues, Irving’s former teammate Kendrick Perkins, who issued his own ultimatum this past June: “If you’re gonna make a stance, do it or don’t talk about it.”
Irving, almost 29, has broached the possibility of retiring in his “early-to-mid 30s,” telling Tim Bontemps of ESPN in November 2018, “I love basketball itself. But everything that comes with it? It doesn’t really matter to me, in terms of my life. I enjoy the game, I enjoy being with my teammates, playing every single day.”
But what are we doing here? We’re telling someone if and when and how and why he should retire? Stop. Just stop. I have long since given up on trying to determine what Irving is thinking. I am never entirely sure he even knows. And that is OK! He does not need to know. NBA players are allowed to figure out life, too.
Granted, they are paid handsomely to perform their jobs. That is an agreement between Irving and the Nets that they are fully capable of figuring out on their own. He may be excused. He may be fined. He may even be temporarily barred from rejoining the team for a violation of health and safety protocols. Failing to alert his employer of an extended absence is not a great look, but he seems prepared to face the consequences.
Maybe the threat of an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol jarred Irving. Maybe he is unsatisfied with the response from NBA team owners to social injustice. Maybe isolated life in a pandemic is a bear. Maybe the man just needed a mental health break. And maybe celebrating his sister’s birthday was a welcome respite from the weight of it all, COVID-19 risks be damned. I don’t know, you don’t know, so let’s not pretend we do.
I presume Irving will return, and he will be prepared to play basketball at the highest of levels when he does. I presume he will provide an explanation. And I also presume the public will be unsatisfied with his explanation, because it will be wrapped in his own jargon. Could he retire? Sure. All of it is fine. He and the Nets will sort it out. It is not for us to decide what Irving should do with the rest of his basketball career.
These are wild times we are living in, and everyone deserves a break from them, including NBA players.
Jerami Grant is an All-Star
When first-year Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver threw $60 million at Jerami Grant and seemingly signed every available big man in free agency, he was roundly mocked. Well, at least one of those decisions has been proven wrong through the first month of the season: Defying the odds, playing his seventh season on a fourth team, Grant has ascended to somewhere bordering on elite status.
Maintaining his high scoring efficiency from the previous three years (58.6 true shooting percentage), the 26-year-old has more than doubled his scoring average from last season, spiking to 24.8 points per game, and he is posting career-high averages in rebounds (six), assists (1.8) and combined blocks and steals (2.2).
Pistons coach Dwane Casey has turned a considerable portion of his offense over to Grant. He ranked seventh in usage rate among rotational players on the Denver Nuggets last season — understandably behind Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, but also trailing Paul Millsap — and he is now second only to former MVP Derrick Rose, using more than a quarter of Detroit’s possessions in 10 more minutes a game.
Grant is getting the ball and handling it twice as often as he did in Denver. He was primarily a spot-up safety valve for the Nuggets and is still effective in that role for the Pistons, but Casey is running a ton more plays for him both on and off the ball. Grant has already run more pick-and-roll plays than he did all of last season and has seen a corresponding uptick in possessions coming off screens. The confidence they have shown in him with increased opportunities as a primary halfcourt option has translated to greater efficiency.
His first four games — against Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta and Golden State — could have been explained away as a hot streak, but he has since faced Milwaukee three times, Boston twice, Phoenix and Utah with no slippage in his production. In almost 40 minutes directly opposite Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jaylen Brown — quality defenders all — he has scored 50 points on 41 shots. No mirage.
Of course, the Pistons are now 2-9, owners of the worst record in the NBA, and that will complicate his All-Star case. Remember, Bradley Beal averaged 30 points a night last season and failed to make the cut because his Washington Wizards were atrocious. And the East is as loaded with talent as it has been in a long time.
Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Embiid, Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Domantas Sabonis, Trae Young, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam were all 2020 All-Stars and will have their say. Add to the mix Beal, Brown, Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Russell Westbrook, Zach LaVine, Malcolm Brogdon and others I am surely forgetting. If Grant maintains this pace, he will be in a fringe group with guys like LaVine and Brogdon, which means he will likely have to settle for Most Improved Player.
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