This post is Liberty Ballers’ contribution to SB Nation’s league-wide preview series, spearheaded by Celtics Blog. You can check out other team-specific previews at our sister sites in the coming days, and we will continue to roll out individual player previews up ‘til opening night.
Team Name: Philadelphia 76ers
Last year’s record: 10-72
Key losses: Are these possible on a 10-win team?
Key additions: Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, Sergio Rodriguez
Any way you approach it, the Sixers are on the cusp of something new and exciting. For critics of the last regime, it’s a more experienced basketball ops head. On the player side, there are veterans and tantalizing rookies alike to energize a fan base in need of fresh faces to cheer for. A top overall pick and a boatload of talent were added to the mix.
2016-17 is the year the Sixers begin their transformation from thought experiment back to a more typical NBA franchise. The steps forward will come in fits and starts. The journey — and eventually the destination — should provide us with plenty to talk about.
1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
You mean other than replacing the team’s general manager, selecting Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick and adding two lottery picks from the 2014 NBA Draft?
If you weren’t aware, it was a busy time for the organization. Bryan Colangelo took over the team and had a steady first summer at the helm, satisfying casual and die-hard fans alike. He took the consensus best player with the top pick in the draft, and added sensible veterans on sensible contracts to help supplement their growing stable of young talent.
The biggest move was a philosophical one. Sam Hinkie mostly avoided veteran acquisitions during his time in Philadelphia, leaving greenhorns largely to their own devices. Rather than continue to let the young guys learn and struggle on their own, this year’s Sixers will feature a more diverse blend of age and skill.
That shift brought a wave of new players to Philly, with Bayless, Rodriguez and Henderson supplementing the likes of Simmons, Saric and Embiid. Simmons and Embiid are the crown jewels and hopeful superstars in this mix, and they’ll lean on the best of the rest to help maximize their potential.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Philadelphia has no shortage of size. They already had Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel on the active roster last season, and the rookie triumvirate being added will only increase the team’s stature. While the rest of the league is trending small, the Sixers are building an army of Monstars.
And they aren’t just a bunch of brutes. Okafor and Embiid will show off moves in the post, Noel is a tremendous shot-blocker and help defender, and the new power forwards will upgrade the team’s creativity singlehandedly.
Simmons’ passing ability at his size has been compared to the likes of LeBron James and Magic Johnson, and it’s easy to see where the comparisons come from when you watch him play:
Passing is going to be a signature skill for this bunch. Rodriguez is known for his passing flare, and Saric is a great playmaker in his own right from the four spot. The Sixers will be able to throw out lineups with playmakers all over the court, so teammates will have to get used to keeping their hands up for an abundance of no-look passes.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Unfortunately, the same size setting them apart may also spell doom.
Last year’s Sixers struggled to find lineups that worked and provided enough minutes for Noel and Okafor to develop. They spent large chunks of last season sharing time together, and it was a disaster on both ends of the court. It only gets worse with the new arrivals, and minutes will be at a premium for a collection of players who all need (and arguably deserve) time to grow.
Things are going to get worse before they get better. Noel has made it abundantly clear he doesn’t see a path forward with this team configuration, and the front office appears content to wait things out in the hope a good trade falls into their lap. If they abandon that strategy, they’re not likely to get much in return due to their poor negotiation position.
There’s no clear way to make this work on the court. Were the Sixers to possess an abundance of wing players, they could play a variety of small-ball lineups to incorporate the talents of each simultaneously, even if the fit wasn’t perfect. In this case, however, two centers are nearly impossible to play together, let alone three. The team suffers in floor spacing, help defense and a variety of other areas when they try to prove otherwise.
Shooting will be a big challenge for this group. Simmons’ shooting ability will likely determine his ceiling as an NBA player, and the team will rely on just a couple rotation players — Robert Covington and Bayless chief among them -- to provide enough spacing to make the offense work.
4. What are the goals for this team?
There are two concrete goals to start the season — maximize the potential of your young talent, and improve last season’s dreadful win-loss record.
The first point is the crux of the season and should naturally lead to the latter. Philadelphia’s future rests not in the hands of the vets, but the young core assembled over the last few seasons. Any improvement to winning percentage will be for naught if it comes without major steps forward from incumbents and encouraging signs from the rookies.
Colangelo and Co. need to be patient and keep the franchise on the long-term path to success. The front office would do well to avoid rash decisions to speed up the process already underway, and needs to prioritize flexibility above all else. The organization has a lot to be excited about, provided they don’t get too far ahead of themselves.
Boosting their win total into the low-mid 20’s should be enough to convince fans and observers the team is on the right track.
5. Can Joel Embiid stay on the court long enough to fulfill his potential?
If you talk to people in and around the Sixers, everyone is excited about the debut of the big man from Cameroon. He may not have played in a game yet, but his teammates are already in awe of how good he might be.
T.J. McConnell was asked about Joel Embiid in practices: "Flat-out dominant."— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) September 26, 2016
“Might” is the operative word. Nobody really knows what he’ll look like against legitimate NBA opposition, and his body has failed him up to this point. A 7’2” human with repeated bone/foot injuries would scare any medical staff.
The Sixers have invested time, energy and loads of money to improve their training and sports science departments, with the recent opening of a brand new practice facility representing the end of a years long journey. They have taken every possible step to set Embiid up for success, and now all they can do is hope for the best.
Should Embiid stay healthy, he has the highest upside of any player on the roster. There is nothing he can’t do as a big man; coaches speak of his savant-like ability to learn new skills, and his combination of athleticism and grace is nearly unheard of. Karl-Anthony Towns would have a foe in the competition for best two-way big down the road.
Given this front office’s lack of attachment to the players they’ve inherited, it will be easy for Colangelo to cut ties to Embiid should things take a turn for the worst. One more major injury could end his career, let alone his time in Philly. Sixers fans have to hope that day never comes.
6. Will Ben Simmons show progress on his jumper?
Simmons didn’t struggle to shoot from outside at LSU, he flat-out refused to shoot from three. He attempted just three shots from beyond the arc in college, making one of the trio.
The rookie forward has to show willingness to let it fly before his ability to do so can be accurately evaluated. Opponents will likely be content to give him space on the perimeter, and he has to make them pay for it. He’s gifted enough to continue to punish defenses before the J rounds into form, but he’ll never maximize his slash-and-dish ability if defenses can perpetually sag off of him.
Last year, Okafor showed improvement at the free-throw line and off-the-bounce that far exceeded expectations for his rookie season. The Sixers don’t need Simmons to make dramatic improvements to his shot right away, because he’s good enough to impact the game as is. Signs of improvement will still be coveted, because Simmons with a jumper represents a rare tier of player.
Las Vegas set the Sixers initial over-under at 27.5 wins, and that seems like too lofty a goal for a team that barely cracked double digits last season. 18 wins is a massive jump regardless of context.
They’re a year away from becoming a factor in the playoff race, but this should be the year you start to see signs of life from this crazy science experiment. One of the bigs will get moved — at this juncture, let’s say it’s Noel — and the team will begin to settle into long-term roles.
Give me Simmons for Rookie of the Year. He’s flashy enough to capture the nation’s attention and he’ll play a big enough role to pad the numbers. Embiid’s rest will keep him on the fringes of the race, but he’ll flash just enough potential to leave Sixers fans dreaming of the future.
23 wins feels like the right number for this bunch. The start will be key — if Brett Brown doesn’t have these guys looking sharp, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a coaching change before the new year.
Change is here whether you’re ready or not. The upheaval and turnover are daunting prospects, so remember to keep one thing in mind:
Trust The Process.