The Joel Embiid Era has begun in Philadelphia. Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor are about to become 7-foot obstacles to Embiid’s future glory. Expect one of them to be traded before February. The toughest part for Sixers fans begins now, as hard as that is to believe. All those losing seasons came with the expectation of waiting. Embiid will be good enough to bring game-to-game hope, but until Ben Simmons (January) and Dario Saric (NBA experience) can acquaint themselves to the grind of the 82-game season, the process will continue to bring losses. At least they have the wonderful beard of Sergio Rodriguez to sop up the tears.
Parity has never been as great as it is this season in the NBA. The consensus among NBA experts is there are generally three tiers: Golden State, Cleveland, and San Antonio (the smartest include San Antonio); 23 teams somewhere between decent and good; and the bottom tier, consisting of Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Phoenix and the Lakers. Granted, the equanimity is overstated by reducing it to these three groups. In reality, the Celtics and Raptors should rise up out of the East, and an argument can easily be made for the Clippers and Blazers in the West. Still, the idea that the vast majority of teams have legitimate playoff aspirations is real. The reasons for this rise: a huge salary cap leap in June (70million to 94 million to the NBA’s ridiculous new television deal); the trend to shorter contracts which has allowed more roster flexibility; the style of play in the modern NBA enabling less offensive-star-focused roster construction. Four years ago, only a handful of teams made pace-and-space a priority. Today, 90% of NBA rosters contain at least one, usually more than one, 6’9″ or taller forward who can knock down a three-pointer and defend the pick-and-roll adequately. More emphasis on three-point shooting for all teams, deeper rosters, and fewer minutes for starting fives, all lead to more balanced teams which trickles down into the standings.
On a given night, Anthony Davis will score 50 points, bring down 16 rebounds, dish out 5 assists, make 7 steals, and block 4 shots… and the Pelicans will still lose. Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday can’t come back soon enough for fans of the southeastern flamingoes. Anthony Davis is but one man with four teammates, most of whom shouldn’t be starting alongside him. Tim Frazier is a good story. Solomon Hill and Omer Asik? Not playmakers. Not even a tiny bit. Lance was supposed to help. We’ll see.
Pace. The Celtics, Pacers and Rockets will play with as much pace as their bodies allow. Each of them will need a week or two to get into the all-out sprint conditioning that the pace demands. Without full health and depth on their rosters, 4th quarters might get sloppy. As the pace increases, scoring will continue to rise. Of these three teams, only the Celtics have the potential to play with this pace and still suffocate teams with their defensive abilities.
The Spurs are as happy as ever to fly under the radar. They are perfectly content to let misguided-self-righteous Durant-hate and self-inflicted Draymond-drama dominate the NBA headlines, while they cruise to another 60-win season. Jonathan Simmons is going to become a household name (at least in a few non-San Antonio-NBA households) by May.
Since July, the Golden State Warriors represent NBA clickbait, and that will continue at this over-saturating rate until next June. The expected backlash to Durant joining a historically great team will be fodder for the talk shows and talking heads, who will pretend the other 28 teams (the defending champion Cavs will remain in the spotlight as well) barely exist.
For all the talk about the pairing of Mike D’Antoni’s technical offensive genius with James Harden’s on-court offensive genius, the lack of defensive awareness and attention, with the exceptions of Clint Capela and Patrick Beverley, will keep the Rockets from being more than a slightly above average NBA team. Scoring? Yes, indeed. Entertaining basketball? Definitely. Wins? Not more than 45. Perhaps D’Antoni will change his name to Antoni. No need for that D.
The Sacramento Kings have a new arena. They were given a soft opening opponent: Phoenix. They won in Phoenix. They are 1–0. Judging from the last…well, forever, this will probably be the high-water mark for the Kings season. I hope I’m wrong.
Update: The Kings are now 1–1, after their home debut was spoiled by the mighty Spurs.