Joel Embiid should be all smiles this year with the extra help and potential success of the team. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

October is here, Media Day has come and gone, and basketball fever is beginning to strike. For me, basketball fever has been running high for quite some time, so I decided that the only remedy would be to give my 10 predictions for your 2019-20 Philadelphia 76ers.

I. Joel Embiid Takes an Ever-So-Slight Step Back

This has nothing to do with the worst case scenario. I’m not thinking about Embiid getting injured and having it alter his play. The Sixers made it clear that maximizing Joel Embiid’s longevity was the priority when they opted to extend a 4-year invitation to Al Horford instead of re-signing Jimmy Butler. The addition of Horford not only gives the Sixers the most imposing front court in the NBA, but also gives the team another starting center to plug in when Embiid rests. That comfort will encourage the Sixers to give Embiid more games off.

They also signed veteran center Kyle O’Quinn to serve as a competent bench big for those few minutes per game when Embiid and Horford are sitting. With a pair of capable bigs to spell Embiid every night, Embiid will play less than 32 minutes per game and fewer than 65 games over the course of the season as the Sixers crush opponents with their newfound smothering defensive identity. The Sixers will remain on pace for around 60 victories, and Embiid (27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds last year) will average 25.7 points and 12.0 rebounds per game.

II. Mike Scott Sets a Career-High in Threes Made

J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler are gone. That leaves the Sixers in desperate need of outside shooting. Mike Scott returned to the club on a 2-year deal to keep his romance with the Philadelphia faithful alive and to be the beneficiary of increased opportunities on a contending team. Scott set a career-high in triples made last season with 101, connecting on 40.1% of his total attempts. That career-high, which surpassed his previous record by 35 makes, and elite efficiency were achieved in spite of having to transition between two franchises, learning two new playbooks, and receiving inconsistent opportunities.

With established chemistry in Philly and clarity regarding his role on the team, the King Bee will thrive with a more featured role and more touches. Mike will knock down 145 triples, good for a 38.7% conversion rate.

III. Josh Richardson Has a Career Year in Scoring Efficiency

As the primary option for the Miami Heat in 2018-19, Josh Richardson was playing outside of the role that best fits his game. He is a shooting guard with above-average accuracy from beyond the arc who can successfully create and convert baskets off-the-dribble. Ideally, Richardson should be your fourth option on offense — not because he isn’t good enough to be first through third, but because he doesn’t need excessive touches to be productive.

The Primary Option on a Mediocre Team

In fact, Josh’s efficiency suffers with a more featured role. Last season, Richardson shot 41.2% from the field as the Heat’s featured scorer. He attempted at least one shot after taking more than 2 dribbles in 70 of 73 games played. He converted just 37.45% of those field goals. Richardson made less than 36% of attempts before which he possessed the ball for at least 6 seconds. Most alarming of all is that he shot under 39% on field goals attempted with less than 6 feet of space.

The Fourth Option on a Great Team

Now for the other end of the spectrum. Josh shot at least 43% on field goals involving minimal touch time (less than 2 seconds), at least 6 feet of space, and 1-2 dribbles. That’s with the inconsistency of Hassan Whiteside and the non-shooting threat of Bam Adebayo manning the paint and average wing players to support his cause. Now, substitute the game’s most offensively dominant center, inside and out, for Whiteside. Substitute the floor-stretching ability and star experience of Al Horford and the fringe-all-star scoring of Tobias Harris at the forward spots. Replace Dragic with the transcendent talent, the most impressive of which is court vision and passing, of Ben Simmons at the point guard position.

There is a plethora of diverse talent on this Sixers’ roster and, with Simmons and Embiid dominating the rock, complementary wings who do not need to hold the rock to succeed fit the mix perfectly. I could go into all the visions I have for Richardson, but you’ll stop reading after the first eight paragraphs. Let’s leave it at Josh is going to find that he won’t have to work nearly as hard to score, and his shooting percentages will show that.

IV. Yes, Ben Simmons Makes a Three

22, to be exact.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. All summer long, there has been thick smoke around the development of Ben Simmons’ jump shot. Videos of him actively seeking out jumpers in pick-up games have been released, teammates have spoken highly of his progress, and now Brett Brown has offered optimistic words regarding Simmons’ improvements. Simmons and Brown have been immersed in this city long enough to know that the fans and media will not be understanding if Ben and the team build up anticipation all for nothing, so I believe that Simmons has indeed made substantial developments this summer. 

From a basketball perspective, Elton Brand and the upper-level decision-makers allowed J.J. Redick to leave without making a competitive offer and went through a mutual divorce with Jimmy Butler. A pair of wings who help space the floor, two players who are of immense importance to your offensive scheme when you have a point guard who cannot shoot. I believe there were three intentions behind the team’s decisions to let Redick and Butler go.

It’s Not That Deep

First, they simply wanted to go in a different direction with the roster, and allocating significant money to players who don’t fit that direction doesn’t make sense.

This Team Isn’t Big Enough For Both

Second, there is one ball, and Simmons and Butler are ball-dominant players. If they re-signed Butler, it’s hard for me to believe that Ben Simmons would’ve stayed past his rookie deal since Butler’s game minimizes his game. They chose Ben Simmons and, while that may have been an easy decision for the long-term success of the franchise, Jimmy Butler’s ability to create his own shot in crunch time and be that fearless superstar when the team needs to win an important game makes it a much more difficult decision for the here-and-now.

But they chose Ben Simmons for the now and for the future this summer, and I believe it was, in large part, intended to instill confidence in the ‘Fresh Prince.’ Extending Ben Simmons and moving in a different direction with the roster when Jimmy Butler is that star who can control the ball and make shots in crunch time shows the Sixers are confident that Simmons can develop a jumper.

Sink Or Swim

Finally, not giving J.J. Redick a competitive offer removes the training wheels from Ben’s bike. No longer is there a Navy SEAL sniper on the roster to compensate for a non-shooting Ben Simmons. There’s no more dribble hand-off to J.J. followed by a screen for Redick to step into a clean triple. The team does not have a 40% three-point shooter in the corner to keep the help honest when Ben has the ball. The team’s moves this offseason effectively pushed Ben into a pool without a life jacket, and I think everyone involved did it knowing that he would be able to swim on his own.

Ben will attempt 75 deep balls in 2019-20, and he’ll make 22 of them. 29.3% is not good for the average player, but the average player isn’t elite at quite literally everything and then completely unwilling to shoot a jump shot. If a 23-year-old budding superstar shoots 29.3% on three-pointers in the first season in which he credibly attempts them after not even looking at the basket outside of ten feet for the first two seasons of his career, you take that 29.3% and run with it because the work ethic is evidently there to build on what has been established and become a respectable shooter.

V. Simmons Garners Legitimate MVP Consideration

Ben averaged close to 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists in his sophomore campaign without loving the game, apparently. Simmons recently stated that he rediscovered his love for basketball this offseason, which would obviously imply that basketball felt more like a job to put food on the table than a game that he is gifted enough to play for money. When you’re not enthusiastic about your job, you don’t perform up to your maximum capacity. For Big Ben, that performance was still worthy of close-to-triple-double averages and his first all-star selection.

So, not only is Ben coming back with a jump shot, but he’s also coming back with a rediscovered passion. When you’re nearly averaging a triple double without enjoying the game, and you rekindle that joy, all while adding the only skill you’re missing, you get an MVP-caliber player.

I made this prediction previously, but I’m sticking to my words — 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists per game.

VI. Jonah Bolden is Traded

The composition of this roster does not bode well for a player like Jonah Bolden. The starting five has elite talent, and four of the five players are young enough to each play over 32 minutes per game. All five are versatile enough to switch and play multiple positions. The bench is filled with veterans who can be trusted to play without fouling and specialize in a specific skill or role. Jonah Bolden averaged half as many fouls as points in his first campaign. The only two positions he can play have the combination of young talent and veteran depth to almost always have a better option available to play than Bolden.

There are, however, four things that Bolden has that make him “sellable” to other general managers. He’s extremely athletic, he can stretch the floor, he has a knack for positioning himself well enough to block shots, and he has a ton of potential waiting to be tapped. Looking at the rest of the roster, there are very few contracts that would make sense to move if a deal presented itself. With his upside and no roster room to warrant waiting for him to develop into a reliable rotation player, Bolden feels like an asset destined to be included in a trade at some point this season.

VII. The Bench Becomes a Primary Strength

In 2018-19, the Sixers’ painfully-thin bench arguably changed the story of their season. Their lack of depth forced Joel Embiid to overplay in the young stages of the season so that the team didn’t completely drown when the bench pieces entered games. That overplaying taxed his knees, and he missed 14 games following the all-star break. When he returned for the playoffs, a lack of fitness hurt his production and effectiveness. Had he not been so ineffective against the Raptors, the story is almost certainly different.

Embiid wasn’t the only victim of the lack of depth. Elton Brand’s bench had neither the size and versatility to defend opponents, nor the skill to go bucket-for-bucket with the opposition. The starters would build leads against bad teams, and the bench would let them right back into games. The starters would keep the game within reach against good teams, and the bench would fall down double digits in the short breaks the starters were afforded.

Backing Up the Back Court

T.J. McConnell is replaced by Raul Neto and Trey Burke, who combine to replace what T.J. provided and then add the three-point threat that he didn’t provide. Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle provide the athleticism, length, and skill to hold down the fort when Josh Richardson isn’t filling in at the shooting guard spot.

Now Brett Brown can actually deploy a competent shooting guard from his second unit instead of having to mix and match players at different positions just so that he could slide a non-shooting guard into the shooting guard spot and give Redick a breather. 

The Hive and the Menace

Mike Scott and James Ennis are just two of the four players who can credibly play small forward behind Tobias Harris. Scott is one of three players who can be trusted to play power forward to provide depth for Al Horford.

Most importantly, the Sixers have tremendous Embiid insurance — Horford can log minutes at center in addition to being the starting power forward. He can start at center when Embiid rests, and the team will not have to scratch and claw to win. Even when Embiid is playing, Kyle O’Quinn can eat minutes when Brown wants to give both Horford and Embiid some rest.

It is certainly a fair argument that the offensive side of the ball is a big question mark for this bench. However, using last season’s average production for each projected non-starter on the current roster and accounting for drop-off from players who will not play as much on the Sixers as they did elsewhere, a reasonably conservative estimation for bench production is 35-38 points per game.

The second unit is far less questionable on the other side of the ball — it has the size and versatility to maintain defensive stability when the starters sub out. Taking that into consideration along with weighing past depth with current depth, this is easily the best bench the Sixers have had in nearly a decade.

VIII. Opponents Break 100 Points Less Than 20 Times

The departures of Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick subtracted 37 points of offense, while the names brought in make up 30. Although it is unlikely that that exact 7 point differential will sustain, the decision to subtract two of the pillars from the NBA’s most offensively dangerous starting unit in favor of two lesser scorers communicated that the upper-level management of the franchise held a completely aligned belief that defense, rather than offense, is what would bring a championship to Broad Street.

Championship Ingredients 

At a micro level, the championship formula includes a starting five whose shortest member is 6’6″. All five starters have the length and athleticism to switch onto multiple positions defensively so as to completely eliminate the opponent from targeting one player on offense. Joel Embiid is coming off All-Defensive Second Team honors. Ben Simmons, whose second biggest question coming into the NBA was defensive effort, has morphed into one of the game’s elite defensive wings in just two seasons. Josh Richardson has developed into one of the NBA’s best two-way shooting guards. Al Horford has carved a reputation as one of the NBA’s most difficult bigs to score against.

The bench, spearheaded by the toughness of Mike Scott and the grit of James Ennis, is going to dig in and hound teams. The lengths and motors of the backups are going to create deflections and ignite transition opportunities. This bench wasn’t designed to be an offensive force by itself, but rather to capitalize on teams’ mistakes by smothering them on defense. Just as the bench’s tactic starts to break down, the now refreshed starters check back in, and we are back to the beginning of the cycle. 

A New Identity

At a macro level, the Sixers have re-shaped their identity. They have star power, but they are now built on defense. Brown and company recognize that there will be some offensive stagnancy with this group from time to time, and they know that they can survive those vulnerable times because they’ve built a defensive monster.

The current iteration of the Philadelphia 76ers is focused on minimizing the number of points it gives up rather than maximizing the number of points it scores. With a philosophy that aligns perfectly with the construction of the roster, the Sixers are going to make their foes work hard for every point. They might not put up the robust scoring performances that the Rockets, Clippers, Lakers, and Bucks are expected to have, but those teams aren’t going to do what the Sixers are going to do — keep teams under 100 points in at least 62 of the 82 regular season contests.  

IX. Brett Brown is a Finalist for Coach of the Year

It’s always a fun conversation to pretend that the coach of the feel-good team of the year actually gets considered for Coach of the Year. But, that’s never how it actually goes. The winner is usually the coach of the team with the best record.

So, it becomes pretty simple. This prediction is a 2-in-1. I truly believe that the Sixers will have the league’s best record. If they don’t, I am certain they will possess the second or third best record in the league. Brett Brown will win the award if the Sixers are far and away the best regular season team in the league. If it’s close and they still have the best record, Brown probably wins for constructing an impenetrable defense and implementing an offensive scheme that is one of the league’s top seven most efficient. If the Sixers don’t have the best record, there will be a debate to be had.

Right now, I believe the Sixers will win the most regular season games of any team in the NBA by a comfortable margin, and that means I believe Brett Brown is the favorite to be named the league’s top coach in 2019-20.  

X. The Sixers Appear in their First Finals Since 2001

I fully believed that if the Sixers got past the Raptors, they were going to the Finals last season. Why? That Bucks team was built on the same concept that the 2017-18 Sixers were in the ten games they played without Embiid at the end of the season and first two games of the playoffs. They pushed the pace and unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo in the open court to dunk the ball or kick to a shooter. They had no consistent shot creators. Their defense relied on facing opponents who had spot-up shooters, not off-the-dribble offense creators.

The Sixers, on the other hand, had two shot-creators, would be coming off of winning a series without home court advantage, and would have a progressively stronger Embiid to anchor them on both sides of the ball. I’m confident the Sixers would’ve advanced to the Finals in 6 games. But, history cannot be changed.

Fear the Deer?

The Bucks, who were embarrassed by the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, took a step backwards with the loss of Malcolm Brogdon. They added Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver, but that’s more of a lateral move than a progressive move. Milwaukee is essentially hoping that Giannis Antetokounmpo can take another huge step forward because they did not add pieces around him that will make the difference between the conference finals and the NBA Finals.

Load Up, Brother

The Sixers added Al Horford who, at the very least, will make the paint bulletproof when Embiid is not being rested and keep the team stable when Embiid is resting. With an upgraded shooting guard, a better-fitting featured role for Tobias Harris, a motivated Joel Embiid, a “new” Ben Simmons, and a deep bench, the Sixers have every advantage over the other fourteen teams in the East and no excuse to not represent the conference in the championship round.

 

@KrellTPL