The Hoop Collective: The 76ers' problems, the Bulls' LaVine question and more NBA musings

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Brian Windhorst and a team of ESPN's Insiders sort out life and the news from in and around the NBA world.

As Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers, himself limping, came onto the floor Saturday night to check on yet another injured star, his face showed an appropriate mix of disgust and exasperation as he swung his arms in frustration.

Joel Embiid was rolling around under the basket yelping while holding his left foot, which was jammed by 76ers teammate Georges Niang in an accidental incident. Another painful moment in a gruesome month.

This was supposed to be the drama-free, bounce-back, get-everything-right season for the Sixers. When Ben Simmons and the Brooklyn Nets arrived for Tuesday's circle-the-calendar game (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT), the Sixers were supposed to be rolling.

That is not the case for the 8-8 team.

Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey all have varying degrees of foot injuries with Harden and Maxey's keeping them out weeks. Tobias Harris and Furkan Korkmaz have had recent injuries as well.

Harden, who was off to an impressive start, spent the early days of the season explaining that his improved play was the result of health. Now he has this foot tendon strain to recover from and perhaps deal with for a while.

Maxey, who was thriving with Harden out, has a small fracture that he and the 76ers will have to manage.

Embiid has a sprain, but hearing "Embiid" and "foot injury" causes stomach discomfort, though it was his right foot that needed a bone graft and multiple surgeries at the start of his career.

OK, it's only November. A year ago this week, the Boston Celtics were only 8-8, like the 76ers are currently, and they showed they had time to turn it around.

But it isn't just the injuries. The 76ers were amped for this season because of their revamped depth, which included Harden accepting a $14 million pay cut (a move that was so unexpected it triggered an NBA tampering investigation) so the team could sign free agents P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr.

Tucker hasn't been the 3-point threat the team hoped; he's averaging a career-low 4.3 points, though he has shot a good 44%. House also hasn't been impactful, averaging just 4.8 points off the bench.

The Sixers are likely to absorb more losses while their players convalesce, and in turn, restlessness could grow. There was some on Philly already, with Rivers a popular target. By the end of October, several sportsbooks made him the favorite to be the first coach fired before the Harden injury seemed to reduce pressure for immediate results.

Embiid has been great when he has been out there. After winning the scoring title last season, he has boosted his scoring average to 32 a game while shooting a career-best 52%.

And the Sixers' defense is perhaps the their best hope for staying afloat in the Eastern Conference. After slipping a bit following the Harden trade last season, the 76ers' defense started the week with the league's fourth-best unit. That speaks well to the changes that also included a trade for De'Anthony Melton.

All this to say, it might get worse for the Sixers before it gets better.

The Chicago Bulls are hoping things get better with Zach LaVine, as our NBA reporter Jamal Collier details:

Chicago blues: Bulls' franchise player down, but not out

When Zach LaVine became a free agent last summer and needed a second knee surgery, there was some uncertainty as to whether the Bulls were really prepared to go all-in on the two-time All-Star. After all, the organization had never even given a player a $100 million contract.

Clearly, there was no cause for concern at the time, as the Bulls signed LaVine for five years and a $215 million maximum contract extension.

And just a month into the deal, LaVine's knee became an issue and apparently also has his relationship with coach Billy Donovan.

"I'm trying to get all the way back," LaVine said. "It's frustrating being able to get to the rim and then missing bunnies. I've been getting there a lot, and I'm just missing point-blank layups sometimes."

LaVine's stats show he hasn't been himself. He is averaging 20.7 points, his lowest scoring average since being traded to the Bulls in 2017, and his shooting numbers are down. He has admitted his lift, which was a defining trait for him early in his eight-year career, isn't where he thought it would be. It explains why he started the week shooting just 49% on layups and dunks, down from his career-best of 64% last season, according to Second Spectrum data.

The Bulls got a badly needed win over the Celtics on Monday night, snapping Chicago's four-game losing streak and the Celtics' nine-game win streak. In the last game before a six-game road trip, LaVine bounced back with 22 points with five 3-pointers.

For the time being it eased the tension after last week, when he was benched by Donovan down the stretch in a 108-107 loss to the Orlando Magic.

LaVine acknowledged he was not playing well, scoring four points and shooting 1-for-14 that night, but said he believed he had earned the right to play through a bad game.

"Everybody has a career-low night one time in their career. Mine happened to be that night," LaVine said Sunday. "Now, do I think I could have played better? Of course. I also have the mentality of, if I was able to go out there, I think I could've helped the team win.

"If I went 1-for-20, I would've been fine with that. I just wish I had an opportunity to go out there and try to make a couple more shots."

On Monday against Boston, he was 8-for-20.

Here's NBA reporter Tim MacMahon on a big goal coming from Michael Porter Jr. in Denver:

Porter Jr. down to do 'the dirty work'

Michael Porter Jr., who got paid primarily because of his sweet shooting stroke, believes that a 50% clip from 3-point range is feasible for him.

"On high volume," Porter added, making it clear he would never pass up shots he should take within the flow of the Denver Nuggets' offense in order to try to protect his percentage, which is currently 43.8% from long range after he made the go-ahead shot in the final minute of Sunday's 98-97 road win against the Dallas Mavericks.

Of course, Porter's willingness to let it fly has never been a concern. The worries with him have always been about his health -- specifically his back, which has been surgically repaired three times and caused him to miss almost all of last season -- and his willingness to do the dirty work required of a complementary player on a contender.

That is what will ultimately determine whether his five-year, $179 million contract extension, which was signed before his most recent operation, will be a good investment for the Nuggets.

"Offense for me should be on autopilot," Porter said. "I should be focused on the intangibles, the defense, the rebounding, the dirty work. Then that just involves you in the game. If you're struggling on offense and you're also not rebounding or playing defense, then it's like, why is he out there right now?"

Despite his maximum contract, Porter isn't guaranteed to be out there in closing situations for the Nuggets. Coach Michael Malone, for instance, opted to go with defensive-stopper Bruce Brown instead of Porter down the stretch of a close win against the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 7.

Porter, who had an efficient 24 points and six rebounds that night, could have pouted. He did the opposite, enthusiastically cheering for his teammates from the bench and saying he's "not going to be selfish" postgame.

That was evidence of maturation from Porter, proof that his vow to put his ego aside in the best interests of the team isn't just lip service.

Porter has earned Malone's praise for his efforts in figuring out how to fit in on a team led by two-time MVP big man Nikola Jokic. Malone said Porter "might not be Scottie Pippen" as a defender but credited him for consistently playing hard and paying attention to detail on that end of the floor this season, which is progress for a player with a reputation for being one-dimensional.

"I've seen multiple instances of all of that this year, which to me shows buy-in, commitment and growth," Malone said. "Offensively, he's a young player that had the ball in his hands for years. He was the guy. On our team, he's not the guy. The way we play is that the pass is king. The ball moves around, and everybody benefits.

"Michael is really starting to understand the importance of moving without it, passing and cutting, spacing correctly."

Now here's NBA reporter Andrew Lopez on the phenomenon of Orlando's Bol Bol:

A healthy Bol Bol is bringing the magic to Orlando

Remember when Bol Bol was the next big thing? Before 7-foot-4 NBA prospect Victor Wembanyama, Bol was supposed to be the unicorn of a 7-foot-plus player who could handle the ball, shoot it from anywhere and still defend at a high level.

But when he declared for the 2019 draft, he plummeted to the 44th overall pick in part because of injuries that cost him all but nine games in college. A draft-night deal sent him to Denver, which signed him to a two-way contract.

In three seasons with the Nuggets, Bol played in 328 minutes over 53 games. Things were already not going according to plan, and then last January arrived.

The Nuggets agreed to trade Bol to Detroit, but he failed the Pistons' physical because of a type of foot injury that had scared teams away from drafting him. The Pistons' doctors were right, he needed surgery days after the deal was voided.

He was then traded twice more within a matter of days, his contract being batted around in accounting and luxury-tax moves from Denver to Boston to Orlando. But his season was over. Last summer, the rebuilding Magic, still intrigued by his talent, signed him to a flier deal -- two years and $4.4 million with just half of it guaranteed.

Bol recovered from the surgery, and a few injuries opened consistent minutes for the first time in his pro career -- and he has made the most of it.

Bol has played in all 18 games for the Magic this season and started the past 13. He's averaging 13.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He's 14-of-33 (.424) from deep.On Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves -- his 23rd birthday -- Bol put up a career-best 26 points.

His 34 blocks are third in the NBA, while heading into Monday his effective field goal percentage (66.7%) was third among qualified players.

Bol said he has felt more at ease because he hasn't been dealing with the same issues that plagued the start of his career in Denver.

"Now that I've been healthy," Bol said, "I feel like I've just been getting better every single day."

Orlando is dealing with several injuries this season. Jonathan Isaac, Moritz Wagner and Markelle Fultz haven't played at all. The 2022 No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero has missed six games and counting. Cole Anthony has played in only four games. Gary Harris just made his season debut.

What has been clear is that when coach Jamahl Mosley gets close to a full complement of players, Bol is going to make sure he stays in the rotation. Mosley told ESPN that figuring out the right combinations will be "exciting."

"It's going to be different puzzle pieces and it's going to be different puzzle pieces when all those guys come back," Mosley said. "It's going to be done by committee no matter who's out there on the floor. And our guys understand that and they get that."

And with more on a thriving rebuild is NBA front-office insider Bobby Marks:

Thunder exceeding expectations and then some

Let's just call it "The Play."

It occurred around 9:45 p.m. ET Wednesday during the Oklahoma City Thunder-Washington Wizards game.

With 2:20 left in the fourth quarter and the Thunder down two, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made a pass to Jalen Williams. The 19-year-old rookie eventually hit a 3 to put Oklahoma City up 1.

I received a text message from a longtime scout after the game because that pass to Williams resonated with such excitement.

"Bobby, Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder just grew up before our eyes."

At the time of "The Play," Gilgeous-Alexander had 37 points and Williams was shooting 3-of-9 from the field. The text message referred to the unselfishness and trust Gilgeous-Alexander showed with that one pass.

The Thunder went on to win after Gilgeous-Alexander drained a 3 with 1.1 seconds left, a step-back dagger that has only become more of a weapon after he built a reputation as a relentless rim attacker and forced opponents to protect against it.

It was the fourth time in two years he connected on a tying or go-ahead field goal in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime, the most of any player in that span.

He would finish the game with 42 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists.

You see, nobody expected anything from this Thunder team.

  • Rookie Chet Holmgren is out for the season because of a foot injury.
  • The Thunder are the youngest team in the NBA and most nights resemble a college All-Star team. Twelve out of the 15 players on the roster are 23 years old or younger.
  • 33% of their payroll consists of players not on the roster.

Five weeks into the season, Oklahoma City (7-10) has a point differential (minus-1.1) better than veteran teams, such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks and Miami Heat.

Gilgeous-Alexander is not only a serious candidate to make his first All-Star game, but to see his name on one of the All-NBA teams. If the Thunder can creep above .500, he should garner MVP votes.

The goal entering the season was not about contending for a play-in spot, but to develop a sustainable roster, starting with each player trusting one another in close games.

"The Play" is evidence Oklahoma City is on the right path through 17 games.

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