The Whiteboard: What if the 76ers had traded for CJ McCollum instead of James Harden?

New Orleans Pelicans, Philadelphia 76ers, The Whiteboard

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The Hawks used a balanced effort to knock off the Hornets last night, with six different players scoring in double-figures and five players knocking down multiple 3-pointers. They’ll face the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday with the winner taking the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Pelicans were balanced in their win as well, with three players scoring at least 20 points but it was CJ McCollum who led the way, putting up 32 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds, shooting 12-of-23 from the field. This was McCollum’s ninth 30-point game since he was traded to New Orleans and the balance of on-ball creation and off-ball spacing and shooting he provided in this game were exactly what the Pelicans were looking for when they acquired him.

If McCollum can help the Pelicans net one more win they’ll earn their coveted playoff spot, which is a win, even if they don’t advance past the Phoenix Suns in the first round. But watching McCollum carve his way through the San Antonio defense I couldn’t help but be struck by another hypothetical timeline.

Would the 76ers have been better off trading for CJ McCollum?

Ben Simmons for CJ McCollum was an early and pervasive fantasy trade scenario on social media this fall but the 76ers reportedly were only interested in a trade with the Blazers if it included Damian Lillard instead of McCollum. The 76ers ended up with James Harden and a deal they clearly preferred, assuming a McCollum trade was even actually on the table for Portland.

The 76ers have looked fantastic at times with Harden but he, individually, hasn’t played anywhere near his best and a tough first-round matchup with the Raptors is looming. Seeing how each player has performed over the past two months it’s at least worth wondering if the 76ers might have miscalculated.

Since joining the Philadelphia 76ers, James Harden has averaged 21.0 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 40.2 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been in the 45th percentile in scoring efficiency as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. His isolation numbers are still strong, in part because he’s drawing a foul on more than a quarter of those possessions but he hasn’t been the elite offensive engine that he’s been in years past.

McCollum., meanwhile., has averaged 24.3 points, 5.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game since joining the Pelicans, shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from beyond the arc. He’s ranked in the 76th percentile in scoring efficiency in isolation and the 50th as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. He’s driving less often than Harden but he’s scoring slightly more and creating an assist on roughly the same percentage of his drives.

With each player at their respective ceiling, Harden is clearly a superior initiator and creator. But Harden is also nowhere near his ceiling right now and, on recent performance, the gap is much closer. McCollum is also much more experienced and adept working as a secondary threat, and his role and skill set might have been much less disruptive to the offensive rhythm Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris had established at the beginning of the season. It also seems probable that the 76ers could have pulled off the McCollum trade without needing to include Seth Curry, keeping another dangerous off-ball threat in the lineup.

It’s all moot at this point, McCollum is giving the Pelicans everything they could have hoped for and the 76ers still have every reason to think their bet on Harden will pay off. But for a team that has taken so many big swings with personnel over the past few years, this could be one that comes back to haunt them.

LaMelo Ball’s shot selection

LaMelo Ball is certainly not the only reason the Hornets lost by 29 points, but his shooting was part of the problem. He did put up 26 points and 8 assists but he shot 7-of-25 from the field and 4-of-14 from beyond the arc. One of those was an end-of-quarter heave but seven of the 13 came off the dribble. In some contexts, those are decent shots and a lot of them came in the fourth quarter when the Hornets were already trailing by a huge margin. But his control of the Hornets’ offense looked imprecise at times and taking some different shots (or letting his teammates) might have changed the outcome even more than just making a few more of them.

Other NBA stories:

The Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets feature three of the smartest and most creative stars in the NBA. This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner breaks down how their first-round matchup will play out, as well as what’s in store for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors.

The Western Conference playoffs are just days away and these five players can be x-factors capable of powering their team to the NBA Finals.

It looked like Shaun Livingston’s career was doomed to injuries until a late-career surge made us remember him for his role on an all-time team.

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