With the season starting in just two days (!), I decided to gauge the expectations and hopes of my lovely coworkers in a two-part roundtable discussion. Be on the watch for part two tomorrow.
Question #1: What is the boldest prediction you can come up with for the upcoming season that you actually think is a real possibility?
Steve Lipman: The Sixers are going to win the championship. They will find a way to come up with enough perimeter scoring between JRich and Tobias, in tandem with Ben/Al pick-and-pops and Joel’s overall dominance. They’ll score enough to outpace teams with their devastating defense, as they deploy a Simmons-Richardson-Thybulle-Horford-Embiid defensive lineup when needed in crunch time. This is the year.
Tom West: The Sixers will have the league’s best defense next season, and could get most of their starting lineup on the NBA’s All-Defensive teams. Simmons proved he can perform at that level in the playoffs, Embiid was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year already, and Richardson and Horford are both fully capable. If being at, or near, the top of the East with the league’s best defense gives them an extra voting boost, the Sixers may be able to land three of those players on All-Defensive teams (all four may be pushing it a bit too far, even if they’re all in the discussion).
Dan Volpone: The Sixers could go 8-0 versus the Celtics this year, which will mean plenty of opportunities to rub in the fact that Elton Brand cucked basketball genius Danny Ainge by stealing his fanbase’s favorite player, causing Ainge to panic and hand a max contract to a glorified Trey Burke.
Andrew Favakeh: Zhaire Smith will be earning rotation minutes by the end of the season. In reality, this should not be that bold of a prediction — after all, Smith was the 16th pick in the 2018 draft — but given that Brett Brown hasn’t ruled out sending Smith down to the G-League, it’s sort of bold. Making matters more bold is the fact that he suffered an allergic reaction, causing him to lose 40 pounds in one-and-a-half month span.
Kevin Rice: Of all my bold predictions from July, I think Horford smooching Embiid is the most likely one.
Andrew Patton: Four Sixers make the All-Star team.
David Early: I think the boldest prediction I’m reasonably comfy making this year is that the Sixers could get three and yes, potentially even four players in the All-Star Game. Obviously, it isn’t likely to happen. If you bet two, that’s safe. Teams who send three have a pretty good rate, historically, of making the NBA Finals. If the Sixers find themselves in a #1 seed situation (maybe Giannis or Middleton gets banged up?), it could be one of those years like the time Atlanta won 60 games and almost all of their starters were All-Star candidates. Embiid and Simmons should be penciled in, Tobias Harris will have a very good shot, and Josh Richarson and Al Horford could be in the mix as well.
Greg Melo: I don’t know how bold of a prediction it is at this juncture, but after seeing Matisse Thybulle capture hearts this preseason (for those who had not watched him at Washington), I think the rookie will make at least 30 starts this season and make an All-Rookie Team. Generally, All-Rookie selections are able to put up gaudy statlines in terms of points, assists or rebounds -- three areas that I don’t think Thybulle will be contributing most of his value. However, the young wing has magnets for hands, and provides great perimeter defense from the outset with great range and unreal instincts. Due to load management days for both Al Horford and Joel Embiid, I think there will be plenty of opportunities for Thybulle to slide into the lineup and snatch starts away from last year’s rotation guys like James Ennis and Mike Scott. And I think if the three-point stroke is better than we expect, he will be hard to keep off the floor.
Tyler Monahan: Josh Richardson will make the Eastern Conference All-Star team. While he may not get talked about as much as proven stars like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, I do believe he could end up being one of the most influential players on the Sixers this year. His offensive game isn’t limited to one area: he can shoot, finish around the rim and also set up other teammates for good shots. Plus, his defensive abilities are some of the best in the league. Now on a team that is built to contend the rest of the league is going to realize that Josh Richardson is one of the best two way shooting guards in the NBA.
Adio Royster: You want bold? If that’s the case, then you don’t want to hear “Sixers win the championship” or “Sixers win X amount of games”. How about this one? Matisse Thybulle will be on the All-NBA Defensive team as a rookie. If you’ve seen him during the preseason, then you know he’s been absolutely fantastic. Thybulle is averaging 5.6 steals and 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes in the preseason. As much as we all love Lord Covington, I feel like Thybulle is even better – if that’s possible. Whether or not a rookie can make the All-NBA Team is a thinner possibility, but I’m not just trying to be bold. I’m putting my junk on the table. I’m letting it all hang out with this one.
Question #2: Finish this sentence: the Sixers storyline I am most looking forward to watching is...
Steve Lipman: The race for the #1 seed between the Sixers and Milwaukee. It will be a delicate balance for Brett and co. to rest Joel the appropriate amount, while keeping an eye on regular season wins. The most important thing is that Jo is as healthy as possible when the games really count, but seeding isn’t unimportant. As we saw last season, hosting a game 7 rather than traveling for one can make a world of difference.
Tom West: how Zhaire develops. There’s so many storylines to choose from, but I’ll pick Zhaire. I’ve always been high on his skillset, but he obviously has a way to go yet and is firmly behind Thybulle in the rotation following preseason. Storylines like Simmons’ jumper will obviously get more attention, but whether Zhaire can become a reliable rotation player later in the season would be huge for the Sixers’ depth.
Dan Volpone: How good will the defense be? Despite all the offensive talent, having the league’s best defense is almost definitely the Sixers’ path to a title. Tobias Harris spending a lot of time at the three is my biggest defensive concern, so I’d like to see if he’s improved on the perimeter. Also, since this group is so new, it should be fun to watch them improve throughout the season as they grow more comfortable playing together.
Andrew Favakeh: The improvement of Ben Simmons. While much (Twitter) discussion is devoted to Simmons’ jump shot — er, lack thereof — it’s unreasonable to expect any improvement in that department, even if he made one in the preseason (check out the bench reaction!). Rather, how he’s utilized off-the-ball sparks intrigue. Brett Brown has said Simmons won’t be used in the dunker’s spot — where he occupied much of last season — but the corner three-point spot. The problem is obvious: Simmons is 0-17 on corner three-point shots. Perhaps there are other ways to unlock Simmons’ game. Will it be ball-screens, cutting, or something else?
Kevin Rice: The Sixers’ defensive domination, possibly even holding a team under 80 points in a game.
Andrew Patton: Will the Sixers defense be legendary or merely good?
David Early: The storyline I’m most looking forward to watching is how the Sixers manage Embiid’s minutes and games. If the team comes out of the gate playing him a ton, and he’s dominating like early last season, he’ll garner some early season MVP and Defensive Player of the Year love. Some fans will be really excited. But it’ll be a bit of déjà vu for fans who are looking at this year through a championship lens, and those folks remember how the big fella was over-utilized in the first few months of the season a year ago — which led to back and knee issues by winter. Those injuries ultimately capped/ended the team’s season, with help from a bout of “gastroenteritis.” Hopefully, the team and Joel are all smart enough to aim for him to play around 31 minutes per game and around 61 games (like Kawhi Leonard last year). The most important goal of this entire franchise is to find ways to get Embiid to peak by May and June rather than by Christmas.
Greg Melo: Predictable answer incoming: who is the perimeter scorer down the stretch. As much noise has been made about Simmons jump shot this offseason as I can remember, but I still am skeptical of how often he will let it fly. And I think the boosts in his value will come from being more aggressive in the regular season and a higher free-throw percentage. Ultimately. I think this comes down to Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson. J-Rich was thrust into the go-to role last year in Miami, where he was entrusted with PnR responsibilities and perimeter creation, in addition to the plus value he provided on defense. I think this year he benefits from taking a step back in usage, and as a number four scoring option, he is allowed to work on his shots from distance coming off of screens a la JJ Redick. If he can hit those consistently, and provide some strong PnR moments, perhaps he is the answer. Similarly, Harris was brought in last year with the unique skill set of being a big wing who could handle and run the offense a little, especially in transition. I think that the 3-point shooting has been a little bit of a concern for him since arriving in Philadelphia, but I think that he will get into a groove in the middle of the season after a slow start. I think Tobi will have the green light in some games, specifically down the stretch, and if he finds early success, he will remain confident going into the meat of the season.
Tyler Monahan: Who is going to take the important shots at the end of the game? Last year Jimmy Butler was that player, but with his sudden retirement down in Miami the Sixers will need to find someone else to take these shots. Joel Embiid is the obvious option for this role but he shouldn’t be counted on to control the offense from the outside as a center. Come playoff time the team will need to feel comfortable when games come down to the wire, and having a player who is confident in taking these late shots will for sure ease any tension.
Adio Royster: “Are the Sixers too big to win a championship?” This team is HUGE. The smallest starter is 6’6”, and it is the direct opposite of what many NBA teams are trying to do (small ball, jack up threes). This Sixers team has the chance to be the ‘85 Bears of the NBA. Teams will have to jack up tons of threes on this team because if you come into the lane, there’s going to be nothing but arms in your way. Every NBA player trying to drive the lane is going to feel like they’re going up against the X-Men villain, Spiral. Keep an eye on this statistic. In 2003-2004, both the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs allowed 84.2 points per game. This year’s Sixers have a shot at something similar.
Question #3: Who is one player you expect to have a much more significant role by year’s end? And, for the sake of balance, one player you expect to lose minutes between now and the playoffs?
Steve Lipman: I’ll say Zhaire Smith in favor of James Ennis III. Zhaire is clearly not ready at the moment (and not on the same plane as Matisse Thybulle), but come season’s end, the guess here is that he’ll be caught up and ready to dog opposing guards off the bench. Ennis, while valuable, is closer in size to a number of key contributors already on the team, so I’d bet on Zhaire’s skillset getting utilized more by the spring.
Tom West: Thybulle. He joined the team with an exceptional defensive skillset to help off the bench, and he’s done nothing but reiterate what he can do in Summer League and preseason. As a result, and if his three-point shot is passable (which I believe it will be), I suspect Thybulle will wind up taking plenty of Ennis’s minutes with far superior defensive playmaking and versatility. Throw in Zhaire’s potential as well, and Ennis’s role could really fall off through the season.
Dan Volpone: Free Zhaire! He’s good enough to play, and if he’s not in the rotation now he should be by the end of the season. Give him any minutes Shake and Furkan are getting.
Andrew Favakeh: Matisse Thybulle. Unlike Zhaire Smith, it’s likely he starts in the rotation, so he’ll have plenty of chances to prove himself, if he hasn’t done so already. Sixth in steal percentage for players who averaged at least 20 minutes and played in three or more games, Thybulle confirmed his “defensive playmaker” status that he earned at Washington. He might not be the off-ball maven of Robert Covington nor the on-ball maniac of Jimmy Butler, Thybulle is interesting in his own right. With a high IQ, quick feet, and long arms (7-foot wingspan), his staunch defense will earn him a role in the rotation.
Kevin Rice: Zhaire Smith’s minutes so far have been scarce in the preseason, assuming that Furkan/James Ennis III get a load of minutes, I bet Zhaire works his way over one of both of them by playoffs. Whether or not Brett Brown trusts Zhaire over JE III is questionable, but I’d love to see Zhaire crack a good chunk of minutes in the rotation.
Andrew Patton: I think James Ennis III will play more. His sheer competence and adultness will get him important run, whereas I imagine Jonah Bolden will be firmly planed on the deep bench or traded come March.
David Early: I think the way the Sixers roster is constructed, it’s possible they’re going to need to lean on Trey Burke quite a bit more than most fans expect. They don’t have a ton of players with shot-creating experience in big moments. Burke doesn’t either, but he may have the potential to do it. Guys like Zhaire Smith, Furkan Korkmaz, Raul Neto or Shake Milton may carve out some key minutes this year. But I think when things start getting serious, Burke has the scoring potential to absorb big chunks of their opportunity and provide the type of instant bench offense that, say, a Gary Neal (24.4 minutes per game in the 2013 NBA Finals) once offered Brown’s mentor in San Antonio.
Greg Melo: I sort of answered this in the first question -- I think Matisse starts out as a seventh man out of the gate, but quickly finds his way into starters minutes -- or at least 20mpg during the year. Because of this, I think that you see two players actually get the bump down. Though it saddens me, I could see Zhaire Smith finding more minutes in Delaware than with the big club this year, just because of the depth at the wing the Sixers suddenly have. This isn’t a bad thing, and I really believe in Zhaire moving forward, especially next year in a role similar to Thybulle this year. I also think James Ennis falls out of the rotation late in the season. He is still a valuable guy to have off the bench, and was valuable in the playoffs last year, but I think Brown will find a couple of ways to play with the rotations (maybe big lineups with Mike Scott or smaller lineups with Neto and Richardson, Simmons at the three) that will make Ennis less of a fixture in the regular season.
Tyler Monahan: As of right now it seems like Zhaire Smith is out of the rotation, but all hope is not lost. After one of the weirdest rookie seasons ever Smith has come back and looked solid in camp. Coach Brown may be easing him into a rotation spot as the season progresses, but by the end of the year Smith should be playing regular minutes. If Smith does find himself as the beneficiary of extra minutes I could see James Ennis’ role shrinking down the stretch. Ennis does bring a lot to the table, strong defense and a dawg mentality being the main things, but his potential is capped. Zhaire Smith can do those same things and his potential is just too high to be riding the pine all year.
Adio Royster: The easy answer is Matisse Thybulle. When I look at the roster past the starting lineup, I kinda wonder who that “other bench guy” is. Mike Scott is 100% the sixth man, and if he’s not, he’s either injured or something is wrong. Who’s the other guy that’s gonna get significant minutes (18-24)? Right now, the competition is between Thybulle, Zhaire Smith, Trey Burke, Kyle O’Quinn, and, I guess, Raul Neto. I think at the beginning of the season, Thybulle is going to be eased in to the rotation, but by the season’s end, you could see the rookie play 18-20 minutes per game if not more.