There years ago, Sixers owner Josh Harris infamously described the team’s 19-win season as a “huge success.”
Harris must be ecstatic over this season’s 28-win effort, which equals the Sixers’ combined win totals from the previous two seasons.
Putting sarcasm aside, there were many positive signs this season. Joel Embiid is a tremendous talent. The question is whether he can stay healthy. Dario Saric appeared even more ready for the NBA than many pundits believed and is a prime contender to be rookie of the year. (Embiid would have been the odds-on favorite to win the award if injuries hadn’t limited him to 31 games.)
The Sixers may also have found some role players. Point guard T.J. McConnell proved he’s more than a marginal NBA player. Robert Covington demonstrated that he can be a valuable player even when his shot isn’t falling. Center Richaun Holmes played well enough to make Nerlens Noel expendable.
On the flip side, we learned that Jahlil Okafor’s game doesn’t mesh well with Joel Embiid’s game. Because this was Embiid’s first NBA season in which he wasn’t sidelined the entire year, finding out if he could play effectively with Okafor and Noel was an important goal entering this season.
But can a 28-win season truly be deemed a success? Have we lowered our expectations that far?
There were more than a few negative developments and new questions to accompany the positive developments. The health of Embiid and Ben Simmons were the two most alarming developments.
After sitting out two seasons due to injuries, Embiid only played in 31 games this season. He only played in 31 games despite being handled with kid gloves. Embiid didn’t play in back-to-back games and had minutes restrictions in the games in which he played. And he still got hurt badly enough that he had to be shut down for the rest of the season due to a knee injury (after weeks of the Sixers failing to disclose the meniscus tear and then insisting it wasn’t the injury that was keeping off the court).
Simmons, the top overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, followed in the footsteps of Embiid and Noel by not playing a single game during his rookie season. Simmons suffered a Jones fracture in his foot on the final day of training camp. After initial speculation that he could return in January, Simmons wasn’t cleared for full on-court activities until one game was left in the season. A slow-healing injury of this sort, especially in a weight-bearing part of the anatomy, certainly raises a red flag.
And, if Simmons is going to be the starting point guard, as head coach Brett Brown says he will, the Sixers will still be in need of a starting shooting guard and power forward, not to mention a shooter to provide a spark off the bench.
The Sixers also face a dilemma with Okafor. He, too, has a lingering knee issue after having surgery at the end of the 2015-16 season, but that’s not the problem. The problem is what to do with Okafor. He’s clearly not part of the Sixers’ future – unless, heaven forbid, Embiid never is able to get healthy – but the Sixers can’t get anything remotely close to the third pick in the NBA Draft, where Okafor was selected, in return for the underachieving big man.
The Sixers have a long offseason in which to address their needs. The first big event is the NBA Draft lottery on May 16. The Sixers have a lot riding on the lottery. They will get the Lakers’ first-round selection if it falls out of the top three. That would give the Sixers two high draft picks instead of one. They also can switch picks with the Kings if they end up higher than the Sixers.
Once they know their draft position, president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo will have to make wise selections. The Sixers also have plenty of salary cap space to sign free agents.
The Sixers definitely appear to be on the upswing. But just because the Sixers avoided having their record get worse for a fifth straight season doesn’t mean this season was a success.
I refuse to set the bar that low. Twenty-eight wins do not add up to a successful season.
MEDICAL CONFUSION: Joel Embiid said that the surgery to repair his torn meniscus revealed that the injury wasn’t nearly as bad as he was led to believe. That completes the cycle of this injury’s history. It went from minor to worse to bad enough to shut Embiid down for the rest of the season and back to minor again.
CONVENIENT TIMING: Guards Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist surgery) were both cleared to play during the final few days of the Sixers’ season. I’ll care when they’re cleared to play in games at the start of next season.
VIRTUAL PING PONG: I have already started my full month of playing the NBA draft lottery simulator. Based on my first-day results, the Sixers have a pretty good shot at netting one of the first two picks or two picks in the top five (their own pick and the Lakers’ pick).
LOOKING UP: As I noted at the end of my opening note, this will be the first time in five seasons that the Sixers’ record wasn’t worse than the previous season.
EIGHT IS ENOUGH: The Sixers ended this season with eight straight losses, improving their draft lottery odds.
PLAYOFF RACES: As I wrote in my NBA playoff preview, the first round of the NBA playoffs appears to be much more competitive than usual.