Wall injury could help Wiz in short and long term

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USA Today Sports

Wall injury could help Wiz in short and long term

It was time. The bone spur in his left heel was just too painful and surgery was necessary, even if it ended his season. The season was going sideways, anyway.
 
Yes, the star point guard had just signed the richest contract in NBA history, over $150 million. But this is likely best for the long-term, for the individual and the organization. Plus, it might just help add the team’s next star in the draft.
 
Oh, you thought I was talking about John Wall?
 
My bad. I was actually talking about Mike Conley, who underwent season-ending surgery last January to smooth a bone spur in his left heel. This appears to be a similar injury to the one that Wall is dealing with at the moment.
 
As one person close to the situation described the injury to NBC Sports, Wall has a “spur stuck in his Achilles and it won’t calm down. Probably need to look at the big picture.”
 
For frustrated Washington Wizards fans, that big picture may look a lot like the current Memphis Grizzlies. Conley’s season-ending surgery in late January eventually led to the No. overall 4 pick and Jaren Jackson Jr., who looks every bit like the future star of a rejuvenated Grizzlies franchise.
 
The Wizards still have their 2019 first-round pick, which, at the moment, might be the team’s most valuable asset. According to Tankathon.com, the Wizards have a 37.2 percent chance of landing a top-four pick.
 
The 2019 draft will be the first with the NBA’s reformed draft lottery odds. Under the new rules, the teams with the three worst records have an equal 14 percent chance of receiving the No. 1 pick. The team with the fourth-worst record has a 12.5 percent chance, an almost negligible difference of odds. In years past, the NBA drew ping-pong balls for the top-three picks. Now, it’s four.
 
The big question is whether the organization shifts into rebuilding mode. And that decision is going to be a difficult one now that the Wizards have already traded 26-year-old Austin Rivers and 23-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr. for veteran Trevor Ariza. That’s a win-now move, not a rebuilding move. If they want to go the youth movement and jockey for draft positioning, letting Rivers and Oubre play through their mistakes would’ve been an easy shift.
 
However, they may not have to shift at all. The Wizards have been playing like a lottery team over the last month or so, going 2-8 over their last 10 games. Even before Wall’s season-ending diagnosis, the Wizards were battered and bruised. Dwight Howard might be months from returning. Markieff Morris and Otto Porter both sat out Friday’s game with minor injuries. To make matters worse, Sam Dekker turned his ankle and left the game as well.
 
No doubt that the Wall news is a tough pill to swallow for the Wizards faithful, but this might be a blessing in disguise. Yes, fans might look at his average annual salary of $42.5 million through 2022-23 and cringe even more. But that max extension is precisely why you might opt for surgery now.
 
Does having bone spurs in your heel that grind into your Achilles tendon sound like something you want to aggravate by playing another 50 or so games? No. This is the smart course of action because of that enormous investment that the Wizards made in Wall. After surgery and a full summer of rehab, Conley is playing some of the best ball of his career, averaging 20.3 points and tying a career high with 6.5 assists in Year 3 of a five-year max extension.
 
Also, the Wizards don’t have to throw in the towel just yet. If last season is any indication, they might be able to turn things around. When Wall went out in late January, the Wizards uncorked a five-game win streak and ended up going 15-12 in the 27 games he missed.
 
We also might see a different Otto Porter now that Wall is sidelined. In the 121 minutes that Porter has played without Wall this season, he has played like the star they envisioned, averaging 19.6 points, 8.3 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 38.9 percent from deep, per NBA.com tracking. Those numbers shrink to 13.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 47 percent shooting with Wall on the floor. Last season, a similar trend followed: Porter’s numbers ballooned without Wall across the board.
 
Wall’s backup, Tomas Satoransky, could see a big boost as well after his breakout performance during Wall’s absence last season. Though he didn’t wow anybody in the disappointing loss to Chicago on Friday, the 27-year-old big combo guard can be a change of pace for the team. Though he’s not a natural pick-and-roll point guard, he can be creative in transition and run with Bradley Beal.
 
Beal might also be able to turn this adversity into an opportunity. The 25-year-old has watched his assist rate grow for the fourth straight season and that should only continue in Wall’s absence. The Wizards have actually been plus-23 in 341 minutes this season when Beal plays without Wall. Beal’s assist rate jumps from 4.1 per 36 minutes with Wall to 6.1 assists per 36 minutes without him. (When they’ve shared the court this season, they’ve been minus-110 in 977 minutes, per NBA.com tracking. Yikes.)
 
The question is whether they want to try to eke into the playoffs at all. The worst-case scenario would be just missing the playoffs and sitting outside of the top 10 in next year’s draft. That’s a very real possibility considering that the Wizards have only 26-percent odds to make the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight tracking and just 1.3-percent odds, per Basketball-Reference.com’s simulations.
 
It might be prudent to see Wall and Howard’s injuries and admit that it’s time to build for next season. Let promising 21-year-old Thomas Bryant bang in the post against the NBA’s best. See what you have in 19-year-old Troy Brown Jr. -- the team’s next “Jr.” swingman waiting in the wings. Give Dekker and Ron Baker every chance to prove they belong in the league.
 
Memphis was 17-31 when Conley announced his season-ending bone spur surgery last season. They handed the keys to Marc Gasol and the kids. They lost 29 of the last 34 games of the season and ended up with maybe the most promising big man of the 2018 class in Jackson Jr.
 
Can the Wizards make the same gamble? With the draft lottery flattening out for the top-four picks this year, this might be just the time to find Wall and Beal’s next running mate.

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

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NBC Sports

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers agreed to trade Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, the 2024 second-round pick and the 2025 second-round pick to the Sacramento Kings for Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.

For Portland, Trevor Ariza isn’t impactful enough for this to be seen as more than a cost-cutting move. Ariza, at 34 years old, has struggled to find the same level of play that made him a key player on the Houston Rockets that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in 2018.

Ariza has bounced around the league in his twilight years. In the last two seasons, Phoenix, Washington, Sacramento and now Portland have hoped he can help lead a middling team to the playoffs, but none so far have had much luck in that department. In his prime, Ariza represented the 3-and-D standard. But his mobility isn’t what it once was, leaving him as best suited for a bench role.

In Portland, he’ll be thrusted into the starting lineup by default, with Rodney Hood (Achilles) out for the season and Bazemore going to SacTown. With only a $1.8 million of $12.8 million guaranteed for next season, the Blazers can let Ariza go this summer for a small price if they’d like to change direction. The cost savings will be substantial for a 18-25 team with the largest tax bill in the NBA; The Blazers will slice their luxury tax bill to $7 million and save $12.5 million in salary overall. 

In basketball terms, this is mostly a sideways move for both sides. Neither Bazemore nor Ariza ranked higher than seventh in minutes per game on their respective teams. Ariza had found a larger role for the Kings recently, but inconsistent production made him expendable from the Kings’ perspective. 

The Blazers were wise to cut back their 2019-20 spending, given that their playoff chances have been dwindling. FiveThirtyEight.com’s latest projection has them at a 26% chance of making the postseason in the West. Most execs I’ve spoken to expected Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside’s expiring deals to be flipped before the deadline. One down, another to go?

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

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NBC Sports

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

No team wants to see its star player get hurt. But the best teams turn adversity into opportunity. That’s the hope for the Philadelphia 76ers right now.

Star center Joel Embiid has been sidelined for the past 10 days recovering from hand surgery to repair his torn ligament in his left hand and will be reevaluated at a further date. It’s the latest blow to a reloaded Sixers team seeking redemption after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors at the last second in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Just about every NBA champion dealt with what the 26-16 Sixers are facing right now. When the Raptors outlined an aggressive load management program for Kawhi Leonard last season that planted him on the bench on back-to-backs, they used that absence as an opening to launch Pascal Siakam, who had been, at that point, merely a role player.

The loss of Leonard was Siakam’s gain. In the 21 games that Siakam played without Leonard last season, he flourished with the extra oxygen on offense, averaging 19.1 points on 55 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Siakam’s stat line in the Finals against Golden State? An eerily similar 19.8 points on 51 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Leonard missing 22 games in the regular season may have derailed other teams, but the Raptors used it as a growth opportunity for the surrounding talent. Would they have known they could count on Siakam on the biggest stage if it weren’t for Leonard’s time on the bench? Perhaps, but the regular season certainly accelerated Siakam’s basketball glow-up.

The Raptors aren’t the only champion that turned an injury into a positive. The Miami Heat didn’t embrace their title-winning pace-and-space and small-ball style until they lost Chris Bosh for weeks in the 2011-12 playoffs. The Golden State Warriors weren’t the juggernaut Golden State Warriors until David Lee’s hamstring injury opened the gates for Draymond Green. For years, Gregg Popovich deliberately sidelined his stars to facilitate the growth of the supporting cast. Kawhi Leonard himself is a shining example of what strategic resting and moving a future Hall of Famer (Manu Ginobili) to the bench can yield.

The Sixers have the same chance for growth with Embiid sidelined. There are plenty of silver linings with Embiid’s injury. For one, as nauseating as it looked, the injury is not considered a long-term issue. To quote Embiid himself in a heartfelt letter on The Players’ Tribune, “It’s just a finger. It’s nothing. Compared to what I’ve been through. It’s nothing, man.” It’s also not another leg-related injury, which is good news on its own, but it also allows him in the meantime to work on his conditioning.

But the real silver lining is about the seeds the team can plant now. Here are three ways the Sixers can grow from Embiid’s absence and keep their championship hopes alive:

1. Make Ben Simmons a crunch-time scorer

Fresh off of an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, Josh Richardson was a supernova down the stretch against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, scoring 17 points of Philly’s 26 points in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Sixers came up short while Simmons and Al Horford were held scoreless in the final frame.

In Wednesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, it was Tobias Harris’ turn to cook, outscoring the Nets 9-2 over the final three minutes of the game. But Simmons was held scoreless yet again in the fourth quarter, missing both of his free throws early in the quarter and setting up teammates the rest of the way. 

These fourth quarters, even without Embiid, are emblematic of a lingering related issue: Simmons’ tendency to fade in the final frame. In his last three fourth quarters, Simmons has zero points on 0-for-4 shooting and 10 assists in 29 minutes of action. This season, here is Simmons’ usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by a player via shot attempt, free throw attempt or turnover) by quarter:

Simmons’ Usage Rate by Quarter in 2019-20
 
First quarter:
21.4 percent
Second quarter: 20.5 percent
Third quarter: 20.5 percent
Fourth quarter: 15.4 percent

That’s not ideal for an All-Star who functions as the team’s primary ball-handler. Simmons’ usage rate in clutch situations -- where the score is within five in the final five minutes -- shrinks to 14.4 percent compared to Embiid’s 38.6 percent, Tobias Harris’ 20.8 percent and Richardson’s 17.6 percent, per NBA tracking.

Simmons’ performance down the stretch was a big talking point in the playoffs last year and rightfully so. In 18 minutes of clutch situations in the playoffs, Simmons was 0-for-2 from the floor with three assists and no points. He also didn’t have any turnovers and helped lock up opponents on the defensive end. The Sixers as a team actually outscored the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors by a score of 43-33 in clutch situations in the playoffs, all with Simmons on the floor.

But the Sixers’ advantage in those minutes could certainly be wider if Simmons shows the same attack mentality as he does earlier in the game. Sure, Simmons needs to conserve energy for the defensive end where he becomes the Sixers’ uber-stopper, but there are plenty of opportunities for Simmons to attack the rim in pressure moments where he instead passes out or dribbles away from the paint.

Simmons has the physical tools and requisite skills to be a crunch-time weapon. At the same age as Simmons is now, a 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo took eight clutch shots for the Bucks in their lone 2018 playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Seven of them were inside two feet, per NBA.com shot tracking. Simmons can do the same. For those that doubt his abilities to take over games down the stretch, now is the time -- without Embiid and Jimmy Butler soaking up late-game touches -- to prove them wrong. Simmons can use this opportunity to gain some confidence and establish a base with which to work off of in the playoffs.

2. Make Al Horford a focal point of the offense

You could make the argument that as long as Embiid is out there, the Philadelphia 76ers are a full-throttled title contender. The Sixers were plus-143 with Embiid on the court last postseason, third-highest of any player last postseason. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they were minus-107 with him off the floor.

A gap that wide is basically unheard of in NBA postseason history. 

Even the most top-heavy teams aren’t that dependent on one player. Remember the LeBron James-led 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers squad that suffered injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but still made it to the Finals? Here was the scoreboard with LeBron on the bench that postseason: Cavs 260, Opponents 260. An even score. Again, the Sixers were outscored by 107 points with Embiid riding the pine last postseason.

You need stars to win championships. But they can’t play every minute. The Sixers learned that the hard way last year, crumbling into pieces with Embiid going to the bench.

The Horford acquisition was supposed to change all that. And so far, so good. Embiid yet again has the best plus-minus on the team, registering a plus-133 in his minutes this season. But instead of bleeding points to the other team in Embiid-less minutes, the Sixers have stayed afloat, even narrowly outscoring opponents by seven points on the whole this season.

That might not seem worth celebrating, but that’s a remarkable achievement for the Sixers considering how much they’ve struggled to keep up without Embiid on the floor over the years. 

Here’s how the Sixers fare depending on Embiid’s presence since 2016-17:

Sixers with Embiid on and off court (Data: NBA)

2019-20: plus-133 on, plus-7 off
2018-19: plus-373 on, minus-152 off
2017-18: plus-486 on, minus-117 off
2016-17: plus-67 on, minus-534 off

Horford has seen better seasons, but that data alone should be seen as a huge win for Sixers GM Elton Brand and coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have at least stayed competitive without Embiid, which isn’t something they could have said in years past. Embiid’s backups last season were virtually unplayable in the postseason. Greg Monroe, Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson were fixtures of the Sixers’ playoff rotation; only Bolden has played in the NBA this season and he has logged five minutes total.

The Sixers should approach this section of the season as solidifying their Embiid-less system to the point that they can tread water in the postseason. Brown has opted to keep Simmons and Horford paired together almost exclusively this season, a decision that should pay dividends come playoff time. You often hear that a team will only go as far its superstar will take them. But in the Sixers’ case, the opposite is true: They will only go as far as the non-Embiid minutes will take them.

3. Give Matisse Thybulle all the minutes he can handle

My two sleepers in the NBA draft were 23-year-old Brandon Clarke and 22-year-old Matisse Thybulle. These were two prospects whose stats and skills jumped off the screen at the college level, but they fell in the draft because, well, they weren’t teenagers. By draft standards, they were ancient.

And here we are. Clarke has been sensational for the surging Memphis Grizzlies and a perfect fit next to fellow rookie Ja Morant. And Thybulle? He’s ready. Yes, he’s a rookie and typically rookies don’t contribute at a high-level to championship contenders. But Thybulle is turning 23 years old in early March. The guy was born within four months of Jamal Murray, Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo. He’s not your typical rook.

Thybulle is a special, special talent. He’s everywhere defensively. Right now, he’s averaging 3.7 steals per 100 possessions and 2.2 blocks per 100 possessions while playing 18.3 minutes per game. Here’s a list of players, via Basketball Reference, who have achieved those block and steal rates while averaging at least 15 minutes per game in a season: Michael Jordan, Kawhi Leonard, Gerald Wallace and Thybulle.

I loved seeing Brown insert him into the starting lineup on Wednesday night even though he had struggled with his shot since his knee injury. Thybulle has offensive limitations, but he’s a fast-break machine and a perfect co-pilot next to Simmons, who is at his best when he’s driving in the open court. Thybulle gives him the keys to ignition.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.