1. James Harden’s Fitness in Philly
The Sixers are finally free of drama. Their long, awkward, and deadly relationship with Ben Simmons has finally come to an end, and now their championship aspirations will remain with James Harden and how he fits into his third team in less than two years.
The Sixers (35-23) suddenly the clock is here. They want, and may need, to benefit from an epic season thus far from Joel Embiid, one of the Kia MVP’s top candidates. Playing on an obnoxious level, Embiid is a chore for any opposing team to paint, and he’s proven quite capable of being the centerpiece of the title team. Even before Harden arrived and without Simmons, the Embiid Sixers 10 has over .500, just a lift under the penthouse in the East. This is credited with his hunger and desire to be the best.
However, Embiid has a rich and disturbing history of injuries, and will be required to burn plenty of minutes once his post-season kicks off. That’s because the Sixers forked over Andre Drummond in the Simmons deal. Drummond had a strong hold as Philly’s backup hub, especially as a newcomer. Unless the Sixers find a reasonably fit big man in the acquisition market, the lack of front-line depth could prove costly just below the stretch from a business standpoint with Embiid.
Also, the Sixers surrendered to Seth Curry as well, costing them a precious deep shooter. This puts more weight on Therese Maxi to continue his impressive season and maintain the same level throughout qualifying only because Curry was so important to the backcourt turn.
Finally… can Harden up his game? His scoring average (22.5) is the lowest since his last season in Oklahoma City, when he came off the bench; And his 3-point efficiency at 33% is the lowest in his career.
2. When will Ben Simmons return and how will he adapt in Brooklyn?
What we’ve seen over the past three months has been one of the few documented cases of an NBA star player refusing to report for reasons other than money. It was quite strange, in fact, how Simmons sided with The Sixers and so gladly lost millions of dollars on principle. He seemed to indicate that from the point of view of desire, any return to Feli was non-negotiable.
okay then. None of that matters now, because in Brooklyn, Simmons would feel all the love. Even if he struggled with his outdoor shot—let’s say his jump jacket wasn’t fixed all night while he was sitting at home—this malfunction was reduced with Nets for a number of reasons. Brooklyn brings in plenty of bowlers, with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris (ankle surgery) on his return, Patti Mills and Seth Curry. So, Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, and his only really serious weaknesses, will mostly not be a problem.
The net (31-28) needs him to do what he does best: lock in the other team’s player, create shots for the scorers, rebound, and score dribbling close to the edge.
A real argument can be made that Simmons left Philly for a better team. If he can get into game form in a reasonable time and, more importantly, get his head right and ready to play and deal with the possibility of harassment on the road, Simmons could be more useful to Brooklyn than Harden was.
3. Could the Lakers fit this?
No one was pleased to see the All-Star break over the 27-31 Lakers, who clearly needed the moment to take a deep breath, reset, and wipe out the grime of a frustrating first half of the season. It’s still amazing and amazing to see LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis at the Center Play-In Tournament. Was it all a bad dream?
No, in fact, it was bad basketball, stemming from an awkward mix of moderate-impact supporting players and a sharp fall from Westbrook. Its beginning seems over and irreversible, and now, it’s all about finding that humble middle ground as a secondary option most nights.
So the most pressing issue is: How can the Lakers reinvent Westbrook or, at least, hide as many of his season-long flaws as possible? It is one thing for him to be inconsistent; The Lakers can live with that. The problem is that Westbrook damages the team with 3 shooting nights, misses open shots when his confidence dies, and most of all his killer momentum fluctuations, his lack of defense and poor decision-making.
Westbrook still has his speed off dodge and attack mentality near the edge. That remains his strength. Now, how does coach Frank Vogel manage his minutes without hurting Westbrook’s ego, and put Westbrook into situations where his former best player can thrive?
Meanwhile, the Lakers should once again deal with Davis’ fragile body – he’s currently dealing with a sprained foot that will cost him at least four weeks – and not strain LeBron to the point where he also has physical problems ahead of the playoffs.
4. When Draymond Green returns, how good are the Warriors?
That is the question being asked from here to Phoenix. There’s a logical assumption that Warriors, once complete, can finally tap the accelerator and rise to the league-leading Suns level, which is 6 1/2 games ahead of Golden State in the West. It’s easy to say, but not automatically visualized.
With only 23 games left in the regular season, it’s very likely that the Warriors won’t step in until the playoffs appear, which is clearly not a bad thing. Coach Steve Kerr has good problems. There is an enviable depth to this team with a mix of championship-tested veterans as well as young players and athletes filling the rotation.
The Warriors’ defense has struggled lately, but that too can be fixed. Green is the obvious solution to the problem. Then there is Klay Thompson. Before suffering injury setbacks in the past few years, Thompson was a top-ranking defender and took on the toughest backcourt assignments over Steve Curry. But any player returning from major surgery – and Thompson had a husband – has a hard time defending themselves against the faster scorers and athletics at least initially. Thompson may not be ready to get those pieces back until next season, if at all.
The challenge for the Warriors is to rely on proven winners – Curry, Drey, and Clay – while getting solid results from their teammates who haven’t won any break lines. For example, is Andrew Wiggins ready for this hot light? What about Jordan Paul, Jonathan Cominga, Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II?
5. Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and the nuggets of sleep
When the Nuggets got word that Murray and Porter might return to the squad this season after all, Denver became the most interesting, if not the most underrated, team in the league. The Nuggets sit decently sixth in the West, just above the Play-In cut line, and that has a lot to do with Nikola Jokic, who is actually playing better than his MVP season a year ago.
Jokic is the embodiment of the franchise player, displaying the multiple skills that enable him to influence positive outcomes in different ways and not just scoring. Seriously, how good is this guy? And how many players are able to average 26 points, nearly 14 rebounds, nearly eight assists, and 1.5 assists per night for a winning team?
Therefore, one can rightly assume that the Nuggets will only improve with Murray and Porter, and that the piano that Jokic carries on his back will become lighter.
Murray has not played since last April after knee surgery and Porter since November after surgery to correct a nerve problem in his back. There is a chance of no return, or only one of them, or both.
Taking a best-case scenario here, the Nuggets would reflect on paper the team that reached the Western Conference finals in the Bubble 2020. Murray was on fire during those playoffs and saw Porter come of age. Their joint recording, along with Jokic, along with contributions from Will Barton and Aaron Gordon, would instantly make the Nuggets a major player in the West.
A more realistic view is that both players, and especially Murray, may need reps before regaining any effect they had prior to their injuries. And so: Can they revive the Nuggets this year and soon, or are the Nuggets more of a 2022-23 contender?
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Sean Powell has covered the NBA for over 25 years. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him Twitter.
The opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect those of the National Basketball Association, its clubs, or Turner Broadcasting.