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Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Sixers preview: Guarded optimisim

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 17

In some ways, the Sixers’ season is all about Joel Embiid.

In other ways, the season is about everything except Embiid.

Having Embiid, the Sixers’ best player, play in more than half the team’s games would be progress. If he plays more than 60 games, many fans would be ecstatic.

Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in just 25.4 minutes last season. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he only played in 31 games, which is 31 more than he played in his first two NBA seasons combined, but isn’t what you need from your best player.

Thirty-one games also isn’t enough for a player who recently signed a five-year extension worth at least $146.5 million. The Sixers must hope they come close to getting their money’s worth from Embiid, and that means having him on the court for most of the season.

If Embiid is healthy, the Sixers need to surround him with talented players in order to become a championship contender. If he’s not healthy, the Sixers need talented players to prevent the franchise from sinking back into the abyss it started to climb out of last season.

And when winning 28 games, as the Sixers did last season, is considered climbing out of the abyss, you know how fall the franchise had fallen.

Let’s take a look at the rest of the Sixers’ roster.

GUARD

The second-most valuable player on the team is Ben Simmons. The 6-foot-10 point guard continued a recent Sixers rookie tradition of sitting out his first season due to an injury. Simmons will push the ball up the floor and drive to the basket. The question is whether teams will back off Simmons and clog his driving lanes if he can’t make outside shots. Simmons’ free-throw shooting is also suspect, which will make it difficult to have the ball in his hands late in games in which the Sixers have the lead.

The other guard under the microscope is Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft one season after Simmons was the top pick. The last two No. 1 picks were slated to open the season as the starting backcourt, but injuries (shoulder and knee) and poor shooting have relegated Fultz to the bench. Whether starting of coming off the bench, there will be pressure on Fultz to produce.

The Sixers will count upon J.J. Redick to make 3-point shots and spread out the defense. Veteran Jerryd Bayless, who played just three games for the Sixers last season before needing surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left wrist, could also contribute at guard. T.J. McConnell provided a spark last season, but his playing time will be reduced this season. Nik Stauskas might not get enough playing time to prove he deserves to remain on the team. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (6.4 points per game), the 24th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, needs playing time so the Sixers can figure out his role – if he has one – as the team moves forward.

FORWARD

Robert Covington (12.9 points) is a terrific defender and a streaky shooter. Depth is provided by Justin Anderson (7.1 points). The versatile Dario Saric (12.8 points), a finalist for the Rookie of the Year Award last season, provides offense and energy. The forwards also include veteran Amir Johnson and Turkish forward Furkan Korkmaz, who was impressive during the preseason.

Sixers-Okafor4CENTER

If healthy, Embiid is the starter. If he’s not healthy, though, the Sixers can choose between Richaun Holmes, after his fractured wrist heals, and the much-maligned Jahlil Okafor (left). The Sixers have tried to trade Okafor (11.8), but haven’t found the right price. It’s doubtful they will ever find the “right” price unless Okafor begins to play better defense. If Embiid misses a significant number of games, Okafor, the third overall pick in 2015, may fill a starting role. Holmes and Okafor are both significant drop-offs from Embiid’s level.

If Embiid is hurt, the Sixers are in trouble. A more interesting question is which of the forward/centers could play a productive complementary role at power forward if Embiid is healthy.

HEAD COACH

Brett Brown has received a lot of credit for keeping the Sixers motivated and playing hard despite their abysmal records. But playing hard won’t be enough for his players to earn Brown accolades this season. The team needs to win some games.

Brown used to have to figure out how to win – or not win – with only half a roster of NBA talent. Now he has enough talented players that finding roles and sufficient playing time for all of them will be a challenge.

We shouldn’t forget that Brown was the head coach before president and general manager Bryan Colangelo came onboard. If the Sixers don’t make significant progress, Brown could find himself on thin ice.

How the Sixers reach their final record also matters. If they are extremely competitive despite Embiid being sidelined for half the season, Brown should receive the benefit of the doubt if the Sixers don’t achieve a winning record. If Embiid plays 60-65 games, however, the expectations will be higher.

OUTLOOK

The Sixers appear to have a difficult schedule the first two months of the season. The Knicks and the lowly Nets and Bulls are nowhere to be found. The first month and a day of the season includes two games with the Rockets and two with the defending-champion Warriors. The second month includes two games with the Cavaliers.

It’s likely that Fultz might have a difficult adjustment to the NBA after just one season in college. The same could be true for Simmons, although his physical tools could make his adjustment easier.

It’s unclear how all of the pieces of the Sixers’ puzzle are going to fit together. There’s no question they should be better than last season, when they didn’t have Simmons, Fultz or Redick. The question is how much better they will be.

And that’s where Embiid figures into the equation. The more he plays, the more games the Sixers should win. Let’s estimate that Embiid will play 55 games, which should get the Sixers to a 45-37 record.

 

 

 

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