It’s nothing if not cinematic: eventual Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard barely gets a baseline jumper over the outstretched arm of Sixers deity Joel Embiid as time expires in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Then, they wait. Leonard, Embiid, a trailing Ben Simmons — they all stand and look at the basket. The hard-fought series has resulted in this: a 90s-style defensive slugfest that will either head to overtime or send the Raptors to Milwaukee, hinging on the fate of this one shot. The characters in this epic stare as the ball caroms not once, but four times, before falling through the net and sending an entire country into an earthquake of jubilation. Leonard is mobbed by his teammates as Embiid breaks down in tears.
The Sixers, with their 2018-19 campaign now suddenly in the rearview, make the journey back to Philadelphia, where an offseason with more questions than answers awaits them. Which players will be back? Who will the head coach be? Who will join the team? As viewers, we could do nothing but watch as the denouement revealed itself.
We now have those answers. The Sixers are revamped and redefined.
Now comes the sequel. Think Grown Ups 2.
How will the team and its new pieces gel and gear up for the task ahead? The Leonard shot will play in the memories of the remaining members of last year’s team until they reach the mountaintop they’re climbing. I’m not even on the team (yet) and I see that shot go in every time I close my eyes. Gone are the days of moral victories and heartening six-point losses to Golden State. The landscape of the NBA is drastically different than it was when Philly last took the court. Let’s delve into the heroes new and old in our saga, and take a look at how they stack up against the foes that now await them.
Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, T.J. McConnell, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Amir Johnson. I won’t spend much time on these, as my colleagues have done incredibly well to examine their exits before me. Later on, I will contextualize their leaves as it pertains to the year ahead, as best I can. To wit: in the immortal words of Liam Gallagher — Don’t Look Back in Anger. Jimmy wanted to go somewhere warm, JJ got more money than he’d have gotten here, and T.J.’s time in the Philadelphia sun had sadly reached its final act. The other three are centers. Best of luck. HAGS.
Despite the hand-wringing in the media (spurred on by a non-committal front office) that persisted in the playoffs in reference to the Sixers head coach, Brown will return to the bench in Philadelphia this season. Over-criticized and underappreciated, Brown is beloved by his players — the majority of whom spoke out in support of the coach when his job was in jeopardy during their post-playoff exit interviews.
Perhaps no Sixer stands to be more affected by the Leonard shot than Embiid. He is our Lenny Feder. (Note: I understand that the Avengers movies would’ve been a much more apt analogy for this piece, but I haven’t seen those.) Anyway, Embiid is the on- and off-court leader of this Sixers team. Even when not at his best— as he battled the flu and “the shits” during the Toronto series, Embiid’s imprint was the only thing keeping Philly in the series:
In 237 minutes with Joel Embiid, the Sixers were +90 this series.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 13, 2019
In 99 minutes without Joel Embiid, the Sixers were -111.
As otherworldly as Embiid’s performance during the season was, there is room for improvement and another level up for the Cameroonian to take. His conditioning can certainly improve, as can the plan by which Joel and the Sixers will monitor and limit his regular season minutes as much as possible. There was no better example of the positive effects of load management than Kawhi Leonard. All season, the Raptors were cognizant of Leonard’s minute and game totals, and refused to overwork him prior to the playoffs. At his exit interview, Embiid seemed receptive to the idea of scaling back his regular season work, in order to deliver him as healthy as possible once the real season begins. Beyond the aforementioned, Embiid improving his 3-point shot would be huge. As effective as he is in the midrange and the post, Joel going up 5 percent on his 3s could be a game-changer for himself and for a team that badly needs spacing.
Simmons, the polarizing, supersized point guard from Australia, has as divisive a game as any surefire All-Star. Ben’s strengths — masterful passing, 1-5 switchability on defense, rebounding, transition artistry — are as visible as his one glaring weakness: shooting. Simmons has never been a shooter of any kind, and has long relied on his size, strength, and speed to propel him past his defenders. That’s harder in the NBA. While Ben has been excellent in the league, he could take a leap into another stratosphere with an improved shot.
As reports are sure to leak out of Ben improving his jumper throughout the offseason — methinks it best for Sixers fans to believe it when they see it, as it pertains to Ben firing from deep. A more measured expectation and hope, however, could be that Simmons improves his free throw shooting. He has shot just 58 percent and 60 percent in his first two seasons from the line, respectively. If he can change his form and get his percentage at the stripe up to, say, 75 percent? He would become a new offensive player. No longer would he shy away from contact as much, and would instead be more inclined to put his head down and attack the basket at will. The good news for Sixers fans is that as Simmons learns and grows as a player, he will be doing so in Philadelphia.
Harris, whom the Sixers acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers prior to last season’s trade deadline, re-signed with Philly on a 5 year, $180 million near-max contract on June 30. After struggling in the playoffs, Harris has some avenging of his own to do this season. Given the departure of Jimmy Butler and the addition of Al Horford, Tobias will likely be leaned on much more heavily in the coming season for his scoring and ball-handling prowess. Whereas last season the team would hand the keys to Butler in the fourth quarter when they needed a bucket, most likely, this season Harris will get that opportunity.
As a player who has improved every year he’s been in the league in ways big and small, I’m confident in more steady, incremental refinements in his game. The big test, for me, will be on the defensive end of the court, where Tobias will now often be relied upon to play and guard 3s, rather than the 4s he did last season. Elton Brand and Brett Brown, of course, are not only banking on Tobias improving his defense, but also in the Embiid-Horford frontcourt mitigating any struggles he may have.
Thank God. The sharpshooting, trash-talking, headband-wearing, emoji-tattoo-donning, jack-with-no-ice-drinking, hockey-jersey-wearing, game-winner-hitting forward is back. I’m not sure there is anyone in Philadelphia with a higher approval rating than Scott, this side of John Wawa. Scott is beloved by Sixers fans far and wide, as his Mike Scott Hive™ is quite possibly the most vocal and interacted-with niche fan segment in sports. Philadelphia hasn’t had something like this since Sal’s Pals. On the court, Scott proved himself to be a reliable shooter and defender, and someone Brett Brown and company could count on during the playoffs. With his newly-inked two-year-deal, Mike Scott and the Mike Scott Hive™ are here to stay.
Ennis, like Scott, endeared himself to Sixers teammates and fans alike after joining the team at February’s trade deadline. After being anointed the winner of the “quiet tournament” for backup wing playoff minutes (edging out world-beaters Jonathon Simmons and Furkan Korkmaz in the process), Ennis proved to be more than just the lesser of the available evils. He provided valuable minutes down the stretch and in the playoffs. Ennis hit enough 3s to stay on the court, and supplied the bench unit with fervent activity on defense and the offensive boards. Ennis took what’s widely been reported to be a hometown discount, re-signing with Philly for the veteran minimum over the next two years. Ennis is back, and he’s bullish on his reshaped team:
Firstly, given what Zhaire Smith went through last year, basketball ought to be mentioned second. The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks recently summed up Smith’s harrowing year, saying in part:
“Smith knew he was allergic to peanut butter. He had no idea about sesame seeds. He was exposed to the latter when he ate some chicken at the 76ers practice facility, but because he was unaware of the issue, he didn’t seek immediate medical attention. A hole formed in his esophagus and he began to vomit blood. Smith was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, and doctors performed emergency thoracoscopy surgery, a procedure done to investigate the chest. He was hospitalized for six weeks, in pain and unable to eat or drink.”
That Zhaire has now worked his way back to being able to pursue his dream in the NBA is a victory of massive proportions.
As for basketball, Smith looked great in Summer League this July in Las Vegas. His athleticism is fully back, and he seems to have taken strides as both a shooter and a passer. Smith’s signature defense (his calling card at Texas Tech), seems to be back as well. For a Philadelphia team desperate for wing/guard defenders, Smith seems primed and ready to jump in and provide this team with some meaningful minutes this season.
In Shake’s rookie season, he spent the vast majority of his time playing with the Sixers’ G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, while on a two-way contract with the team. In Delaware, Shake shined. He flashed an impressive ability to score at three levels, and even ran the point to a fine degree of success. Recently, the team rewarded Shake with a four-year deal.
Milton had a tough go of it in Summer League, however. While he did a decent job of finding his teammates, he severely struggled to make shots. I’m sure a factor in this could’ve been that Shake was pressing a bit after being handed his first official NBA contract. Now, since the Sixers signed a primary backup point guard in Raul Neto, heavy minutes won’t be entrusted to Milton right away. He will instead be able to work himself into the team and play some spot minutes as he’s ready.
After an up-and-down rookie season that ended more down than up, Bolden figures to be in for quite a few DNP-CDs this season. The team now has two non-Embiid centers that they trust to defend the paint, so if and when Jonah does see minutes, they will likely be at backup 4. That way, Bolden’s spastic and inconsistent play can be dulled by not planting him beneath the rim. He’s young and cheap, and you can see the chalk-outline of a modern NBA center in Bolden, but his instincts and shooting will have to improve for him to stay on the court. The Sixers are ready to contend for a championship now, so I highly doubt they’ll be leaning on Jonah in any meaningful way this season, barring a rash of big-man injuries.
The New Guys
It’s hard to tell which scenario actually unfolded.
A) Jimmy Butler told the Sixers he didn’t want to return to Philadelphia, not even on a 5-year, $190 million max contract. He instead wanted to play in Miami and Philly ought to figure out a way to get him there. Then, the Sixers pivoted to Al Horford.
B) Philadelphia had grown weary of the Jimmy Butler experiment, and found themselves queasy when contemplating the reality of doling out that max contract to someone with Butler’s history— personality and otherwise. They decided they’d prefer to pilfer longtime rival Al Horford from the Celtics, and get what they could for Butler (more on that shortly.)
Whichever happened, when it became evident that Butler wouldn’t be back in Philadelphia, the Sixers decided to go even more all-in on their super-size experiment, by signing Horford to a 4-year, $109 million contract on June 30. In Horford, the Sixers add one of the league’s top interior (and most switchable) defenders, an excellent passer, and solid 3-point shooter. Horford will need to adjust to playing power forward next to Joel Embiid, likely to start and finish halves.
But the greatest consequence of the Horford signing might be that it is intended to solve one of the Sixers’ biggest problems last season: they could not figure out the backup center position. Despite having four (4) backup centers, the team would crater the second Jo sat down, without exception. Now, Embiid and Horford’s minutes will be staggered, and Al is your nominal backup 5. This move ensures that the Sixers will have 48 minutes of elite rim-protector play on nights the two are active. After last season’s struggles, that is a tantalizing prospect. Additionally, in the Sixers’ decision to part company with Butler in favor of Horford, they go from tending to one of basketball’s most mercurial and erratic personalities, to one of its most respected, solid leaders.
The moment that reports leaked out that the Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler had mutual interest, and they’d be approaching the Sixers to facilitate a sign-and-trade, Sixers fans clamored for one Heat player above all others: Josh Richardson. Heading into his fifth NBA season, the 25-year-old guard out of Tennessee has made himself into one of the league’s best two-way players. Overlooked at every stop, Richardson has displayed tireless work ethic to get to where he is today. At this point, he has refined his skill set to include not only dogged defense and solid 3-point shooting, but also an aptitude with the ball in his hands as a secondary creator. Richardson is a great fit for this Sixers team, as he will be counted on to defend point guards, stretch the floor, and occasionally create off the dribble. His age and contract situation make him all the more attractive to this particular iteration of the Sixers.
I keep trying to write this paragraph, only to be derailed by getting lost in Neto’s eyes. I mean: yowza, gang.
Anyway, the Sixers signed 26-year-old Brazilian point guard Raul Neto on the veteran minimum contract. After four productive seasons in Utah, Neto joins Philadelphia as the odds-on favorite to command the backup point guard position. A solid shooter, ball-handler, and passer, the real question with Neto is whether or not he can stay healthy. Over his last three seasons, Neto has logged only 40, 41 and 37 games, respectively, due to injury. He’ll fit right in! When healthy, he was an effective player for Utah:
If this is the end, a small shoutout to Raul Neto's on-court splits... the best you'll ever see for a third-string PG. pic.twitter.com/zcX6cA0Tl7— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) July 1, 2019
In O’Quinn, the Sixers signed one of the league’s most underrated rim protectors on a veteran minimum contract. By all accounts, the seven-year-pro is an excellent team guy who excels in his role, no matter how small. While he won’t be the primary backup, he should get a fair amount of playing time. On nights during the regular season when the Sixers decide to rest Embiid or Horford, O’Quinn will likely be looking at 18-20 minutes off the bench. Elton Brand did a nice job of solidifying a solid third center. He also loves going to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, which is great.
After trading up with Boston to select the Washington guard (gulp), Thybulle highly impressed during his stint in Vegas Summer League. He flashed his defensive instincts, gathering a number of anticipation steals in passing lanes that led to his own breakaway dunks. On offense, while not being much of a creator, he showed an impressive level of aptitude from beyond, sinking nearly 40 percent of his 3s. Brett Brown and the rest of the staff will be tasked with reining in some of Thybulle’s aggressiveness on defense — he can get caught gambling and, thus, out of position. But he certainly seems like the prospect many Sixers fans wanted, with real Robert Covington-lite potential right away.
Marial Shayok (two-way)
I’m not a huge college basketball guy, but when the Sixers took Marial Shayok with the 54th pick in the 2nd round of this year’s draft, I was pretty sure they conjured him from a name generator because they didn’t submit the pick in time. But he’s real! The Iowa State product shot very well during Summer League and showed real flashes of being a diverse offensive player. On a two-way deal, Shayok will work through his growing pains in Delaware.
Norvel Pelle (two-way)
I love this guy. Pelle is coming off a great season in the G League with the Blue Coats, and the Sixers rewarded him with a two-way NBA contract for this season. In Summer League, Pelle flashed his rim-running potential. He blocked shots, dunked ferociously, and fouled everyone in sight. The wide-smiling center celebrates with as much fervor as he dunks and goaltends. I’m way in on him being an A1 bench celebrator for this season, as he works through his two-way contract.
That’s the roster. Save for a potential Kyle Korver signing in the coming days (which would be useful), this is the team. These our are guys. The core is locked in: we are no longer auditioning to max level guys in hopes that they will find us attractive enough to stay in Philly the following July.
So let’s get excited about these guys. Joel Embiid is The Process. Ben Simmons physically removed D’Angelo Russell from a playoff series last year. Tobi is here to stay. Al Horford now hates the Celtics, too. Josh Richardson is young and fun. Raul Neto is a male model. Brush up on Zhaire Smith mixtapes. Attend a Bar Mitzvah with Kyle O’Quinn. Let’s get crazy.
The Sixers have pivoted and reshaped their contending team on the fly. Smart basketball people think the Sixers have a legitimate chance at a ring this year. In a wide-open NBA, they are much deeper, more athletic, and should have the necessary personalities to mesh under Brett Brown in pursuit of their goal.
Last season ended as painfully as it could’ve. But it’s time to get off the mat. In Grown Ups 1, when Colin Quinn’s team took an early lead, did Sandler and Co. pack up and go home? No! They ran flare screens for David Spade and generated easy offense. They attacked Tim Meadows on the other end.
My point is: the rest of the league is in for some comeuppance. Go Sixers.