How Sixers, Clippers and Nets are faring without key stars
The absences of Ben Simmons, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving have had unique effects on their respective teams.
There’s help on the way for the desperate — that would be the Pelicans — and also for the team that’s anything but.
That would be the rich-and-about-to-get-richer Warriors.
Zion Williamson and Klay Thompson are that important and their absences, to different degrees, were felt with New Orleans and Golden State. Both All-Stars are back scrimmaging after recovering from injuries and should return sometime this month, definitely before Christmas by all indications.
And what sort of impact will they deliver? Well, the Pelicans have certainly suffered without their bully-ball young forward, who commands double-teams, can score inside almost at will, and was expanding his game before dealing with knee issues that kept him out all season. The entire season outlook will change, and for the better, for the Pelicans.
As for Thompson, he’s a three-time champion and feared shooter who’s coming off two major leg surgeries. Thompson hasn’t played since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, yet seems refreshed and recharged, at least in terms of his spirit. The good news is the Warriors, even without Thompson, have managed quite well this season, sitting at the top of the NBA heap and looking very much like a serious title contender.
Both will initially have minutes restrictions, as is the case with such injuries, and then if all goes well should resume their regular roles before too long.
But three other teams with missing All-Stars — Ben Simmons, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving — are still sitting on the fence, waiting and anxious and wondering when or if they’ll be whole again this season. The Sixers, Clippers and Nets aren’t as fortunate as the Warriors and Pelicans, and therefore are forging ahead and trying to compensate as best as possible while shrouded by doubt.
Here’s a status report on those three teams, where they stand, how they’re suffering, the silver linings, and what might be in store in the near future:
The relationship between Simmons and the Sixers became fractured in the wake of their playoff loss to the Hawks, when Simmons — who struggled with his shooting throughout the postseason — infamously passed up that layup in a crucial moment. The response was swift, from fans and some within the organization, and Simmons’ feelings were hurt. Since then, it’s been nothing but drama and frustration and a steely stand-off between the two parties because Simmons still refuses to suit up. Communication is forced and chilly and often done between third parties.
Lost in all the muck is Simmons is an elite defender, a tremendous player with the ball in the open floor, brings sharp court sensibilities, rebounds well and actually is a solid scorer in the paint. His height and reach and athletic ability give him leverage over most guards on both ends of the floor, and those skills compensate for his limited shooting range and poor free throw shooting.
Therefore, you can see why Sixers GM Daryl Morey is reluctant to give Simmons away in a trade; Morey’s job is to maximize assets, not minimize them. As he should. Even in this situation. Teams are praying Morey gets weak in the knees and surrenders Simmons for pennies on the dollar. But Sixers ownership isn’t putting any such urgencies on a forced deal, and here we are.
Obviously, the Sixers are weaker without Simmons; look at the standings. They won eight of their first 10 games and spiraled since. Yes, Joel Embiid missed 10 games partly due to COVID-19, but the loss of Simmons is a hole the Sixers can’t fill, especially his playmaking and defensive presence.
The good news is the discovery and emergence of second-year player Tyrese Maxey as the point guard replacement; Maxey’s crucial numbers, including a 10-point scoring hike, are up significantly since his rookie season. Maxey is an almost polar opposite of Simmons — smaller, a better shot-maker, but not a natural passer who creates for teammates — but he’s fitting in.
There are other signs of help: Andre Drummond is averaging 10 rebounds in just 22 minutes a night, Seth Curry is shooting 41.7% from deep and Tobias Harris remains solid. That’s all good for a team that simply wants to make the playoffs.
But with Simmons, the Sixers are a threat to go deeper than that. Problem is, there’s no relief in sight. When Morey hinted that this stalemate could last beyond this season, that was a clear indication Philly plans to exhaust all options while Simmons is under contract.
The Sixers continue to leave the door open, so it’s really up to Simmons. He can return and play — Philly fans might even forgive him if he hits a few jumpers — and enhance his trade value. The longer he sits, the more devalued he becomes, and possibly the more his game decays. He’s not getting better without regular scrimmaging against NBA-level talent. But nobody in Philly is holding their breath.
Kawhi is still mending from knee surgery after his injury in the playoffs last summer and, true to form, there’s no updates about his progress or projections about his return. That’s not a surprise; Kawhi has a history of being mysterious, especially when it comes to injuries. This was the case in San Antonio and then Toronto and now, LA.
Given how Kawhi was famously careful regarding his previous injuries — and none were this serious — the safe assumption is he’ll take plenty of time before he reaches for his sneakers again. Expect the maximum rehabilitation and recovery time when it comes to Kawhi.
Therefore: Will he return this season? Maybe in time for the playoffs? Again, who knows, but in his case, missing the entire season is certainly possible and probably likely.
The loss of Kawhi has had the expected impact on the season. The Clippers are 0-2 against the Zion-less Pelicans, for example. They’re lacking their best defender, most consistent player and a massive presence on the floor. Kawhi also has fantastic chemistry with Paul George; they give the Clippers superior perimeter defense and, in a tight game, a pair of A-list options when a bucket is needed.
That said, George is playing at a Kia MVP level without Kawhi. He’s more assertive, out of necessity, in the offense and providing solid defense for a team that’s highly ranked in that category. This is the best the Clippers have seen from George and quite possibly this is the best ball of his career, an encouraging sign for a player working without a co-star and one who signed a lucrative long-term deal.
Elsewhere, the Clippers are getting more consistency from Reggie Jackson, but lack another player who can get 20-plus points on any given night. George and Jackson are the only Clippers averaging in double figures scoring.
The Clippers are still waiting for better production from Marcus Morris, Terance Mann, Serge Ibaka and Nic Batum, all of whom played at a higher level last season but for various reasons have dropped off so far. And then there’s Luke Kennard, probably the best 3-point shooter on the team but is taking eight fewer shots a game than Jackson. The Clippers need Kennard to be more forceful if only to justify the extension they gave him a year ago, and also because of Kawhi’s absence.
With George leading the way, the Clippers are a favorite to make the playoffs. How far they go will depend on when Kawhi’s ready to go.
Kyrie Irving dances to his own beat and stands firm on his beliefs, even if they clash with his chosen profession, even if they throw the lofty aspirations of the Nets in jeopardy. He hasn’t spoken to the media since training camp, when the Nets told him to stay home rather than play in road games, since he isn’t eligible to play home games given New York’s vaccine mandate.
Of course, Irving is a supreme talent; that has never been the issue, not with the Nets or previously with the Celtics and Cavaliers. His handles are historic. His jumper is pure. He’s one of the top point guards in the game and capable of taking over a game. He’s part of the reason Kevin Durant left Steph Curry and the Warriors for Brooklyn.
Speaking of whom: Much like Curry with Thompson, Durant is making the most of his absent co-star by playing at MVP levels. He’s right near the top of the scoring charts and shooting 55-41-85 (overall, 3-point, free throw). He’s the reason the Nets are atop the East.
The Nets are still awaiting the best of James Harden, and maybe he left those years back in Houston. Harden at times can be brilliant with the ball but those flashes don’t arrive every night, as they mostly did with the Rockets. He’s shooting only 40% and taking less than seven free throws a game, both below-par for him.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills are the best of the remaining bunch, and Mills in particular brings a championship history from San Antonio and a willingness to take big shots as the replacement for Irving. Still, everyone except Durant and Harden is simply filling a role. This team was built with three stars in mind and they’re short one.
We’ll know by playoff time about the impact of Irving’s absence, assuming he’s still sticking to his guns by then. While successful now, this isn’t the scenario the Nets had in mind when they built this title contender.
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