Philadelphia 76ers: Best and worst-case scenario for 2019-20

Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid Ben Simmons (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid Ben Simmons (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Exploring the best and worst-case scenarios for the Philadelphia 76ers heading into the 2019-20 NBA season

The Philadelphia 76ers‘ 2018-19 season ended in devastating fashion. Jimmy Butler finished on the break to knot the score at 90 with 4.2 seconds left in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series with the Toronto Raptors. With overtime looming, Kawhi Leonard, being guarded by Joel Embiid, hit a fadeaway shot from the corner that bounced off both sides of the rim a total of four times before it caromed in at the buzzer to clinch the series for the Raptors.

It’s hard to say what would have happened had Leonard’s shot not gone in. Would the Sixers have won in overtime? Leonard appeared out of gas and Jimmy Butler was playing at the top of his game down the stretch. How much impact would a Sixer’s victory have had over the present composition of their roster heading into the 2019-20 season?

We will never know the answers to these questions, but fortunately there are a litany of other questions whose answer we will get to see play out in a few short days as we embark upon what has the potential to be a historic season for the Philadelphia 76ers franchise, as they attempt to get back to the NBA Finals for the first time since Allen Iverson stepped over Tyron Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals against the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant led Los Angeles Lakers.

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During the offseason, the Sixers worked out a sign-and-trade to send Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat in exchange for Josh Richardson, re-signed Tobias Harris to a five-year $180 million contract and signed free agent Al Horford from the rival Boston Celtics.

Gone, however, is sharpshooter JJ Redick, who signed with the New Orleans Pelicans as a free agent. Boban Marjanovic and TJ McConnell also left via free agency for the Dallas Mavericks and Indiana Pacers respectively. The Sixers were able to resign both Mike Scott, who was acquired midseason in the Tobias Harris trade, and James Ennis.

Both players played solid minutes off the bench last year in the playoffs. They were also able to sign backup point guards Raul Neto, who played last season with the Utah Jazz, and Trey Burke from the New York Knicks along with back-up center Kyle O’Quinn, who played last season with the Pacers.

Best-case scenario

The best-case scenario for the Sixers in the 2019-20 season is absolutely an NBA Championship. They currently have the 5th highest odds of winning the championship, with the Bucks being the only Eastern Conference team with higher odds. You could easily argue that the Sixers were the second-best team in the league last season based on giving the eventual NBA Champion Raptors the most serious test through the playoffs.

With their improved roster, a thinner Eastern Conference and the gauntlet any Western Conference team would have to endure to reach the NBA Finals, the Sixers should be considered a serious contender for the championship this year.

The Sixers will boast one of the most prolific starting units in the league this year and perhaps the tallest of all time with Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embid. Josh Richardson would be their shortest starter at 6-foot-6. In addition to all five starters averaging between 13.3 and 27.5 points per game last season, with their length and back end shot-blocking from Embid, the Sixers have a chance to be one of the best defensive teams in the league.

The most transformative feature of the Sixers revamped roster heading into the 2019-20 season is Al Horford’s ability to play effective minutes at both the power forward and center position. This should give the Sixers one of the premier frontcourts in the league and allow them to employ more of a load management approach to Embiid’s minutes and game log.

It should also allow them to avoid the significant plus/minus fluctuations with Embiid on the floor versus when he is off the floor. During the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year the Sixers outscored the Raptors by 90 points in the 237 minutes Embiid played but were outscored by 109 points in the 99 minutes he was off the floor. With Horford able to play both the power forward and center position, the Sixers should be able to avoid that sharp contrast in competitiveness when Embid goes to the bench.

The Sixers should also have more depth and athleticism off the bench. In a draft-day trade in 2018, they traded back in the draft to acquire Zhaire Smith. Smith had an injury-plagued rookie season, only playing in six games during the regular season. During the 2019 draft, the Sixers traded up from the 24th pick to the 20th pick and selected the 2019 Naismith Defensive Player of Year from the University of Washington guard Matisse Thybulle. The addition of these two young, athletic wings should bolster the Sixer’s bench as the regular season progresses.

Unquestionably, the biggest key to the Sixers’ championship hopes will be the continued development of All-Star Ben Simmons. In two full seasons in the league, Simmons has put up terrific numbers, averaging 16.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game. However, his lack of a jump shot and confidence at the free-throw line has limited his ability to emerge as a takeover superstar in the NBA.

Simmons shot only 60 percent from the free-throw line last season on 5.4 free attempts per game. Those figures were actually up from his rookie campaign where he shot 56 percent from the line on 4.2 attempts per game. To develop into the superstar he has the talent to become, he will need to improve his percentage from the line and more importantly, his willingness to draw fouls.

Simmons is virtually unstoppable in the paint, but too often passes out of the lane, seemingly out of his lack of confidence in going to the foul line. The single greatest addition Simmons could make to his game and the Sixers’ team would be the development of even a seemingly reliable jump shot. A jump shot that required any level of respect from opposing defenders would open up the lane for both he and his teammates as defenders could no longer sag off of him when he is set up beyond the foul line.

Worst-case scenario

The worst-case scenario for the Sixers would be another loss in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The biggest deficiency of the Sixers’ roster is the most integral part of a championship team, a proven perimeter closer. The Sixers’ most reliable crunch time perimeter player from last season, Jimmy Butler, is now in Miami.

Which player on the Sixer’s roster will be able to step up in the closing minutes of a hotly contested playoff game? If matched up against the Nets, Pacers or Celtics in the second round of the playoffs who will be able to dual basket for basket with Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo or Kemba Walker in the final minutes of the game? The most optimistic answer to that question would be Ben Simmons if he is able to develop a jump shot or more confidence in carrying the load down the stretch.

The Sixers’ new roster, especially with the departure of JJ Redick, has a significant lack of consistent, reliable 3-point scoring. Their projected starting five of Richardson, Simmons, Embiid, Horford, and Harris averaged 5.9 3-point field goals on 18.3 attempts per game last year collectively. That would put the Sixers at or near the bottom of the league in makes, attempts, and percentage. Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson should be their most reliable threats from outside and should have the green light from deep.

The Sixers will be relying on contributions off the bench from rookie Matisse Thybulle and second-year player Zhaire Smith, who sat out the vast majority of his rookie season with an injury. While Thybulle has been impressive during the preseason, will he be able to perform consistently through the grueling season and when the pressure is greatest during the playoffs?

If Ben Simmons is unable to heighten his game, especially at the free-throw line, away from the basket and in crunch time the Sixers’ chances of emerging as champions this year will take a significant hit. With their lack of consistent outside shooting and even heavier reliance on post play with the acquisition of Al Horford, the development of Simmons into a more reliable perimeter player will be vital to the Sixer’s ultimate success.

The biggest key to the Sixers’ championship hopes will be the health and availability of Joel Embiid. He missed 88 regular-season games in his first three seasons on top of missing the entire season during both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. Last season, injuries sidelined Embiid in 14 of the Sixers’ final 24 regular-season games last season and illness significantly impacted his effectiveness during the playoffs.

If the Sixers are going to emerge beyond the second round of the playoffs this season Embiid’s health and fitness level will be integral to their success. Fortunately, the addition of Al Horford should allow Embiid’s minutes during the regular season to be curtailed, allowing him to reach his peak performance during the playoffs. If his health issues persist, however, the Sixers could be ripe for an upset at the hands of the Celtics, Pacers or Nets.

The Sixers revamped their starting lineup, improved their depth and were the beneficiaries of a considerable amount of attrition throughout the Eastern Conference. For a team that was a bounce away from the Eastern Conference Finals last year, there should be a tremendous amount of optimism about the Sixers’ chances of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.

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Don’t expect the Sixers to run and hide with the number one seed due to the load management strategy they will more than likely employ to keep Embiid fresh for the playoffs, the infusion of a new starting lineup that will have to develop chemistry and the significant minutes that unproven players Smith and Thybulle are sure to log throughout the regular season. However, the Sixers should be competing for a trip to the NBA Finals where perhaps they will face off against Kawhi Leonard once again.