For the first time in a long time, the Philadelphia 76ers enter the season with theoretical optionality at every position on their roster. Emphasis on theoretical. The Markelle Fultz high ankle sprain serves as an all too harsh reminder of how fine the line is between hope and despair.
Throughout “The Process” every single highly touted prospect had their debut delayed by some sort of injury: Nerlens Noel (ACL), Joel Embiid (back/foot/knee), Ben Simmons (foot), and now Fultz (ankle). Even the one healthy “Homie” Dario Saric seemingly would never make it state-side due to a complicated buyout. I’m no doctor, so I’ll refrain from forecasting the injury report. What I can do is evaluate reasonable expectations for the upcoming season.
Let’s start with my projected depth chart:
Overseas: Pasecniks, Lessort, Bolden, Micic
That is 15 active players in Philadelphia and four overseas. 14 of the 15 roster spots seem pretty set in stone, but we should note that Okafor isn’t likely to be on the roster by opening night. General Manager Bryan Colangelo recently admitted on a live summer league broadcast that he is working with Okafor’s agent to find Jahlil a better situation to continue his career. Amir Johnson would then slide in behind Holmes on the depth chart, and the Sixers could possibly sign or acquire another big in a transaction for Okafor.
While we are on the center position, it’s clear that starter Joel Embiid is the franchise player and cornerstone of any success that this team will have – but due to his checkered history of injuries, he will likely deal with game and minutes restrictions. Expect plenty of opportunities for Holmes and Johnson to hold down the fort at the 5 when Embiid is sipping Shirley Temples on the bench. Holmes has flashed tantalizing defensive potential as a weak-side shot blocker, but will need to improve his discipline to avoid foul trouble. Johnson is a polished veteran that was clearly brought in to provide a valuable, understated presence on the court and in the locker room.
Self-proclaimed “starting point guard” Ben Simmons is playing the 4 position on defense while initiating the offense. If he improves his defensive fundamentals as the team develops chemistry switching, Covington and Simmons will be interchangeable. Covington is the team’s most versatile defender and will be a fit in pretty much any lineup, while Saric will be the primary backup 4 and a secondary offensive initiator. These three youngsters will share almost all the minutes at the 3 and 4, as they are the most interchangeable and flexible depending on Coach Brown’s game plan and rotation. Justin Anderson may earn himself some playing time there, but he is still a project at this point. Korkmaz may bounce in between the G-League and the NBA rotation to ensure he gets playing time and develops, but in the long term he should become one of their most reliable floor spacers.
Shooting and floor spacing have been the Sixers’ Achilles heel for nearly three decades, with Kyle Korver’s brief stint serving as the only reprieve for a franchise starved of elite long distance artillery. Enter J.J. Redick and his one-year, $23 million contract. The fit is obvious, let the veteran sharpshooter catch and shoot. Expect Coach Brown to get creative with Redick running off the ball to afford the primary ball-handlers and Embiid more space to operate. It’s not just about him making shots but rather the gravitational pull he will have on opposing defenders. Better passing lanes for Simmons, more open shots for Covington, less double teams on Embiid in the post, and room to operate for the other guards are just a handful of ways Redick’s shooting ability will help the offense function. Stauskas has shown flashes of exceptional scoring and ball-handling moves, but expect his posters and 3’s to come against opposing bench units. Luwawu will continue to improve his defense and may even spend some time in the G-League to tighten his handle and gain confidence.
T.J. McConnell did a formidable job operating as the primary initiator on offense for the Sixers last year, including making game winning buckets with Jordan-esque celebrations. But there is a new sheriff in town, one which the front office paid to move up in the draft to select with the first overall pick. Fultz will have some bumps along the way in his rookie season and may struggle finishing at the rim against longer defenders. He’s so smooth that it almost seems like he is in cruise control until he does his herky-jerky step back, or euro-steps into a spin move in the paint. Fultz will play on and off the ball as a secondary ball-handler with Simmons, not due to any deficiency but rather because of his scoring and shooting abilities. Accounting for rookie mistakes and a potential rookie wall, Fultz should have no problem showcasing his long-term potential as a Harden-esque offensive talent. Even if that doesn’t necessarily add immediate wins, as long as he takes advantage of his prototypical length and athleticism for the position and makes strides on defense, Fultz’s progress will play a large part in the long-term success of the franchise. Meanwhile, T.J. will make an impact as a valuable bench player and defensive menace while a healthy Bayless could add another scoring dimension off the bench.
I’d love to see the starting group to get as much playing time together as possible, but also expect coach Brett Brown to ratchet up the defense and play a lot of McConnell, Covington, and Embiid with some combination of Fultz, Simmons, Johnson, Saric, and possibly even Luwawu. The theoretical optionality is that Brown has about eight or nine players he can tinker with and create long defensive lineups where all 5 players on the floor can switch everything.
On offense he can go “small” where he has tall athletes playing as small-ball players in terms of skill. We are talking about a team that has a 6-10 point guard in a forward’s body and a 7-3 center that shoots 3’s. If anything is certain, it’s that the Philadelphia 76ers enter the 2017-2018 season as a must-watch league pass team. The possibilities are endless in terms of both process and results for an extremely young team with an abundance of interesting talent that has the potential to excel on both ends.
So what should we expect from a revamped 28-win team in a significantly weakened Eastern Conference? A playoff spot. 45 wins will get it done. Expect the young team to take its bumps and bruises, especially if past history is any indication of potential health-related misfortune. Veteran presences of Redick and Johnson should keep the team together regardless of the adversity they face and help avoid any major losing streaks.
As long as Embiid is playing 24-32 minutes a game, the 76ers will have one of the best defenses in the NBA. That is how transformational his rim protection is. Covington has become a defensive player of the year candidate as well, and will be able to showcase more consistent shooting with more space to operate.
The offense will have sensational moments with the triumvirate of Simmons, Fultz, and Redick. Speed bumps are to be expected, but faith shall be restored in the Sixers future as the seeds Sam Hinkie planted finally begin to harvest under the auspices of Bryan Colangelo. If you can’t trust my 45-win prediction, a playoff birth, an Embiid All-Star selection, a Fultz ROY award, and a Jahlil Okafor trade, you can certainly trust that everyone in the league will be following the progress the Sixers make this season.
The process is never over, but the harvest is just beginning, as the assets are finally turning into crops.