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The New-Look Sixers Are Still a Process, and the Five Most Interesting Teams of the Week

Plus: Deandre Ayton gets defensive, Thad Young fills the void in Indy, and more intrigue from around the league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With just over a month to go in the 2018-19 NBA regular season and the races at the top and bottom of the standings heating up, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the NBA for Week 21—man, has it been that long???—starting with a tense moment in the City of Brotherly Love …

Philadelphia 76ers

As impressive as Joel Embiid has been all season, his Most Valuable Player candidacy might be getting its biggest boost with him on the sideline. The All-Star center has missed the Sixers’ past seven games with left knee soreness, and Philly’s been on something of a roller-coaster ride in his absence.

The Sixers have gone 4-3 without Embiid, alternating impressive performances like a hard-fought three-point loss to the Warriors with far dicier efforts. Philly nearly coughed up a big fourth-quarter lead to the Pelicans, sealed a shaky win over the Magic thanks to a handful of late clutch plays by Jimmy Butler, and suffered a rough loss to the Bulls on Wednesday that featured a blown 10-point lead, just three Sixers field goals in the fourth quarter, Zach LaVine outscoring Philly by himself in the final five minutes, and the Sixers going 0-for-2 on chances to win the game in a clock-error-elongated final second that left Butler shaking his head …

… and once again raising his voice in the general direction of head coach Brett Brown:

One silver lining to Embiid’s extended break: It’s allowed Tobias Harris to take a step closer to the front of the stage.

The Sixers’ big trade deadline acquisition has seen an uptick in minutes and usage rate with the big guy on the shelf, and he’s taken advantage, averaging a team-leading 22.6 points per game on 51/40/90 shooting splits to go with 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 37.6 minutes per game since Embiid went down. He’s been a key floor spacer with JJ Redick slumping, knocking down at least three 3-pointers in four of the seven JoJo-free games, and a solid source of complementary playmaking, dishing three or more assists in four of the seven, too. When he gets into an early groove, as he did against Oklahoma City, he makes Philly awfully tough to stop, even when it’s not at full strength:

But when he doesn’t get on track quickly, he can drift. Harris missed his first four looks against Chicago on Wednesday and never really found his way into the heart of the action, finishing with a quiet 13 points on 13 shots; one wonders whether Philly’s fourth-quarter offense might have gotten unstuck earlier and more often had Harris been given more chances to work himself into a rhythm.

The best version of the Sixers finds a way to stitch together the disparate skills of its stars—Embiid’s post-up mauling, Ben Simmons’s gifts for cooking in transition, Butler’s pick-and-roll prowess and isolation creativity, Redick’s accuracy when firing away off motion, Harris’s ability to do a little bit of all of the above—into a cohesive, dominant offense from which no defensive opponent can hide. But injuries have limited that supercharged starting five to just 73 total minutes of shared floor time, and without Embiid to act as the focal point and organizing principle, the seams are showing. Philly’s lineup still might have the highest ceiling of any Eastern contender, but it’s also still got the most work to do to get ready for what promises to be an all-out brawl of a postseason.

Phoenix Suns

From affecting alternate personalities during interviews to inviting comparisons to Shaquille O’Neal and explaining his decision to sign a shoe deal with Puma as “really trying to get bank,” Deandre Ayton entered the NBA intent on becoming a topic of conversation. But despite being on pace to join Blake Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns as just the third rookie since 2000 to average at least 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, last year’s no. 1 overall pick has largely felt like an afterthought, stuck toiling in the paint for a dead-end team embroiled in front-office tumult.

Yet while the basketball-watching world has fawned over his fellow 2018 draftees, Ayton has been working on the widely identified hole in his game: his defense. In his first month as a pro, Ayton ranked dead last in defensive field goal percentage allowed at the rim among bigs who defend a handful of up-close shots per game. But he’s improved steadily over the season, and from mid-January through the end of February, he held opponents to 57.6 percent shooting on point-blank tries, squarely in the middle of the NBA pack among high-volume interior defenders.

Ayton looks to be making even bigger strides away from the paint. According to NBA.com’s defensive matchup data, Ayton still spends the bulk of his time guarding the opposing team’s biggest offensive player: Hassan Whiteside, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gobert, and the like. Recently, though, Suns coach Igor Kokoskov has asked Ayton to check more mobile, and at times more threatening, 4s. Case in point: During Phoenix’s two meetings with the Atlanta Hawks last month, he more frequently lined up against power forward John Collins than center Dewayne Dedmon. The Suns center didn’t exactly shut down the high-scoring aviation buff; Atlanta scored 76 points on 65 possessions when the two were matched up over the two games, both Hawks wins. But Ayton didn’t get dusted off the bounce by the smaller Collins, and the Suns stayed in both games until the bitter end.

Kokoskov deployed the 7-foot-1, 250-pound Ayton higher up the floor twice more last week, against two high-profile opponents. When the Suns took on the Lakers last Saturday, Ayton spent nearly the whole game tied up with LeBron James. When Phoenix played the Bucks on Monday, he spent as much time guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo as he did Brook Lopez. And against two of the NBA’s premier perimeter scorers, Ayton more than held his own ...

… while still delivering on the other end (26 points on 8-for-11 shooting and a career-high 14 free throw attempts against the Lakers; 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting against Milwaukee) to help start the Suns’ first winning streak since mid-December.

You can still see Ayton getting stuck between stations at times—retreating a bit too far in transition, leaving a shooter open for a trail 3; not quite getting to the level of a screen, affording too much space for a ball handler to pull up; watching the ball when a shot goes up and failing to box out. But you can also see more positives: staying connected to the roll man to take away the easy lob pass while still sliding with the ball handler to help force a tough shot; calling out the trailer in transition to make sure his teammates know they need to be ready to help; showing the hustle to chase down a fast break just to make an opponent hear footsteps.

High hands, consistent aggression, multiple efforts—this, more than silky post moves, is the stuff that’s going to make Ayton a cornerstone, and that may make the Suns a team that can matter again.

”This is the future,” Ayton told reporters in describing his run-out dunk during the third quarter of the win over L.A. “That’s the future. That’s all I got to [say]. That’s the future.”

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers have been the most pleasant surprise in the NBA over the past couple of months, managing to bounce back from the loss of All-NBA guard Victor Oladipo to remain in position to secure home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. There are a lot of reasons, but let’s spare a second to shout out one that typically doesn’t get a ton of attention: power forward Thaddeus Young.

The 30-year-old Young has done a pretty good job everywhere he’s been, but never so loudly that you’d really remark on it, and typically for teams either scraping to be average (see: the post-Iverson and pre-Process 76ers) or far below even that level (see: Year 1 of the Hinkie era, Minnesota’s first crack at life after Kevin Love, and Brooklyn when it was clawing its way out of trade-induced purgatory). For the past three seasons, he’s been a central-casting grinder for a Pacers team whose winning percentage far outstrips its Q score.

Young’s game is devoid of frills or flash; his highlight clips tend to look more like instructional videos. His dunks, when they happen, are ornamental, near-vestigial attachments to more pressing points about precise footwork when rolling to the basket, timing your weakside cut into the paint to catch the defense napping, or how to seal off a defender on a duck-in:

Young’s value comes in the quiet spaces; with the exception of the deliberately dismal 2013-14 Sixers, his teams have always seemed to perform better with him on the court than off it. He extends possessions, ranking 10th among all big-minute forwards in offensive rebound rate since he entered the league in 2007. He also ends them, ranking fifth in that group in steal percentage during that same span. He’s fourth in the league in deflections and charges drawn this season, and 12th among forwards in contested shots (including second in contested 3-pointers).

At 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11.5-inch wingspan and 220 pounds, Young has the size and agility to guard just about any frontcourt opponent. He’s Indiana’s first choice against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Blake Griffin, and Ben Simmons—all of whom the Pacers could see in the postseason—and he’s adept at making them work for every inch of space they can carve out. He always seems to be trying to make the opposition’s life just a little harder, making him a perfect fit for an Indiana team that is built on its defense and that promises to be a tough out in the postseason, even without its lone All-Star.

New Orleans Pelicans

Here are two thoughts I am holding simultaneously, because the power of the human brain is an unparalleled miracle:

1. Anthony Davis is a staggering talent the likes of which the NBA has rarely seen, and one I really enjoy watching.

2. I find the Pelicans much more interesting, at this point, whenever he’s not on the court.

Since the 2019 trade deadline, when all the clattering drama surrounding Davis’s trade request resulted in a great big ol’ helping of nothing, New Orleans has gone 6-6, with only one real blowout loss since the deadline. From a purely statistical perspective, the Pelicans have had a better point differential with Davis on the court (plus-7 in 224 minutes) than when he’s been on the bench or in street clothes (minus-26 in 352 minutes) over the past month. But there’s more to life than efficiency, plus-minus won’t keep you warm at night, and damn it, the Pelicans have gotten tougher and more fun pretty much any time Davis has hit the bench.

Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle are ripping and running, both averaging better than 26 points per 36 minutes of non-AD floor time since the deadline. Holiday, who unfortunately just suffered a lower abdominal strain that will sideline him for at least a week, is cementing himself as not only one of the very best two-way players in the game, but also a legitimate building block for whatever the next iteration of the Pelicans might wind up looking like. Randle, who can hit unrestricted free agency this summer, has become a delightful bulldozer, mauling his way through any defender an opponent has thrown at him over the past few weeks. When Davis sits, both players fill whatever scoring and playmaking void he leaves with a gusto that AD no longer wants to muster.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Utah Jazz
Kenrich Williams
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie Kenrich Williams joins them for the ride, attacking the glass, hustling on defense, and letting it fly whenever the ball swings his way. The undrafted free agent out of TCU didn’t start getting minutes until all hell broke loose in late January, but he has quickly established himself as an intriguing piece—a 6-foot-7 small forward with a smooth stroke, great instincts (especially as a team defender), and an ever-revving motor. At 24 years old, he might not have the ceiling of a star in the making, but he belongs, and he’s proving it. Ditto for young guard Frank Jackson, who opened eyes with a 25-point outing against the Spurs last month, and third-year big Cheick Diallo, who’s shooting 71.6 percent from the field and hauling in 28.1 percent of available defensive rebounds over the past 15 games.

These aren’t championship pieces, but they’re worth watching—especially when Davis sits down. They made a big fourth-quarter comeback without Davis before falling just short against Philly last week. They stole a game from a damn good Jazz team on Monday, with Davis’s only fourth-quarter contribution coming when coach Alvin Gentry called him off the bench to defend an inbounds pass in the final second. They nearly got another Wednesday, making Utah sweat by ripping off a 16-4 third-quarter run as soon as AD checked out. A month ago, I wanted the Pelicans to sit Davis purely because it seemed like the smartest and safest move for all parties involved. Now I want it because half-games of Davis’s meandering aren’t nearly as cool as watching Kung Fu Jrue and the gang cook.

Denver Nuggets

It’s been three weeks since Isaiah Thomas made his season debut, returning to the court 11 months after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on the injured right hip that sent his career into a tailspin. When the Nuggets added the former All-NBA point guard last summer, they did so hoping he could provide some additional scoring punch and pick-and-roll playmaking off the bench for a team loaded with young talent but light on postseason experience. Eight games into the experiment, though, Thomas has looked less like “The King in the Fourth” he was before injuring his hip and more like the unsteady searcher he was in last season’s aborted comeback attempts in Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The 30-year-old got off to a solid start for Denver, scoring 24 points on 17 shots in 29 total minutes off the bench in his first two games. He’s struggled with his shot since, though, making just 18 of his past 52 field goal attempts and three of his past 21 3-point tries. Since the 5-foot-9 Thomas is always going to be a dicey defender, he needs to provide surplus value on the offensive end. To some degree, then, it makes sense that he has the highest usage rate among Nuggets rotation regulars since his return, topping even MVP candidate Nikola Jokic. The problem, though, is that Thomas hasn’t been able to earn his keep as a scorer or facilitator, ranking in only the 14th percentile among NBA players in points scored per shot attempt and in the 0th percentile in both assist rate and assist-to-usage rate, according to Cleaning the Glass.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers
Isaiah Thomas
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who shepherded Thomas’s emergence during their time together in Sacramento, has made it clear that he doesn’t want people blaming Thomas for a recent rough patch in which Denver lost three straight before beating the Lakers on Wednesday. But while it’s reasonable to suggest that no one player is to blame for a skid, it’s tough not to see Thomas’s introduction as an inflection point: Denver’s bench, which had posted the league’s fifth-best point differential before his arrival, has been outscored since his debut.

An offense that had run smoothly through excellent backup point guard Monte Morris has hit some speed bumps with Thomas thrown into the mix. Despite Malone’s attempts to prime the pump by playing Thomas in playmaker-heavy three-guard lineups alongside Morris, Malik Beasley, and Gary Harris, Denver is scoring just 92.6 points-per-100 in Thomas’s minutes, 30,000 leagues under the NBA’s worst full-season offensive efficiency marks. The fluidity and ball movement that’s been the calling card of the Jokic-era Nuggets have ground to a halt with IT on the ball, trying to find a balance between getting with Denver’s program and getting back to his old self. So far, the seesaw has tilted toward Thomas gunning. That’s not what the Nuggets need.

Players need time to knock the rust off and get their legs back under them after a long layoff; after spending the bulk of the past two years rehabilitating one of the more damaging injuries a player can suffer, it stands to reason that Thomas might need a little longer than most to recover his burst, balance, and shot-making rhythm. But for a Nuggets team that’s just one game behind the Warriors for the West’s top spot, every minute and possession devoted to reacclimating Thomas is one not given to a player who has already proved he can be a productive part of one of the league’s best rotations. Thomas has just 18 regular-season games to show signs that he can be Denver’s postseason X factor. If he can’t, Malone will have to consider returning his fractured favorite back to the bench for the good of the Nuggets’ postseason chances.