Can the 76ers win with two All-Stars in their 20s and a cast of other role players, albeit some expensive ones? Does having a dominant center still win in the NBA?
If the Sixers are wondering whether Joel Embiid, 26, and Ben Simmons, 24, can be the foundation of a team competing for championships, they could receive solace from watching the Denver Nuggets. Denver trails the Los Angeles Lakers 3-1 in the Western Conference finals, heading into Game 5 on Saturday.
Like the Sixers, Denver has two stars in their 20s: center Nikola Jokic, 25, and guard Jamal Murray, 23. (While Jokic is a two-time All-Star, Murray hasn’t been selected as one but that should change as soon as next season.)
What’s more, Jokic and Murray will combine to earn $58.5 million next year, according to Hoopshype.com. Simmons and Embiid? Same — $58.5 million.
Moving forward, Denver is in a better situation salary-wise than the Sixers, who are saddled with more expensive bad contracts. For instance, Tobias Harris and Al Horford will combine to earn nearly $62 million next year.
The Nuggets also have some high contracts for next season. Gary Harris will earn $19.1 million, and Will Barton will make $13.7 million. A key for Denver will be retaining former Sixer Jerami Grant, who has a $9.3 million player option for next season.
But while the Sixers have a projected payroll of more than $147 million for 2020-2021, the Nuggets are at $105 million, with Paul Millsap’s $30 million coming off the books.
So Denver is ahead of the Sixers, based on this postseason and the future. Still, there are a lot of similarities.
The Sixers have been in the postseason three straight years, advancing to the second round the first two and being swept by Boston in the first round this season, with Simmons sidelined following left knee surgery.
Denver is down 3-1 for the third straight series after overcoming similar deficits against Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers.
This is Denver’s second straight playoff appearance, after being eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals in 2018-19. Before that, Denver had missed the playoffs five straight years.
The Sixers made the playoffs in 2017-18, after having also gone five consecutive years without playing in the postseason.
What makes Denver’s situation work better? The Nuggets' two best players have better chemistry together than the Sixers’ top two.
During the playoffs, Murray is averaging 26.9 points and Jokic 24.7. From three-point range, Murray is shooting 46.6% and Jokic 43.6%. (That is a major upgrade from the regular season when Jokic shot 31.4% from three-point range).
Murray’s shooting ability makes him so much more dangerous than Simmons, who is the much more accomplished defender and a better passer. Like Simmons, Murray can also take it to the basket. Unlike Simmons, Murray is an excellent foul shooter (88.1% regular season) compared to Simmons (62.1%).
Embiid and Jokic are both All-Star centers who are effective in the low post. Both like to play at the three-point line as well. In the playoffs, Embiid averaged 4.0 three-point attempts while Jokic is averaging 5.2.
Jokic is a great passer out of the high post as well, but both players tend to turn the ball over. In the playoffs, Jokic has a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, while Embiid’s was 0.33.
Three-point shooting is the key
The Nuggets are second among teams in postseason three-point shooting (38.5%). The Sixers, while only playing four playoff games, are 16th and last (26.4%).
In the regular season, the Sixers were ahead of Denver, shooting 36.8% from beyond the arc, compared to 35.9% for the Nuggets. This is another example of how the Nuggets have elevated their game this postseason.
What the Nuggets have done is amazing considering that Will Barton (15.1 ppg) has not played this postseason due to injury and Gary Harris, after missing the first five playoff games, has returned but hasn’t been himself.
Where the Nuggets have hit the jackpot is in key rotation players Michael Porter Jr. (selected 14th in the first round, 2018) and Monte Morris (second round, 2017). Porter was drafted the same year the Sixers selected Mikal Bridges No. 10 and traded him to Phoenix for the No. 16 pick (Zhaire Smith) and a future first-round pick.
Draft failures can haunt teams for years.
Lining up the teams
Here are the supporting casts for both teams and their 2020 playoff averages:
Josh Richardson, 16.8 ppg, 35.7% three-point
Tobias Harris 15.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 13.3% three-point
Shake Milton, 14.5 ppg, 40% three-point
Alec Burks, 10.5 ppg, 18.8% three-point
Al Horford, 7.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 0.0% three-point
Matisse Thybulle, 1.8 ppg, 25% three-point
Michael Porter Jr., 11.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 37.6% three-point
Jerami Grant, 11.2 ppg, 33.3% three-point
Monte Morris, 9.0 ppg, 30.8% three-point, 4.5 asst/TO ratio
Gary Harris, 7.8 ppg, 36.7% three-point
Paul Millsap, 7.7 ppg, 35.9% three-point
Torrey Craig, 4.8 ppg. 26.2% three-point
The Nuggets were able to grow with coach Mike Malone. This is his fifth season in Denver, and the Nuggets were patient with him, having missed the playoffs his first three seasons.
The stars have allowed Malone to coach them. A key for whoever is the Sixers' new coach is to have Embiid and Simmons do the same.