Wednesday, February 1 2023

We did it — one week down without a major NBA scandal! 

Good job, good effort. 

So, with that in mind, it’s time for our weekly NBA stock watch.

RISING: Joel Embiid

“Rising” might be a bit of an understatement here. After a rough start to the season — one which included some lifeless performances against inferior teams, a revelation of an offseason foot injury, the flu, and more losses than anyone in Sixers-land thought they’d encounter in the season’s first month — Embiid exploded for the best regular season back-to-back performance of the year.  

It started with a 42-point, 10-rebound, six-assist masterpiece Saturday night against the Atlanta Hawks, which Embiid then followed with literally one of the greatest box scores in NBA history:

Most of those points came in the mid-range, where Embiid has now rediscovered his touch. But what should have Sixers fans most excited is the fact that Embiid once again looked bouncy and engaged. 

He was hustling down the floor and fighting for post position. His brilliant pick-and-roll defense was back. When the effort is there, no one is better than Embiid at navigating the cat-and-mouse battles that come with manning the back line of a screen-and-dive, or sliding over from the weak side. 

The two wins nudged the Sixers back up to .500, at 7-7. Not what they expected, but at least respectable, and a record that puts them just one hot stretch away from the top third of the conference. The defense, after a slow start — mostly due to some historically bad transition defense — has stabilized a bit. The Sixers now boast the league’s fifth-best defensive rating. 

The offense, however, remains sluggish (28th in points per game), and with James Harden nursing a foot injury of his own, has become over-reliant on Embiid’s dominance. The Sixers clearly need Harden back to have a chance at fulfilling any of their preseason expectations. The question is whether Embiid can continue to play with this sort of verve when playing alongside his co-star and for an offense where not every play is designed for him. 

FALLING: Tom Thibodeau’s chances at finishing out the season

To be clear, I’m not convinced that New York Knicks‘ president of basketball operations Leon Rose wants to make a change at head coach. For one, Thibodeau and Rose are — or at least were — friends. Also, nothing turns up the spotlight on a GM quite like firing a head coach. 

If the team continues to struggle, it’s obvious who ends up on the chopping block next. 

But — fair or not — Thibodeau’s seat entering the season was already warm. There are plenty of people in the ear of Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan who, dating back to last season, have blamed Thibodeau for the Knicks’ struggles. You can be sure that losing last week to the Brooklyn Nets by 27 and then giving up 145 points (!) to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday — at home! — didn’t help Thibodeau’s case. 

Sure, the Knicks are 6-7, which is what should have been expected. But they’re also about to embark on a five-game West Coast swing where it seems like they’d be fortunate to come away with a single win. 

It’s important to note that the Knicks are not struggling because of Thibodeau. This roster is a definition of blah. It’s not bad, but it lacks shooting and capable perimeter defenders. Also, Julius Randle is still there. But some of Thibodeau’s substitution patterns and schemes — keeping Quentin Grimes on the bench, giving Randle more minutes than Obi Toppin — aren’t exactly helping matters. 

RISING: The Houston Rockets‘ odds of landing Victor Wembanyama

Everyone focuses on the Thunder’s tank job, but what the Houston Rockets are doing is even more egregious. 

The Rockets right now are 2-12, the worst record in the NBA. This, after notching a league-low 20 wins last season and 17 the season before, also good for an NBA worst. Even the “Process Sixers” never achieved this level of losing. 

The Rockets are 23rd in offense and 28th in defense. They have some nice young players (hello, Jalen Green), but none who are truly ready to contribute to winning. Bricks for Vic are in full effect!

FALLING: Kyrie Irving’s (basketball) case for a return

For the moment, let’s leave out Irving off-court actions and comments. Instead, let’s just take a look at the standing and how the Nets have fared since suspending Irving: 

In fact, over the last two seasons (including the play-in and playoffs), the Nets are 17-25 (.405) with Irving and 34-25 (.576) without him.

I’m not saying the Nets are better without Kyrie. They’ve played a bunch of bad teams and certain opponents require more shot creation. But it’s also clear that without Irving — and also with Ben Simmons being moved to the bench — that the Nets have found some more energy and cohesion. That said, it’s also becoming clear that Nets’ owner Joe Tsai would like Irving to return to the team. 

RISING: The Celtics’ Offense

I guess Ime Udoka wasn’t the key to the Celtics’ offense. 

How good has Boston’s offense been? How about “best ever” good.

The Celtics have scored 3.4 more points per 100 possessions than any other team, a mark that would be the biggest differential between the first and second-ranked offenses in history.  

The keys? One is that the Celtics are shooting 38.2% from deep, the fourth-best mark in the NBA. What makes that most impressive, though, is that nearly 47% of their shots have come from deep, tops in the league. The other is that they’ve cut their turnover rate and are sharing the ball more (their team assist rate has climbed as well). 

The Celtics, at 11-3 and winners of seven straight, look to be the class of the East.

FALLING: The Wolves’ Grand Experiment 

Minnesota, after making that gigantic Rudy Gobert trade, is just 6-8. Things aren’t going well. We could break it all down but instead, let’s just present this metaphor for the Timberwolves’ season:

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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