The Sixers tip off the 2017-2018 season tonight, and for the first time in years, expectations are high.
Everything coming out of the Sixers camp shows the team has designs on making the playoffs. But in order for that to happen, a few things need to fall into place.
Let’s get the big one out of the way: Joel Embiid needs to play more than last year.
He won’t play 82—he even said so himself, but he needs to play around 60 for the Sixers to have a shot of being one of the top eight teams in the East, even if he’s still on a minutes restriction for the beginning of the year.
— Tom Moore (@TomMoorePhilly) October 16, 2017
This year’s Sixers, in many ways, will be tied to the success or failure of Joel Embiid to stay on the court. But Embiid being healthy doesn’t guarantee a trip to the playoffs. It just improves the chances.
There are other elements of this team that matter.
These are the ingredients that need to come together for the Sixers to actually make the playoffs this year:
Shooters gotta shoot … well.
Over the past three seasons, the Sixers have ranked 6th, 8th, and 7th in three point attempts per game. Unfortunately, the team has ranked 29th, 24th, and 25th in actually making those attempts.
On paper, the additions of JJ Redick (a ridiculous 12-for-14 from three in the preseason) and Markelle Fultz (41.3% from three in college) and the return of Jerryd Bayless (43.7% in 2015-16), point to improved team shooting.
The gravitational pull Embiid has on defenders and the playmaking vision of Ben Simmons should give the shooters more open shots.
Last season, Dario Saric shot just 31.1% from three. If he wants to share the floor with Ben Simmons and Embiid in super big, super playmaking lineups, he’s going to have to shoot more like he did in preseason (35.3%).
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot ranked third on the Sixers last season with a 103.8 defensive rating, behind only Embiid and Covington. TLC has to approach league average from three to get his defense on the floor. I outlined a couple weeks ago why Robert Covington should improve his shooting this year.
But looking good on paper and actually making the shots are two different stories.
If the Sixers want to make the playoffs, they’re going to need to be an above-average three-point shooting team. This is especially important for one new member of the team.
Markelle Fultz needs to stop being such a weirdo.
Since he’s been drafted, Fultz has been in the news for a lot of things, very little of it good.
He’s professed his love for Chick-fil-A, which is not exactly the breakfast of champions. He also injured his ankle during the preseason in the yearly tradition of Sixers draftees getting hurt.
Hi, I'm [Insert Name]
I'm so excited to be in [Insert City] pic.twitter.com/3IoFRFrJJE
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) September 29, 2017
There appears to be something wrong with his shoulder, which caused him to turn his free throw stroke into some weird form of the chicken dance. What’s worse, he did this without the knowledge of the coaching staff. And now, he’s going to start the season coming off the bench.
Markelle Fultz changed his free throw shooting form and this is how it looks… pic.twitter.com/OO8fJLsZuD
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 10, 2017
It’s uncommon for number one overall picks to start the season on the bench. The only two non-injured number one picks not to start the first game of the season in the past fifteen years are Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani. That’s not ideal company.
Fultz is not doomed to the same fate, though. His ugly new form appears injury related, and as I mentioned earlier, Fultz shot 41.3% from three in college. He’s going to have to prove that this offseason was an aberration and he’s still the guy the Sixers traded up to take first overall.
It doesn’t get all the headlines, but the second unit is going to have to produce.
Over the past few years, the Sixers second line has been stocked with players barely hanging in the league.
Last season, the Sixers outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor, higher than the Eastern Conference one-seed Boston Celtics. The next highest Sixer net rating was TLC at minus-2.5, similar to the 33-49 Dallas Mavericks’ mark.
That speaks to the talent of Embiid, but it also puts the shortcomings of the rest of last season’s roster in stark relief.
This year, there’s plenty of talent, and it’s not just the starters. Fultz aside, TJ McConnell, Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Amir Johnson will get a lot of playing time with the second unit this year.
TJ McConnell made a name for himself over the past couple seasons with dogged defense and several high-profile clutch moments. With the uncertainty surrounding Fultz and the turnover-prone nature of young players like Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, it will be up to TJ to hold down playmaking duties on the bench units with Dario Saric.
McConnell looks like a little kid hoisting a ball that’s too big for him when he shoots from downtown. Indeed, he shot the fewest three point attempts per 48 minutes of any qualified guard last season, and hit just 20% of them.
However, TJ ranked 5th among qualified guards in the NBA in assist per turnover rate and he led the league in assist ratio. He’ll never be a good shooter, so he’s going to have to continue to be elite in those areas to contribute on the offensive side of the ball.
Of particular importance are the backup bigs.
Amir Johnson especially will get plenty of burn while Embiid is still on his minutes restriction and Holmes is out with a wrist injury. Despite the lack of counting stats, Johnson has been one of the league’s top 30 players according to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus in three of the last four seasons.
Jahlil Okafor ranked last in offensive rating and second-to-last in defensive rating among Sixers who played more than 10 games last season. Once the team is healthy, he and his stellar but antiquated post game won’t have a role in the big rotation, and the team will likely look to trade him.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) October 5, 2017
In the meantime, Vegan Jah will have to devour rebounds like they’re kale salads if he wants to get off the Sixers bench and into the Phoenix Suns or Chicago Bulls rotation.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Sixers to challenge for the six seed.
That speaks to the upside on this Sixers roster, but also to the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference.
The Cavs, Wizards, Raptors, and Bucks are all but guaranteed playoff spots barring massive injury issues. The Celtics, even with the gruesome Gordan Hayward injury on opening night, are still likely a playoff lock.
The last three seeds will come down to the Heat, the Hornets, the Pistons, and the Sixers.
A lot will have to go right for this team to climb up the standings, but for the first time in a while, anything is possible.