In many ways, this Sixers season was a resounding success. They could end the year with 30 wins while still being real lottery contenders. If you predicted before the season started that they would win ~30 with only 31 games of Embiid and 0 games of Ben Simmons, some would’ve said that was impossible. Most others would say WHY, WHAT HAPPENED? TELL ME! TELL ME RIGHT NOW!!!!
While we know a lot more right now about this team than we did back in October, there are still questions. Let’s start with the affirmative.
What we know
Joel Embiid is a Superstar
Forget the stats, the per-36 and the multiple Rookie of the Month Awards. On eye test alone, Joel Embiid is a superstar. He’s the next generation of NBA player. He shoots threes, blocks shots, moves in the lane like a hummingbird, and does it all with astonishingly little basketball experience. Joel Embiid is better at basketball than you are at everything you’ve ever done, and he’s reached that mark in half the time. He’s much more advanced than we ever thought he’d be this early, and he’s only getting started. If he can stay healthy.
Dario Saric is the Real Deal
Euros coming over to the NBA always have a learning curve. Typically, they see a jump in their second season after a year of adjusting to a longer three-point line, faster game, and bigger bodies. If Saric doesn’t make that leap next season, he’ll be fine. He’s played around 150 games in the last year and a half, and if anything he’s only sped up. There is no rookie wall. He started the season stroking from three but looking lost in most other aspects of the game. His passing didn’t show the flash we knew it could, he got smothered in the lane against bigger and more athletic players, and he turned the ball over a lot. Since Embiid went out for the year and more weight was put on Dario’s shoulders, he’s been putting up 17.1 points, 3.1 assists, and 6.9 rebounds in 30 minutes a game. His awkward, open-hand lane floaters are consistently dropping (55% within 5 feet on the season, 60.3% since Embiid went down), his passes are finding their marks (0.91 assist/turnover before ASG, 1.17 after), and he’s creating more ways to score. And all of this is happening while his three-point shot is falling apart. If that comes back next year, watch out.
T.J. McConnell is a Legit Pro
If it were not for the injury to Jerryd Bayless, T.J. McConnell would have started the season third on the depth chart. He very quickly overcame Sergio Rodriguez (which turned out to be easier than we thought) and made himself the Sixers’ unquestioned starting PG. He’s eigth in the NBA among qualified guards in steal %, fifth in deflections, fourth in effective FG% in the pick and roll, ninth in potential assists and assist points created. Those are real, legit, starting-PG-on-a-solid-team numbers. Whether he’s your starting PG of the future we’ll deal with later, but he’s in the league to stay.
Robert Covington Can Be Elite
Robert Covington came into the NBA as a stretch big with defensive potential. His shot has wavered over the years, but he’s put in the work to be a lockdown defender who can sometimes hit some threes. This is just impressive:
— Sixers Stats (@SixersStats) March 29, 2017
Much has been said about his NBA lead in deflections (4.2 per game), but Cov is also fourth in the NBA in steals and is one of only four players in the league averaging 1.5 steals and 1 block per game (RoCo, Draymond, Giannis, Drummond). That’s seriously elite defensive play and potential. And he’s shot 36.5% from long range since January.
Brett Brown is a Great Coach
I argued going into this season that this was the year we could really judge Brett Brown. He had his issues before, but you could chalk up nearly all of them to a lack of talent. This year, he’d have the people in the right places to make him look good at times and show his shortcomings at others. And then Ben Simmons got hurt, Joel Embiid played only 31 games, and the Sixers still won nearly 30. With Embiid, Brown had the Sixers playing the best defense in the NBA. On the season as a whole, they’re seventh in blocks per game, third in steals, but are just outside the top-15 in total DRtg. He doesn’t quite have the skill on the floor to have his players get there yet, but Brown has shown that he can and will do it.
What we don’t know
Is There Something Going on with the Medical/Training Staff?
Seriously, what’s going on? Jahlil Okafor’s surgically repaired knee has flared back up. Embiid experienced knee soreness which turned out to be a bone bruise and a slightly torn meniscus, and he played after the team knew about the latter before missing the rest of the season. Get all that? Jerryd Bayless experienced “wrist soreness” all throughout camp and the beginning of the season before the team announced that he had ligament damage in his hand and would need season-ending surgery after playing only three games. Robert Covington was just shut down for the year after – hint hint – knee soreness revealed itself to be a torn meniscus, which he also played on. And we haven’t even touched on Ben Simmons, whose freak foot break in camp has yet to reveal the appropriate amount of healing and led him to miss the entire season.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Can Joel Embiid Get and Stay Healthy?
Outside of the training staff’s possible bumbling incompetence or horrific luck, we’re still left with an injured Embiid. The good news is that the injury wasn’t his previously broken foot or his previously fractured back. It was a new injury. But that raises issues on its own: Is JoJo just injury prone? Is his body actually cut out for the rigors of being a professional athlete? Can he play with the intensity that he wants to play with, consistently, without losing chunks of the season at a time? We really don’t know, but it’s a terrifying question.
What’s the Next Step in the Draft?
Though the man that said he’d swap T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington for “conditional 2nd rounders” said there are no franchise changers in this draft, the Sixers don’t especially need one. Ignoring the health concerns, you have Simmons and Embiid. They’re two cornerstones who, if they play anywhere even close to their potential, will change the franchise. Brett Brown has shown he can coach a team without those guys and win (some) games, and Saric is a legitimate third-fiddle to those two stars. The whole point of the draft is to add more chips to your pile, and that’s what this year will do.
But the Sixers can fall anywhere from 1-8. Their luck can bring them picks 1 and 4, and it can also shake the other way and hand them just pick number 8. That’s a big gap. Though this draft is supposedly historically deep, they say that every other year. So while a lot of this next step depends on how the lottery shakes out, adding a Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz vs. adding Dennis Smith Jr. or Jayson Tatum makes a big difference. But this should hopefully be the Sixers’ last nervous lottery night involving their own pick for a while.
How Does Ben Simmons Fit into Everything?
Point guard? Power forward? Point forward? Power point? We have no idea what the real-life gameplan for Simmons is on this team because, well, he hasn’t played an NBA game yet. From the beginning of the season, the conversation went from Simmons playing PF but probably initiating a lot of offense, to Brett Brown now saying they’ll treat him like a full-time, 6’10” point guard. If you do that, who plays around him? What does your second-unit look like? Does that change the way you draft? Besides Embiid’s health, this may be the biggest question facing the Sixers, but the answer is at least one they can control.
Is the Basic Core Going Forward Already Here?
Before this season, I think I said on The Stepover that outside of Embiid, Simmons, and Saric, every single player on the team is expendable. That’s still mostly the case, but this has been a huge season for Richaun Holmes, Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell, and at times, Nik Stauskas. Are they a part of your core going forward? When you’re ready to really compete, if you believe in these guys, your depth chart could look like this:
PG – Simmmons/McConnell/Draft pick or FA signee
SG – Draft pick/Stauskas/TLC
SF – Covington/Saric/FA
PF – Saric/Holmes
C – Embiid/Holmes
Is that the best team in the East, even if Simmons and Embiid soar? Probably not, but is that a solid base for a contending team heading into the future, give or take Nik Stauskas, as longs as players continue to develop? Maybe. Colangelo the Younger has a lot of decisions to make.