Preview: Philadelphia 76ers

2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers


Projected Record: 37-45 (9th in East)

Over/Under: 42.5

2016: 28-54 (14th in East)


Key Additions:

  • G Markelle Fultz
  • G J.J. Redick
  • G Furkan Korkmaz
  • F/C Amir Johnson

Key Subtractions:

  • G Sergio Rodriguez

Summary

Strengths:

  • Very high upside
  • Very young

Weaknesses:

  • Key players are very inexperienced
  • Depth may be lacking
  • Jahlil Okafor is still on roster
  • Health concerns

I was never completely confident I’d live to see the 76ers generate actual hype in basketball circles again, but somehow, they’ve finally gotten here. The convergence of healthy young talent, an excellent offseason, and the thinning out of the Eastern Conference has the Sixers seemingly positioned to contend for a playoff spot this season, fresh off a 14th-place finish last year.

My initial reaction to the Sixers’ 42.5 win line this season was surprise, because even with an impressive collection of young talent, it seemed ridiculous to expect a team with so little experience to put together a winning NBA season. As I charted out wins and losses for the Eastern Conference, though… it actually seems almost plausible. My initial projection for the Sixers sat at 40-42, eighth in the conference, in fact. Other concerns caused me to drop that prediction, of course, but the idea of the Sixers as a playoff team right now might not be completely out of the question.

The Sixers played like a playoff team in Joel Embiid’s limited minutes last season, and they’ve only improved the supporting roster since then. J.J. Redick was a zero-downside signing on his 1-year, $23 million salary, and he’ll pair up with Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, and Nik Stauskas to provide some lethal marksmanship around playmakers like Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Second-year players like Dario Saric and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot look like potentially useful role players, and 20-year-old Furkan Korkmaz might be an overlooked young contributor this season as well. Amir Johnson was a nice veteran pickup to bolster the bench, and if the Sixers are serious about pursuing a playoff spot this year, he should be playing many more minutes than Jahlil Okafor.

The Process is finally paying dividends, and I really the collection of players they’ve put together, but the fact remains that it’s very difficult for teams with this many young players to win games consistently in the NBA. We saw it last year with the Timberwolves, who had high expectations coming into the season, but ultimately struggled to play defense and lost a lot of close games. With the releases of Emeka Okafor (boy was I surprised to see him around) and Kris Humphries, the Sixers will likely roster exactly four players with four or more years of NBA experience: Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, Amir Johnson, and J.J. Redick.

The East is the East, and raw talent will likely carry the Sixers pretty far. It ultimately comes down to Joel Embiid: if he manages 60+ games, the Sixers have to feel pretty good about their chances. If he doesn’t… I’m not sure I can see it.


Most Valuable Player: Joel Embiid

Embiid’s health is the single biggest concern for this entire franchise right now; they played like a playoff team when he took the court last season and like the miserable Sixers of the past several years. We all saw the kinds of plays Joel Embiid was making in that brief NBA stint last season. We all know what kind of player he could be. It’s difficult to be sure if Embiid will ever be healthy enough to actually have that kind of impact, though, and that uncertainty clouds his value to a massive extent.

The Sixers had to extend Embiid this offseason. You can’t afford the possibility that a guy as good as he is could walk, and they did a decent job protecting themselves with some incentive-based triggers in the contract that would reduce the guaranteed value. We’re still talking about a guy who has managed one 31-game season in three years, though. Joel Embiid could be one of the best things to ever happen to this franchise, or just another case of “what could have been.” It’s still too early to be sure.

X Factor: Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons

It’s been a rough summer for Fultz since the draft and the stunning trade with Boston that brought him to the Sixers. He’s struggled with a shoulder injury that held him out of much of the preseason, and altered his jump shot in an incredibly awkward-looking way to compensate for it. Now, he’s reportedly going to open the season on the bench, which isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it is unusual for a top overall pick. Despite being largely the consensus best player in this year’s draft, it seems like the hype has worn off for Markelle Fultz – he doesn’t even seem to be getting mentioned for preseason Rookie of the Year picks.

My stance on Fultz hasn’t really changed; he’s an incredible talent, and an all-around player with a ceiling of becoming one of the NBA’s very best guards. His summer has been troubling, but these seem like short-term problems. He might not fully healthy right away, and it may take him some time to work into the starting lineup considering how much time he’s already missed, but I’m not ready to say that these issues are somehow indicative of what he might be in a few years. The Sixers should take their time with Fultz – even if it might cost them a playoff spot this year.

Ben Simmons is a significant reason why the Sixers can afford to take it slow with Fultz, because he is, for all intents and purposes, the actual starting point guard of this team. Simmons is a 6’10” freight train of a human being with great passing vision that is going to cause chaos in opposing defenses with his ability to both get to the rim and find the open man. Simmons is making his NBA debut himself this year, having missed his rookie season due to injury, and based on his early performance, he’s quite ready.

The biggest question for Simmons: can he knock down open jumpers? Defenses are going to counteract his ability to attack the rim and spread the basketball by sitting back and daring him to shoot. Shooting was the biggest knock on Simmons coming into his draft; has his time on the sidelines allowed him to work that jump shot to a more acceptable level? Early returns from preseason aren’t quite stellar. It’s not hard to envision Simmons struggling to make plays in half-court situations this year.


Conclusion

I feel as if I’ve hedged my bets a little bit by sticking the Sixers in the 9th seed, two games behind Detroit. It’s not bold or interesting to put the boring-but-projectable Pistons in the playoffs over the young and unknown Sixers. It just feels like taking the Sixers as a playoff team is a tacit acknowledgement that I believe they’ll stay healthy and play like the best version of themselves… I’m just not there yet. This is one of those predictions that could look silly in a few months – either because the Sixers are raging their way to a playoff berth, or because they’re… well, the Sixers, once again.

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