Why, as Sixers fans, is there constant criticism of this current team? I don’t understand it. They’ve been a lower to mid-level franchise since the 2002 season. While “The Process” has drawn the battle lines between fans, we can all agree that this is the most exciting time in Philadelphia basketball in close to twenty years. Negativity and disgust was easy to see and agree with during parts of “the process” but we’re finally seeing some results of the grand plan of Sam Hinkie. While players like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor didn’t work out, players like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have given the team and its fans hope. Yet, here we are still listening to complaints about how they think Markelle Fultz’s shot should look like or that Ben Simmons should at least attempt a jump shot. What about looking at all of the good things that this team has to offer?
Third place in the Eastern Conference last year
The team came in to the season hoping to finish around .500 and blew those expectations away with a 52 win season and going onto win a playoff series against the Miami Heat in which they were being physically abused and still rose above. The series loss and playoff elimination at the hands of the Boston Celtics brought to light some of the Sixers weaknesses. Namely, the poor second team defense as well as a lack of scoring from the same group on the bench. With the starters on the floor they were one of the best teams in the league, but they fell apart when the starters rested.
This year, that’s been resolved. Sure, players like Irsan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli were nice, but they weren’t volume scorers and couldn’t play defense to save their lives. Yet, the fans hold them up as if they’re the next Vinnie Johnson. The team has added length, speed, defense and shooting to the second unit, so that they can compete and still manage to give their starters a rest. Markelle Fultz could wind up playing the Simmons role on the second unit as they get deeper in to the season. Giving him someone like Landry Shamet or Zhaire Smith to help with on defense will do wonders for the team.
Amir Johnson won’t have to worry about losing minutes to Rishaun Holmes and will provide solid backup minutes for Joel Embiid. Mike Muscala can add some defensive rebounds and timely three-point shooting while hitting close to 90% from the charity stripe. This team was built over the offseason to be more complete than the one we saw eliminated last season, so look for more from the team as a whole and a more complete unit.
The return of Markelle Fultz
Fultz lost last season. Whether it was mental of physical does not make a difference. He spent the summer putting in work and looks to be the player that the Sixers drafted #1 over all in the 2017 draft. Just having Fultz on the floor will make a huge difference for the team on both sides of the ball. His athleticism, length and speed will be q key for him being a quality defender whether he’s starting or leading the second unit. During the NBA draft, there wasn’t a question as to who the #1 pick would be. It was Fultz and it wasn’t even close. Despite what players may have done last year, no one was considered close to Fultz. Whatever his issues may have been, he looks much improved so far this pre-season. Making a big deal about him making a three-pointer is crazy. Criticizing his form is ridiculous. No one that’s complaining has been on the floor, had the pressure of being a #1 draft pick, or playing in the NBA. Fultz will be a beast this year and he’ll be showing the rest of the league exactly why he was chosen first overall just a year ago.
Joel Embiid becoming a better version of the 90’s Shaq
Embiid showed last year just how good he could be and that was after missing two years with injury. Imagine now how good Embiid will be with a full off-season and a year of playing under his belt. His downfall last season was putting the ball on the floor and the resulting turnovers. This year, Joel has already vowed to spend more time in the low post and he will dominate anyone that dares try to defend him in the post. Getting a stat line of 24/12 from Joel isn’t out of the question to go along with a couple assists and two blocks per game. With confidence in his teammates either getting him the ball or getting open for shots, Joel sounds like a man on a mission to let the league know that he’s the premier player in the league. The occasional spot up three will still be there as he loves to take them, but it will be more of a compliment to his game rather than a go to for Embiid. He takes talk of better players to heart and wants to destroy anyone and everyone that gets in his way. That type of leadership and desire will filter down to teammates who may need a little boost. Look for Embiid to be in the MVP conversation at the end of the season.
Ben Simmons gets even better
If it wasn’t enough to have one superstar in Joel Embiid, the Sixers have a second one in Ben Simmons. The triple-doubles last year brought light to his talent as it seemed he was getting them or really close each and every game. While Ben played well enough to win the Rookie of the Year award, he’s going to be even better this year. He’ll still rack up assists and rebounds but we should look to Ben improving his scoring even more. As he realizes that he can take and make shots, it’s not crazy to think that Simmons can be up close to 20 points per game. He took only 12.7 shots per game last year and managed 16 points per game. Even a modest increase of three more shots per game gets Ben close to 18 points per game. Add that to an increased free throw percentage and Simmons could be at 20 points per game with very little effort. Simmons provides problems on both sides of the floor as he is hard to game plan for. He’ll use the past season as a learning tool and be even more lethal across the board.
Robert Covington should be more consistant
Everyone lost their minds last season when RoCo was converting 50% of his threes to start the year. It’s insane to think that anyone would maintain that over a whole year. Covington fell back to Earth as the year went on and fans got on him as he disappeared at times. This year, as the rest of the team has grown, so has Covington. He’ll be much better and should improve his three-point shooting with more timely looks. His defense, while fans pick it apart, was enough for him to be on the First Team All Defense last season. He’s widely considered one of the better defenders in the league and with less stress to perform on offense, his defense should become even better. Don’t look for Covington to suddenly become an 18 PPG guy, but sitting close to 14 points a game isn’t out of the question.
JJ Redick will be lethal this year
The initial look is that Fultz will be starting and Redick coming off the bench. This automatically makes the second unit scoring much improved, but with limited minutes it will help keep JJ healthy and focused all season. He’s embraces his role as the veteran leader of the team and will be a huge part of the teams success this season. JJ can float seamlessly through the first and second units without losing a beat. He’ll be on the floor at the end of close games and it will only benefit the younger shooters like Landry Shamet and Zhaire Smith to have Redick show them how it is to be a player in the league.
Shamet and Smith will add value
Landry Shamet is coming in to the league as a career 44% three-point shooter in his college career. He’s not afraid to take big shots and make them. He’s long and can contribute on the defensive side of the ball, but shooting is what’s going to make Shamet his name in the league. Zhaire Smith was considered the best athlete in the draft, playing the power forward position in college, even though he’s listed at 6’4”. Smith is a talented defender and equally as talented scoring close to the basket. While his three-point shooting was limited, that wasn’t his role in college, he still hit at 43% from long range. These two will add the length, speed, shooting and defense that the team sorely lacked in the loss to the Celtics in the playoffs last year. While Smith won’t see the floor until close to Christmas, Shamet is going to get plenty of time to show off his shooting and make a case for extended minutes as the season goes on.
Mike Muscala was brought in for depth.
Is it such a bad thing to have a player like Muscala on the roster? He wasn’t the big name, flashy signing that everyone had hoped for but Muscala will add value to this team. He’s a big bodied power forward that can spread the floor with quality three-point shooting and he’s going to give you close to five rebounds per game. That’s pretty good for a team that didn’t need a starter and can use Muscala on the second unit to keep the lanes unclogged for players like Futlz to use. His shooting will come in handy as teams will try to collapse on the second unit shooters and leaving him open will be a problem as he can hit close to 40% on his three pointers. His interior size will benefit the team if they need to give Embiid a break and want to keep a seven-footer in the game as Amir Johnson is only 6’9”. Muscala could wind up being a big version of TJ McConnell for the Sixers fans who love to see a hustle guy make plays.
Having just went through a good number of things that people can obviously make contrary points to, take a look at the team as a whole. They’re young but they’re athletic. They’re talented. They’re strong. They play amazing defense. Their offense should be lighting up the scoreboard all season long. What’s not to like? We can argue all day and all season about the Sixers not signing a “big name” free agent but in the end, did we really need one? Was Kawhi Leonard going to make this team a title winner this year? No. Was Lebron? No. We have homegrown stars on the team and it’s something that fans have been hoping for since Iverson was running the city. It’s finally here. A team that you can get behind in, believe in and love. The team that everyone wished they were when they were barely making the playoffs and fans hoped for some sort of magical run at the NBA Finals. Well, we have that team. It’s one that we don’t have to pray will be good or win an exciting game. They make the games exciting. They’ll win more than they lose. They’ll go further in the playoffs than the team has in the past 15 years. They’ll do it all with homegrown superstars that other teams dream of having and that the Philadelphia fans dreamt of in the past. They’re here. They’re already stars and they’re starting to come together as a complete team. Get behind them, support them, cheer them and keep cheering when they’re down because they feed off the energy of the greatest fanbase in the whole country. It won’t be long before the “big name” superstars are begging to come here and play with the Sixers. It’s going to be a long run so get your tickets now.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports