Are The Philadelphia 76ers Genuine NBA Championship Contenders?
As is so often the case towards the backend of lengthy franchise rebuilds, expectations can be set a little too high, too soon.
That was the case for the Philadelphia 76ers throughout the 2018-19 NBA season.
After finishing the 2017-18 regular season with a 52-30 record and losing in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, a 51-31 record and same exit 12 months later, is below what most had anticipated from the 2018-19 season.
Now, we're here again, setting expectations that we will ultimately use to measure how successful the 2019-20 season is for the Sixers.
Only, this year, the reasons to raise the bar as high as an NBA Finals appearance are in abundance.
They're not based solely around an assumed rise of young players, when, in reality, dips and plateaus in form and development occur to almost every player that spends a significant amount of time in the league.
The difference as we approach the season opener this year compared to others is the skill, experience and balance of this roster.
Legitimate superstars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have spent a decent amount time in the NBA now. They know how things work and have served their apprenticeship through injury and inexperience to be one of the most feared duos in the NBA today.
Meanwhile, Tobias Harris and new arrivals in Josh Richardson and Al Horford tick the boxes of willing and capable roleplayers; a versatile and reliable backcourt option on both sides of the ball, and a team-first frontcourt partner to compliment Embiid's significant talents.
The balance of the 76ers feels right heading into this season.
There is no talk of the potential for discontent and drama surrounding Jimmy Butler and his somewhat selfish demands on the floor. Despite Embiid being the best player, Simmons has announced himself as the leader of the team throughout this preseason. There doesn't appear to be the power struggle that held them back last season.
Unlike previous seasons, the 76ers look stable.
Philly's success will ultimately come down to Embiid and Simmons, but they might have the best starting lineup in the NBA. Their defensive ceiling is higher than any other, at least.
If the superstars are super, the rest of the starting lineup complimentary, and the supporting depth capable, the 76ers will still be playing basketball in June.
It's Joel Embiid's House...
While the 76ers might appear stable at this stage, Embiid is the load-bearing wall. He's the pillar this new-found stability rests on.
Embiid mentioned before the beginning of last season that he wanted to win the Most Valuable Player (MVP) and Defensive Player of the Year(DPOY) awards. He's talking the same game to start this one. Only four players in the history of the league have won both awards.
Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only men to win both in the same season.
While lofty, it's an achievable goal for Embiid. Despite his limited game-time compared to the eventual winners last season, Embiid featured on both ballots and will be a serious consideration should he remain healthy this time around.
Embiid has played 31, 63 and 64 games in his three NBA seasons. As a general rule, MVP's need to play in 70+ to be considered for the award. Should Embiid do that and add a little more to the 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.9 blocks per game he averaged last season, he will be in the running.
His personal accolades correlate to team success, so if we're talking about Embiid as an MVP or DPOY in February, the Sixers will be sniffing around the number one seed in the Eastern Conference too.
... But Ben Simmons Will Run It...
He did it! Simmons hit a three!
It's something we've all been waiting for, but let's just step back a little.
This is an open three-pointer against the Guanzhou Loong-Lions in a preseason game. It's not a lot different from the videos we've seen of Simmons drilling shots from beyond the arc throughout the offseason.
Brett Brown wasn't all that impressed either, telling Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports:
"He made a shot. Good. And that's kind of personally the extent of it for me," Brett Brown said. "I think the whole thing is so overblown. I think in general, it's so inflated the attention, and that's what I think. … He's young, we got a long season. I'm just not gonna react over it, and I really mean that. He made a three."
None of that is to hose down a potential fire season from Simmons, though.
He doesn't need the three-point shot to thrive and lead this team to a championship. The pieces around him compliment Simmons' somewhat historical or traditional approach to the point guard position. He can be the conductor of the orchestra without being a constant threat from the three-point line.
Sure, it would help if defenders were forced to close out on Simmons and further open up opportunities to drive the lane and finish in the restricted area where he connected at 67% last season. But Philadelphia's success doesn't rely on Simmons hitting a cherry-picked number of three-point shots.
His assist numbers have always looked nice in the box score. He's dished out 7.9 assists per game (apg) across his last two seasons. It's who he feeds - and when - that Simmons can really make his mark on the 76ers. Being authoritative in directing the team is more beneficial to the Sixers than Simmons hitting 15-20 three-point shots this season.
Identifying when Embiid needs the ball down low. Sending it to him early and often to force the defense to sag and open up space for Richardson (35.7% on three-pointers last season), Harris (39.7%), James Ennis (35.3%) and Mike Scott (40.1%) on the perimeter is what Simmons can do. Use the nightly mismatch his 6'10" frame gives him every night to get to the basket and demand attention from the defence.
Simmons is surrounded with talent and boasts plenty himself. Hitting long-range bombs won't define him if he commands the team the way he can this season.
... With A Little Help
Alongside Simmons and Embiid, Horford, Richardson and Harris make up arguably the best starting line up in the NBA. Depth could be an issue, but it's something the front office can address around buyout season. This team is going to be a contender, and veterans will have their agents on the phone, looking for a spot on the roster further down the track.
This group will see the bulk of the minutes come playoff time, but they have a few things to work out before April.
Al Horford is one of the underrated prizes of the offseason. With Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and other massive names moving house in the summer, Horford's arrival in Philadelphia hasn't recieved a lot of attention. He's unlikely to be ignored for long, though.
Horford's defensive talents are well known, and his addition ensures the Sixers will be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. His 106.4 defensive rating ranked 9th among all centres (25+ minutes per game) last season. While Horford will drop down a spot to power forward, he won't have a problem defending alongside Embiid (104.8 DefRtg in 2018-19).
There may be some teething issues on the offensive end. Horford isn't the now-normal stretch-four and only hit 1.1 three-pointers per game on three attempts (36%) last season. He's not going to demand quite so much attention on the perimeter. The heatmaps of Horford and Harris - who spent 86% of his minutes with the Sixers last season at power forward - shows the difference between how the power forward position is likely to change with Horford at the four and Harris dropping to small forward.
While the way Horford and Embiid spread the floor goes against the general direction the NBA is trending, it's something the pair can make work. Embiid has already said he will take more than his 4.1 3PA from last season and spend some time away from the basket for the benefit of the team. Horford is an elite passer. He led NBA centres in assist/turn over ratio at 2.77 in 2018-19 and has been at the top of the pile every season since 2015-16.
There's little doubt a veteran like Horford will make things work with a little time to adjust. Harris is being forced to make some changes too, but like Horford, he's equipped to work things out and produce at a high level.
Harris has played predominantly as a power forward throughout his eight-season career. Not since 2014-15 has he spent more time at small forward across a full season.
The 27-year-old gets his numbers wherever he is, though. He scored 18.2 points along with 7.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists in his 27 games with the Sixers last season. The 32.6% he shot from beyond the arc leaves room for improvement too (36.4% career average).
Most effective as a slasher and a cutter, Harris will be looking to improve on his catch and shoot numbers as he spends more time on the wing this season. His 38.2% on catch and shoot three's ranked 41st out of 115 forwards (min 2 3PA) last season. Not bad, but not great either.
What Philly fans can get excited about is his combination with Horford. When Harris does work off the ball and cuts towards the basket, his new power forward will find him for the easy bucket.
Philadelphia's other fresh face in the starting lineup is a bit of a Mr. Fix It.
Josh Richardson made a significant leap in his career last season to post averages of 16.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game with a 49.2 effective field goal percentage. '
His usage rate jumped to 20.9% as he became a leader on that Miami Heat team.
This year, Richardson will need to take a step back. He will be asked to excel as a smothering on-ball defender to get the Sixers where they plan to be - at the top of the defensive rating list. Richardson replaces JJ Redick in the lineup, and while he won't be the same catch-and-shoot guy Redick is, Richardson will thrive as a dribble-handoff partner for Embiid, and can create his own shot if given a chance.
The fifth guy in a stacked starting lineup, Richardson has a big fan in Coach Brown who considers him just as important as any other in the lineup:
"I think Josh [Richardson] is almost kind of the secret — as important as any mortar. He just holds us together. He really has a chance to hold us together."
With Embiid gunning for individual honours that come with team success, Simmons taking control of the team, Horford adding a veteran presence, Harris plugging the wings, and Richardson picking up the slack wherever it's needed, the Sixers are a championship-calibre squad.
They're alongside the Milwaukee Bucks as favourites to win the Eastern Conference and behind only the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers to win the championship.
FUTURES: 2019-20 NBA Championship Projections
The pieces are there in the starting lineup and opportunities to improve a relatively unproven bench will present themselves further down the track. After failing to reach expectations last season, the 76ers are set up to succeed in 2019-20.
Lessons have been learned, the team has a balance to it that simply wasn't there before, and they're eager.
They've all said the right things about winning in the buildup to this season. Now, there's only one thing left to do.
Trust the process.