The Philadelphia 76ers begin a new season tonight, one that will be played largely in empty arenas as fans remain stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the funkiness surrounding the NBA and sports at large, the vibe around this team just feels different. You sense that fans who understandably tuned out last year are excited to see how a new-look squad performs. There’s a renewal in the vigor and enthusiasm department.

Exiting stage left are Brett Brown, Josh Richardson, and Al Horford. In come Doc Rivers, Daryl Morey, Seth Curry, and Danny Green. In essence, Morey built a squad closely resembling the 2017 Sixers team that won 53 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs. They’ll look to take a step further this time under a title-winning, veteran coach, though the blueprint is largely the same, i.e. let’s surround Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with shooters and let them do their thing.

There’s plenty to be excited about, and Russ would say that the team “failed upward” into a better situation. Sixers fans seem to agree, and as we kick off the new campaign, these are 12 questions I’m asking:

1. Who is the closer?

If the Sixers find themselves in a tie game, with 10 seconds on the clock, who takes the final shot? Is it Seth Curry?

For all of the improvements the Sixers made in the shooting department, there does not appear to be a guy on this roster who can generate his own look. Joel Embiid can work from the post, sure, though late-game shot creation is generated from the perimeter. The 2017 squad didn’t have this player, so they went out in 2018 and got Jimmy Butler on what ended up being a one-year rental.

Early last season, when the Sixers started 5-0 and were actually playing well, it was closer by committee, so to speak. Brett Brown went to Joel Embiid on a couple of occasions via various SLOB plays. There was a Furkan Korkmaz flare to beat Portland on the road. Ben Simmons was used frequently in Brett’s favored ’12’ pick and roll.

One of the best was this pin down and slip to the basket against Cleveland:

This year, the shooting options are there, but Doc Rivers is going to have to be involved with the whiteboard since he’s not just handing the ball to perimeter player and telling the other four guys to stand back and space the floor. The best case scenario is that Curry can step into this role, otherwise they’re gonna have to get creative.

2. How and when does the offense shift?

Rivers has talked a lot about pushing the pace and keeping that pace. We’ve seen some dribble hand-off and other motion concepts as the Sixers kept it vanilla over a short two-game preseason, with Embiid not even playing in the finale.

I think it’s going to be a slower process than people expect, this transition. They will run more pick and roll, yes, but don’t be surprised if this team looks like Brown’s 2017 Sixers in December and January. They still have a non-shooting point guard. Embiid will take three-pointers. Rivers is a veteran coach coming to a new team under wonky pandemic circumstances and finds himself trying to coach up two superstars who have run a motion offense for the entirety of their NBA careers.

Said Rivers at the beginning of December:

“I guarantee we will run more pick and rolls. And I guarantee you’ll see more pick and rolls with Ben and Joel in them. But I like a lot of the stuff they ran in the past, too. They had some pretty good movement stuff. We want to make sure that, because of this shortened preseason, camp, and quick first game, that we don’t try to do too much. We want to make them as comfortable as possible.”

As it should be. In the two preseason games there was a lot of delayed transition pick and roll, but you’ll still see things like these staggered hand-offs:

Drags, pin downs, hand-offs, etc. The stuff from the motion offense tree isn’t going to just disappear overnight.

And even the technical nuance is something to think about. Embiid is an elite DHO screener, keeping his pivot foot and adjusting while holding the ball. That’s different from screening as a non-ball handler, which invokes a different type of footwork and movement. You have to flip screens and angle your body in a different way, from different starting points. Keep an eye out for things like that.

3. Is Ben Simmons actually going to shoot the basketball?

People want to argue about this incessantly, but it’s not a complicated topic:

Ben Simmons with a legitimate shot becomes a better player.

It doesn’t mean he has to come out bombing three-pointers, nor would we expect the guy to go from 0% to 35% overnight, but we need to solve the problem of Ben stopping at the foul line, picking up his dribble, and kicking out to somebody else instead. He doesn’t become any less of a passer, defender, floor runner by adding a jump shot. We’re not adding the shot at the expense of anything else in his tool box.

It’s always been about adding something to his arsenal and making a fantastic player even better. It’s about floor spacing and alleviating the Embiid double team problem and making his team better in those static, uber-important 4th quarter half court possessions.

He can’t come out this year and be the same player he’s been from day one.

4. How does Tobias Harris fit in?

For all the talk of Simmons and Embiid, Tobias Harris is still the highest paid guy on the team.

He was successful under Rivers in Los Angeles because he was fed a steady diet of pick and roll ball handler looks, looks that allowed him to exploit switches and attack mismatches.

More than anything, he needs to be assertive. That’s probably the key word here, and it’s different than “aggressive.” Aggressive sometimes carries this connotation of being reckless, or out of control. “Assertive” means you’re confident and automatic. Assertive Tobias Harris is backing down smaller players, driving past bigger players, and using his skill as a 3/4 tweener to his advantage. Tobias is at his best when he’s making quick decisions, reading what’s in front of him, and attacking without thinking.

That’s what Rivers has asked of him, to play a more “instinctual” game in 2020.

5. How much does the culture change help?

Not sure about you, but I was surprised at how Simmons brushed off questions about Brett Brown’s departure. He’s even come out and given multiple hints that things weren’t going very well at all last season.

Today, Wednesday, Jackie MacMullan dropped a great piece at ESPN that revealed more on that, which included this passage:

“The vibe is so much better,” Simmons says. “Everybody wants to come to practice. Everybody shows up early. When I see Joel in there working on his game, it makes me want to work that much harder.

“We didn’t have that last year. Everybody was going their own way.”

In fact, team sources say, Simmons became so disillusioned with the Sixers staff, he did much of his work outside the facility under the watchful eye of trainer Chris Johnson. That erosion of trust only further contributed to the splintered chemistry on the floor and tension among coaches and players. Outsiders repeatedly suggested Embiid and Simmons could not coexist, particularly within a lineup that provided poor spacing. Their divergent personalities led to speculation they disliked each other, yet, says one former Sixers staffer, it was more a disconnect than anything: “There just wasn’t a whole lot of communication.”

It’s really interesting to think about. Doc Rivers did not have control of the Clippers’ locker room and things became muddled out there, so we’ll see if he’s able to pull things together in Philly. Perhaps all parties just needed a change. Simmons, Embiid, Rivers, and Morey, too.

Here are a couple of other questions that need to be answered this season:

6. Is Mike Scott a viable, season long, #2 in the power forward spot? There’s not much there behind Harris and Scott and Rivers might have to experiment with some small lineups.

7. How much can Shake Milton grow into the 6th man role? People are ready to make the Lou Will comparisons right now.

8. Can Tyrese Maxey displace somebody in the second unit? Matisse Thybulle? He looks good as a ball handler who can open up the floor, get his teammates involved, and hit that floater in the paint.

9. What version of Terrance Ferguson do we see? Is it the bouncy, 36.6% three point shooter we saw two years ago? Or is it the guy who took a step back in 2020?

10. Can Furkan Korkmaz raise his level? He looks like he’s put on some weight and might have improved on the defensive end.

11. How much do Danny Green and Dwight Howard have left in the tank? Howard has looked good so far, and Green can play a big role this year as a veteran three and D guy coming off two straight championship years.

12. Can they continue to win in auxiliary areas? The 2019-2020 Sixers were not a good shooting team, but they were generally very good at out-voluming other teams. They’d simply cobble together more possessions and more field goals attempts based on the fact that they were a solid rebounding squad that cut down on their turnovers and played above-average defense, on most nights.