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Sixers Mailbag: Joel Embiid’s MVP odds, expectations for Zhaire Smith and more

People have questions, I have answers (I never said they were good answers)

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

We’re at the tail end of the NBA offseason — media day is this month, I think! — so I decided it was an apt time to answer some questions about the Philadelphia 76ers. I’m excited to dive into some pretty good questions I received via Twitter. Feel free to compliment or crucify my answers in the comment section below. I consider myself well-versed in Sixers-related endeavors but my opinion is far from infallible.

Joel Embiid seems to be a trendy pick for MVP among certain circles this year and I understand the appeal. He’s comfortably a top-10 NBA player, is finally backed by a competent (read: overqualified) reserve center with Al Horford — which should alleviate some of the taxing workload — and his counting stats have taken a significant leap each year.

But I wouldn’t bet on Embiid being in the MVP race come April. During exit interviews in May, Embiid said he’d be open to load management moving forward if the team could survive without him. In years past, that wasn’t the case, but Horford’s presence along with sustained growth from Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson should change that reality. As such, I’m skeptical Embiid logs the necessary minutes to be an MVP threat. Philadelphia can’t afford another playoff run where he’s afflicted by various ailments and it seems like the entire organization is de-emphasizing the importance of the regular season for him.

His per-game impact will reach an MVP level — he’s third in multi-year Player Impact Plus-Minus — but I’d bet on him playing 60-65 games at 30-32 minutes a night. That’ll qualify him for the All-Star game and an All-NBA team, but isn’t enough to be crowned 2019-20 MVP. And if that breeds a healthy Joel Embiid come May and beyond, the Sixers will gladly accept it.

I really like this question from Greg. As I see it, Brooklyn probably presents the most issues for the Sixers in a playoff series. Boston’s interior defense will be shredded by Philadelphia’s bigs. Toronto’s best weapon against the Sixers — Kawhi Leonard — is in Los Angeles. Indiana lacks the defensive personnel to neutralize any of Embiid, Harris or Simmons. Thaddeus Young could’ve been leaned on to contain one of Simmons or Harris, but he skipped town in favor of the Chicago Bulls this summer.

Anyhow, Brooklyn’s trio of dynamic ball-handlers — Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert — will test Philadelphia’s perimeter defense, a constant thorn in the team’s side last season. Richardson’s presence should alleviate some concerns, while Simmons clearly elevated his effort level on that side of the ball during the 2018-19 playoffs. Even so, that’s only two rotation players in whom the Sixers can feel confident against those three.

Perhaps Zhaire Smith or Matisse Thybulle carve out significant minutes off the bench, but I can’t currently project them as players who stymie Irving, Dinwiddie or LeVert. I don’t imagine Brooklyn poses any legitimate threat to Philadelphia in a potential first- or second-round series, but its ball-handling cavalry could enjoy a hot streak at the right time — especially considering the Sixers’ previous perimeter struggles — and that’s more dangerous than anything the other three teams offer.

This is probably the most pertinent question for the Sixers this season. We know the defense will be very good. We envision the offense will be at least serviceable enough to complement that stifling defensive unit. But what Philadelphia once again lacks without Jimmy Butler is a certified closer and that’s what I think Tracy means by “Butler’s role.”

Tobias Harris is the obvious candidate to become the team’s crunch-time perimeter option. I’d imagine he receives the lion’s share of opportunities down the stretch, given his pull-up shooting ability. However, Harris lacks Butler’s foul-drawing and play-making talents — two incredibly useful skills in the clutch. Because of that, I’m skeptical Harris is tabbed for the same load as Butler, who boasted a 28.1 percent usage rate in the clutch during the regular season (60 percent true shooting), which rose to 37 percent during the playoffs (73.5 percent true shooting).

Instead, Richardson will get some chances and the Sixers are likely hoping Simmons emerges as a more viable go-to scorer — either via exploiting mismatches in the post or attacking the rim with more thrust. The optimistic lens is to believe that diversity of options and Simmons’ potential improvements offset Butler’s absence. The reality is they will certainly miss Butler’s clutch scoring. He buried many, many tough shots throughout his Sixers tenure and created lots of other opportunities with his facilitating and foul-drawing.

Philadelphia’s late-game (and overall) offense will suffer without him. I’d imagine the hope is their defense is formidable enough to mitigate those concerns. So, the short answer is replacing Butler is going to be a group effort, but one in which the sum of the parts isn’t equal to the whole. Butler was that special and valuable.

My stance has yet to change on Simmons’ potential as a shooter. I’ve written extensively as to why I’m so skeptical, which centers around noteworthy indicators: free-throw and mid-range efficiency along with exhibiting poor left-hand touch. This sentiment doesn’t stem from some anti-Simmons stance and I’ll happily admit being wrong if Simmons develops into a credible shooter. The highlight videos are certainly fun and I don’t want to begrudge fans for being optimistic, but as someone whose job is to analyze the team objectively, I remain quite low on his shooting prospects.

I know my pal Ryne would be bummed if I didn’t address his highly insightful question (I assure you there’s no sarcasm here), so let’s get to it. The Philadelphia 76ers are an NBA franchise with a decent chance to make the NBA Finals over the next few seasons. Maybe it happens next year, maybe it doesn’t. Odds seem solid they exist as title contenders for the near future, which is pretty rad (and definitely not vexing or wayward) if you root for them. Thanks for the question, Ryne!

Sixers fans are understandably optimistic and excited about the wing duo of Thybulle and Smith. Both flashed intriguing and encouraging skill sets during Summer League and figure to be key players down the line. This season, however, I’d temper expectations. Fellow Liberty Baller Adam Aaronson mapped out his recommended rotation for the year, and pegged Smith for 12 minutes per game and Thybulle for eight.

I don’t want to steal his analysis, but that feels apt. However, I could certainly envision a scenario in which one or both progress substantially over the year to earn more minutes, displacing James Ennis as the primary reserve wing or poaching minutes from Raul Neto/Trey Burke if the Sixers prefer jumbo-sized lineups.

To do so, both must likely emerge as high-level perimeter defenders. As previously expressed, the Sixers could use more serviceable ones and those two have the upside to provide help. I’d imagine both will struggle significantly offensively, even if they hit 3s at a high rate, and becoming neutral-to-good offensive players will be more than a one-year process.

Thybulle and Smith are two young players — essentially a pair of rookies — trying to find themselves on an NBA Finals contender. It’s tough to break out or find footing on those types of teams. Their long-term outlook remains promising, but I’m wary either makes a ton of noise beyond decent bench minutes from time to time, especially early on. And for now, that’s OK.

This is... a very smart and difficult question. The Sixers offense can and will look dramatically different next year. Their two best perimeter creators — JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler — are gone. Those absences influence Philadelphia’s offensive identity. My initial thought is that the Sixers intend to manipulate their ginormous lineup by regularly seeking out mismatches on switches.

Embiid, Horford and Harris are all very good post scorers, while both Horford and Harris can comfortably shoot over the top of smaller defenders in pick-and-pops or other circumstances that induce a switch (i.e. Harris on pull-up jumpers as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls). Almost every good offense has players who put pressure on the rim and it would be prudent to design actions that get Simmons and Richardson going downhill. Those two could overwhelm with their size and length to score inside if schemed to create off of momentum rather than from a standstill, as neither is best deployed in isolation.

Without a reliable one-on-one scorer (Harris and Richardson are much better with a screen), Philadelphia should generate a screen-heavy offense to catalyze possessions. Conventional wisdom says it’s hard to fight around large-bodied humans, which creates space for offensive players. In this starting lineup, there are many large-bodied humans, especially in relation to most other teams. If screens are set, an advantage is going to be established, something the Sixers will need without Butler and Redick so frequently compromising defenses.

The Sixers enjoy a height or length advantage at virtually every position in their starting lineup. Sometimes, that’s the only trait required to simplify the game. The ability to cleanly attempt shots by merely standing taller or having a longer wingspan than your opponent can go overlooked. Whether it’s through post-ups, ball-screen action, or finishing at the rim, Philadelphia must tap into that resource frequently this season.

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