7 for 6: The 2017-18 Primer

| Embiid signs an extension, Simmons finally steps onto the court, a new-look bench rotation, plus expectations and predictions for the Philadelphia 76ers |

Joel Embiid’s New Max Deal

The Process signed a contract extension last week that will keep him in Philadelphia through the 2022-23 season. The deal is reportedly worth the rookie scale maximum of $148 million.

Obviously this deal has some serious risk on the team’s part. Embiid has played just 31 games since being drafted in 2014. He was certainly very good when he did play, but committing so much money to a player who has struggled to stay healthy for long stretches has obvious pitfalls. To counter this, the team has reportedly made the deal very incentive-laden in order to not totally cripple the team in the event that Embiid fails to play many games.

Embiid is the embodiment of The Process in many ways and this is yet another example; for better or worse, he is the first player whom the team has given a significant amount of money since the start of this rebuild. The measuring stick for this team’s success will undoubtedly be tied to this contract. Luckily, Embiid looked very good in his preseason debut and appears ready to begin the season on a high note.

Simmons makes his debut

Ben Simmons is finally on the court, and the rave reviews are in. After just his first preseason game, Memphis coach Dave Fisdale offered his opinion on the 2016 #1 pick.

“Oh my god, I don’t want to see that for the next 15 years,” Fizdale said. “That kid, they’re not talking about him enough. The way he moves with the ball, his ability to see the floor, the way he can get places on the floor. He’s a big-time talent.”

Resident NBA nerd Zach Lowe also offered an opinion

“Ben Simmons is so fast in transition, it’s almost jarring given his size. Simmons is a freaking beast. He hasn’t played one game, and it’s already clear he’s an elite passer.”

Indeed, Simmons has displayed serious passing acumen in the preseason. Adding someone of that ability should greatly enhance the team’s offense.

We’ve seen during the preseason that the team is truly committed to Simmons as the point guard on offense. He outclasses a lot of players athletically and possess tremendous ball skills for someone of his size. He will be a monster in transition and taking advantage when smaller defenders are forced to switch onto him. His shooting needs a lot of work, but the team is doing its best to surround him with others who can shoot. There will be growing pains, but Simmons has too high on an IQ to not be a very good player.

The offense is still a work in progress

In the past three seasons Brett Brown has installed a template for a fast paced, transition offense. All it needs is an engine (Simmons) and some polish (Redick, Bayless, a stronger bench).

Simmons and Fultz have both shown flashes, but this team probably won’t be a well oiled machine right out of the gate. Without a consistent jumper, Simmons could have a hard time attacking the basket and defenders will back off and brace themselves for a drive. Fultz must adjust to playing without the ball as much and is liable to turn the ball over. And neither have played 5-on-5 alongside Embiid outside of practice and some preseason games. Embiid wasn’t cleared for 5-on-5 until the first week of October, after all. Chemistry takes time to develop. All of this is said without mentioning new players like JJ Redick, Amir Johnson, and even Jerryd Bayless to an extent. The ancillary pieces must learn how to play with the Sixers’ core players.

One area to look for the team to improve as a whole; turnovers. They averaged 16 per games last year, most in the league. Simmons and Fultz are both susceptible to coughing it simply by virtue of being primary ball handlers. Embiid himself coughed it up nearly four times per game last year. If the team actually wants to make a jump and win more games, that number will have to go down.

Markelle Fultz is likely to struggle right away

Fultz may have been highly regarded enough for the Sixers to trade up and take him first overall this past summer, but 19 year olds rarely dominate the league. Fultz likely won’t be an exception. The NBA is fast and comprised of the best athletes in the world.

The first area that he needs to get used to is playing off the ball. Simmons truly is the team’s de-facto point guard and that means Fultz won’t be initiating offense quite as much. Fultz will have to be active in setting screens for his teammates and moving in a position where he can be fed for open shots or driving lanes.

Second is his shooting. Fultz has done all his damage driving to the basket in the preseason, but the Sixers didn’t draft him to be a slasher; they need him to score from everywhere. He doesn’t seem as confident in his shot as the team would like. Going off his jumpshot, Fultz also needs to work on his free throws. He’s apparently been tweaking the form, although the results haven’t been encouraging.

None of this is to say that Fultz is broken as a player. He’s not. But I do think that he’s the most likely of the Sixers’ core to struggle right away. Guards don’t have it easy in the NBA, and there are enough good ones to test you each and every night. How well Fultz is able to adjust is game to the NBA and his newfound role as a secondary ball handler will speak volumes about his career trajectory.

Not-so-Big Jah

Jahlil Okafor hasn’t had an easy tenure in Philly. He’s had to battle through trade rumors, incidents off the court, and even a handful of injuries. If there was a consistent part of Okafor’s game that you could point to after two seasons, it was probably the fact that he never looked well conditioned. You could see him labor up and down the court after just a few minutes of action each night. Basketball is already a tough sport; being tired all the time only worsens the difficulty.

To Okafor’s credit, he’s made a lot of changes to get himself in better shape. He’s noticeably thinner, and credits this to his new vegan diet.

“I feel lighter, I feel great,” he said. “I’ve been taking my body seriously, my health seriously, what I eat very seriously. So I think it’s going to pay off.”

So far the results have been good. Okafor looks more engaged on defense and the boards, which are arguably the two most important skills for a big man. We’ll see how it translates to the regular season.

Final Lineup

The Starters

Jerryd Bayless – Guard

JJ Redick – Guard

Robert Covington – Forward

Ben Simmons – Point Forward

Joel Embiid – Center

The only surprising omission here is Markelle Fultz (more on that below). Regardless, this looks to be a pretty solid group. They all compliment one another’s skill sets and have the length to be disruptive, if not entirely efficient on defense. Simmons will initiate the offense by attacking the basket and kicking it out to Bayless, Redick, and Covington who all space the floor with the threat of their shooting.

Embiid is the rock that ties it all together; when all else fails, give him the ball. He’s the most talented offensive player on the team, so expect him to be setting a lot of screens for others. His threat as a roller to the basket or popping out for a three pointer make him very difficult to guard.

The Bench (in the order they will appear, plus a skill from each player to watch)

Dario Saric – Forward

The Croatian Sensation is now the 6th man. Someone with Dario’s skill set just has to be on the court for a lot of minutes. He’s a crafty offensive player whose outside shooting is improving. He’s not the best athlete, but he will hustle and work on the boards. Hell, we might see him play center in some small-ball lineups! He’s a joy to watch and I’d expect him to get heavy minutes.

Skill to watch: I’m excited to see the magic that is his passing alongside Ben Simmons.  I think he is a legitimate 6th Man of the Year candidate if the Sixers make a big leap.

Richaun Holmes* (Foward/Center) /Jahlil Okafor – (Center)

The team still needs to carry three centers because Embiid will still be on a minutes restriction this season. Both Holmes and Okafor will see action. This is an instance where performance will dictate who gets more minutes. Okafor can score down low and has been working on his outside shooting, but he needs to prove that he can be at least a net positive on defense. Until then, the team can’t afford to play him for long stretches.

*Holmes fractured a bone in his left hand on Oct. 6th versus Boston. He’s expected to be out at least three weeks. But when he’s healthy, I’d imagine that he will get plenty of minutes. Holmes is a better athlete and defender than Okafor, but may not produce as much on offense outside of dunks and wide open threes. Not a bad repertoire, but still that of a reliable backup.

Skill to watch: Outside shooting. Holmes has shown flashes, Okafor has not. But centers big men who can shoot are incredibly useful in today’s NBA. Like it or not, these guys will be launching a few from deep.

Markelle Fultz(Guard) /TJ McConnell (Guard)

It’s true. Brett Brown confirmed that Fultz would begin the season coming off the bench, attributing that decision to a lack of playing time in the preseason. It could also have to do with a shoulder injury that has been nagging Fultz for a short time. It’s disappointing to see a #1 pick come off the bench, but easing Fultz into the rotation is probably a wise decision, especially with such ball dominant starters like Simmons and Embiid.

McConnell may not start anymore, but he has that “it” factor. He’s a natural playmaker and has those intangibles that coaches love. His size limits what he can do on defense, but his assignments won’t be as tough off the bench. His shooting will have to improve to get above third in the rotation.

Skill to watch: Shooting. McConnell has never shown much and Fultz has looked shaky in the preseason. Does it get any better from either?

Justin Anderson – (Wing/Forward) /Furkan Korkmaz – (Wing)

Anderson came over last season from Dallas in the Nerlens Noel trade. Right now he’ll assume the defensive wing spot off the bench. His offense needs work, especially getting his shot to consistently fall. But he’s a tremendous athlete and should provide energy in limited minutes.

Korkmaz is on the final 15 man roster, despite some expecting him to play in the G-League this year. He could still be sent down, but the team seems to like his shooting driven-skillset.

Skill to watch: Shot creation. Anderson isn’t much of a shooter. He’s more of a lumbering slasher. Can he truly beat NBA defenders off the dribble? Korkmaz isn’t as strong as he needs to be; how much does that limit his upside? Can he be crafty enough to still get open looks?

Nik Stauskas (Guard) – /Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot – (Guard/Wing)

Here is a bit of a competition for the backup shooting guard role. Both players can contribute different things; Stauskas will give you more on offense, TLC is more versatile on defense. I’d give the initial edged to Stauskas since TLC didn’t have a particularly strong summer league performance.

Skill to watch: Defense. These two, along with JJ Redick, are the team’s “shooting guards” by virtue of skillset and size. That means some nights they’ll be defending the likes of James Harden, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler. None of them are particularly strong one-on-one defenders (Redick is a smart team defender, meaning he knows how to switch assignments with teammates and force opponents into double teams). Cabbarot probably has the highest ceiling among the three as a defender. Regardless of who it comes from, getting good defense from this group will be a huge boost to the team.

Amir Johnson (Forward)

Johnson signed as a free agent this year and gives the team good forward depth. He does a little bit of everything and solidifies the bench as a veteran presence.

Skill to watch: Outside shooting. He shot over 40% from 3 point range last year. If he’s able to replicate that, it will greatly enhance the offensive output of the bench.

Season Prediction

The Sixers have a lot of people excited and for good reason. They have two #1 picks debuting in the same season, and their starters from previous seasons should be more successful coming off the bench. So where do they end up this season?

The way I see it, only 5 teams in the Eastern Conference are absolutely better than Philly; Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, Washington, and Milwaukee. There are also five teams that the Sixers are better than; Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, Orlando and Atlanta. This means that 5 teams (Philly, Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, and Indiana) will be competing for the final 3 playoff spots.

If the team can stay reasonably healthy (55-60 games from Embiid, at least 70 from Simmons and Fultz), I see them as the 7th seed in the East.

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