Are the new-look Sixers actually worth the hype, and can they crash the NBA playoffs?
A look at how the Sixers can reach SportsLine's 42-win projection
The Philadelphia 76ers have gone a half-decade without any expectation of winning. "The Process" entailed the most aggressive tanking strategy in NBA history, and even in years where analysts believed they might improve slightly, they underperformed. But this upcoming season is different. Thanks to their influx of top-five-pick talent and a diminishing Eastern Conference, the Sixers aren't just expected to compete for a decent number of victories this season, but they're a trendy pick for the playoffs.
As a matter of fact, the Sixers are minus-400 (favorites) to reach the playoffs, according to Westgate Las Vegas' Superbook. And after adding J.J. Redick this offseason, SportsLine now projects Philadelphia to win 42 games, with an 80 percent chance of reaching the playoffs.
Two thoughts on that:
- It's insane that 42 wins gets you an 80 percent chance of making the playoffs. That is not a lot of wins and 80 percent would project somewhere in the mid-tier of seedings. The Eastern Conference is going to be incredibly weak next season.
- That's a pretty steep jump, 14 wins over last season. So how, exactly, does a team that young get there?
Here's a breakdown of what the revamped Sixers will look like in 2017-18.
The Sixers will benefit from a major influx of athletic talent. It's not just Joel Embiid, or Ben Simmons, or Markelle Fultz. It's those three, plus Dario Saric, Robert Covington and guys like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrott. It's the combination of Embiid in the middle and those kinds of defenders down low. When you're able to show effectively on the perimeter, and recover inside like this, having Embiid cleans up a whole lot:
Embiid's ability means that defenders always have that help behind them, which helps them be more aggressive. So much of individual perimeter defense is built upon understanding how to approach the specific opponent (push him left or right) and being able to trust your help defenders in the event you get beat.
In this next clip, Robert Covington gets up in Kyle Lowry's grill, and when Lowry goes at him one-on-one, Embiid is there to smother the play (and thanks to Covington being a hulk, Lowry can't find Jonas Valanciunas for the drop-off).
Here's why this is important, and how the Sixers could build their defense. Both Simmons and Fultz are hyper-athletic, aggressive defenders. With young guys, teams usually take one of two approaches: They will play back and try to make things as simple as possible to reduce mistakes or unleash them to take chances in the hopes of creating chaos since young, athletic players are always going to be better in the open court than in the half-court.
The Sixers were 10th last season in points off turnovers, 17th in overall defense. With a team that young, trying to limit mistakes and play sound defense might only exacerbate the issues. But if instead they take an aggressive approach, playing passing lanes, hedging or blitzing in pick-and-rolls, they can be really effective, even if mistake prone.
Will coach Brett Brown let them? The Sixers were third last season in deflections, so there's a good chance he will let them be aggressive on the perimeter.
And that's going to help their offense, which they're going to need.
The good news? By taking the above approach, the talent alone will help them make a big jump offensively. The Sixers were 30th in transition points per possession last season, despite being seventh in transition opportunities. They created a lot of transition opportunities but only converted 45.6 percent of them.
Simmons and Fultz have to help with that. Neither was great in summer league action, but with their size and athleticism, they should be able to create a little mayhem in the open floor with their vision and size. But the player who might actually help the Sixers' transition offense the most?
Redick was in the 84th percentile in points per possession in transition last season. His ability to spot up and knock down shots off imperfect passes, sometimes while drifting to the corner, is going to do wonders for Simmons and Fultz. If they can't power their way to the rim, Redick will always be there spotting up as a safety net.
That's going to help considerably.
The half-court offense, however, might be a struggle.
The plan, according to the Sixers, is for Simmons to play point guard and Fultz to operate as a kind of hybrid combo-guard, but primarily off the ball to start the season. Fultz shot a good 23 of 60 on catch-and-shoot situations last season, via Synergy Sports. But this puts a lot of control in Simmons' hands. Simmons is athletic and strong, with incredible vision, which is why he was the No. 1 option. But putting the ball in his hands full-time might limit Embiid's effectiveness and Fultz's confidence. Conversely, using Simmons as the screen-and-roll man with Fultz as the ball-handler gives Fultz the maximum number of options, with a post-up to Embiid as a reasonable reset, and Redick providing spacing.
Additionally, Covington was in the 39th percentile on spot-up plays and took a huge step back from 3-point range. Rookie of the Year runner-up Dario Saric was in the 31st percentile, shooting 38 percent. Redick helps the spacing but if Fultz has what are pretty typical shooting struggles as a rookie, teams stay tethered to Redick, and Simmons' poor shooting reputation bears out, Philadelphia's going to have a hard time scoring, especially in any situation when Embiid's not on the floor.
So the formula is essentially this: An improved, athletic defense that could very reasonably finish in the top five if Embiid is healthy, plus better scoring in transition, and slight improvements to their half-court offense, should be enough to get them within range. They will still have nights where they can't score, and their performance should vary wildly based on the quality of opponent. That seems obvious, but it's not. Plenty of bad NBA teams had better-than-expected records against the top squads, but lost just as many to the bad teams. Consistency is how you build a great NBA team, and young teams aren't consistent.
With a model built to take advantage of opponent mistakes and weaknesses, the 76ers should struggle against the great teams that take them seriously, but their win percentage against those other teams should improve substantially.
Injuries are obviously the biggest question on everyone's mind, but there are other ways this could go haywire. If they can't find a way to disrupt the perimeter, and if the defense can't hold with gambling if Embiid's not on the floor to clean things up, and if the transition offense continues to sputter, they could disappoint.
But there's enough talent there to get them started, and from there, the Sixers can work on finding their identity and shifting to whatever strengths they find. After all, that's the best thing about the Sixers. With a squad this young and talented, we don't even know what they are yet.
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