“Off to Kawhi, defended by Simmons…is this the dagger?!”
Yes, in fact, it was the dagger, the dagger that killed the Sixers season for good. These words, accompanied by the lasting images of the ball bouncing around the rim and eventually dropping in, have without a doubt had Sixers fans wake up in cold sweats at ungodly hours throughout the summer. In an attempt to sound slightly less dramatic, the Sixers could well have landed a spot in the Finals last year, and maybe (just maybe) could have won a chip if it wasn’t for “that” Kawhi shot in the Eastern Conference second round.
But let’s not speculate, they still didn’t make the Conference Finals and there are looming questions that need to be answered over the course of this season.
Clinching the third spot in the East last year was a step in the right direction, as it meant they’d avoid Boston for another postseason. For the first half of last season, there was little talk about the Sixers being championship contenders, with their starting lineup including the since departed Robert Covington and Dario Saric. But bringing in both Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler within days of each other suddenly brought on whispers of a potential visit to the Conference Finals, and maybe even the Finals themselves.
Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough time. With a starting unit that needed way more reps to gel than it was allowed, the Sixers had chemistry issues from the get-go after these two blockbuster moves. This was what limited Philly, especially in the Toronto series. Of course, Kawhi Leonard didn’t allow anyone to stop him on his path to a ring, but even still, Harris shot the ball inconsistently in that series, Embiid looked flat out tired and Kawhi locked up Simmons for large parts, leaving the offensive impetus on Jimmy Butler (we’ll talk more about him later). For large parts of the regular season and the Nets series in the first round, the Sixers looked a dominant force when their star players got going. But aside from that starting five, there was precious little for Brett Brown to call upon.
Philadelphia head into this season as one of the clear-cut favourites to win the Eastern Conference, even despite losing one of the league’s best fourth-quarter closers. Because, despite his faults, Jimmy Butler will undeniably be missed this season. When he’s not trying to prove a point to his coach and win a scrimmage game with a team of third-stringers, Jimmy Butler is arguably one of the best clutch performers in the league. There were several occasions last season where Butler dragged the Sixers through dry spells late in games, and out the other side to take the win. Draining last-second shots against Charlotte, Brooklyn and Boston in his time in Philly will always be remembered by fans despite his short tenure with the team.
However, there’s certainly hope as the Sixers picked up Josh Richardson from the Heat in the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade, a nice glue-guy who is a big plus on defense (unlike the outgoing JJ Redick) as well as being a reliable scorer from beyond the arc, shooting the three ball at a 36 percent clip. The biggest difference going into this new season for Philadelphia will be the acquisition of Al Horford from the Boston Celtics. One of the few proclaimed “Embiid Stoppers” in the league, Horford is now teaming up with the man himself. But it’s not just a nod towards taking away arguably the Celtics most valuable player, nor simply to improve the starting unit significantly. Bringing in Horford will allow the Sixers to rotate Joel Embiid and not lose out nearly half as much on-court contribution.
There are still doubts over the Sixers depth as a whole, however, with notable bench players including the likes of Mike Scott, James Ennis, Trey Burke and Kyle O’Quinn. It’s far from the best second unit in the league, but throw in young pieces like last year’s 16th pick, Zhaire Smith, and this year’s 20th pick, Matisse Thybulle, and this Sixers bench looks like a blend of lively young wing players as well as some older, consistent scorers who have been around the league a while. Combine all this with a trio of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid and this team can really go far.
1. Simmons needs to start “point-guarding”
NBA fans will always mention Ben Simmons in the same breath as saying “he can’t shoot”. That’s a fact of life we have to deal with until the Aussie proves otherwise. But aside from his seemingly complete inability to shoot the ball from anywhere outside the paint, Simmons just doesn’t seem like he knows “how to point guard”. He has every single physical tool necessary to be a generational talent – a 6’10” powerful player who runs the floor. His passing vision is superior to nearly any play-maker in the league and his running of the fast break is breathtaking at times. And yet, stick him in a half-court offense, and Ben Simmons stops being a floor general.
It’s an issue for the Sixers as he seems to lack the basic instincts that a point guard needs at any level of the game. This may just be teething problems (having said that, we are going into his third playing season in the league), but Ben Simmons needs to learn “how to point guard” sooner rather than later.
2. Embiid needs a healthy postseason
Rest Embiid in the regular season as much as possible. It’s simple. Don’t let him go anywhere near back-to-backs and rest him as much as possible on road trips. To be named the best center in the league, Embiid has one more thing to prove – and delivering in the playoffs. And to do this, he needs to be on the court. Not on the court with a face mask or a dodgy knee. Be on the court as a fully healthy NBA center. He still only played 64 games last year, with niggling injuries, but resting Embiid here, there and everywhere is the way to go for the Sixers.
3. Where is the shooting?
Philadelphia has just lost one of the best spot-up shooters in the league, probably only second to Klay Thompson. JJ Redick was playing the best basketball of his career in Philly, averaging a career-high 18.1 points per contest last season, and while he was a defensive minus for the Sixers, his shooting will be sorely missed as he shot just under 40% from beyond the arc in his final season with the team. Sure, Harris is a great but inconsistent shooter from range. Richardson is a decent shooter, as is Horford when in rhythm. But there’s no real deadeye shooter on this Sixers roster to fill that JJ shaped void, and that’s something they will certainly miss as the season wears on.
Joel Embiid | 27.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.7 apg
As mentioned, if the Sixers can keep JoJo healthy, they’ve got a real shot at getting out of the East. On top of his offensive brilliance, his rim protection is up there with some of the best in the league, averaging just below two blocks per game. Embiid is like Marmite really – you love him or you hate him. That slightly lazy analogy gets bandied around quite a lot, but it rings true with the 7’2” Cameroonian. His on-court antics wind up opposing players no end (see Marcus Smart last year), and his Twitter feed is something you’d expect to see used by a twelve-year-old rather than a top ten NBA player. But either way, his contribution in this upcoming campaign for the Sixers will most certainly dictate how their season goes.
Ben Simmons | 16.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 7.7 apg
If you’ve seen the clips of Simmons pulling up and shooting threes and hitting turnaround jumpers in the post over this off-season, then please don’t believe that they’re anything to go by. Sure, it’s a positive sign – how could it be a negative? Some of the shots are like poetry in mo… Okay maybe not, his elbows are all over the place and no one is within 10 feet of the man. Plus, the likelihood of Simmons translating that same confidence when playing in pickup games with rappers, into an actual NBA game is super slim. Jump-shot aside, Simmons is an insanely talented player, and his significance to the Sixers next season will be invaluable.
Last season, there were moments late in games that Simmons put his head down, and just drove at the rim, usually finishing in a powerful dunk or a crafty layup. However, there were other times where he’d go missing – he looked timid and treated the ball like a hot potato. If we get more of the former than the latter, then Simmons can be that fourth-quarter closer that the Sixers have lost in Jimmy Butler. But until a reliable jump shot has been formed, elements of his game will be a burden on Brett Brown’s Sixers.
Tobias Harris | 20.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.8 apg
If I’m Brett Brown, all I want from Tobias Harris is shooting. With the loss of JJ Redick has to become one of the team’s primary scorers, especially from three. Losing such valuable scorers in JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler leaves the offensive load, particularly from the perimeter, largely down to Harris. If he can step up and shoot the ball efficiently over large parts of the season, he’ll be an All-Star without a doubt.
His main concern throughout the whole of next season and what left we have of the off-season should be working on shooting the ball consistently and creating shots off the dribble. I’m sure he’ll be reeling from the Tobi/Bobi breakup (as we all are), but now’s the time for Tobi to be that strong single parent and step up for the team – I’m calling an All-Star appearance for him next year.
Mike Scott | 5.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.8 apg
A bit left field this choice, an obvious pick being an Al Horford or Josh Richardson, both of whom carry great significance going into next season. But Mike Scott will likely be sixth man next season, and he has to lead this sub-par bench unit this season. His numbers took a leap from the moment he arrived in Philly, after joining from the Clippers in the deal that also brought Harris. He averaged 7.8 ppg in his time as a Sixer last year, and those numbers need to take a bit of a leap if this bench can be at all effective next year.
Much like Harris, he’ll be the primary perimeter threat as he shot 41% from three from around four attempts per contest. As part of this second unit, Scott will need to continue to shoot the ball this well and at a higher volume than last season. He’ll also have to be a leader of this bench unit, with a few young guys trying to feel their way into the league. The likes of him, O’Quinn and Trey Burke will have to also perform in this capacity, seeing the bench through some valuable minutes.