With 4.2 seconds left in a tied Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Marc Gasol inbounded the ball to Kawhi Leonard. Leonard caught the ball at the top key and was promptly met by Ben Simmons, who shadowed Leonard as he made a move to his right and headed toward the wing. When Leonard arrived at the wing, Joel Embiid greeted him and took over the defensive responsibility.
Embiid mirrored Leonard as he made a beeline towards the corner, keeping the star forward between himself and the basket. When Leonard realized he would be unable to turn and get closer to the rim, he hit the brakes and squared his shoulders to the basket. Embiid, realizing what was about to happen, came to a jump stop as well and made sure to position himself to not commit a foul. As Leonard rose to fire the last shot of regulation, Embiid rose with him and extended every inch of his 7-foot-2 frame to contest.
The ball hit the front of the rim and went straight up, every set of eyes in the arena now fixated on its trajectory. It hit the same side of the rim again, then the other side of the rim twice for good measure, before dropping through the net. The Philadelphia 76ers season was over.
Embiid’s hands went to his head, his expression resting somewhere between total disbelief and total deflation. The most important game of his career up to this point had ended in crushing defeat.
About a month later, the Raptors won the NBA title, and the Sixers went into the offseason with hope. They had pushed the eventual champions to the brink and came closer to defeating them than any other team. Their starting lineup post-Tobias Harris trade was the best in the league by net rating. If they could bring everyone back, perhaps an upgrade at backup center would be all that is needed to push them over the top.
This hope of a re-do swiftly vanished when JJ Redick accepted a two-year deal in New Orleans, and Jimmy Butler made it known that he would like to play in Miami. General manager Elton Brand had a Plan B, however, as he was able to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with the HEAT, receiving Josh Richardson as consolation for the Butler departure. The Sixers were able to re-sign Tobias Harris to a five-year deal and used most of their remaining cap space to sign veteran Al Horford to a four-year contract.
A new starting lineup was set, and the team enters the 2019-20 season still projected to compete for a championship. This year, an even bigger microscope will be on the homegrown stars – Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Their improvement or lack thereof could determine the team’s fate.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The 76ers had a productive offseason. Jimmy Butler fled Philadelphia for Miami, but he was replaced by Al Horford. And while many might look at the addition of Horford as redundant, it is unarguable that he’s a supremely skilled, versatile and super high-IQ player. Unfortunately for the 76ers, JJ Redick also left Philly, but they added Josh Richardson in the sign-and-trade that sent Butler to the HEAT. Speaking of Richardson, he projects to be the 76ers shortest starting player at 6-foot-6. With Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Horford and Joel Embiid, the 76ers project to be among the best rebounding teams in basketball. And they also feature a good deal of depth with Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, James Ennis III, Kyle O’Quinn and rookie Matisse Thybulle. And with Kawhi Leonard heading to the Clippers, the Eastern Conference has become less competitive at its top – giving the 76ers a clear path to the Atlantic Division crown…and maybe more.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Drew Maresca
Seems like it was just yesterday that we were “Trusting The Process” and watching the Sixers win 15 games a season. Gone are those days, however, and now The Process has led to having a true NBA Finals contending team. Yeah, they may have lost Jimmy Butler, but they re-signed Tobias Harris and added some quality players. Josh Richardson came over in the Butler sign-and-trade. They were one of the biggest winners in free agency with Al Horford. Kyle O’Quinn and Trey Burke provide veteran depth. But if the Sixers are to really achieve their goal of making it to the NBA Finals, that’s all going to depend upon the improvement of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Process gifted the Sixers their two franchise building blocks; now it’s time for them to continue to grow and prove that they’re capable of leading the Sixers to the promised land. A conference finals appearance at least should be the goal in the City of Brotherly Love.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– David Yapkowitz
There’s been a seismic shift in power in the Atlantic Division. No longer do the defending champion Raptors have their ace, nor do the Celtics have two All-Star pieces. The Nets obviously hit the jackpot with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, but the latter is out for the foreseeable future. The Sixers have a chance to really make a jump this season. While they also lost a key veteran and All-Star, they’ve retooled. Josh Richardson and Al Horford are being added to the mix of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. It’s a change in direction with more length on the defensive end, while also bringing a chance to young upstarts like Zhaire Smith, Shake Milton and rookie Matisse Thybulle off the bench. How the rotations will shake out remains to be seen. The talent speaks for itself, though, and it should lead to Philadelphia’s first division title since the 2000-01 campaign.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
The 76ers looked to be loaded and way more balanced than a season ago. Under general manager Elton Brand, the Sixers spent a ton of money this summer, but locked into a core that should not only be good enough to win the division, but if healthy, contend for the Eastern Conference crown. Now here is the pessimistic point of view: Are the 76ers mentally tough enough and mature enough to handle the next level? They say you have to learn how to win in the postseason of the NBA, how to string together a process to endure the unrelenting pressure of the big stage. The 76ers young stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have come up short two years in a row. Al Horford should help in this department, but the 76ers look like a team poised to win a ton of regular-season games, it’s the postseason that still haunts the franchise.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
I cannot think of another team that is quite as unique at the Philadelphia 76ers. With the addition of Al Horford, this team is now absolutely massive. With starting lineup of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid, the 76ers have the size and physicality to match up with any team and be a menace defensively. Brett Brown may have one of the tougher jobs of any head coach this season as he will have to figure out how to get these players to fit well with one another and will have to experiment with his lineups to optimize the talent he has available to him. The loss of Jimmy Butler stings a little bit, especially in crunch time situations, but that leaves room for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris to stepup and take more responsibility in high-pressure situations. There are some reasons to be concerned about how this team will play together but I am excited to see how Coach Brown manages his team throughout the season.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Sixers went under the salary cap to sign Al Horford. They also used their Room Exception on Mike Scott, leaving the franchise with just the minimum to offer if they want to add to the roster. Assuming Trey Burke makes the team, Philadelphia will have a full 15 and a payroll near but under the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold.
The team needs to decide on Zhaire Smith’s rookie-scale option before November. Beyond this season, the 76ers are well over next year’s projected $116 million salary cap (likely a taxpayer). If the roster performs successfully this season, the team may be willing to foot that bill, but if the end result is unfavorable, Philadelphia could change course and look to move some players.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Best Offensive Player: Joel Embiid
Since he entered the league, Joel Embiid has been the highest-usage center in the NBA. The Sixers’ offense will once again be powered by the Cameroonian behemoth, and his efficiency -despite the large load he’s been asked to carry – makes him the team’s first and best offensive option.
The Sixers’ offense scored about seven more points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court than with him off last season, per Cleaning The Glass. The 7-foot-2 center attracts attention from multiple defenders and acts as a safety valve if the Sixers can’t find another opening for a basket.
Embiid was third in the league in post ups last season, behind only LaMarcus Aldridge and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Sixers scored 1.05 points per possession on those post ups, which was the highest mark in the league among players with at least three post-ups per game, per NBA.com.
Joel Embiid’s ability to pass out of double teams and his propensity for turnovers have been his most glaring flaws offensively. His turnover percentage has decreased steadily since his rookie year, and him continuing that trend will be a key subplot for the Sixers’ offense.
Embiid makes up for his turnover issues with an uncanny ability to draw fouls. He led the league in both personal foul percentage and shooting foul percentage out of post ups last season, per NBA.com. His large frame and nimble feet make him nearly impossible to guard without fouling for the league’s less defensively-inclined centers.
If Embiid continues to work on his fluidity with his moves and his passing out of double teams, he could be impossible to guard for the rest of the league as well.
Best Defensive Player: Joel Embiid
Embiid’s impact may be even more pronounced defensively, where he represents the difference between the Sixers being elite or dreadful on that end. His impressive foot speed for his size allows him to switch onto smaller players when necessary, and his high defensive IQ has him reading the opponent and knowing where to help at a moment’s notice. These tools combined make him one of the league’s premier defenders, earning All-Defensive second team honors in each of the last two seasons.
Not only does Embiid limit his opponent’s efficiency, he also limits their second chances. His defensive rebounding rate rose to 28.6 percent last season, putting him in the 95th percentile for his position, per Cleaning The Glass.
The Sixers’ defense experienced a strange decline last season compared to the 2017-18 campaign. This can be attributed partially to a scheme change that took some adjustment and constant roster turnover. With a new lineup now full of defensive pedigree, Embiid’s impact could be even more devastating.
Best Playmaker: Ben Simmons
With Jimmy Butler suiting up in Miami, the playmaking duties for this Sixers team will rely more than ever on the capable hands of Ben Simmons. The 6-foot-10 point guard is a virtuoso passer, and his assist percentage has been near the top of the league in each of his first two seasons.
Simmons is most effective in transition, where he can use his elite speed to create fastbreak opportunities and find teammates who have either spotted up or filled the lane for wide open looks. One of Simmons’ patented moves is to grab a rebound, race the defense to the other end before stopping abruptly at the foul line. Here, he creates a pseudo-post up where his teammates cut and move around him in transition. The ensuing confusion usually leads to a wide open three or layup for the Sixers.
Simmons’ playmaking ability is, of course, limited in the half court, and many question how much value he can even provide in a set play when the defense does not have to respect him outside of 10 feet. While this is certainly an issue, Simmons still is adept at finding cutters out of the post and can be weaponized as a screener a la Draymond Green in Golden State.
Best Clutch Player: Al Horford
Over the last few seasons, Al Horford has been one of the more underrated clutch players in the NBA. While he doesn’t always take the clutch shots for his team – and therefore has a low volume on these attempts – his efficiency in the clutch has been consistently near the top of the league.
Just last season, Al Horford shot 64 percent from the field in clutch minutes, per NBA.com. He also shot 50 percent from three in clutch minutes, albeit on a very low number of attempts.
Like his role with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford could fill in as a second option for the Sixers late in games when defenses are focused on Embiid. It’s easy to picture a scenario where Horford is left open after setting a screen or simply left alone outside the three-point line. Horford has shown ability to knock down those looks when it matters.
The Unheralded Player: Tobias Harris
After joining the Sixers last season, Tobias Harris was primarily used as a floor spacer and occasional post-up threat in a stacked Sixers lineup. The main options on offense, particularly in the playoffs, were Jimmy Butler pick-and-rolls and JJ Redick-Joel Embiid dribble handoffs. Due to the lack of touches, Harris has seemingly gone under the radar as a potential offensive centerpiece this season.
Before the trade to Philadelphia, Harris was the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. He regularly ran the pick-and-roll and showed an ability to score in isolation. Now, with Redick and Butler off to different teams, Harris could once again flash his full skill set.
Harris possesses a smooth pull-up jumper and is able to get where he wants coming off a screen to create a basket. Expect Harris to take on a larger offensive role this season, and if he can improve his passing, he could be a primary option when the Sixers need a basket.
Best New Addition: Al Horford
By acquiring Al Horford this offseason, the Sixers accomplished two things. First, they found a floor-spacing power forward that doubles as a very capable defender to slot in next to Embiid. Second, they brought in someone who can also fill in as a backup center when Embiid is on the bench or taking the night off.
Last postseason, the Sixers’ center rotation was exposed behind Embiid. Against the Raptors, the Sixers plus-minus while Embiid was on the court compared to him off was astronomical. Now, Horford will provide strong center play while Embiid is off the court, and his ability to stretch the floor should fit in perfectly with Ben Simmons.
Horford also should be a perfect fit sharing the court with Embiid and could help this group reach a new level defensively. Last season, the Celtics had a defensive rating of 99.2 when Horford was lined up next to Aron Baynes as a power forward. This placed in the 99th percentile among all NBA lineups, per Cleaning The Glass.
Horford also brings intangibles and a valuable locker room presence. His quiet demeanor should be the perfect foil to Joel Embiid’s bravado. If his production stays consistent, the on-court fit will be ideal as well.
– Quinn Davis
WHO WE LIKE
1. Matisse Thybulle
The Sixers traded up to nab the forward from Washington in this year’s draft, and his defensive potential has many intrigued. Thybulle has an impressive seven-foot wingspan on a 6-foot-5 frame, which allowed him to be a pest in the passing lanes in college.
Thybulle set a school record at Washington with 101 steals in a single season and was subsequently named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts. In a video taken in the Sixers’ facilities of Matisse Thybulle meeting Brett Brown, the coach looked at his new player and said tersely: “You guard. You’re good people.” That about sums it up.
2. Mike Scott
Scott came to Philadelphia as a part of the Tobias Harris trade in February and has endeared himself to the Sixers faithful ever since. From a basketball standpoint, Scott is a valuable bench piece, as he is around a 40 percent three-point shooter who can adequately guard threes and fours. He notably hit a huge three from the corner in Game 4 of the Sixers’ playoff matchup against the Nets, giving the team a 3-1 lead and control of the series.
Scott has also never shied away from a scuffle, whether it be on the court or in the parking lot of an Eagles game. His fire and energy can potentially galvanize a contending team that may find themselves in a rut during the regular season drudgery.
3. Ime Udoka
After spending seven years as an assistant under Greg Popovich in San Antonio, the Sixers hired Udoka to be Brett Brown’s right-hand man and defensive coordinator. Udoka brings strong experience from a Spurs team that has been consistently solid defensively outside of a decline last season.
Last season, the Sixers installed a new defensive scheme under assistant coach Billy Lange. The scheme had mixed results and certainly played a role in their defensive downturn. With the new look roster, Udoka will have plenty of tools to use to build this defense back up to an elite outfit.
4. Josh Richardson
Coming over from Miami in the Butler sign-and-trade, Richardson will bring feisty perimeter defense, solid three-point shooting and even some playmaking potential to the Sixers’ starting lineup.
Last season, Richardson spent a lot of time handling the ball for a depleted HEAT team and gained valuable reps running dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls. He will not be asked to do as much in Philadelphia, but with his full focus on the defensive end, and his ability to hit open threes, he could be a huge part of the team’s success.
The fifth-year guard is also still young and improving and is under contract for the next two seasons at only 10 million dollars per year.
– Quinn Davis
The Sixers will have one of, if not the biggest, starting five in the league next season. Josh Richardson will be the shortest among them, standing at 6-foot-6. With all of this size, the team certainly projects to be strong on the glass. They were already strong on this front last season, finishing fourth in the league in total rebounding percentage, per NBA.com.
If the whole equals or exceeds the sum of its parts, the Sixers also project to be an elite defensive team. As mentioned briefly above, both Horford and Richardson are strong defenders, and teams have typically defended very well with Horford playing power forward. With those two in fold, the lineup now boasts four elite defenders who should combine to make for a frightening unit.
– Quinn Davis
While the new starting five is rife with defensive potential, there is some reasonable concern with the lack of offensive shot creation. Jimmy Butler was of particular import in the 2019 playoffs, where he acted as the team’s point guard down the stretch against Toronto.
The Sixers will need internal improvement from Ben Simmons, as well as help from Richardson and Harris to create shots around the perimeter this season. The Sixers’ offense may stagnate when they play more adept defenses, and this issue could be a thorn in the team’s side in the 2020 postseason.
– Quinn Davis
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Ben Simmons develop/use his jump shot?
Most discussions about the Sixers’ championship viability for this season and beyond hinge on whether their star point guard can turn himself into an average or even slightly below-average shooter. For two straight playoff runs, the fatal flaw on the otherwise inimitable Simmons has stuck out like a sore thumb, leaving fans and pundits to go as far as thinking he should be traded.
If Simmons was playing for a different team, maybe this wouldn’t be as dire of an issue. There are teams in the league that could surround him with four other shooters, and perhaps unleash his true potential as 6-foot-10 version of Jason Kidd. He will not have that liberty if he shares the court with Joel Embiid. The superstar center commands touches in the post and requires space to operate, space which Simmons cannot currently provide.
There are multiple schools of thought on Simmons’ shooting woes. Some think he doesn’t work hard enough at it, and others think he is shooting with the wrong hand. Some think the form is less of the concern and it is just an issue of finding confidence and a willingness to let it fly. Wherever you fall, it is certainly agreed upon that Simmons’ ceiling is significantly lowered without the development of his outside shooting.
The quandary of Simmons jump shot can you lead down a path to more unanswerable questions. If Simmons made a similar percentage of mid-range shots as say, Russell Westbrook did last season, would this be a good thing for the Sixers’ offense? Is simply taking the shots really going to be enough open things up,? And relatedly, is taking these shots despite the likely inefficiency a necessary evil to build the foundation for future years?
While it remains to be seen how much Simmons can improve in one offseason, hope for Sixers fans did arrive this summer in the form of minute-long, meticulously edited footage from pickup games featuring the guard taking and making stepbacks, fadeaways and even pull-up threes. Whether or not this footage translates from the LA Fitness gym to an NBA arena could define this Sixers season and beyond.
– Quinn Davis