7 for 6: 2019-20 Season Preview

| The Sixers took big swings in the offseason, and appear primed to challenge for a wide-open title race |

The Lineup

Starters

PG: Ben Simmons

SG: Josh Richards

SF: Tobias Harris

PF: Al Horford

C: Joel Embiid

The Sixers boast the largest and arguably most talented starting five in the entire league. Embiid is a potential MVP candidate, and Simmons seems poised to build on his first all star season. Fulfilling his potential will always come down to his jumpshot, but at least he sounds willing to attempt more three pointers this year.

Absent in the starting five is JJ Redick, who in two seasons with the team made the sixth most three pointers in franchise history. He left for New Orleans this summer, so much of the outside shooting will fall on the shoulders of Tobias Harris. After being traded from the LA Clippers to Philadelphia last season, Harris averaged 18 points in 27 regular season games. His playoff average dropped to 15 points in 12 games. It was hard for Harris to truly make a strong impression with Jimmy Butler taking up so much oxygen in the offense. In signing Harris to a max contract this offseason, the Sixers are betting that Harris can shine in a more featured role. Embiid is the first option on the floor, and Brett Brown even expects him to close games.

Josh Richardson came to town in the Butler sign-and-trade with Miami. The 26 year old is coming off the best season of his career where he averaged 16 points. He’s a very good defender that could be tasked with defending opposing point guards. Listed at 6’6″, he is the shortest player in the starting rotation. While the Sixers don’t need him to be a high volume scorer, it would raise the team’s ceiling quite a bit if he becomes that.

Al Horford has been a major thorn in the Sixers’ side for the past three seasons. He defends Embiid as well as anyone, and no one else on Philly’s front court could keep up with his ability to shoot and facilitate from the perimeter.  He chose to leave Boston as a free agent this summer, weakening a rival in the process. His fit on this team is also as good as you can get. He fits well with the starters and could be the linch pin of the best defense in the NBA. Brown will stagger his minutes with Embiid so at least one of them is on the floor at all times. Combined with his passing savy and veteran experience, Horford will give this team a huge boost.

The Bench

Guards: Raul Neto, Trey Bruke, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton

Wings: Mike Scott, James Ennis, Matisse Thybulle, Zhaire Smith

Big Men: Kyle O’Quinn, Jonah Bolden

All things considered I think the Sixers have a marginally stronger bench compared to last season. Scott and Ennis, the only two bench players that the team could use in the playoffs last season, both return. Scott is a fan favorite and has been a reliable role player for every team he’s been on. He and Ennis are both smart and willing defenders. Not particularly exciting as individuals, but important fits that Brown trusts.

TJ McConnell left for the Indiana Pacers, creating a hole at backup point guard. McConnell had his moments in Philly but struggled against more athletic guards. That’s a problem when you’re facing the likes of Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and Kyle Lowry. His scoring is easily replaced by Burke (10.9 points, 34% from 3 for his career) and Neto (only 4.8 points, but 37% from deep). Burke has been challenged to be better on defense by the coaches. I think this duo does well and ideally at least one is usable in the playoff rotation.

The weight of defending guards won’t fall squarely on just Burke or Neto. Zhaire Smith will play his first full season after missing time last year due to a severe allergic reaction. His offense is still limited, but he showed a willingness to shoot during his brief playing time at the end of last season. This year’s first round pick, Matisse Thybulle has been a pleasant surprise during the preseason. After four years at the University of Washington, he appears ready to hit the ground running in the NBA.

Korkmaz returning is a mild surprise. The Sixers declined his player option last year, but the lack of opportunity elsewhere brought him back. The key for Korkmaz will always be his shooting. He has a very smooth form and once scored 50 points in a summer league game, but that’s about all that you can say about him as a player. He isn’t strong enough to make a huge impact near the basket, nor a good enough ball handler to create anything but catch and shoot opportunities.  Unless he takes a major step forward, he won’t be seeing minutes in the playoffs.

A big priority for the Sixers has to be getting Embiid ready for the playoffs. In two postseasons, the big man has dealt with injuries, sickness, and at times flat out fatigue. They’ll need to rest Embiid at the right times and not over-expend him during the regular season.

Kyle O’Quinn is a solid backup center. He will hustle, rebound, and defend the paint. Jonah Bolden has all of the physical tools in the world, but he’s undisciplined and fouls often. He’ll probably offer more scoring than O’Quinn, and Brett Brown can deploy the two situationally. I would expect the Sixers to add another player here, either through trade or on the buyout marker.

The Storylines

1: Ben Simmons’ Jumpshot

It’s almost impossible to discuss Simmons without mentioning his lack of it. And that’s frustrating, because Simmons is incredible at just about everything else. He’s a walking triple double that made the All Star game at 22 years old. And yet, unless he becomes a legitimate scoring threat from the perimeter, there seems to be a ceiling on his impact. That has not changed.

…or has it?

Oh…oh shit.

Now, let’s pump the brakes for a bit. It was an exhibition game against a team from China, at the end of the half. Still, you could see everyone urging him to shoot, including Embiid. The energy in the arena felt similar to (dare I say) Markelle Fultz’s first three early last season, but taken to a whole new level. And people have good reason to be excited. Simmons doesn’t necessarily have to shoot well from the outside. If he hovers around 30 to 33% opponents will have to close out, allowing Simmons to blow by them and get near the basket, where he is much better.

If Simmons is serious about adding this to his game (and he seems to be), the Sixers could be the favorites for a title. But if this preseason moment was just a tease, I don’t see fans being too pleased.

2: How Tobias Harris performs

Harris is 27, but has been in the NBA since he was 19. Despite that, he has never spent more than two full seasons with any one team. The Sixers were willing to give him a five year max contract. To earn it that deal, Harris potentially needs to be a 2nd scoring option for a championship team. Embiid is their go to scorer. Until the Sixers know what they have in Simmons’ jumpshot, he’s not a versatile enough scorer. Josh Richardson would also have to take a considerable leap to be that kind of player. Al Horford is 33 and has never been the focal point of an offense. That leaves Harris as the guy who should take a late game shot if Embiid is unable to.

3. The New Stuff

Outside of their players, the Sixers had relatively few changes during the off season. Assistant coaches Monty Williams and Billy Lange left after the playoffs, leaving a vacancy next to Brett Brown on the bench. In come Ime Udoka from the San Antonio Spurs Joseph Blair from the G-League champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Udoka and Brown coached together on the Spurs for multiple years. Blair coached with Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse while in Rio Grande.

Brown is in his sixth season as head coach and signed an extension through 2021-22 last year. His job seems relatively safe, but he the team should be expected to take a leap. Fortunately this season looks to be much more stable for Brown, at least from a roster perspective.

The Key Games

-The Sixers start the year in Boston on Oct. 23rd.

-Starting in November they have a mildly tough four game road trip out west; Portland, Phoenix, Utah, and Denver.

-On Nov. 25th the Sixers return to Toronto, the place where their season ended in May. Kawhi Leonard won’t be there; the Sixers won’t see him until Feb. 11th in Philly.

-Philadelphia also gets to host a Christmas game this year for the first time since 1988. Milwaukee comes to town this year.

-The Lakers and Warriors come to town for back to back games, sandwiched between seven road games between mid Jan. to early Feb.

-There are 13 sets of back to back games on the schedule. These will likely be points of rest for Embiid.

The Prediction

The Eastern Conference is wide open once again. Milwaukee has the MVP in Giannis but lost Malcom Brogdon in free agency. They adding more shooting with Kyle Korver and Wes Matthews. Those two are much needed scoring threats after Eric Bledsoe was rendered almost unplayable in the conference finals against Toronto.

Speaking of the Raptors, the reigning champs were unable to keep Kawhi Leonard. They take a significant step back without him, but they’re obviously still talented and I would not discount the notion that they will play with a chip on their shoulders as people assume the departure of Leonard sinks them. For sure a playoff team, and not an easy out.

It wasn’t an ideal offseason for Boston; Horford left for the Sixers, and Kyrie Irving took his talents to Brooklyn. Boston replaced him with Kemba Walker. They still have youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, along with Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. They’re arguably less talented overall, but the headache of Irving has been lifted. Maybe with less distractions their ceiling grows.

Irving is the Brooklyn Nets’ problem now. It’s a good problem to have, considering they also signed Kevin Durant, but his torn achilles will keep him out for this entire season. The Nets shouldn’t be dismissed though. They have a very strong backcourt with Irving, Caris Levert, and Spencer Dinwiddie. They brought in DeAndre Jordan so that Embiid can’t abuse Jarrett Allen again. They are probably a year away, but it would behoove the Sixers to learn some of their weaknesses now.

Ultimately the Sixers are on the most talented teams in the league. I see them and Milwaukee as the class of the East.

Playoff teams (seed): Bucks (1), Sixers (2) Celtics (3) Nets (4) Magic (5) Raptors (6) Pacers (7) Bulls (8)

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