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Sixers prep for the various on-court threats they’ll face in the bubble

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Some teams in the Eastern Conference bubble are bigger than others ...

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

We are ten days away from the restart of the 2019-20 NBA season — despite my most fiery objections to doing so. Since the NBA doesn’t bend to my will (yet, anyway), I’ll just sit back and enjoy another Philadelphia 76ers playoff run. The last two have been both exciting and full of disappointment, but here we are again, Sixers Nation. Another postseason run is upon us after a three-month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic forcing the league to shut down.

If there’s one thing to be thankful for about this hiatus, it’s that both Sixers center Joel Embiid and point guard/power forward Ben Simmons are going to be completely healthy.

Embiid has a long … storied … frustrating injury history towards the end of the season. The big man has never played a full 82-game NBA season and has been hurt the last two years going into a playoff run. Last year, Embiid dealt with knee soreness in the series against Brooklyn Nets and an upper respiratory infection in the series against the Toronto Raptors. Two years ago, how can anyone forget the orbital fracture he suffered turning him into the “Phantom of the Process”? Three months off is potentially just what the doctor ordered.

Simmons is a different story. Back in February, Simmons landed very hard on his back in a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. The pain was so severe that Simmons dealt with vomiting. Now, the fourth-year star is healthy and has been working to get back into game shape while moving to a new position that Tom West outlined beautifully for Liberty Ballers last week.

As of right now, the Sixers have not reported any positive player tests for coronavirus. That’s one advantage Philadelphia has over teams like the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks, for example. Another advantage is simply age. Going into the season, the Sixers had an average age of 26.17 — literally just below the league average of 26.18. After a three-month layoff, some of those young, fresh legs are even fresher to add to the additional rest for older players like Al Horford and Mike Scott.

There is going to be some adjusting going on as Simmons will be moving to power forward, and Shake Milton will be inserted into the starting lineup. (Here’s more from Tom on that.) How long it will take these lineups to gel will be a concern. This is an aggressive move (years in the making) that could make or break head coach Brett Brown.

Nine Eastern Conference teams were invited to Orlando to play in the bubble to potentially be potholes on the road to a Sixers championship.

Washington Wizards (24-40, 5.5 GB of 8-seed)
COVID-19 Related Absences: G Gary Payton II, F/C Thomas Bryant (tested positive for coronavirus); F/C Davis Bertans, G Bradley Beal (decided not to attend)

The Wizards are here simply because the team is within the six-game requirement for a playoff berth, but without Beal (who is recovering from surgery) and Bertans, talking about the Wizards will be brief. They’re not making the playoffs, so the only good thing about them being in Orlando is getting to see Kevin Rice gush over Ish Smith on Twitter when he’s in the game.

Level of Threat: Non-Threat

Orlando Magic (30-35, current 8-seed)
COVID-19 Related Absences: None. (SIDEBAR: An unidentified player tested positive for coronavirus according to the Orlando Sentinel.)

Let me address something first since it was my first thought.

There should be no such reporting as “an unidentified player tested positive for coronavirus”. That player needs to be completely identified, and his photo should be displayed on the bubble campus like a wanted poster from the Wild West.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the Magic in general. Orlando will be without forwards Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu, who are recovering from knee injuries. Isaac traveled with the team to the bubble, but Aminu will remain at Magic team facilities. Former Sixer Markelle Fultz arrived in the bubble on Friday after dealing with a personal matter unrelated to coronavirus.

Orlando revolves around Aaron Gordon — for better or for worse. Gordon’s numbers have all taken dips this season. His points are down to 14.4 and he’s shooting 30 percent from 3 this year, compared to 35 percent last year. Center Nikola Vučević continues to be a solid contributor averaging 19-and-11. Evan Fournier is shooting 40 percent from 3 this season, and Fultz might (?) be showing why he was the first overall pick. He’s still not shooting well enough from deep, however.

The Magic just don’t have the talent to be a major threat in this playoff run. If they remain the 8-seed, they’ll likely get bounced by the Milwaukee Bucks in round one, anyway, so let’s move on.

Level of Threat: Non-Threat

Brooklyn Nets (30-34, current 7-seed)
COVID-19 Related Absences: G Spencer Dinwiddie, F Taurean Prince (tested positive for coronavirus)

The Nets WOULD HAVE BEEN FRISKY if it weren’t for the fact that both Kyrie Irving (shoulder) and Kevin Durant (Achilles, positive coronavirus test in March) were shut down for the season due to their injuries. Durant ended his season back in October, and Irving did so in March. At full strength, I might have been compelled to put a bet on Brooklyn to make the Eastern Conference Finals. As it stands, the Nets are not a threat at all without those two and Spencer Dinwiddie.

I respect Caris LaVert (17.7 PPG), even if I’d fear him a little more if he shot better than 41 percent from the field. Joe Harris is forever in the group of “guys that I really want to be on the Sixers roster,” but without their top two scorers (Irving and Dinwiddie), the Nets are going to fall very hard, very fast.

Shouldn’t have fired Kenny Atkinson, you guys.

Level of Threat: Non-Threat

Indiana Pacers (39-26, current 5-seed)
COVID-19 Related Absences: G/F Malcolm Brogdon, G/F Victor Oladipo (sitting out)

The Pacers are another team that would have been a sexy pick for the Eastern Conference Finals if guard Victor Oladipo was healthy. Oladipo played 13 games before the shutdown, but is sitting out the restart after recovering from a ruptured quad tendon last year. Now, the Pacers don’t have Oladipo or the man who was brought in to help Indiana weather the storm in his absence, Malcolm Brogdon.

When play resumes, the Pacers will be relying heavily on Domantas Sabonis (18.5 PPG, 12.4 RPG) and T.J. Warren (18.7 PPG, 52.9 FG%). Beyond that, the Pacers don’t have the top-end talent to compete with the Bucks, Heat, Raptors or Sixers. The Pacers don’t have much else in the backcourt to replace Oladipo and Brogdon with. Jeremy Lamb went down with knee injuries back in February, and the cabinets have nothing left at the guard position but Aaron and Justin Holiday, former Sixers guard T.J. McConnell, and Doug McDermott. (Technically McDermott is a guard since I’ve never seen him operate in the post.)

In a normal situation with the Pacers being fully healthy, they’d be way more of a threat than they currently are.

Level of Threat: Minimal

Miami Heat (41-24, current 4-seed)
COVID-19 Related Absences: F/G Derrick Jones, Jr. (positive coronavirus test), two others who were not identified by the team but are reportedly “rotation players”

Any time I talk about the Miami Heat, I do so by saying the following, first:

“PLAY MAN DEFENSE, YOU COWARDS!” #ZoneIsForCowards

Jimmy Butler is in the bubble and is already doing Jimmy Butler things. Butler was recently snitched on via the NBA hotline for (I shit you not) … dribbling. Never change, Jimmy. Never change.

The Heat have probably been the biggest surprise of the NBA season. Signing Butler was going to make a monumental difference to the team as a bridge between the Dwyane Wade Era and the post-Wade era. It was shocking that the turnaround happened this fast. Part of it is Butler, but a larger part is how impressive Miami’s 3-point shooting has been.

Would you have believed me if I told you that Jimmy Butler would be a catalyst for a team that is number-one in 3-point percentage and a top-ten team in 3-point attempts? Well, that definitely happened despite Butler’s 24.8 percent shooting from long range. Some of the more deadly and consistent shooters look like so:

  • Duncan Robinson (44.8 percent from 3 on 8.4 attempts)
  • Tyler Herro (39.1 percent on 5.4 attempts)
  • Kendrick Nunn (36.2 percent on 5.8 attempts)
  • Goran Dragić (37.7 percent on 5.8 attempts)

(Yes, Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard shoot over 40 percent as well, but I don’t count them because they both only average three attempts per game.)

Then, we get to Bam Adebayo – who should be the choice for “Most Improved Player” this season. When he was drafted out of Kentucky in 2017, I saw Adebayo as a DeAndre Jordan-type player who didn’t have too much to his game. How wrong I was. Scoring, Adebayo is still comparable to Jordan as neither are very good outside of 10 feet, and they both rebound at about the same clip. (Adebayo averages 10.5 RPG.) What makes Bam different is that he is a MUCH BETTER passer than DeAndre ever was (5.1 APG, 23% assist percentage this year).

The Sixers have had their immense struggles against the Heat (a 1-3 record in four games confirms that), so if the standings stay where they are, it will be nice to not have to see them until the Eastern Conference Finals. If these teams are the four and five seeds, respectively, then I’d worry quite a bit for that round one matchup.

Level of Threat: Serious

Boston Celtics (43-21, current 3-seed)
COVID-19 Related Absences: None. Guard Marcus Smart tested positive back in March, but has since recovered.

If the standings remain the same for the period of games before the restart, this would be the Sixers’ first-round matchup. I love this matchup because Boston does not match up well with the Sixers’ size at all. The Sixers won three out of four matchups against the Celtics before the shutdown, and the average margin of victory was ten. The lone victory against the Sixers came when Boston was able to hold the team to 37 percent from the field back on February 1.

The Celtics are still dangerous because they are coached extremely well by Brad Stevens — who is the answer to the question “What if Paul Rudd were an NBA head coach?” Say what you will about All-Star forward Jayson Tatum’s grooming choices (and I have), but I can’t make fun of his game.

This year, Tatum is more effective from 3 as his attempts have gone up to 7.1 per game, and he’s shooting close to 40 percent on those attempts. It’s nice the Celtics have Kemba Walker as a “Plan B” if Tatum is off his game, and the rest of that cast (i.e. Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart) contributes to the “team first” mentality of this offense. In the lone win against the Sixers this season, Brown led the Celtics with 32 points.

The Celtics are also an impressive DEFENSIVE team as well. They’re top five in the NBA in opponent’s FG%. They get stops, and they score efficiently on the other end. Boston is a team to worry about – not as much as Miami or the next two teams on this list, but they shouldn’t be forgotten, either.

Level of Threat: Moderate

Toronto Raptors (46-18, current 2-seed)
COVID-19 Related Absences: None.

The Toronto Raptors definitely came to Orlando in my favorite way. (Seriously, these buses are CLEAN, and I fully support their message.) When I talked about “biggest surprises” in the NBA this season, I said the Miami Heat a few paragraphs ago. Then, I remembered the Raptors lost superstar Kawhi Leonard to free agency after winning the title last year and are somehow just as good without him as they were with him.

How in the hell did that happen? Well, the simplest answer is four words long: “Pascal Siakam got better.” The fourth-year forward from Cameroon already had a large jump from year two to year three, and he’s still trending upwards:

That’s due to whatever Nick Nurse is doing as a head coach. Whatever former head coach Dwane Casey WASN’T doing, Nurse is. Nurse has turned Siakam into a consistent 3-point shooter — particularly from the corner — which has unlocked Siakam’s full potential and done something to mitigate the loss of Leonard even just a little bit.

It’s not all just Siakam, though, but his continued improving has helped limit a falling off. The Raptors get solid backcourt play from Fred VanVleet and Philadelphia native Kyle Lowry. The frontcourt has veteran leadership in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka — who were instrumental in containing Embiid in last year’s gut wrenching playoff series. The only thing going against Toronto is the same thing that goes against the Milwaukee Bucks — they’re a bit long in the tooth.

The Raptors are the second-oldest Eastern Conference bubble team. If the Sixers plan to embrace their speed even more in this bubble, that could be an advantage. But if they plan to play half court basketball against this team, they’ll be doing so against the NBA’s leader in opponent’s PPG (106.5) and the league’s second-best team in terms of DRtg (105.2).

Level of Threat: Imminent

Milwaukee Bucks (53-12, current 1-seed)
COVID-19 Related Absences: G Eric Bledsoe

Losing Eric Bledsoe after testing positive for coronavirus is a serious blow to the Bucks. Without him, they’ll have to rely on one of George Hill, Donte DiVincenzo or Khris Middleton to bring up the ball past half court and/or initiate the offense — assuming it’s not Giannis Antetokounmpo sprinting down the lane going 20 mph after a rebound.

You don’t want Middleton doing that since he’ll need to get ready to fire with his 40 percent shooting from deep. Hill and DiVincenzo could do it if only to just get it to Giannis in the post. You don’t want Giannis initiating EVERY possession from the top of the key — similar to how you don’t want Ben Simmons to initiate EVERY possession from that same position. Neither pose that threat to pull up on a jump shot, even though Giannis does it way better and with more frequency than Simmons.

This team will only go as far as Giannis will take them, and to his credit, he’s taken them damn far before the shutdown. The Bucks have the best record in the NBA. They’re #1 in PPG, pace, FGs made, and they’re #2 in FG%. Milwaukee’s also #1 in DRtg. Antetokounmpo, last year’s MVP, is still the potent scorer he has been, and he’s increased his 3-point attempts to almost five per game. He only hits 30 percent of them, but the league dared him to start shooting that shot. Be careful what you ask for.

The Sixers definitely have the size to handle Giannis. They can throw Embiid, Horford, Simmons, or even Tobias Harris on him. No other team in the East has that kind of depth to throw at the reigning MVP. That’s what’s going to be the difference if the Sixers meet the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Level of Threat: Serious, Imminent, and Primary

Under normal circumstances, the 2019-20 NBA Season would have been over by now, and a champion would have been crowned. 2020 is far from normal. This is the hand we’ve been dealt as basketball and Sixers fans, now.

The Sixers are as prepared as they’re going to be heading into the bubble and this abbreviated playoff run. There are obvious roadblocks to a title, but the prospects of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy after these playoffs seem a little better, as there are some teams at the top of the mountain who are a little weaker.