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Sixers Season Preview: Is Markelle Fultz the piece that puts the Sixers over?

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Taking a look at the season ahead.

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The summer of 2018 has come and passed, and despite lofty expectations for the free agency period, the Sixers’ core remains exactly as it was to start last season (well, minus Jahlil Okafor). There was one very significant change however: after a Twitter fiasco of epic proportions, Bryan Colangelo stepped down from his position with the organization, leaving the Sixers without a General Manager. Months passed before the franchise’s leadership finally hired their man. Now the Sixers head into this season with former Sixer Elton Brand leading the Front Office.

Although the team was unable to secure a star free agent, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are talented enough to place the Sixers in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. But will they avenge their Eastern Conference Semifinals loss to the Boston Celtics? And will the Sixers’ performance show enough to entice championship-thirsty free agents to come to Philadelphia next summer (perhaps the team’s last chance to land a max player with its current core)?

Philadelphia 76ers

2017-2018 record: 52-30

Key Losses: Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli, Justin Anderson, Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot

Key Additions: Mike Muscala, Wilson Chandler, Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet

What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

The Sixers entered the 2018 off-season making their desires abundantly clear: coach Brett Brown, with the support of the organization, wanted to pursue a third All-Star level player to add to the highly effective duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. What came of the Sixers’ star-hunting aspirations was utter disappointment, as the Sixers struck out on LeBron James (signed with the Lakers), Kawhi Leonard (the Spurs favored the Raptors trade package centered around DeMar DeRozan) and Paul George (re-signed with the Thunder). The Sixers would end up adding role players to improve their depth, rather than stars who would raise the team’s ceiling.

One of those additions was Wilson Chandler, a 31-year-old forward bordering on journeyman status who the Nuggets were eager to hand over to the Sixers for cap relief purposes. Chandler is past his prime, but he can certainly be a contributor to a bench unit that may be lacking wings. The Sixers weren’t done wheeling and dealing for veteran depth pieces, and in late July, still without a sitting GM, they took part in a three team deal that sent out Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Justin Anderson while netting stretch-five Mike Muscala. Both Muscala and Chandler figure to fill some of the void left by the loss of Ersan Ilyasova, who signed with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Chandler and Muscala are welcome faces to a roster that’s gotten even younger. The 2018 NBA draft brought in the uber athletic, yet unquestionably raw Zhaire Smith, who is injured to start the season with a Jones fracture. Landry Shamet, a sharpshooting guard, and Shake Milton, a sort of jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none backcourtsman, arrived in Philly via the Draft as well.

What are the team’s biggest strengths?

The Sixers biggest strength is Joel Embiid. After his first healthy off-season, he’s shown thus far in preseason that he’s unstoppable. While opposing players don’t give their best defensive effort in games that don’t actually count, Joel has clearly improved his offensive footwork and mindset. The turnover problem may still exist, according to what we’ve seen, as does Joel’s questionable decision making. But even a slight improvement in those areas, coupled with Joel’s defensive dominance (he ranked 3rd in defensive rating amongst players with at least 60 games and 20+ mpg last season), make him an MVP candidate should he be healthy 70+ games. The Sixers entire defensive identity rest on Joel’s interior presence.

What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

The Sixers’ were exposed in their playoff series against the Boston Celtics for having a lack of two-way players — players that can contribute on both sides of the ball. Marco Belinelli’s shooting was hampered, as Boston stuck to him like white on rice, and Boston’s offense repeatedly targeted Beli’s matador defense. Put that song on repeat for JJ Redick. Robert Covington’s threat from deep evaporated, as he couldn’t hit water falling out of a boat. And, of course, the absence of a jump shot for Ben Simmons allowed Boston to sag off Ben and crowd the paint, making life difficult for both Simmons and Joel Embiid.

If this team is to challenge Boston or Toronto or Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference title, they need players who can put the ball on the floor and get a bucket when defenses tighten up, and who can get a stop on the other end. Have they addressed as much? It’s hard to tell at this point. Ideally, Markelle Fultz is a guy who makes that Boston series a little closer, as someone who can get his own shot. But we won’t know how well Fultz’ shot will hold up until were a few months into the season. Zhaire Smith might be a player who can at the very least provide stout backcourt/wing defense, but he’ll be on a severe learning curve as he sits the first handful of weeks out with a foot injury. A lot of pressure will rest on Ben Simmons’ shoulders: he’s either got to get comfortable with a mid-range jumper, or be willing to hand some facilitating duties over to Markelle Fultz as Ben becomes more of a cutter.

What are the goals for this team?

Throughout media day, Sixers personnel from veteran players to members of the coaching staff talked of the ultimate goal: winning a championship. While serious questions were raised about the Sixers readiness to do so, their talent is undeniable. But hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy isn’t the only goal.

The team needs to make it a goal to discover whether or not they can proceed forward with the young core of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric, or if the Front Office needs to shake things up. Star depth is in much demand, but low supply. The Sixers have two in Embiid and Simmons, but is a third on the roster? We’ll be able to better answer that question in April after seeing a full season of this team.

What can fans expect from Markelle Fultz?

Markelle Fultz will likely have an up-and-down season, provided the shot is in fact restored to some degree of acceptability. He’s still getting comfortable with his shot, the NBA game (he played just 14 games last year) and playing with his teammates. Even if Markelle comes out of the gate firing on all cylinders, it’s very possible he has a mid-season swoon similar to “hitting the rookie wall.” NBA teams don’t have much action to scout Fultz on, and as he grows as an NBA player this season, teams will adjust to his newly discovered strengths and weaknesses. Fans should temper expectations of Fultz from a purely productive standpoint: I see him shooting somewhere in the low 30’s from 3PT, struggling to finish through contact at the rim and putting up a boxscore line of something like 12-14 PPG, 4 or 5 RPG, and 5 APG. What is important is that Markelle shows an ability to pull up off the dribble, as an off-the-dribble scorer is a skillset the Sixers are sorely missing.