As with the first installment of this series, let me get the very obvious out of the way first.

In an ideal Sixers universe, Joel Embiid plays somewhere in the 60-70 games range and the 12 to 22 games he doesn’t play are a case of rest and caution rather than injury.

But we live in a world where Joel Embiid is fragile, and a realistic best case scenario for the big man is somewhere between 50 and 60 games. Is it 56? 58?

During the 2016-2017 season, when Joel played, the Sixers were 13-18. If you stretch that winning percentage (.419) over 56 games, it would produce a record of 23-33. Some things to consider:

  1. Embiid improved seemingly by the game. Recall how damn good the Sixers were in January of last season. Many of those 18 losses came in Joel’s first few games.
  2. By design, Embiid was typically surrounded by a G-League roster and 2nd-unit-at-best players functioning as starters. He’ll be accompanied this season by two first overall picks in Ben Simmons & Markelle Fultz, a three-point marksman in JJ Redick, a very likely improved Dario Saric, a solid veteran big in Amir Johnson, and even a vegan Jahlil Okafor.

If Embiid plays as he did last January through 56 games, I would expect the Sixers to win no less than 32 of those considering the vastly improved roster surrounding the All-Star talent. That’s 32-24, with 26 Embiid-less games remaining. If the Sixers are smart, they’ll do their best to schedule those 26 absences against lesser competition. And even without Embiid, the Sixers may again have a sort-of-rookie that plays like a veteran All-Star.

Ben Simmons, at times, looked electrifying during the Sixers preseason opener against the Memphis Grizzlies. And while the team they faced was without Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, it was hard not to be impressed with Simmons’ skill.

He played like a true point guard, a pass-first initiator, and his gravity on drives to the rim drew double teams often as he was able to dish to the open man. Teams with playoff hopes need strong point guard play. I can’t conclude, after just one preseason game, that point-Simmons will be game-changing. But all signs point to yes. Simmons gives Brett Brown an opportunity to finally execute a threatening offense that slingshots the team above the mediocrity of the Eastern Conference.

If the Sixers are a playoff team by season’s end, one of the biggest factors will be Simmons’ finishing at the rim. It will solidify him as a player that must be double teamed on the drive, help him draw fouls, and make every one of his teammates’ lives easier. If he’s able to finish at a rate above average, forget the 8th seed. Start thinking 6th or higher.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of ensuring the Sixers hit their ceiling for this season is that Brett Brown is able to utilize his roster to their strengths early on. Having versatile players is a wonderful thing in today’s NBA, especially for defense. But it makes it difficult for Brown to maximize his rotation, because experimenting is almost unavoidable given how little many of these guys have played together. Brown has already stated that what gives him the most trouble is figuring out who will close out games. If the coach can figure out the right formula, the talent on the team is up there with some of the better teams of the east.

With that being said, Dario Saric’s could be crucial. As it stands, Saric appears to be coming off the bench. This makes sense, given his poor shooting from deep last year. Pairing Saric with Simmons hurts the Sixers’ ability to space the floor. But in year two, what if Saric can improve his defense and get his 3PT% closer to league average? It gives the team a chance to have an extremely versatile starting lineup, and allows Markelle Fultz to serve as a sixth man at times.

I’ll be the first to admit, I am skeptical of Saric improving from 31.1% behind the arc to 34 or 35%. But taking into account his shooting last March, when he shot 84 three-pointers at 33%, as well as Saric finally getting some time off, it’s not impossible.

Here’s something else to help you feel a bit more optimistic about the Croatian, from Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson on NBA TV’s open court:

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The Sixers certainly have above-average talent. Young players are typically inefficient, but Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons aren’t typical. They’re freaks of nature, who did (Embiid) and should (Simmons) play like borderline All-Stars. If the Sixers are to have a dream season, the talent will transpire to the court. The chemistry among players will be reflective of an upgrade in the atmosphere and culture around the team. Veterans JJ Redick and Amir Johnson, combined with Brown’s developmental skills, will help the young core perform like contenders. Even if the Sixers do not make it out of the first round of the playoffs, just getting there could go a long way.

Best-case scenario record: 46-36

Causes: Ben Simmons proves himself to be a scoring threat, Brett Brown unlocks the rotation (primarily the closers), improved depth lead by Dario Saric. (Almost doesn’t need to be said, but a healthy Joel Embiid.)

Stats from Basketball Reference.