Mon, Oct 14, 2019

The Philadelphia 76ers were a couple of unfriendly bounces – or a fully healthy Joel Embiid – away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals and perhaps even a title run, last season. However, instead of standing pat over the offseason and running it back with the same squad, the Sixers shook things up in a major way over the summer.

On paper, the Sixers now have one of the most – if not the most – formidable first fives in the entire NBA heading into the 2019-20 season. They have a third-year All-Star and triple-double machine running the point in Ben Simmons, a versatile two-way perimeter player in Josh Richardson, a three-level scorer on the offensive end in Tobias Harris, a multi-faceted forward capable of defending, passing, and finishing in Al Horford, and a consensus top-10 player in the league (when healthy) in Joel Embiid.

With the roster that they have in place, the Sixers are widely expected to contend for their first NBA Finals appearance since 2001, especially in what appears to be a watered-down Eastern Conference. However, some questions still remain.

With that said, here’s a look at the five biggest questions facing the Sixers heading into their 2019-20 campaign.

1. Do they have enough depth?

Yes, the Sixers first five looks great, but Philadelphia also had a similarly strong starting five last season (Richardson and Horford replaced Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick), but issues arose when they turned to the reserves. The Sixers were 27th in the NBA in terms of bench point production last season (31.7 bench points per game), with a near-average bench plus-minus of -0.1. Those numbers didn’t improve much in the postseason either, where the Sixers were 11th out of 16 teams in bench points (27.2) and 12th in bench plus-minus (-3.2). In other words, they were top-heavy.

Though general manager Elton Brand worked to bolster the bench over the offseason – by bringing back Mike Scott, James Ennis, and Furkan Korkmaz, drafting Matisse Thybulle, signing Kyle O’Quinn, Trey Burke, and Raul Neto – it’s still fair to wonder if Philadelphia’s depth – or lack thereof – could prove to be their Achilles heel. 

Zhaire Smith and Thybulle are the x-factors. If either – or both – can prove to be a reliable rotation piece, the Sixers become infinitely deeper and more dangerous. That’s an unknown though, and as it stands, Mike Scott and James Ennis are the team’s most reliable reserves, which isn’t ideal. Ultimately, Brand might have to make another move – or two – to round out the rotation before the trade deadline.

2. Do they have enough shooting?

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of shooting and floor-spacing in the NBA today, and that is especially true for the Sixers, whose two franchise cornerstones are dominant paint players that need to have the floor spaced around them to maximize the area that they have to do work.

The Sixers traded away a solid young shooter in Landry Shamet last season, and lost one of the most prolific floor-spacers in the league today in Redick in free agency, and thus “do they have enough shooting?” is a question that’s been tossed around about the Sixers over the offseason, and fairly so. However, though they lost some marksmen, they also added a few capable shooters as well. Projected starters Josh Richardson and Al Horford are both 36 percent career shooters from long distance, and reserve guard Trey Burke has converted at a 34 percent clip from beyond the arc over the course of his career. Mike Scott, who re-signed with the Sixers over the summer, is also a career 36 percent shooter from long distance.

Thus, heading into the season four of Philadelphia’s five projected starters are capable floor-spacers, as are a few of the reserves. Is that enough for a team with title aspirations? Only time will tell. 

3. Will they be able to develop solid team chemistry?

Chemistry isn’t a given in the NBA, and though a large chunk of Philadelphia’s core remained the same, there are some newcomers that are expected to step into substantial roles, specifically Richardson and Horford. How well – and how quickly – those two are able to jell with Embiid, Simmons, and Harris in the first five will go a long way toward determining how the Sixers season turns out.

For what it’s worth, Horford has already stated how excited he is to play alongside Embiid.

“There were some great battles [with Embiid], and when this opportunity came along, the possibility of teaming up with him got me really excited about the potential — how good we can be — help our team be defensively,” Horford said. “Just get to working together and do some special things.”

It will understandably take some time for all of the individual parts to get on the same page, but Brett Brown’s goal will be to have his team humming like a well-oiled machine by March, April, May, and beyond. 

4. What kind of condition is Joel Embiid in?

Joel Embiid is the Sixers best player, and one of the best players in the entire NBA. However, as good as he has been to this point in his career, injury – and conditioning – issues have prevented him from reaching his full potential, and in turn have prevented the Sixers from reaching their full potential as a team.

In addition to missing substantial regular season action, Embiid has also missed time during each of Philadelphia’s past two playoff runs due to various injury issues, and the consistent uncertainty surrounding his status during those runs certainly doesn’t make game planning any easier for Brett Brown and the rest of the coaching staff.

The injury issues have also negatively impacted Embiid’s conditioning, as it’s virtually impossible for him to be in peak condition if he is stuck on the sideline, and when he’s not in peak condition, it’s difficult for him to be a consistent rim-to-rim presence on the floor. It’s the times when fatigue sets in that you see Embiid settle for perimeter play, rather than punish opponents with his natural size and skill in the paint.

Ultimately, if the Sixers are going to live up to the hype this season, they will need their best player to be fully healthy (or close to it) for postseason play.

5. Did Ben Simmons develop a jump shot?

As it stands, Ben Simmons is already excellent – an All-Star-level player – even without a reliable jump shot. He’s lethal in the open court and possesses pinpoint, precision passing and uncanny court vision. He’s an excellent rebounder and an above-average defender, with the potential to be an elite one. He’s also an unbelievable athlete with an elevated basketball IQ.

Simmons won Rookie of the Year for his play during his first year in the league, and become just the second player in history (Oscar Robertson was the first) to record 1,200 points, 600 rebounds, and 600 assists as a rookie. During his second season he was named to the All-Star team, and he became the second-fastest player to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists. Through his first two seasons, Simmons has compiled more rebounds and assists than LeBron James or Magic Johnson – two players that he is commonly compared to – did during that same span.

But, Simmons has also yet to connect on a single 3-pointer through two seasons of his professional career (he’s 0 for 17 from beyond the arc) in a league that is placing continued importance on the long-ball, and he hasn’t been confident in his own ability to knock shots down, at all. That’s what ultimately needs to change, as a reliable midrange jumper that defenses had to respect would open things up tremendously on the offensive end for Simmons, and in turn for the Sixers.

In short, the development of a jump shot will be the difference between an All-Star-level career and a potentially all-time great-level career for Simmons, and it could also be the difference between an NBA title and another early exit for the Sixers this season.

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