Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 12/6

Adam Silver Picked the Wrong Game to Attend

NBA commissioners usually attend a few games every season, and they choose to attend games that are worth watching: Whether it be because it is a historic rivalry, it is hosted in a big market, it features two NBA championship contenders, or it features some of the league’s brightest young talent. That last reason is probably why Adam Silver chose to attend last week’s game between the WIzards and 76ers in Philadelphia. This was two teams who figured to be fighting for home court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference come season’s end, and it showcased up-and-coming stars Joel Embiid, John Wall, Ben Simmons, and Bradley Beal.

Wall didn’t suit up in this particular matchup due to a knee injury, but the game disappointed in another way. Although the final score and the narrative tell an intriguing story–the Sixers built a 22-point lead before the Wizards, led by its much-maligned bench, rallied to cut it to three before eventually losing 118-113–the game was tough on the eye. With Washington’s defense utterly helpless against a variety of Simmons and Embiid led offensive attacks, Scott Brooks resorted to intentionally fouling the Australian rookie. Simmons broke an NBA record with 24 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter. For the game, he was 15-for-29, en route to a career-best 31. He added a career-high 18 rebounds.

This strategy–and the fact that it almost worked–display two things about the Sixers this season. First of all, their offense is really hard to stop. They have height all over the floor, which they are permitted to do because the 6’10’’ Simmons is able to perform the primary ball handling duties. Not only does the height advantage create mismatches all over the floor–but they also surround Simmons with accurate three point shooters. Getting Simmons on the low block against a smaller guards is a great recipe for success. Simmons combines his physical edge with solid post footwork and an uncommon ability to finish with either hand on layups as well as hook shots. With no help defense, Simmons will score the majority of the time. If the double team does come, Simmons can find the open man. Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and JJ Redick can all hit the open outside shot and have the ability to attack a hard close out and get to the midrange or, in Embiid’s case, all the way to the rim.

Embiid’s freakish combination of size and quickness makes him nearly unstoppable on in the mid and high post, and the Sixers offense mostly consists of a screen play involving his two young stars, or getting one of them in an advantageous isolation matchup.

Washington couldn’t stop it for three quarters. Even once they had cut the lead to three, a point at which Simmons had hit four of his last six free throws, Brooks kept up the strategy. Usually, once the intended target starts hitting his free throws and you come back to within one possession, you give your defense the chance to get a stop. Free points become too important. Further, by the time the two minute mark hit, the Wizards’ three leading scorers on the night–Beal, Kelly Oubre and Jodie Meeks, who had taken turns guarding Simmons–had committed five fouls each. Before the night was over, Beal and Oubre had fouled out. Brooks didn’t seem to care. He feared having to stop Philadelphia’s offense so much that he maintained the hack-a-Simmons for as long as possible.

However, Philadelphia’s reliance on Simmons as one of only two playmakers on the roster mean that they cannot afford to sit him late in close games, especially given that their other go-to-guy has an injury history and still has never played more than 35 minutes in a game. Simmons, on the other hand, played 41 minutes that night against the Wizards, is averaging 39 over his past 10 games, and about 36 for the season. Brett Brown can’t really get away from the hack-a-Simmons counter even if he wanted to because Simmons is so important to their success as an offense. If Simmons can’t improve his free throw shooting, which has already showed signs of getting better, and the Sixers continue to impress on offense, hack-a-Simmons could be a recurring theme this year. During the game, Adam Silver gave an ultimately ironic interview in which he stated that improving pace of play was a central focus of the league this year and predicted that intentionally fouling was being phased out. Ben Simmons’ emergence as a force could prove those predictions wrong.

Second Bananas no Longer?

When John Wall went down with a knee injury about 10 days ago, it was disheartening for Wizards fans who had already experienced a frustrating start to the season. The one silver lining, though, was that Wall’s spell on the sidelines would allow Bradley Beal to carry the offense over an extended period of time for the first time since he made the so-called “jump” to stardom last season.

Beal started hot in his new role, dropping 22 or more points in each of the first three games without his backcourt mate. Then, teams started to catch onto what Washington’s offensive gameplan primarily consisted of. The Wizards would run a high pick-and-roll for Beal and he would take the first good look if the defender tried to go over the screen. If his man went under the screen and conceded the switch, Beal would go into an iso against the big man.

The pick-and-roll is a staple of the Washington offense even when Wall is healthy, and he typically serves as the primary ball handler. Unlike Beal, Wall has the speed to race around attempted traps and the vision to throw the ball out of double teams to the open man. Beal has never been asked to run an NBA offense before. Asking him to operate as the de facto point guard, Beal began to struggle. He got consistently trapped around every pick-and-roll and struggled to create scores out of them. Washington remained stubborn in its approach.

Instead of trying to free Beal in other ways, the Wizards resorted to their typical secondary scoring options when all else fails; a collection of post ups from Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat. Beal is at his best when he plays within the flow of the offense, when he can catch the ball on the perimeter and then either rise up and shoot or attack the opposition’s closeout. Moved to the playmaker role, Beal often found himself making one pass and then being forgotten in the offense. He attempted 12 or fewer shots and scored 11 or fewer points in three of four games entering Tuesday’s contest in Portland. With the talent level of the team around him, these numbers would never be enough to string together victories and keep Washington afloat in Wall’s absence.

Then, out of nowhere, Beal exploded. The Wizards abandoned the pick-and-roll for the most part against the Trail Blazers, allowing Beal to go right at Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, neither of whom are known for the defense. Beal scored almost at will from all three levels. He only got to the line five times, but hit 26-of-37 shots from the field to total a career high 51 points. It was a high volume and high efficiency performance. When used the right way, Beal showed that he can carry an offense with little to no support.

If Beal maintains this aggression level throughout the season, he can become an elite scorer in this league and at least match up to Wall on the superstar scale. Wall has gotten off to a slower start this season, and even if he remains the primary playmaker for the Wizards, Beal may be slowly overtaking him as the go-to option late in close games.

In the opposite conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder are struggling to find their offense. On that side of the ball, everything still mostly runs through Russell Westbrook when he’s in the game. As Russell Westbrook proved all of last season–and in wins over Golden State and Utah this season–he can carry an offense to solid amount of wins. The Thunder are too talented to not get better on offense, and they already have one of the league’s top ranked defenses. If Westbrook continues to dominate the offense as he has to date, the Thunder can expect a slight uptick in victories from last season. Westbrook, surrounded by the shooting of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, should be able to guarantee that.

However, this team should have aspirations to give Golden State a run for its money in the Western Conference. Their starpower dictates as much. If they want to contend with the league’s best over a seven game series, it cannot be the Russell Westbrook show. Billy Donovan must install a more complex offense that can put his three offensive stars in favorable situations of offense. Anthony and George cannot be relegated to catch and shoot threats as both are among the best in the league at taking advantage of slower or smaller defenders.

In fact, George may end up being the most valuable player for this team. Unlike Westbrook, he can carry the load on both ends of the court. He is one of the frontrunners for defensive player of the league through a quarter of the season, and he one of the most difficult players to stop one-on-one. Thus far, almost half of his field goal attempts have been threes, compared to just over a third last season. George must be allowed to get the ball and attack the defense. He has value shooting from the perimeter, but he is Oklahoma City’s most versatile scorer. When they need a bucket, it might be time for Oklahoma City to turn to George instead of Westbrook.

A Trade Proposal

Given all of the movement and commotion of the 2017 offseason, it seemed like the season itself would be rather calm. There were no star players constantly in the rumor mill once Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Carmelo Anthony left their Eastern Conference homes to team up with other stars out west.

Now, however, with Blake Griffin out injured and the Clippers season already completely lost, rumor has it that they are ready to completely blow it up and rebuild. When Chris Paul left, the Clippers felt that their core was strong enough to compete, but a string of bad luck and an 8-14 record say otherwise.

DeAndre Jordan, who is a pending free agent, seems the most logical piece to move on from. Jordan is unquestionably a serviceable NBA starter, he is one of the very best in the league at what he does, but he never grew into the player the Clippers hoped when they usurped the Mavs for his signature and gave him an expensive long-term contract.

Jordan is useful when he is the team’s third or fourth offensive option like was when Paul was in LA, but not when he is the first or second, a role he seems destined to play for the next few months. He is no longer necessary for a Clippers team probably more interested in collecting losses than competing for wins at this point. His contract runs out at the end of the summer, and there is a high likelihood he leaves Los Angeles anyway.

The team that I propose trade for him is the only one to make a trade since the crazy offseason ended. The Milwaukee Bucks’ 12-10 record is disappointing given the high level of talent on the roster. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a bona fide star, and Bledsoe and Khris Middleton are ideal secondary players. Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, and John Henson are solid role players. The Bucks’ second best player, Jabari Parker has yet to suit up this season as he recovers from a second ACL surgery in the past three years.

However, Parker doesn’t fit Milwaukee’s bill of length and speed. This team is built to run on offense and smother teams on defense. The plodding Parker doesn’t add much to either of these elements. I suggest that Milwaukee deal Parker to the Clippers alongside Henson (in order for the salaries to match up) for DeAndre Jordan. Of course, trading for Parker is a huge risk. No one knows exactly when he’ll return, or how good he’ll be once he returns. Plus, he contract expires at the end of the season and he’s suspected to be hunting for a max contract. The Clippers, though have nothing to lose, and they could bring in a potential max-caliber player for the prime of his career. Parker is not a natural fit with Griffin, but Los Angeles is going nowhere with Jordan, and they could even look to eventually trade Griffin and go all-in on the youth movement. Los Angeles will have half a season to gage how they feel about Parker, and if they decide to move on, they will open up a lot of contract space that Jordan’s contract would otherwise be taking up.

With this trade, the Bucks immediately become a contender to challenge Cleveland for Eastern Conference supremacy. The Greek Freak is one of the league’s best at pulling the other team’s center away from their man because he gets to the rim with such as ease. Giannis drives could result in a lot of Jordan alley-oops and putback dunks.

Even scarier, the team suddenly becomes elite defensively. A Bledsoe-Snell-Middleton-Giannis-Jordan lineup can switch at will, and fly around the court to create deflections. They can be even more aggressive than currently because Jordan is an elite rim protector. The few things that Jordan does he does at an extremely high level, and they are exactly the attributes Milwaukee could use to take the next step.

 

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