The 2018-2019 NBA season is nearly upon us, and with it comes some heightened expectations for the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers come off a year in which they exceeded the expectations of even the most optimist fans and analyst, finishing with 52 wins and the three seed in the Eastern Conference.
While they rode hot into the playoffs on a 17-game win streak, dreams of making it to the ECF against a Lebron-led Cavs team that they had beat without Embiid just a few weeks prior were dashed after being outplayed by the Celtics in the second round. While this series loss hurt, it was a very encouraging season led by two of the best young players in the league, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
While the Sixers are by no means the favorite in the East, they are projected by most to finish top-3 in the conference. The core pieces of last years team return, led by Simmons and Embiid and joined by the rest of the starting 5 in Robert Covington, JJ Redick, and Dario Saric. Veterans Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, who helped the Sixers down the stretch last season, were both lost in free-agency. Veterans Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler join the team via trade, and younger players in Markelle Fultz, Furkan Korkmaz, and newly drafted Landry Shamet look to make an impact as well.
The Sixers will be good this year, considering their core is unchanged from last year. The following three x-factors will determine if they can be great:
The new guys on the bench
Part of the reason that the Sixers were so good down the stretch last year was the outside shooting provided by Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilysova, both of whom were added mid-season. It is easy to discount these losses because neither played particularly well in the playoffs. But their veteran presence and consistency down the stretch should not be underestimated, and their impact may be difficult to replace.
Beyond the ‘addition’ of the Markelle Fultz, which I will get into later, there are a couple players who could help to provide what Ilyasova and Belinelli gave the team last season. The most obvious is veteran Mike Muscala, whom the Sixers acquired from the Atlanta Hawks this offseason. Muscala, who played as a center in Atlanta but should get time at PF for the Sixers, will add 3-point shooting and defense off the bench to help to fill the void left by Ilyasova.
The Sixers also traded for SF Wilson Chandler this offseason to add depth off the bench. Chandler, 31, who previously spent his entire career in Denver, has started most of his career. A career 34% 3-point shooter, he will offer valuable time subbing in for Robert Covington and Dario Saric when healthy. However, Chandler injured his hamstring in a preseason game against Melbourne in late September. He should be back just a few weeks into the season, but until then, the Sixers will have to find other ways to get quality minutes off the bench.
Two young guards on the Sixers have shown shooting abilities that can be valuable off the bench. In a Vegas summer league game against the Celtics, second year Turkish player Furkan Korkmaz put up 40 points on a blistering 8-14 shooting from beyond the arch. Korkmaz, the 26th overall pick in the 2016 draft, was drafted because of his 3-point shooting ability, but his overall slow footedness and poor defense may prevent him from getting into the rotation, In the preseason, Shamet has shown consistency in his outside shot as well as his pull-up jumper. he 26th overall pick of the 2018 draft, Shamet shot nearly 44% beyond the arch in college and averaged 11 points per game in the preseason. Shamet and Korkmaz are both young, inexperienced, and neither have proven the ability to defend on the NBA level. They are skilled, high percentage outside shooters, but that may not make up for their deficiencies elsewhere. Neither should be held to high expectations, but given flashes each has shown, either could work himself into Brown’s rotation, especially while Chandler is sidelined. I’ll give Shamet the edge over Korkmaz, because he has at least shown the athleticism needed to play defense on an NBA level.
This mix of veteran forwards and young sharpshooters could make a huge impact on the Sixers season. Before the acquisitions of Belinelli and Ilyasova, the Sixers bench constantly blew leads and made it more difficult for the starting five to take control of games. These four guys, in addition to TJ McConnell, Amir Johnson, and JJ Redick/Markelle Fultz, could be the difference between wins and losses in many of the Sixers tougher matchups.
It is difficult to predict what Fultz will be for the Sixers this season. In the preseason game at home against the Magic, the Washington product made several elbow jumpers and a corner 3, giving him 12 points for the game. This blew up on Twitter, as it seemed to show that offseason workout with Drew Hanlen paid off and Fultz had regained not only his shot, but also his confidence.
However, Fultz did not fare quite as well in China in the games against the Mavericks. He played less aggressively, trying to let Simmons and Embiid do their thing, and scored only 10 points combined in the two games. Obviously, this tiny sample size in the preseason means very little, so there is still much in the air on what Fultz will look like this season.
It is hard not to have high expectations for Fultz. The Sixers gave up valuable draft capital to take him first overall in the 2017 draft, and while other players from this draft, specifically Boston’s Jayson Taytum and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, made huge impacts on their team, Fultz has done nothing to prove he was worthy of the number one overall selection.
I expect Fultz to average between 8 and 10 points and 5 assists per game. He’s athletic enough to make an impact on defense, too, and will undoubtedly make the team better. Some fans expect much more, while others may not even think he’ll make a dent. The point is, we don’t know. That’s why Fultz is such an x-factor. If his confidence is all the back, and he shoots well, he will be a great compliment for Simmons right out the gate. If he struggles, the team will lack playmaking outside of Embiid and Simmons. Fultz playing well will elevate this team: if he plays like a first overall pick, the Sixers will compete with the Celtics and the Raptors for the first overall seed in the East.
Embiid Taking the Next Step (and staying healthy)
Joel Embiid is the best player on the Sixers and may be the best center in the NBA. His size, strength, and ability to navigate the paint with post moves that are nearly impossible to defend mixed with respectable outside shooting give him the ability to single handedly take over a game. He also defends at an elite level, making him one the most complete players in the league.
Embiid started his first career All-Star game last season and finished second team all-NBA and second team all-defense in only his second year. Now, the 24-year old comes into the season fully healthy for the first time in his career, and expectations are high. Embiid hasn’t even played 100 games yet, and his ceiling is evident to be very high.
Embiid is going to be the most important player for the Sixers this year, which automatically makes him an x-factor. His career has been plagued by injuries, and he must stay healthy this season for the Sixers to have a chance to take the league. And, if he takes a step forward, watch out. Because this team is going to be lethal.
As great as Embiid was last year, he hasn’t even come close to his ceiling. Some may argue that he shot too much from the outside, and considering how he can dominate inside, sticking himself in the post more could elevate him higher than making only 30% of his 3.4 3’s per game. His outside shot is still important to keep defenses honest, but he makes the biggest impact down low. Despite Embiid’s strengths, of which he has many on both sides of the ball, he is still young and sometimes careless with the ball. He averaged nearly 4 turnovers his first two seasons and was 6th worst overall and 2nd worst for his position last season. Turnovers plagued the Sixers last year (and cost them the series against Boston), and if they want to take the next step this year and improve their struggles in that area, that starts with Embiid.
Healthy Embiid also means he will spend more time on the court. He played only 63 games last season because of needed rest for back to backs and an eye/face injury that cost him the last 8 games of the regular season and the first two playoff games against Miami. The Sixers were 42-21 in the 63 that Embiid played, making them a much more pedestrian 10-9 in the games that he didn’t. Embiid also played only 30 minutes per game last season, which although more than expected, will increase this season assuming he is in shape and fully healthy.
Embiid taking a step forward and limiting his turnovers will improve the Sixers already potent offense and make him a legitimate candidate for MVP of the league,assuming his stout defense holds. He has the skills to elevate this team to another level. With this said, he must stay healthy. Because without him on the court, the Sixers are a much different team.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports