Basketball is back.
We’re kicking off the NBA season with Sixers vs. Celtics on PRIME TIME NATIONAL TELEVISION, and no matter what happens tonight, you know the takes are going to be hot.
Everyone is going to have an opinion on Markelle Fultz and Brett Brown and Ben Simmons. Some of the takes will be good, more will be horrendous, and others will be neutral and pragmatic, which is what I’m going for. I’d even suggest that pragmatism IS a hot take in 2018, but that’s another column for another time.
More importantly, we’re going to have game footage to break down and analyze, and real quotes from real games. As much as I love preseason basketball, it’s time to get on with it and see what the Sixers actually have this year, as they kick it off against the Eastern Conference preseason favorite Boston Celtics, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs about five months ago.
I did the podcast with Russ last night and likened last season to a “gap year” one takes before or after college. You’re hitchhiking across America or backpacking in Kyrgyzstan, trying to find yourself and figure out what you want to do with your life. In that regard, 2017-2018 was a bridge connecting the end of the Process era to the beginning of something new and exciting. 52 wins was not what anybody expected, and at the end of the day I think most Sixers fans were more than happy with a second round playoff appearance, even if they were initially disappointed with the Celtics’ series loss.
It’s different this year. A second-round exit isn’t going to get it done. Anything short of the conference finals is a disappointment. Anything short of a top-three finish is a disappointment. Markelle Fultz coming out and failing to seek his shot would be a disappointment.
I know a portion of fans felt let down by the offseason because LeBron James, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard all went to other teams. Turns out LeBron and PG were never coming here in the first place and the asking price for Kawhi was too high, so the Sixers stood pat, improved the bench, and decided to run it back with a 52-win team. Even if one of those three players had come to Philly, you STILL needed to see internal growth and development from Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz. Adding a high-priced free agent was not an automatic solution to the problems that lost you the Boston series, but a complementary move that would theoretically put you over the hump and into the NBA finals.
What the Sixers have right now is good enough, and here’s what I need to see from every player and the head coach if this squad is going to reach the NBA finals:
It’s Joel vs. himself this year. Joel Embiid is the only person in the Eastern Conference who can stop Joel Embiid. If he stays healthy, locked in, and focused, 30 points and 10 rebounds per game is not out of the question. I’m okay with him stretching the floor and shooting a couple of three pointers here and there, but I need to see less pump faking at the top of the arc and more incisive low post and face-up work from the big man, who is coming off his first full and healthy preseason ever.
We all thought the jump shot would be the improvement to his game in 2018, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, the Sixers found ways in the preseason to get him low and high post mismatches, which resulted in him drawing fouls and putting stress on defenses in an off-ball manner. If Simmons continues to evolve his post game while showing he can facilitate from various positions on the floor, then he’s not going to have to shoot three pointers or 18 footers this season. Eventually that part of his game will start to sprout, but if Fultz turns out to be okay this year, Simmons doesn’t necessarily need to become Reggie Miller overnight.
Here’s a clip from May, when the Sixers were down 3-0 to the Celtics and installed T.J. McConnell at point guard. Simmons found a bit of success going into the post instead of running into a wall at the foul line:
Expect to see more of that this season.
Be assertive. Seek your shot. Don’t hide from the game.
That’s basically it. I think we all know what kind of talent Markelle has, and the ability to drive to the rim and do things off the dribble should add a dynamic element to the Sixers, one that was missing last year. I don’t think this has anything to do with physical tools or his basketball skill set, it’s all mental going into his sophomore season.
Keep grinding for rebounds under the basket and keep stretching the floor as the prototypical stretch four in Brett Brown’s offense.
Dario’s three point percentage improved by a whopping 8.2% last season and he was incredibly consistent and steady on most nights. If he ditches the rocker step and keeps the ball off the floor, where his handle is loose, he can be even better offensively this year. Defensively, he’ll be the weakest link on a top three team, but if his footwork improves he’ll hopefully be able to keep up with smaller players off the switch.
Needs more consistency shooting the three pointer and finishing at the rim, but his defensive toolbox is critical for the Sixers’ switching game. Cov is not Bruce Bowen out there, which is to say that he’s not a lock down 1v1 defender, but his versatility is the glue that holds the first unit together. If he can continue to disrupt passing lanes and steal the ball and slide up and down guarding twos and fours, he’ll again help this team finish top five in defensive rating.
Assume a new bench role playing staggered minutes that will eventually match you up with the first unit as the game progresses. Continue to develop that highly-positive 2/5 brush cut and dribble hand-off game with Joel Embiid and give the Sixers a threat in after timeout and called play situations.
I was a big fan of the Redick and Embiid two-way game last season, and the Sixers found a lot of success using these types of designs, especially in the latter stages of the year and into the playoffs:
Hustle, grind, grab a few rebounds, lay off the hook shot, and provide 10-14 tough minutes off the bench every night backing up Joel Embiid.
Emulate what Ersan Ilyasova was able to do last year, which is provide a backup stretch four option and a small ball complement to Dario Saric if the Sixers go with that look again. It’s critical that he shoots the three at a decent clip if he’s going to play power forward this season.
Give the Sixers two-way bite off the bench, or in a starting role if necessary. One of the key reasons the Sixers lost the Boston series is because the wing defense and depth was shallow last season, and Chandler is a veteran who should really help out in this area when healthy.
Watch Chandler and Covington and learn from them. You can never have enough two-way wings on your roster, and his growth will be key to battling the Celtics for the next several years. Trading Mikal Bridges was a gamble in my mind, because I felt like Bridges had a higher floor in year number one, while Smith has a bit more room to grow.
Keep doing what you always do. Mash underneath the rim, find the open teammate, harry and harass on defense, and continue to hit that short pull-up in the paint. It’s an interesting year for McConnell, who is on the last year of his contract but is probably the most known quantity off the bench this season.
Make the most out of your minutes, continue with that smooth off the ball movement and seek that shot. I was impressed with Shamet in the preseason and hope he gets a chance this year.
Continue to look for that shot. Improve defensively. Furkan had a good summer with the Sixers and also playing for his national team, and he can be a legit shooting threat off the bench with Redick and Shamet this season.
Make the most of your minutes if your name is called. We saw some solid moments from Bayless last year, namely the Denver game, and you can do worse than a ten-year veteran providing some stability off the bench if the younger pieces don’t step it up early in the season.
Absorb everything you can. Learn from Embiid, Saric, Johnson, and Muscala in practice. Settle in as a four or a five and be ready to step in if somebody goes down injured.
Stagger the power forward minutes and continue to show that small ball shooting look when necessary. Continue to get Redick involve in DHO and brush cut sets, evolve the successful horns set to show some different wrinkles, and identify high-percentage calls in late game situations. Yeah, the Sixers play a high-tempo transition game with a basic motion offense in the half court, but there are going to be times when you just have to slow it down a bit, especially when the score is close in the fourth quarter. Experiment with Markelle in the pick and roll if needed. Most importantly, look for counters to Boston’s intense perimeter pressure and find a way to crack them open this year.
Over/under and other bets
SugarHouse Sportsbook has the Sixers’ over/under listed at 54.5 wins.
FanDuel Sportsbook set the number at 53.5.
Those are pretty tight lines.
The 76ers finished 52-30 last season and won 16 straight to end the campaign, while only four teams total eclipsed the 54 win mark: the Raptors, Celtics, Rockets, and Warriors.
The schedule is tougher this year, with 7 of 10 on the road to end the season and the absence of myriad tanking cupcakes on the back end. One big positive, however, is the lack of heavy back-to-back dates, which became an issue last year due to the London trip sort of “smushing” the winter and spring schedule together on a smaller time frame.
That said, I don’t see much competition beyond Toronto and Boston in the Eastern Conference. Indiana is a solid team and Milwaukee will be improved with Mike Budenholzer taking over. Miami is just a team, Washington always finds a way to disappoint, and the Cavs are no longer the Cavs without LeBron James in town. I don’t see much at all beyond the top four or five in the east, while the west is the much tougher conference.
People will say that this team didn’t start ripping off wins until Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova came to town, and that’s true, but it’s less about what Marco and Ersan did and more about the fact that the Sixers had no bench whatsoever before that pair arrived. It’s not to take anything away from what they provided here, it’s just that the Sixers went from nothing to something in the depth department, so the bar was incredibly low to begin with. This year, you’re looking at Redick, Shamet, Korkmaz, Chandler, Muscala, and Smith off the bench in the early part of the year. That is a HEAVY upgrade over Bayless, Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Trevor Booker.
I’ll hammer the over, but not really hammer it, I’ll tap the nail instead. I will go with 54 wins and a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference, which will play out like this:
FanDuel is also offering the following futures that involve Sixers players:
- 6th man of the year: JJ Redick +1600
- assist leader: Ben Simmons + 600
- All Star selection: Joel Embiid -550, Ben Simmons -370
- MVP: Joel Embiid +2200
Here’s how the Crossing Broad staff sees the season playing out, based on the O/U total of 53.5 from FanDuel:
Chris: I think the Sixers slightly improve from last year. Thanks to a weaker Eastern conference, the Sixers should benefit from it. I’m not too hot on the team reaching the East finals however. Sixers finish 54-28 (slightly over 53.5) and get the 3 seed again.
Tim: Sixers finish 55-27. I would take the over on the wins.
Phil: 48-34. They have lost useful veteran pieces from the back end of last season, Fultz’s introduction to the lineup is going to be bumpy, and the first round pick is hurt. Yeah, the East is terrible, but this is not a 50-win team.
Coggin: 57-25. HAMMER THE OVER.
Russ: The over/under of 53.5 is too high even for a team that finished on a 16 game win streak to close out the season. The Sixers are in my estimation the third best team in the East. Both Boston and Toronto have deeper rosters overall from 1-12, though admittedly the Sixers’ combo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is the only one to boast two of the top 5 players in the conference. The Sixers are going to have to take advantage of five games against a confusing Chicago Bulls team and a joke of a roster in Atlanta in those four matchups. We’ll find out a lot about this team and how valuable Markelle Fultz and his 6’9″ wingspan can be in defending Boston’s wings. I foresee some struggles as Dario, Ben, and Joel explore similar spaces on the floor while Fultz is manning the point. It’ll be a successful season, but this is by no means a 58 game winner. I have them in the 49-51 win range and that’s okay with me.
Kyle: Over. People are all down after a disappointing series against the Celtics, but we forget that heading into the playoffs the Sixers were nearly unbeatable. They were then partially derailed by Joel Embiid’s injury and inconsistent return. Regardless, they won 52 games with two young stars, and even though they had a very disappotining offseason, there’s no reason to think they shouldn’t improve by more than one game. I think we’re discounting how good both Embiid and Simmons could be, throw in a healthy Markelle Fultz, who almost by definition has nowhere to go but up, and it’s the Sixers and Celtics all day. 54 wins is the goal, but 56 wouldn’t surprise me. 60 wouldn’t shock me.
Jeff: I’ll take the under in light of the Fultz “experiment”, but not by much. 53-29.
Mike: Losing Belinelli and Ilyasova is going to hurt. No way Sixers would have won 16 straight games at end of season without them. No way Sixers would have let them walk if they didn’t think they were going to land a “Staaah”. Take the under. 50-32
SugarHouse is also giving the Sixers +300 odds to win the win the conference, second only to Boston at -106.
Let’s play ball.