2018-19 Philadelphia 76ers
Projected Record: 51-21 (3rd in East)
2016: 52-30 (3nd in East)
- Zhaire Smith (Pick #16, Trade)
- Landry Shamet (#26)
- Shake Milton (#54)
- Wilson Chandler (Trade)
- Mike Muscala (Trade)
- Ersan Ilyasova
- Marco Belinelli
- Richaun Holmes
- Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot
- Justin Anderson
- Killer main lineup
- High defensive upside
- Questionable depth
- Still very young
Projecting the Sixers to decline by a win from last season may be a controversial take, but I think there’s a real case to be made that last year’s squad wasn’t quite as good as the 52 wins they achieved. On March 13, the Sixers sat at 36-30 after a narrow loss to the Indiana Pacers. From there, they rattled off 16 consecutive wins and rampaged their way to the third seed in the Eastern Conference. While 16 straight wins is certainly impressive regardless of the competition, it’s possible we saw the Sixers become a little overrated as a result — they beat only three playoff teams (plus Denver) during the run.
Philadelphia’s second-round playoff loss to Boston, while disappointing, wasn’t quite as lopsided as the 4-1 result initially indicates. They only lost one game by greater than five points, after all; with a few better breaks, it could have easily been a seven-game series. What that series did do, however, was expose some flaws in their young roster. Brad Stevens and the short-handed Celtics defended the Sixers to a T, leaving Joel Embiid in one-on-one situations against Al Horford and Aron Baynes and infamously refusing to guard Ben Simmons on the perimeter. Embiid dribbled the air out of ball and struggled to shoot with efficiency, Simmons didn’t shoot, and the Sixers’ offense looked discombobulated.
Now, with pipe dreams of Paul George or LeBron James coming to the City of Brotherly Love scuttled, the Sixers will return functionally the same roster as last season. The core here is completely unchanged — last year’s starting lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid was one of the best five-man units in basketball, with a net rating of a whopping +21.4. These Sixers are massive, and almost nobody in the league can match their combination of size and two-way versatility. Add to that mix Markelle Fultz, who will start for Redick at least some of the time and provide… something. We’ll get to him.
On the margins, though, things get a little murkier. Philly’s win streak and first-round bullying of the Heat were sparked in part by midseason acquisitions Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, who provided a pair of invaluable deep threats around Embiid and Simmons that the Sixers lacked beyond Redick. Neither is an immensely valuable player on their own, but their shooting ability shifted the dynamic of the offense; by spacing the floor, they created a little more room for Simmons’ freight train drives and relieved Embiid of a little bit of pressure in the paint. It helped, of course, that Belinelli shot like Klay Thompson during his 28 games in a Sixers uniform.
Both players’ brief Sixers careers have ended, and in their place are longtime Denver Nuggets wing Wilson Chandler and stretch-center Mike Muscala. Chandler is a solid player, and should bring his usual all-around contributions to the bench, but he’s a more-or-less average shooter from deep who won’t quite bend defenses the way Belinelli did during his hot streak. While I’m quite high on Muscala, he’s very unproven, with essentially only two seasons of very low usage efficiency under his belt, and I’d be skeptical about his ability to share the court with Embiid for long stretches of time.
Then there are the two first-round rookies, Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet. Smith broke his foot back in August and will likely be out until Christmas at the earliest, and considering he was something of a raw prospect to begin with, I find it hard to imagine he’ll make much of an impact in Philadelphia this year. Things are a little rosier with Shamet, who has impressed in the preseason and may fill a key need for three-point shooting, but he may struggle to find consistent minutes among the Simmons/Fultz/Redick/McConnell guard rotation.
It feels like the Sixers are desperate for more of a veteran presence to compliment their young stars, and apart from Chandler and Amir Johnson, they don’t have much of that. There are just a lot of young pieces in important roles here, and those players’ growing pains can be troublesome for teams with playoff aspirations.
I don’t want to overstate these issues. I believe the Sixers are comfortably one of the three best teams in the Eastern Conference, as I still see a solid gap between them and mid-tier playoff teams like Milwaukee and Indiana. That said, I see the same gap between them and the East’s elite, Toronto and Boston, right now, and it’s those murky margins that might make the difference.
Most Valuable Player: Joel Embiid
Coming into an NBA season completely healthy and conditioned for the first time in his career, there’s quite a bit of growing ahead of Joel Embiid in 2018-19.
The offensive end of the floor is where the most glaring holes can be found. Though he’s one of the most dominant forces in the league at the rim, he remains a little too inefficient as an overall scorer. Much of this seems to be on his jumpshot, which is a nice weapon but perhaps shouldn’t be the featured tool he seems to think it is. Too often, he’s willing to back someone down only to settle for a turnaround fadeaway, or pull-up from the midrange — a whopping 715 of his 1053 shot attempts last year were classified as jump shots by Basketball Reference, and he posted an effective field goal percentage of only 43% on those attempts.
The sometimes sub-optimal shot selection and sky-high turnover rates (4.7 per 36 minutes last year) are legitimate gripes, but it’s also important to maintain context. Somehow, incredibly, Embiid has played less than 200 games of organized basketball in his entire career, dating all the way back to high school. That’s unprecedented for any 24-year-old in the NBA, let alone one with a second-team All-NBA appearance under his belt. There’s nothing ordinary about what he’s accomplished to this point.
Embiid can’t be content to rest on his laurels, however. Even with LeBron James on the West Coast, the Sixers face an uphill battle to the top of the Eastern Conference. To accomplish that, they’ll need their need their phenom to attain even greater heights.
X Factor: Markelle Fultz
If not for Kawhi Leonard’s falling-out with the San Antonio Spurs, Markelle Fultz would have been the single weirdest storyline of the 2017-18 season. His descent from “top overall pick” to “looks a little banged up in the preseason” to “we’re not sure he actually knows how to play basketball anymore” was dizzying to an extent that I’ve honestly never really experienced before. His return to the court in March was legitimately exciting, just because he was actually playing.
Think about that: the top overall pick, making a splash by appearing in a game.
Now, we’re past the fuzzy feelings, and it’s time to get to business. Here’s what we know: Fultz is a dynamic combo guard with athleticism in spades, capable of beating defenders off the dribble, attacking in transition and facilitating the offense as a point guard. As a defender, his potential is enormous; his long arms (6’10”) enable him to block shots and switch across multiple positions, and he’s shown a knack disrupting passing lanes and piling up steals — which often turn into fast break opportunities the other way.
What we don’t know, still, is whether or not he can shoot the basketball. Fultz has made exactly one three-pointer against anything resembling NBA competition, and it came this very preseason. This, from a guard who launched five triples per game in his lone season at Washington, making 41% of them. Fultz doesn’t need to shoot threes to be an effective individual player, but he might need to to share a backcourt with Simmons — which is exactly what Brown has tasked him to do with his move into the starting lineup. Philly’s lethal starting unit relied in no small part on J.J. Redick’s lethal shooting from range. If Fultz can’t force defenses to respect him on the perimeter, it’s going to become that much harder for he and Simmons to make plays through very loose coverage.
Moving Fultz into the starting lineup is a bold move, but in reality, the Sixers will bring him along a little more slowly than you might think. Brown has already discussed opening second halves with Redick in place of Fultz, and that will almost certainly be the closing lineup in close games until Fultz has proven himself. Still, he’s going to be playing serious minutes this time around, and making those minutes count will be crucial to the Sixers’ hunt for the Eastern Conference crown.
Don’t Forget About: Mike Muscala
For some, this year’s Sixers will be the first they’ve ever heard of Mike Muscala. It’s hard to blame them — he’s been toiling in relative obscurity deep on the Atlanta bench for some time now. He posted a career-high 20 minutes per game last year, but let’s face it: nobody wanted to watch last year’s Hawks.
As I discussed, I’m not particularly bullish on Philly’s bench this season, but I’m also not THAT down on them. Muscala is a big reason why, and it feels as if he’s been written off a little bit because people just don’t know about him. He’s a very useful player, and I think it’s entirely likely he outperforms Ilyasova this season.
Muscala is a skilled, reasonably athletic center who can shoot, pass and not completely embarrass himself defensively — and the latter two are not things Ilyasova can claim. There isn’t a lot of flash to his game, but a guy who stands nearly seven feet tall and can hit three-pointers at an above average rate on healthy volume (62-of-167 from three last year) has a ton of value. He may not be able to play alongside Embiid very often — asking him to defend smaller lineups is begging for disaster — but he can fill the stretch-center role that Ilyasova enjoyed some success in during last year’s win streak.
Again, Muscala isn’t necessarily an exciting addition, but not every one needs to be. This was a savvy pickup for the Sixers’ front office — the more players who can stretch the floor for Simmons and Fultz, the better.
Adam Aaronson, Liberty Ballers (@SixersAdam)
Last year, the Sixers’ over/under win total in Las Vegas hovered around 41 wins, and the consensus seemed to be that they would end up somewhere around that .500 area. And for a sizeable portion of the year, that seemed accurate. For around 50 games, it looked like the Sixers were headed in that direction. But then, the Sixers took off. Thanks to a schedule that had been front-loaded with many of their toughest games, rapid in-season improvement from players like Dario Saric, and the arrival of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova to provide spacing via the buyout market, the Sixers went 25-5 in their final 30 games, including a monstrous 16-game winning streak at the end of the season, en route to a final record of 52-30. They then quickly took care of the Miami Heat in round one of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, before a devastating five-game series loss to the rival Boston Celtics, who exposed many of their weaknesses.
Sixers fans had high hopes entering the summer. LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard all seemed like somewhat realistic possibilities. But instead, the Sixers just added Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala to be role players off the bench after missing out on the big fish. Now, here we are, and the Sixers return a nearly identical team as they try to advance their program and officially become a contender. So, what’s next?
The most interesting storyline for this team involves a player who was technically added last year, but is considered a new addition to this team: Markelle Fultz. You don’t need to hear about his story again, you have probably read dozens of stories about it already. But here’s the thing with Fultz- if he provides little to no value again, there will be a massive hole in this offense yet again, just like the one that hurt them so much in the playoffs last year. But if he can return to at least most of what he was when he was drafted first overall in 2017, the Sixers become a completely different team. With a three-level go-to scorer who can also be a secondary ball-handler and playmaker, Brett Brown can run a much more stable offense.
Another thing to follow: how much will Joel Embiid improve? Well, there’s good reason to believe the answer is a lot. This is the first healthy offseason of Embiid’s professional career, and he has still had nearly unprecedented levels of year-to-year growth anyways. It is completely conceivable that given a healthy offseason, Embiid can launch himself into the MVP discussion this year with a monster season. There are a couple parts of his game on the offensive end that, if improved, can take him to that level: Embiid only shot around 30% from beyond the arc last year, partly due to a nagging hand injury. becoming more consistent from deep would make him pretty much unguardable. He is pretty turnover-prone, which isn’t shocking for such a high-usage player, but reading the defense and making the right pass are still things for him to work on (to be fair, he did show steady improvement in these skills throughout last season). If Embiid nails down these two parts of his game, look out.
What makes the Sixers unique is that they probably have the most volatile outcome range in the NBA. If Embiid suffers another long-term injury early in the season, and the rest of the young players don’t show significant improvement, this team could be barely over .500. But what if Embiid becomes an MVP candidate, Fultz transforms back to the guy the Sixers drafted, and a handful of others guys on the team make big leaps? Then we might be talking close to 60 wins. Ultimately, they will end up somewhere in between- I’d guess very close to last year’s 52-30 record, likely a few more wins thanks to in-house improvement from guys like Embiid, Ben Simmons and Fultz.