For the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers are being considered as a legitimate playoff contender.
Years of tanking and “trusting the process” seem to be well on their way to provided fruitful results. Despite all of the excitement, however, there’s still one catch: the Sixers top rookies can never seem to stay healthy for an entire season.
Will this be the year Philadelphia steers clear of any injury concerns? If so, one of the league’s bottom feeders in recent years could ride a bevy of young studs to their first playoff appearance in over half a decade.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Joel Embiid is everything good about today’s NBA. His Twitter interactions are hilarious and deliberate, his stretchy big man game is incredibly fun to watch, and his place on a young, upstart team shows what good comes when an organization bottoms out in a way that makes basement floors jealous. He (and the Sixers) are just easy to root for, especially with Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons officially joining in on the fun this year. Philly should be markedly improved this year and could even make a run at the playoffs for the first time since Andre Iguodala was still with the team. We trusted the process, and now we get to reap the rewards of that trust.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
The Philadelphia 76ers are on the cusp of taking a huge step forward in their rebuild this season. The franchise traded for the rights to the top overall pick in this year’s draft, Markelle Fultz. Last year’s top overall pick, Ben Simmons, is healthy and ready to make up for lost time. Joel Embiid should be ready to go after missing the majority of last season with a knee injury. The rest of the roster continues to develop and show promise as well. Head coach Brett Brown has been patient and has slowly built his young players up over the years while suffering a huge amount of losses during his tenure in Philadelphia. Now, for the first time, Brown has the young talent and some veteran players, like J.J. Redick, to really compete on a nightly basis. With so much elite young talent, the 76ers will be a League Pass favorite this season and should certainly exceed their 28 game win total from last season.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Sixers have a nice cast of players, but their hopes of changing their fortunes rest squarely on the shoulders (and knees and hips) of Joel Embiid. Enough has been said about the number 31 and why it’s relevant here, so I won’t continue to beat a dead horse.
I am probably in the minority of people who believe that the Nets will be respectable this season, and perhaps even better than the Knicks, though I do suppose that depends on what happens with Carmelo Anthony. In any event, I could see the Sixers finishing as highly as third in the division and, of course, as low as fifth. For now, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that everyone stays healthy, that Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Joel Embiid find a way to coexist, and that both J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson earn their salaries this season.
If all those things happen (and I agree that there are certainly a lot of “ifs”), then the Sixers might actually have a shot to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
It’s certainly possible.
3rd Place — Atlantic Division
— Moke Hamilton
For all of the years the Philadelphia 76ers asked their fans for trust, they finally look poised to show them why this season.
After years of basement dwelling, the Sixers are stacked with fresh, young faces, and sprinkled a few savvy veterans into the mix this summer while they were at it. J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson join Philadelphia’s core of young guns that include back-to-back first overall picks in Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, 7-foot-2 center Joel Embiid and a playmaking forward in Dario Saric. Mix all of that together with the weakened Eastern Conference, and the Sixers could be headed right for a playoff berth come next spring.
Despite all of the excitement, however, there is still the question of injury concerns in Philly. Embiid has played just 31 games in three years, Simmons missed his rookie year with a broken foot and Fultz rolled his ankle in Summer League, cutting his Las Vegas fun short.
This is the first season since Allen Iverson was rocking cornrows on the court that the Sixers have real excitement. Barring any medical mishaps, Philadelphia is a position to make actual noise around the league.
3rd – Atlantic Division
– Dennis Chambers
The Process is finally moving along at a quicker speed, and it has folks in Philly talking playoffs for the first time in a while. The addition of J.J. Redick to a starry collection of blue chip young talent promises to make the 76ers one of the most fascinating teams in the league, and an incredibly weak East makes postseason hopes firmly within the realm of realism. It’s no lock whatsoever – remember that rookies and second-year guys are rarely positive contributors in the long run, no matter how high their potential ceilings are, and Philly is still relying heavily on several of those guys. There are also still big health questions, primarily surrounding Joel Embiid. If all the primaries can stay on the court for 70 or more games, this could finally be the year in Philly. But a lot still has to go right. Expect them to be there with the Knicks in competition for the third seed in the Atlantic, though with a much higher ceiling if everything goes well.
3rd Place — Atlantic Division
— Ben Dowsett
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Joel Embiid
It’s been well documented that Embiid has played just 31 games over the course of the last three seasons, but oh man, when he was on the court he was downright special. Standing at 7-foot-2, but operating with the fluidity of a wing player, Embiid packages his unique skillset into a force that opposing teams struggle to stop on the court.
Last season, despite never truly developing a rhythm due to sitting out back-to-backs and a minute restriction, Embiid still managed to average 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game… all while playing just 25 minutes a night. And on top of that, the big man shot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc. Embiid managed to bully defenses while on a time crunch, all after sitting out of competitive basketball for two full years. Think about that for a second.
Barring another injury (which at this point is more of a blind wish than anything), Embiid will easily be Philadelphia’s most talented offensive player. Plus, with the additions of Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, and J.J. Redick, opposing teams will have a harder time trying to key in on the center than they did last year. If he’s on the court, Embiid will be special, period.
Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington
While Embiid makes a strong case for the Sixers’ top defensive player as well, with the NBA shifting towards a reliance on high-level wing players, Covington answers the call as the team’s most important and versatile defender.
During his time in Philadelphia, Covington has grown into one of the more important players on the roster, and is shaping up to be the team’s X-factor for next season. On defensive side of the ball, Covington possesses the length and athleticism to hound the opponent’s top offensive player, whether it be Andrew Wiggins or John Wall.
After leading the league in deflections last season — along with being the only guy in the entire NBA not named Kawhi Leonard to average 2.5 steals, one block, and shot over 35 percent from deep per 100 possessions since 2013-14 — the Sixers’ swingman is their best defensive weapon heading into this season.
Top Playmaker: Ben Simmons
The Sixers are in a rare position this season, with two straight No. 1 overall picks hit the court for the first time at the same time. After losing his freshman year in the league to injury, Simmons will hit the ground running this year, and immediately become the team’s top playmaker.
Lauded as one of the most gifted passers coming out of college in recent memory, Simmons operates as a 6-foot-10 point guard with Magic-esque qualities. Inserting him into a lineup that features like the likes of Embiid, Fultz, Redick, and Covington, Simmons should have no shortage of opportunities for easy assists. But where his true value as the team’s top playmaker will come into play are with the hard assists Simmons creates with his ability to thread the needle with pinpoint passes, or by gripping a defensive rebound and going coast-to-coast for a bucket.
After depending on T.J. McConnell for much of last season to run the team’s offense, Simmons will be a pleasant, and major, upgrade as the team’s floor general.
Top Clutch Player: Markelle Fultz
Attaching the title of “most clutch” to a 19-year-old point guard who will likely spend most of his time playing off of the ball is a hard sell, but with the game on the line throughout the season, Fultz’s array of offensive moves and cool demeanor will become a go-to for Brett Brown.
During Fultz’s freshman year at Washington, he was the sole proprietor of the team’s offense. Granted, the Huskies absolutely stunk, but Fultz is accustomed to shouldering the load and having the ball in his hands with the entire defense focused on stopping him. In Philly, however, defenses will be kept honest by the threat of Embiid and others, so most likely Fultz would get the ball in a one-on-one scenario where he is more than capable of putting his man in a blender.
Of course Embiid, Simmons, and even Redick with his dead-eye shooting are all capable of making late-game plays, but as the season goes on Fultz will consistently become the end-of-game killer for the Sixers.
The Unheralded Player: T.J. McConnell
McConnell isn’t very fast, he’s not that big, he doesn’t shoot particularly well and sometimes he dribbles around with the ball too much. But, despite all of that, McConnell can go out on the floor each night and compete.
On a team with high draft picks and big contracts stealing the headlines, McConnell easily gets lost in the shuffle. Last year, McConnell led the Sixers with 6.6 assists a night. He even hit a game-winning jumper over Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks, thrusting himself into the center of Process Trusters’ hearts.
McConnell won’t beat many opponents based off of sheer talent, but he’s a prototypical “gritty” player. He’ll hit the deck without a second thought, fight for loose balls and be a superb teammate. While the media is swooning over the Sixers’ brand name players, McConnell will be behind the scenes, making plays when called upon.
Best New Addition: Markelle Fultz
There a few candidates for this honor, but considering Simmons has been in the gy, training with the team for an entire year and Redick won’t have the same overall impact, Fultz gets the nod as the team’s best newcomer.
As the top overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Fultz represented a unique combination as best player available as well as best player fit for Philadelphia considering his strengths on the court. For similar reasons listed above about Fultz, his offensive prowess helps improve the Sixers’ attack, even at such a young age.
Fultz displays a superb ability to shoot and score from all levels of the court, and provides the perfect complement to the pass-first Simmons. Last season, the Sixers struggled mainly due to not having a go-to scorer for most of the year. With Fultz on board for this year, that issue is immediately solved, making him the most valuable newcomer.
– Dennis Chambers
WHO WE LIKE
1. Dario Saric
Almost forgotten in the hype of Simmons, Embiid, and Fultz is the other Sixers young gun, Saric. A finalist, along with Embiid, for last season’s Rookie of the Year award, Saric displayed an impressive amount of growth during his inaugural season in the NBA.
Following Embiid’s final game on Jan. 27, Saric assumed most of the offensive burden as the team’s de facto playmaker and go-to scorer. Over that same span over 36 games, Saric averaged 16.7 points, seven rebounds, and three assists per game. Even more impressive, in a weird addition-by-subtraction twist, Saric managed those numbers despite a terrible shooting slump that saw him connect on just 28 percent of his shots from long distance.
With a full season under his belt and some shiny new weapons surrounding him, Saric looks poised to be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Sixers moving forward.
2. Brett Brown
When you take a quick glance at Brown’s head coaching record, you may wonder how the man still has a job. Of course, that notion would have to come from a very oblivious NBA fan, but nevertheless, the 75-253 mark isn’t pretty.
This season, however, Brown finally has a roster that resembles that of an NBA competitor. From talented youngsters to useful veterans, Brown will finally have the opportunity to show the city what he’s worth for an entire season. During the magical month of January last season, when Embiid was on the court for nine games and really coming into his own, Brown captained the Sixers to a 10-5 record for the month. That singular month gave Sixers fans an insight on how effective Brown can be as a coach with some talent on the court.
With more than one playmaker on the roster for this season, Brown should have the Sixers in playoff contention should everyone stay healthy.
3. J.J. Redick
Philadelphia gave Redick 23 million reasons to move east and join the Sixers for this season. Despite the high price tag, Redick is a match made in heaven for this team.
A career 41.5 percent shoot from downtown, Redick is just two years removed from a season in which he hit 47.5 percent of his three-point attempts. On a squad with a body down low that commands attention like Embiid, and a playmaker to the caliber of Simmons, Redick should be getting open-looks galore next season in South Philly. It wouldn’t be outrageous to assume Redick could attempt upwards of eight or nine three-pointers a game this season.
Along with his knockdown ability from range, Redick also brings veteran and playoff experience to a team that is going to feature a bunch of first and second-year players at their core. That quality, maybe even more than the shooting, is what makes Redick so valuable to the Sixers.
4. Joel Embiid
Not much more can be said about Embiid that hasn’t already been said. But that doesn’t mean the love for him has to stop.
With his rare combination of size and skill, Embiid represents a threat to the league’s transition towards “small ball.” When a 7-foot-2 guy has the ability to switch seamlessly on the defensive end and come up on offense to drain a three-pointer, the opposing team will most likely be short for answers on how to stop him.
Health has been Embiid’s one true question mark, and will be until further notice. If he’s healthy, the Sixers are a legitimate playoff team and a matchup nightmare for some of the league’s powerhouse teams.
– Dennis Chambers
SALARY CAP 101
Despite paying J.J. Redick $23 million for the upcoming season, the Philadelphia 76ers are still under the salary cap by $15.1 million. That space, and the team’s $4.3 million Room Exception, will likely go unused heading into the season, given the team seems locked in to the 15 players already on the roster (including the non-guaranteed salaries of T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes and Robert Covington). Invite James Blackmon Jr. has long odds to make the team.
The Sixers have long shopped Jahlil Okafor in a trade, but the team may wait to see what the roster looks like on the floor before making any major changes. Joel Embiid is eligible for an extension before the start of the season but the team may choose to wait until next summer, when Embiid’s cap hold takes up $18.3 million in space. If they wait, the 76ers can near $40 million in cap room next July. That assumes that Philadelphia takes the team options on Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu and Okafor before November (plus McConnell and Holmes before July). Nik Stauskas is also extension eligible.
– Eric Pincus
Along with their offensive improvements, a team that ranked 17th in defensive rating only looks to improve with more athletes on the court, as well as a healthy Embiid. Should the team stay intact from a health perspective, they look to be one of the better defensive units in the NBA, as well.
Much like last season, the Sixers will look to push the pace against opponents. A coast-to-coast aficionado like Simmons and another athletic playmaker in Fultz only increase the possibilities of Philadelphia running the fastbreak attack against teams.
– Dennis Chambers
The weaknesses for the Sixers this season are pretty cut and dry: Health, chemistry and inexperience.
Every important piece for the Sixers seems to have a knack for getting sidelined. Whether that string of bad luck is coming to an end or not for Philadelphia essentially will determine their playoff hopes for next season.
However, even if everyone is healthy, there is still the problem that four of the team’s most important players are 23 or under. Two of them have never played a single NBA game, and a third has only managed to hit the court 31 times. That kind of inexperience can become a major problem once the effects of a rigorous NBA schedule sets in during the long months of the season.
Going hand-in-hand with the lack of experience, most of the current players on the roster don’t have any rapport with each other. Chemistry is a big piece to winning games consistently throughout the season, and at the current moment, the Sixers don’t have much — if any — of that.
– Dennis Chambers
THE BURNING QUESTION
If healthy, what is the realistic ceiling for the Sixers next season?
It almost is nauseating how often a Sixers prediction needs to be premised with “if healthy,” but unfortunately that is the team’s reality. Regardless, health truly seems to be the biggest hurdle standing between Philadelphia and their first playoff berth in six years.
Assuming the injury bug gets exterminated from the Wells Fargo Center this season, the Sixers have a legitimate chance to take advantage of a weakened bottom-half of the Eastern Conference, and a 7th-seed doesn’t seem so crazy.
Granted, with all of the youth mentioned above, anything beyond just making it to the playoffs would be a “cherry on top” season. But given matchups and personnel, how far-fetched would it seem for the Sixers to maybe steal a game from the Boston Celtics in a seven-game series?
Time will tell what happens with Philadelphia from a health perspective, but if everything checks out medically, the Sixers are no longer a gimmie W for opponents.
– Dennis Chambers
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