After a season-long, self induced hiatus, the Sixers are back to being NBA Championship contenders! First in the East, headlined by the presumed MVP prior to an unfortunate injury, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, clutch time and proving-Daniel-is-stupid master Tobias Harris and a wacky yet good supporting cast of role players and young guys.
In order to gear up for what will hopefully be a very active post-season for the Sixers, I’m gonna be doing a weekly deep dive on their biggest competitors for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, both in the East and West (but more importantly, not in Boston).
Let’s do this!
1. Take the Denver Nuggets very, very seriously
Yes, Joel Embiid did not step on the hardwood Tuesday night in the Mile High City. Thus, the Sixers getting absolutely mollywhopped by Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets is no reason to fret or even believe that the Western Conference Finalists are a better team than the one that’s been assembled in Philadelphia.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a dangerous squad brewing out in Denver. The Nuggets made perhaps the biggest move of the trade deadline, finally taking Aaron Gordon (and Gary Clark!!!) out of Orlando in exchange for RJ Hampton, Gary Harris and a protected 2025 first-round pick. It’s a deal I’ve pegged for Denver all season long, and the experiment has looked great in their first two contests with the revamped starting lineup.
Gordon himself hasn’t even done that much, scoring a total of 19 points on 13 shots and a pedestrian 14.4% usage rate, and yet he’s been exactly what the Nuggets have wanted. His presence has amplified the star scorer trio of Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., particularly MPJ who has put together an average of 26 points per game on 71.6 TS% in their first two contests post deadline.
As I talked about on the Pick Axe and Roll Podcast with my good friend Ryan Blackburn, Gordon’s addition gives Denver a wealth of size in their starting five without compromising movement skills. I floated that the Sixers might start with Danny Green guarding Porter seeing that they needed to hide Seth Curry on Will Barton, and Green’s lack of on-ball speed would likely be exposes against a driving threat like Jamal Murray. Well Doc Rivers indeed went that direction, only for MPJ to completely dominate Green with his near five-inch height advantage. In the clips below, Danny did a fine job staying connected to Porter on his cuts and gave reasonable contests on his jumpers, but it simply doesn’t matter when his hand can’t even get in his opponent’s peripheral vision.
Tired of death by MPJ, the Sixers switched the defensive assignments for Ben Simmons and Green, stashing the veteran guard on Jamal Murray and that ... uh ... did not go well.
Danny is still a good player, but as I wrote last week, he’s just too slow for high level on-ball defense nowadays. That’s the conundrum the Nuggets now force on you with three guys 6’8” and up in combination with two sizable guards in Murray and Barton. None of those guys are short enough to be attacked on defense, and offensively teams will most likely be forced to check Murray with a guy who can’t keep up or Porter/Gordon with a dude who’s too small. They’re legit title contenders following their trade for the twice dunk contest runner-up.
2. Terance Mann is bringing the downhill juice that the Clippers have desperately needed
The first half of this NBA season, the majority of mainstream media looked at the Clips and decided that they needed to find a real point guard if they want to win the title. The hardcore NBA nerds were more focused on their dearth of rim pressure, as they currently rank 29th in the league in the proportion of their shots that are attempted at the rim per Cleaning the Glass.
They’re a jump shooting team, and a very good one at that as they sit at 2nd in the entire league in effective field goal percentage. But ultimately if you can’t attack the basket, if you can’t generate different looks in your offense that force a playoff defense to adjust, what results is a jumbled mess of missed jumpers at the moments you dread it most (see the entire 2nd half of Game 7 of the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals).
There’s still credence to that plea, though I think the Clippers may have found a partial solution in second-year player Terance Mann. One could just look at Mann’s basic shot distribution without watching him and assume that he’s a downhill threat, shooting 54% of his field goal attempts at the basket, good for 93rd percentile amongst wings. However that number doesn’t take into account Mann’s hatred for literally taking any shots, as he’s one of only 43 players in the NBA to average over 15 minutes played per game while averaging fewer than five shot attempts each night. He was still a net positive due to his outlier energy and supreme quickness for a 6-foot-7 wing, but opponents had begun to ignore him pretty openly in half court offense, confident that he was too focused on the tertiary to hurt them with any scoring.
I don’t know what exactly got into him, but after averaging a mere 3.6 field goal attempts though his first 39 contests, Mann has soared to a 11 FGA per game average through the last 6 games. And this boost in confidence has not come at the expense of efficiency, as Mann has averaged 15.2 points per game on a blistering 61.2 True Shooting Percentage. Mann is not much for shooting threes, but he’s attacking the paint with ferocity, and his increased aggressiveness has opened up the better parts of his game such as his kick-out passing.
After housing the Embiid-less Sixers with 23 points, Mann finished the a healthy line of 14 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in LA’s win over Milwaukee, living up to his “Stat Stuffer” nickname. I love how on Mann’s assists, he feigns a shot attempt so close the basket, forcing the defenders to collapse, before contorting his body in Matrix-like fashion to whip a pass out to an open shooter. Old heads will propagate the “don’t jump to pass” mantra, but I think it’s more than fine when you know how to use it to create advantages, and Mann’s utilization of it as he attacks the interior of the defensive shell is more than acceptable. The burst-happy Florida State product probably isn’t THE skeleton key that unlocks a title run for the Clippers, but he’s sure doing what he can to prove that notion wrong.
(Of course, mere hours after I drafted this blurb, the Clippers whipped up a 103-96 loss to the corpse of a roster formerly known as the Orlando Magic, and Mann tanked his TS% in the process. Kept the aggressiveness up though!)
3. Nets having problems with big wings?
Any worries/complaints with the Nets are simply nitpicks. They’re insanely good, continuing to dominate their competition behind a classic James Harden masterpiece of a season, Kyrie Irving in the midst of what is by far his most efficient shooting season as a pro, and a more than capable supporting cast (please do not get upset about the Blake Griffin or LaMarcus Aldridge signings, Nic Claxton is kind of, sort of, most definitely better than them right now and should get more minutes).
That said, I was a little startled by how much trouble Anthony Edwards gave them in the second half of Brooklyn’s 112-107 win over the Timberwolves that felt more like a loss in spirit. Given, Edwards has made many opponents look foolish trying to stop him as he forays to the rim like monster truck, but it truly looked like the Nets had zero shot of competing physically with Ant-Man.
Nothing wrong about the choice the Nets made here. Heck, Jeff Green is probably their best option to defend him given their personnel on the floor, but he might as well be a traffic cone as a quick jab step and go is all Edwards needs to penetrate and earn foul shots.
What Ant did in the latest parts of Minny’s near comeback were almost graphically violent, as he skied over Brooklyn’s guard trio for a cutback before he overwhelmed Bruce Brown in at mid-court.
What are the Nets supposed to do when presented with a wing who can attack off the dribble with speed and at least threaten them with jumpers? James Harden and Kyrie Irving are better than they get credit for on defense, but they aren’t filling those shoes. Kevin Durant could perhaps do it when healthy, but he has regressed just a tad in movement skills post-achilles injury. Bruce Brown rocks but is simply too short at 6’2”. Can’t be Joe Harris. Not Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot. DEFINITELY not Blake Griffin or LaMarcus Aldridge. Maybe Claxton can handle it but I’d prefer a good defending wing rather than a big for as good as Claxton is. Jeff Green might still be the best option but as you seen above he’s far from a perfect solution. It’s just not great.
Fortunately for Brooklyn, they might not run into this problem in the East. Their two biggest competitors are Milwaukee and Philly, and their big wings are either slower, pull-up artists (Middleton and Tobi) or athletic dynamos who you should feel more than welcome to back off of (Giannis and Simmons). And all in all, given how their offense has scored 119.1 points per 100 possessions despite missing a top 15-ish player of all-time for pretty much half of the season is bonkers, there might be no defensive flaw consequential enough to matter. The Nets remain a juggernaut.
4. A cutting edge player for the Suns
You know how jaw-dropping it is when Giannis Antetokounmpo takes those two gigantic, loping strides before he lifts off for a dunk? It’s amazing and speaks to his greatness that should a defense slip even for a moment and provide him with a mere five-foot opening or so, he’s going to turn into a gosh darn sprinter with the basketball and punish the rim and quite possibly a rotating big.
The Suns don’t have Giannis, but they’ve fashioned a facsimile of those backbreaking drives with the cuts of one Mikal Bridges.
Opponents are so worried about either Devin Booker or Chris Paul receiving any type of screen above the break, that they often fall asleep on Bridges as he’s positioned in the corner. Though he hasn’t had a ton of them this season, my favorite are those cuts that happen right in front of defender’s face, as Bridges unfurls his absurdly long limbs and either yams it on the defense or flips in a soft finger roll.
This is something that Phoenix has often done with Booker through the years as a counter to opponents staying locked on his outer hip in preparation to go over a potential screen, and it’s cool to see them employ it with a young stud in Bridges as well. Of the 105 players to attempt more than 10% of their shots off cuts, Mikal ranks 8th overall in points per possession and he’s 90th percentile in the league overall. He’s tricky in varying up his cutting movements, and again all he needs is a sliver of space to get a good look at the rim with his crazy cross section of length and speed.
Cutting isn’t just a fulcrum for one’s own scoring either. Teams have become more aware that Bridges will kill them given space on the interior, and that opens up great looks for his teammate whenever he engages on a cut.
Three years into his career, Bridges has transformed from an enticing rookie with a shaky jumper into a big plus on both ends, and in my opinion he’s currently the third best player on a contender out West.