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Optimism and Inquiry as the Sixers begin Training Camp

This is the year.

So much is in place. Welcome, Markelle Fultz. Hey, Ben Simmons. How are you? Hope you’re healthy and ready to go. (Spoiler alert: He is.) Greetings, Mr. Embiid. How’s the knee?

Have you boys seen how weak the Eastern Conference is? Let’s make some noise.

Today, the Philadelphia Sixers start training camp. The expectations for this team haven’t been this high in a while. There’s lots of optimism, but there are also questions going into this season. Some are usual suspects, and some are thought provoking.

Let’s answer some questions, and then after that, let’s play some basketball.

Get the elephant in the room out of the way. Embiid’s health. Where are we?
Let’s be clear about something. There are certain questions to be discussed heading into this week’s start of training camp, but this is THE question.

We all know the story at this point. Joel Embiid sat out the first two years of his career healing from various injuries and apparent setbacks to those injuries. Last year, Embiid played in 31 of the most electrifying games Sixers fans have witnessed in years. In those 31 games, Embiid’s numbers were incredible: 20.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.5 bpg, .117 WS/48.

His “rookie” season was cut short after he suffered a torn meniscus in February. Embiid had successful surgery a month later, but he has still not been cleared to engage in 5-on-5 basketball activities. Yesterday, Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo said, “We (the Sixers) feel he’s on course to ultimately be available for our intended goal, and that’s the regular season.”

As far as the regular season goes, the question is “what is a reasonable number of games to expect Embiid to play?” The league schedule has eliminated a lot of the back-to-back games that have prompted the resting of players on those games. That helps with the number. The Sixers should target somewhere around 45-50 games. If Embiid plays more than that, that’s gravy on the mashed potatoes. A 50-game Embiid season would be the best REALISTIC scenario. There’s no need to play him any more than that.

Also worth mentioning is the debate over Embiid’s extension. Embiid is in the final year of his rookie contract, and there’s no doubt that the Sixers will have to pay up for him. The former Kansas Jayhawk is absolutely worth any amount, and if Embiid does play 45-50 games or more, expect the Brinks truck to pull up to Joel’s house.

How will Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz fit in? (How SHOULD they fit in?)
Before discussing this, here’s a public service announcement:

“I’m ready to go. 100%. Ready to play.” – Benjamin David Simmons

The kid is ready to go as he said, yesterday. Pass out the ammunition, and let’s go to war with the weak Eastern Conference.

What position will that be at?

Ugh! I have to answer that question, again? Since he was drafted with the number one pick in 2016, I have maintained my position that Ben Simmons should be playing power forward. I don’t care what he says. I don’t care what Brett Brown says. I don’t care what Sixers Twitter says. Ben Simmons should be playing power forward. He should be defending opposing teams’ power forwards while abusing those same power forwards on the offensive end.

If you want Simmons to initiate the offense, then just tell him to “grab and go” when he gets a rebound. Push the tempo as soon as the ball comes off the rim. There are times when Simmons CAN BE a primary facilitator on offense, but he shouldn’t be given the keys from the jump. I don’t doubt Simmons’s ability as a potential 7’ point guard, but we drafted a guy in the 2017 NBA Draft who I’ve heard is quite good at the whole “point guarding” thing.

Markelle Fultz should start the season at point guard.

Let me repeat that for the cheap seats. MARKELLE FULTZ SHOULD START THE SEASON AT POINT GUARD!

There’s one simple reason why. Fultz combined with literally any big man on the Sixers roster will be a problem in the pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game. Fultz’s shooting ability allows for that. If teams close out on Fultz after the pick, it’s an easy deuce for the roll man (or whomever is left open after their man rolls to defend the Sixers’ roller). If teams sag off to protect on the roll, that’s a jumper for Fultz. If Fultz gets put on a sub-par defender after a switch, that’s an easy path to the lane for two.

In a fast break scenario, Simmons can absolutely facilitate that kind of offense. His game is made for it. In the half court, though, get on the block, Benjamin, and be ready.

What other areas do the Sixers need to improve?
In a league that is becoming more focused on the three-point shot than in any era I can remember (or most can remember), the Sixers absolutely must improve in that area.

The Sixers — as a team — were seventh in the league in three-point attempts (2443) and 25th in the league in three-point percentage (34.0%). I get angry when Russell Westbrook shoots a crazy amount of three pointers (something he’s not the best at) in one game. Think about how infuriating is it to watch my entire team shoot that much and not make them?

Robert Covington (33.1% on 6.1 attempts per game), Nik Stauskas (36.8% on 4.5 attempts per game), and Dario Saric (31.1% on 4.2 attempts), all stand to improve greatly with a healthy Embiid spacing the floor and Simmons driving the lane leading to kick-outs. That’s all fine and good, but the Sixers recognized they needed help. So, they went out and got some.

Markelle Fultz is an under-rated three-point shooter, I think. That’s a part of his game that doesn’t get talked about too much. At Washington, he shot 41.3% on five attempts per game. The distance for a three-pointer in the NBA is longer than the NCAA, but Fultz has range. That’s help.

JJ Redick was then given $23 million for one year for his services. Redick has been one of the best three-point shooters in the league for the last four years. In four years with the Los Angeles Clippers, Redick averaged 44% from three on six attempts per game. You could argue that the Sixers offense stands to get Redick even cleaner looks than he did playing with Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Blake Griffin.

The Sixers will be better shooting the three this year. Much. Much. Better.

What do we make of the newer, slimmer Jahlil Okafor?
We can all be honest at this point. Jahlil Okafor has been the bane of this fan base’s existence since he was drafted third overall in 2015. He’s been the talk of trade rumor after trade rumor since the beginning of last year.

Okafor has been frustrating to watch on offense thanks to his penchant for loving the isolation — which is either by desire by Jahlil or design by Brett Brown. He’s been equally frustrating on defense because he … really doesn’t play any. I have a friend who is a 42-year old Jewish woman, and she has said that she could probably play better defense in the paint. (Keep in mind, this friend is also about a foot or more shorter than Okafor.)

Despite all of that. Okafor continues to show up with a good attitude. Colangelo said yesterday that he believes Jahlil is happy being here, and that the team has not been actively shopping him. This is a make or break year for Okafor, and I’m in the minority that believes he’ll make it.

It helps his case that he did a lot of work this off-season. Thanks to a “mostly vegan” diet, Okafor has lost about 20 pounds and is coming into camp at around 250-255 pounds. Okafor was already pretty damn good on the low block with his skill set, but if he’s actually quicker, then it’s not hard to see a scenario where Okafor is feasting on second-unit NBA big men.

Here’s where he 100% must improve. At times last year, Brett Brown couldn’t play Okafor because he was simply inept on the defensive end. If another byproduct of Okafor’s weight loss is him being able to be a slightly better defender, then you’re going to see Okafor a lot teamed up with either Richaun Holmes, Amir Johnson, or even Dario Saric. I don’t need Okafor to be Joel Embiid defensively, but can he at least be an average defender. I just need a “C”, Jahlil. If you want to go for the “B-” or the “A+”, you’re more than welcome to. I just don’t want the “D-” or worse.

What is the biggest strength of the team?
Assuming you mean other than a healthy Joel Embiid terrorizing the NBA, their depth. The Sixers are extremely deep.

I’m going to be perfectly honest. This is what I’m looking forward to the most this season. The Sixers bench is going to be REALLY good this season. Remember the “Night Shift” from the 2011-2012 season? That bench group was Thaddeus Young, Louis Williams, Evan Turner, Lavoy Allen, Jodie Meeks, and Nikola Vucevic. The bench headed into the 2017-2018 Sixers season is going to be just as fun.

In Saric, you’re going to have someone that WILL compete for NBA Sixth Man of the Year. (Seriously, let’s stop this talk. Saric is coming off the bench. Not starting Robert Covington is completely insane and shouldn’t be considered.) When Embiid’s season ended, Saric stepped up his game and had a strong finish to the season last year. The Croatian carried that momentum into the 2017 Eurobasket Tournament where he was one of the stars for a Croatia team that went 3-1 in group stage play and lost to Russia in the round of 16.

Aside from Saric, Holmes, and TJ McConnell who all have solid roles on the bench, the rest of the guards and forwards are going to battle for playing time. Nik Stauskas has cut three percent of his body fat and is probably in the best shape he’s been in since coming into the league. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is nursing some tendinitis in his knee to start training camp, so he’ll be limited, but TLC can surely fight for minutes. Justin Anderson is a solid on-ball defender and will get minutes to help get stops, and Amir Johnson is just as valuable defensively except in the paint. Don’t forget about Jerryd Bayless. (Admittedly, I did.) Bayless is still a three-point threat and stands to get plenty of open looks this season.