Photo Credit: USA Today Images

Photo Credit: USA Today Images

2018-19 76ers Season Preview

| A season of high expectations is finally here. Everything you need to know about Philadelphia’s roster, narratives, and where they will be at season’s end |

The Roster

Starters

PG: Ben Simmons

SG: Markelle Fultz

SF: Robert Covington

PF: Dario Saric

C: Joel Embiid

The one surprise in the starting lineup is Fultz  instead of JJ Redick. Brett Brown, for better or worse, wants to see what he has with Fultz. It’s risky, for more reasons than the obvious concerns over Fult’z confidence. Redick is one of the best 3 point shooters in NBA history, and his benching means abandoning one of the most efficient 5 man units in the entire NBA from last season.

While Fultz’s re-worked shot looks good in the preseason, it’s still an unknown factor. Until he proves to be a threat from downtown, this starting lineup simply won’t have the spacing that it does with Redick. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be effective. Saric took a big leap in his shooting last season and Covington, streakiness aside, demands respect from defenders. Embiid, the true focal point, will have to be more efficient by limiting his turnovers and navigating double teams better (both stated goals for improvement this summer).

Of course, Fultz also brings some true positives to this lineup. He’s a much better ball handler and finisher near the rim than Redick. His athleticism also gives him a much higher ceiling as a defenders. It’s a physically imposing lineup that will suffocate opposing offenses. Simmons and Fultz sprinting in transition while Saric, Covington, and Embiid spread out as trailers will be very tough to defend.

Reserves

PG: TJ McConnell,

SG: JJ Redick, Jerryd Bayless*, Landry Shamet

SF: Wilson Chandler*, Furkan Korkmaz, Zhaire Smith*

PF: Amir Johnson

C: Mike Muscala, Jonah Bolden

* = Injured

McConnell is in the final year of his contract, and depending on how this season goes, the Sixers might not be able to bring him back. With his future in Philadelphia up in the air, I’d encourage fans to enjoy every minute that he plays.

And by the way, he needs to play. Even with two point guards ahead of him, he’s too smart and too energetic of a player to not see the floor for at least 20 minutes every night. Despite his small stature and relatively tame athleticism, McConnell is a tremendously hard working defender. The team’s defense in last season’s playoff series versus Boston turned around in a big way when McConnell was made a starter. With classic point guard passing and ball handling skills, the crux of McConnell’s effectiveness continues to be his outside shooting. He took a pretty big leap in efficiency last year despite his low volume. But after three years, it’s unfair to expect him to shoot 5 threes per game. He doesn’t have the scoring chops to win Sixth Man of the Year, but he’s a very important piece off the bench.

JJ Redick returns on another one year deal, now coming off the bench. In the same way that Redick transformed the starting lineup into a juggernaut, he’ll now be expected to give the bench a boost, at least to start the season. With the departure of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, Redick’s scoring prowess becomes all the more important.

Jerry Bayless will be getting more minutes than last year due to a need for-aaaaaaand he’s injured. Well, time to see some playing time for rookie Landry Shamet! Shamet has looked comfortable in minor preseason action. His shot looks smooth and he’s been surprisingly active as a defender. He may be closer to a rotation player than the Sixers thought when he was drafted this summer.

Wilson Chandler, the team’s major free agent signing (boy is that depressing) will be a versatile wing that gives the team sorely needed depth. He’ll–aaaaaand he’s also injured.  Furkan Korkmaz steps in. I’m actually quite bullish on Korkmaz. He reminds me of Saric; a skilled guy who just seems to love basketball (he played a lot overseas this summer). He has a legitimate jump shot and if Summer League is any indication, he can heat up in a hurry. He isn’t the swiss army knife, switchable defender that Chandler can be, but Korkmaz should be playable off the bench until Chandler returns. Zhaire Smith won’t be ready until late December at the earliest, so the opportunity for Korkmaz is here.

Amir Johnson returns as well. He’s become a pretty underrated part of the team’s defense; he’s smart and plays above his size. There’s value in hustle points even if they don’t stack up quite as high.

Mike Muscala is another addition, acquired in a trade with Atlanta. Based on preseason minutes, they have big plans for Muscala. He brings a lot more on offense than Johnson, and can play reasonably good defense. He’s also a more adept passer than most would think. I’m excited to see what kind of lineups they use him in.

The Jonah Bolden hype train slowed down a bit this summer. He wasn’t particularly impressive in Summer League, and seems further away from his ceiling than initially thought. He could see small minutes in blowouts, but I’d expect this to be a learning year for the Aussie.

The Storylines

  • Markelle Fultz, and Everything About Him

What can be said about Fultz that hasn’t been said? His jumper is imperative to his success in they NBA. He’s worked to refine it, and now he’ll have to use it.

Additionally, his insertion into the starting lineup presents a challenge to his teammates. Redick worked so well as a starter because of the gravity that he has a shooter. You cannot leave him alone near the arc. It opened space for Simmons to drive, for Embiid to post up, and for dribble hand offs to scatter the defense. Fultz does not have that same gravity. Opponents will sag off and try to reduce the space in the paint where Simmons and Embiid thrive.

And frankly, it’s fair to wonder how well Fultz will do in a late game, high pressure situation. We may never know the extent to which the “yips” affected Fult’z psyche last year. It’s understandable to feel immense pressure as a 19 year old first overall pick. Maybe his shoulder injury lingered longer than we know. Maybe he truly didn’t think he could contribute in a meaningful way without a functional jumper. Regardless, I’m fascinated to see how Fultz performs in a high pressure, in game situation.

  • Embiid and Simmons Progression

The two best players on the Sixers are still young as far as athletes go. Simmons dazzled in his delayed rookie season, transforming the Sixers into a suffocating defense with length. Offensively, he still has some major improvement to do. Three pointers are out of the question this year, even if he’s been practicing them. But Simmons doesn’t even have a mid-range shot. It may be a slow process, but Simmons needs to work towards some kind of outside shot. His ceiling is severely limited if he doesn’t (as we saw against Boston in the playoffs).

Embiid is a different animal. He’s like a basketball sponge, absorbing the details and skills of the game. The improvement that he’s made since coming to America from Cameroon is astounding. Sports Illustrated ranked him as the ninth best player in the NBA already!

He can do almost anything on the court. The task ahead of him now is to do those things more efficiently. It’s great to have a center that can shoot 3s! It’s not good that he shoots 30%. It’s great to have one of, if not the most skilled low post scorer in the league. It’s not good that he coughs up the ball and can’t handle double teams. It’s great to have an anchor on defense. It’s not good when he gets fatigued and disappears in a big moment. If Embiid can clean up those aspects of his game, he is arguably an MVP candidate.

  • Brett Brown’s in game coaching

I see this season as the first in which Brown will be very heavily scrutinized. Ownership was patient throughout the down years of The Process, and last year was such an unexpected leap that Brown earned himself an extension.

But now? Now there are expectations. Brown will have to show that he can manage an ever changing rotation and make in-game adjustments. Additionally, Brown’s offensive system will see some changes. The Sixers avoided the pick and roll like the plague last year, mostly because of Simmons’ unconventional style as a point guard. Since he doesn’t shoot from outside, opponents just had to go under screens or stay in front of the roll man (mostly Embiid or Saric). Now with Fultz in the mix, they’re surely going to incorporate more pick and rolls, and probably a fair amount with Simmons as the screener.

Executing new systems like that does fall on the players, but it’s also up to Brown to teach them how to play this way. Brown has always been a good motivator. With the weight of expectations, we may finally see how much he understands modern basketball.

The Outlook

Las Vegas has the Sixers’ over/under win total at 54.5. Despite so much uncertainty they are a top four team in the Eastern Conference on talent alone.  LeBron is gone, but Boston is still loaded and bolstered by the returns of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They’re the likely favorites to reach the finals. Toronto had the biggest overhaul, swapping DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. Leoanard is a clear upgrade, and they’re bringing most of their team back that went 3-1 against the Sixers last season. But outside of those two teams, the Sixers are as good as anyone in the East. The team has made their stated goal the NBA Finals. I think they fall one step short; a closely fought, 7 game series loss in the Eastern Conference Finals to Boston.