Ah, media day — the unofficial start to the NBA season. New dietary restrictions on milkshakes that have put players in better shape than ever before and rehabilitated jump shots that for an entire summer have not failed to find the bottom of a high school basket even once. Let us exorcise the demons of yesterday and start anew.
Gone with you, quadruple doink. Happy trails, Jimmy Butler, Markelle Fultz, Jonathon Simmons, Wilson Chandler, and Mike Muscala. Welcome, Kawhi-less Eastern Conference. And hello to you, Al Horford, Josh Richardson, and Matisse Thybulle.
The Philadelphia 76ers will not play a meaningful game until October 23rd. Regardless, the campaign for the Larry O’Brien trophy begins today. As we sit here on September 30th and project what this new season could bring Philadelphia basketball, one can’t help but feel the team is poised to reach heights unseen for nearly two decades. Elton Brand spent his summer making some of the most notable offseason acquisitions since the ol’ school Chevy himself rolled into town. Meanwhile, the best player in the Eastern Conference — yes, the BEST — fled for warmer pastures in the West, Anthony Davis is not house hunting in Cambridge, and the musky stench of James Dolan effectively repelled the threat of a big three in the Big Apple.
Just how friendly was the 2019 offseason to the Sixers? Hell, the only Eastern Conference team that could claim they’ve hauled in more talent over the summer than Philly, will very likely only get to put half that talent on the court in 2019-20 as Kevin Durant recovers from a torn Achilles. And the odds makers and NERDS! have taken notice of the power shift in the East. Right now, you could get the Sixers at 3/2 odds to win the Eastern Conference — second only to the Milwaukee Bucks. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections take it a bit further: they’ve got the Sixers winning the East by 4 games, yes, but their model is so bullish on the Sixers that Philly’s 25% chance to win the NBA Finals is bested by... no one.
Alas, the NBA does not function on paper. As much raw talent as Brett Brown’s roster has, there are red flags regarding its construction. The Sixers are very big and their fit matching up with other contenders is questionable. I’d worry less about opposing guards and more about opposing wings, if I were Coach Brown. The team has elected to slide Al Horford and Tobias Harris down a position, placing Horford at the four and Harris at the three. On one hand, you get the itch to support this strategy by looking at efficiency numbers of previous seasons.
“Al Horford has been really productive with Aron Baynes. Al WANTS to play power forward. Historically, he’s actually BETTER at the four!” I’m skeptical, to say the least. And I find the following trend particularly curious:
- Al Horford’s minutes with a traditional big, 2016-17: 996
- Al Horford’s minutes with a traditional big, 2017-18: 1175
- Al Horford’s minutes with a traditional big, 2018-19: 195
There are reasons that are devoid of concern that could explain a drop off: roster turnover, health, lack of depth, etc. But the change is extreme, and I’d wager its possible that Brad Stevens saw before his very eyes that it was not sustainable to play an aging Horford at power forward in an NBA where today’s fours have the skill set of what used to be a three.
But here’s the thing: the Sixers don’t have to play like everyone else. They’ll find the most success in enforcing their own brand of basketball, a brand in which Horford at the four, Harris at the three, is sustainable. Before Kevin Durant, the Warriors succeeded in part because they were better at playing Warriors’ basketball than anyone else. The other parts were happenstance (see: Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving 2015 playoff injuries) and yes, supreme talent. But there’s no question that the pre-Durant Warriors changed the way we look at the game, and we often only know the game is changing after it has already started to happen.
No one can tell when luck will strike. The Sixers are very talented, and ‘very’ may suffice in place of ‘supreme’ when Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Seth Curry and Draymond Green aren’t all donning the same jersey. Can they build their own brand of basketball that no other team can match?
To be a champion in the NBA is to be unique. The Sixers certainly have a strong assembly of talent. The league, at least at the moment, feels as open as it has been in damn near forever. I don’t know that the Sixers have arrived just yet. But getting there could largely depend on the health of Joel Embiid, the development of Ben Simmons, and Brett Brown’s ability to shape this strong assembly of talent into a unique basketball force. I cannot wait to watch it unfold.
What has you most excited for this season?
This poll is closed
A healthy Joel Embiid
The growth of Ben Simmons
A healthy Zhaire Smith
A two guard that can play defense
A locked-in Tobias Harris
Other (comment below)