The theme of 76ers media coverage going into the 2018-19 season is Expectations. The Sixers have set lofty ones for themselves, both based on an unexpected 52-win barrage of a season last year and the proclamation of star-hunting that ended with no stars and the free agency equivalent of the Price is Right losing horn.
That said: there seems to be an air of, I don’t want to call it pessimism, because I think people are still plenty high on the team’s future, but let’s call it brake-pumping that fans have done related to the team’s regular season win totals and slight panic related to next offseason (which is another story). Most people have the team solidly in the playoffs and the top three of the conference, but many think a drop from last year’s win total should be expected due to changes within the team. I disagree - the Sixers have all the tools to be as good as last year right now, and internal improvement can push the team’s win total to even greater heights. I’m, for the second season in a row and against all odds, optimistic, and that’s because of our stars.
Saying that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are the leading drivers of my optimism should elicit opinions such as “no duh” and “why am I reading this again?” That said: I think we’ve undersold how effective Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were last season, both separately and together.
We can start with Embiid, with whom the Sixers outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions, per basketball-reference. Embiid did so despite having some glaring holes in his game - his working himself into shape for most of the season, his penchant for turnovers, inefficient post offense, and his lackluster three point shooting chief among those. His conditioning should naturally be improved after having, for the first time, a summer to focus on conditioning and skill development. His post offense appears improved through our glimpses of play during preseason, where he’s asserted post position closer to the basket repeatedly. The shooting hasn’t been there yet, and the turnovers have been plentiful, but I’m willing to wait for larger samples to conclude on either of those.
Embiid played 31 NBA games two seasons ago after missing two consecutive NBA seasons. His experience is still incredibly limited, which I think makes it more likely extended play and health will result in production gains. He has more areas to improve than those listed above - even if his raw totals appear similar, incremental improvements should help the team improve.
Simmons, meanwhile, could use improvement in obvious areas too. He could improve his shooting, his shooting, and his shooting. That said, despite him being unthreatening as a scorer for most of the season, the Sixers outscored opponents by 7 points with Simmons on the court, though a lot of that was in pairings with Embiid. Embiid-less lineups, for about 55 games, were routinely terrible; Simmons being in lineups without The Process simply resulted in five-man combinations hoping to tread water.
But that was before Simmons vaulted the Sixers into 14 consecutive wins to end the season. A lot of credit for that streak has gone to two players no longer on the team rather than the franchise point guard. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were welcomed, unexpected additions last season who both small-sample-sized themselves into large contracts this summer with competitive teams. Belinelli especially had a 30-game version of Doc Ellis’s LSD game, shooting by far a career-high from two-point % at age 32 which spurred a career-high true-shooting season overall. Some of that is due to playing with Simmons, who spoon-fed Belinelli layups out of the Sixers pet off-screen offensive sets, but some of that was Belinelli hitting contested, difficult shots at an unsustainable level.
Bringing the two aging players back at their free agent prices would not make sense for a team in the Sixers’ position. Their replacements are functional, if uninspiring. Mike Muscala is a reasonable facsimile of Ersan Ilyasova - he offers more functional backup center play in exchange for fewer charges taken and less assertive scoring. The Sixers acquired Wilson Chandler in a trade, who unlike Belinelli has no allergies to defense, to fill the backup wing role, and Landry Shamet in the draft as a backup wing shooter. While unreasonable to expect equivalent production to Belinelli’s near all-star level offense, having a usable bench from the start of the season should override any concern with losing last year’s bench mob.
But back to Simmons: the Sixers outscored opponents by 15 points per game (not per 100 - per game) in the minutes he played in the 14-0 finish to the season sans Joel Hans. Teammates surely helped. Simmons in any case ran train, with a team-wide system designed to emphasize his strengths. The Sixers ran at the NBA’s fastest pace at 104 possessions per game during the final 14 games, more aggressively targeted forcing turnovers on defense, and offered Simmons a sense of freedom he’ll never see when he shares the court with his 7’2” star comrade.
The formula for the team to succeed around Simmons has been found. The Sixers may not have the exact pieces to make it work as well as it did last year, but even at 80%, Embiid-less lineups can be more than manageable.
The Sixers, among the NBA’s most blatant lineup staggering teams, surely know that individually their stars can carry the team’s performance. Part of why I’m bullish is because the Sixers have shown they will take advantage of staggering their stars, and certain steps have already been taken to begin optimizing lineup configurations this season.
Markelle Fultz starting this season makes sense on multiple levels, even as it breaks up the NBA’s Most Dominant Starting Lineup (TM, RIP). It shifts the timing of lineups and rotations and theoretically will keep Redick on the court as often as possible with Ben Simmons and the second unit. The Sixers know Embiid and almost anyone is a net positive right now - lineups with Simmons can have the same effect with the right personnel as noted above. On the other side of the staggering equation, Fultz-Embiid lineups should allow for some more pick-and-roll opportunities with Embiid as the roll-man with Fultz in Simmons-less lineups. It also should allow Fultz the freedom to run point without Simmons, which is likely the key to unlocking his potential. The change can work on both sides.
And even after saying all of the above: the Sixers still have their optimal lineups available to them when they need them. They can still run two dominant players together with three above-average role players surrounding them. They can play dominant defense with big defenders at every position or flood the court with shooters big or small. They can do a lot of different things around their stars, together or separately. You can count on one hand the number of teams with these capabilities - there’s arguably only two others, and both are in the conference the Sixers won’t be competing in.
Will there be growing pains? Sure, especially with Fultz. Expecting to him to provide more than marginal value this year is probably exceedingly unrealistic. Integrating new pieces won’t be seamless. Someone will yell at Ben Simmons to shoot a three, you coward. But there’s an overwhelming amount of elite talent on the team, good coaching, and a formula for success. Expecting a decline because two bench players moved onto different teams, or because the schedule isn’t unreasonably front-loaded this time, seems like missing the forest for the trees. The Sixers are very, very good, because they have two very, very prominent star players, and we should be very, very excited about that.