2016-17 Sixers Season Preview: 10 Pressing Questions About the Philadelphia 76ers
With the Sixers set to tip off their regular season later tonight at the Wells Fargo Center, excitement over the team is higher than it has been in quite some time, thanks in large part to a certain 7-foot-2 center from Cameroon.
As we preview the season we take a look at ten questions facing them team, then throw in five predictions about how the season will unfold that are sure to look ridiculous in just a few months time.
1. Will Joel Embiid make it through the season healthy?
This is, ultimately, the only question that matters, isn’t it?
Joel Embiid‘s talent level is undeniable, to the point where 76ers head coach Brett Brown talked about Embiid being the focal point of the 76ers defense and running the offense through him — before Embiid had even played in a preseason game. Embiid then went on to justify that, averaging 27.9 points, 14.7 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes played in the preseason, while maintaining a 55.2 percent true shooting percentage despite finishing a garguntuan 37.8 percent of the 76ers offensive possessions while he was on the court. To put that in perspective, DeMarcus Cousins led the league last year by finishing 35.2 percent of Sacramento’s plays while he was on the court.
We will, of course, focus on the nuances of Embiid’s game as the season progresses. Aspects such as the continued development of his three-point range, his ability to draw fouls, an increased awareness on handling double teams in the post, and staying out of foul trouble, will all be monitored as the season unfolds. Those are all secondary concerns, however. If Joel Embiid is healthy when the Sixers season wraps up on April 12th, the season was a success, and the team has a chance to build something special.
2. Will Nerlens Noel ever play again for the 76ers?
On the other end of the spectrum is Nerlens Noel, who hasn’t been practicing of late because of what was originally classified as a sore groin, but has since been clarified as being an inflamed plica in his left knee, which he received a minor arthroscopic procedure earlier this week to correct, and which will likely cause him to miss at least three-to-five weeks of action.
Noel was very vocal about his displeasure over the Sixers depth at the center position, and his name has been floated about in trade rumors pretty heavily since Bryan Colangelo took over as president of basketball operations last April. Between Noel, Joel Embiid, Richaun Holmes, and Jahlil Okafor, four is most certainly a crowd, and a disgruntled Noel makes it even more difficult for Colangelo to navigate the logjam and get something even remotely resembling equal value in a trade.
Still, while Noel, who will become a restricted free agent after the season, might not be happy with his current situation, there simply may not be the demand leaguewide for a trade to be made. Teams tend to be reluctated to make moves at this time of the year, with teams around the league wanting to see what they have before doing something drastic. As the season plays out, injuries happen, and teams convince themselves that they’re one piece away from making a deep playoff run, not to mention the natural lubricant that is the trade deadline, when GM’s around the league become more open to making a move.
Noel might not be happy about it, but he very well may have to come back to the team, prove he’s healthy, and say the right things. It might just be what’s necessary for both sides to get what they want.
3. Will the 76ers make a trade of significance?
The 76ers continue to operate with an absolute treasure chest full of high-value draft picks (2017 Sixers pick, 2017 Lakers top-3 protected pick, 2017 Kings pick swap rights, 2019 Kings unprocted pick). In a perfect world, these picks would convey and the 76ers would have the chance to add more young, high-upside players to their burgeoning core.
There’s going to be temptations for Colangelo to trade some of these future assets for something that can add value right away, especially as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons start playing together and the core of the team starts to get into focus. A move like this may eventually make sense, as the 76ers have a load of cap space and making moves to make themselves an attractive destination could become much more viable as Embiid and Simmons establish themselves, but it’s the kind of move that could be risky when you start talking about dealing draft picks such as the ones the Sixers have, and feels like it’s still about a year away from making sense.
4. Can the Okafor and Embiid pairing work?
It’s something that we talked about earlier this week, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but whether or not the Sixers two most talented offensive players can work together will be a focus throughout the year. Brown is likely to start the season off staggering their minutes as much as possible, keeping both at their natural center positions, but as the restrictions are lifted and they play heavier minutes, the two sharing the court will be inevitable. What is also inevitable, especially as Embiid gets further away from the scary injuries that are hopefully in his past, is that the team will look to add talent that complements their new focal point. Whether Okafor shows that he can play alongside Embiid could go a long way towards figuring out if he’s a long-term piece.
5. Can Jahlil Okafor play defense?
Forget about floor spacing and passing, discard the rebounding, even if just temporarily. This season will be all about whether or not Jahlil Okafor can play acceptable NBA defense.
Last year, and the previous one at Duke, he was too slow of foot, too noncommittal in his rotations, too slow in his recognition. That combination — athletic deficiencies, slow changing direction, slow reacting — is a lot to overcome, even if he is one of the more gifted 1-on-1 post scorers to enter the league in quite some time.[
There’s virtually no doubt Okafor’s defensive awareness can, and likely will, improve. The question is going to come down to whether it can improve enough, because the NBA is as well-spaced as it’s ever been, and that kind of spacing virtually necessitates a big man who can reliably make the right reads and the right rotations on defense. Regardless of what Okafor does on the offensive side of the court, whether this season is a success will come down to what porgress he can show defensively.
6. Will Brett Brown be on the hot seat?
This is the question nobody wants to answer, but it’s one that won’t go away if the Sixers do struggle out of the gate.
Over the years, coaches are held accountable for their records, even if the records aren’t their fault. It’s been an inescapably sad truth for far too long, and it was one of the (many) things that has been unique in Philadelphia over the last few years. The 76ers were losing, it was by design, and they weren’t going to scapegoat Brown for it as long as he was doing his job in terms of keeping the team together and developing the talent they brought in.
That’s not to say this necessarily changed when the 76ers shifted from Sam Hinkie to Bryan Colangelo last spring, and Colangelo has been supportive, at least publicly, every step of the way. But executives have a pretty clear track recorrd of wanting to hire their own guy to coach the team, and it’s going to be hard not to remember that if the Sixers start the season off with a 3-17.
7. Will the 76ers make perimeter shots?
Despite ranking 8th in the NBA last year with 27.5 three-point attempts per game, the sixers connected on just 33.9 percent of them, the 7th worst rate in the league. That was actually an improvement, however, as the Sixers shot 31.8 percent in 2014-15 and 31.2 percent in 2013-14, when Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten bombed away from downtown with reckless abandon by flinging the ball in the general direction of the net.
Can that improve? The Sixers added Jerryd Bayless in the offseason, and although Bayless is likely going to miss the first month of the season with an injured left wrist, he did shoot 43.7 percent from three-point range for the Bucks last season, and is expected to see significant minutes at the point guard spot when he is able to return to the lineup.
If there’s to be significant improvement, however, it might be more likely to come from the addition of Ben Simmons rather than the Sixers perimeter shooters. The Sixers simply haven’t had a player capable of creating open looks on a regular basis, and Simmons’ unique skill set, if he is able to return from his fractured foot, could really help out guys like Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson, Dario Saric, and the aforementioned Bayless. January is when this thing could start to get really interesting.
8. Can Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot earn regular minutes?
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was a player many thought could be drafted in the lottery last June, with an intriguing combination of size and athleticism that could develop into a legitimate three-and-d player down the line, something which teams can always use.
But even those who liked Luwawu-Cabarrot’s potential recognized that he was quite a ways away from contributing at an NBA level, younger in terms of basketball experience than his 21-year-old age would suggest, a late bloomer in every sense of the word who was playing in second-division France as recently as spring 2015.
For the most part, Luwawu-Cabarrot showed that in the preseason: lots of athleticism, a shell that you can project into being a two-way contributor, but little idea how to use his athleticism in an NBA environment at this time. Because of this, most expected Luwawu-Cabarrot would spend significant time in the D-League so he could get experience rather than sit on the bench. That being said, Brown has been impressed by the French wing so far this preseason, so perhaps Luwawu-Cabarrot could see more NBA minutes this year than most would have expected.
9. Can Joel Embiid stay out of foul trouble?
Joel Embiid’s first taste of NBA action this preseason was better than anybody could have expected. Embiid averaged 11.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 0.9 blocked shots per game, which ranked 2nd, 2nd, and 3rd on the team in those categories despite only playing 14.7 minutes per game as the Sixers eased him back into NBA game speed. Had Embiid produced at that same rate over a 30 minute game, he would have averaged 23.3 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocked shots.
And 5.9 fouls.
This was one of the few problems Embiid has that date back to his time at Kansas, where he averaged 3.4 fouls in just 23.1 minutes per game. If there is any part of Embiid’s game where you could believe he just picked up a basketball roughly six years ago, it’s in his struggles to stay out of foul trouble. It’s also likely to be a very temporary problem, and not one that’s really going to impact the Sixers, at least until that minute restriction becomes even more relaxed.
Still, in order for Embiid to play big minutes down the line, he’s going to have to do a better job of staying out of foul trouble.
10. How much can the 76es defense improve?
The 76ers went from 26th in the league in defense during Brett Brown’s first year with the 76ers to 13th in his second, a drastic improvement that gave the Sixers, even in these struggling times, something of an identity.
That progress was reversed last season, where they once again finished 26th in the league in points allowed per possession. The Okafor/Noel lineup was a mess, with Noel struggling to adapt to defending the perimeter and Okafor (mentioned above) struggling to defend, period. Combine that with a group of perimeter defenders that included Ish Smith, Nik Stauskas, and the like, and the cards were stacked against Brett Brown and his crew.
This year, things could be different. With experience Joel Embiid will be capable of anchoring an elite NBA defense, and unlike last year there’s no question as to who they’re building around, so Embiid should be put in a position to make the most of his potential impact. Ben Simmons, while not a great defender at LSU, has the athleticism to defend multiple positions and the anticipation to jump the passing lanes, which should help both the Sixers offense and defense. Gerald Henderson gives the Sixers another legitimate defender on the perimeter, and Robert Covington should continue to improve on that end of the court.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be struggles, of course. Youth has a way of doing that to a team. But they should be better, and can hopefully regain some of the progress they lost last season.
1. Joel Embiid will be thought of in the same sentence as Karl-Anthony Towns
If Joel Embiid finishes the season in good health, with Ben Simmons missing the first 3+ months of the season and no clear frontrunner for rookie of the year, Embiid could very well be in that conversation despite starting the season on a minutes restriction which will limit him to around 20 minutes per night. In fact, after Simmons’ injury, I might go as far as to declare Embiid the frontrunner for the award.
I’ll go a step beyond that, though: if Embiid is healthy when the season ends, he’ll be viewed in the same tier as Karl-Anthony Towns, the type of player that can not only change a franchise, but who can define an era. Again, “if healthy” caveats apply.
2. Ben Simmons will play this year — and the foundation will be set.
There has been some speculation about whether or not Ben Simmons will play this year after suffering a Jones fracture in his foot during the preseason.
Everyone I’ve talked to seems to indicate this is typically about a 10-12 week recovery timeline, although each person, and injury, is different, and the Sixers are extra cautious with their young players.
Still, I think Simmons eventually sees the court, perhaps sometime in late January or early February. Once he does, the foundation of what the Sixers will be building will be set and we’ll spend the final 2-3 months of the regular season envisioning what Embiid and Simmons can grow into.
Rookies usually don’t make a huge impact on a team’s won/loss column, with a tougher transition ahead of them than most expect. Still, with the combination of how few playmakers the Sixers have outside of Simmons along with how his skill sets could make Embiid and the gang better individually, the Sixers could look like a completely different team when Simmons does return.
3. The 76ers will not make a major trade at the deadline
I sort of touched on this above, but I think this year isn’t quite the time to make a major move at the deadline.
*Note: by major move, I don’t mean just trading one of Noel or Okafor, in part because I don’t expect the Sixers to get near equal return. By major move I mean moving significant future assets (RE: draft picks) to get a young’ish player who they think can be a third, complementary foundational piece alongside Embiid and Simmons.
I do think, eventually, entertaining this idea makes sense. The Sixers have a ton of cap space, and with Embiid and Simmons looking like a strong core to build upon, could pursue an established veteran quasi-star to jumpstart the team into contention, and thus make them more attractive to potential free agents.
That being said, I think they’re a year away, especially with the Simmons injury. Regardless of who they acquire at the deadline, the won/loss total isn’t going to be all that attractive next summer, and established NBA players care more about the resume of the team and how close they are to contention than they do about hype surrounding young players. The time of the draft may be a more likely time for Colangelo to try to strike rather than this upcoming trade deadline.
4. The 76ers lose, a lot, at the beginning of the year
For as much optimism as there (rightly) is around the team, mostly due to the presence of Embiid and (eventually) Simmons, the Sixers will still lose, and probably lose quite a lot.
A part of that is the youthful nature of the team, Embiid included. They’re a team that’s probably going to be prone to mistakes, heavy turnovers, and missed assignments. More than that, they’re going to struggle with perimeter play once again, with few shot creators (or makers) on the offensive side of the court to really make things easier for Embiid and Okafor down low.
They’ll be more entertaining than they have at any time over the last three years, and the losing will be more bearable to watch as long as Embiid’s healthy and playing, but don’t look for that to show up in a meaningful way in the won/loss column just yet.
5. By the end of the season, all the handwringing over tanking will be over
There have been few teams in professional sports as hotly debated as Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia 76ers, a debate which raged on as the Sixers willingly pushed aside immediate contributions for the promise of future reward. “In this league, the long view picks away at the lock of mediocrity,” Hinkie noted in his resignation letter, and every move Hinkie and his team made showed that kind of philosophy.
Except now, those decisions that some derided as “kicking the can down the road” are starting to show tangible returns. The city is legitimately excited about Joel Embiid’s preseason debut, as they should be. Embiid is, without hesitation, the most talented prospect the Sixers have drafted since 1996. Ben Simmons, who will make his debut later on in the season, is right behind him. After nearly two decades of being irrelevant, the Sixers now have the A-list talent to build something meaningful.
As Embiid plays more and more, and the narrative around Embiid shifts away from “yeah, but that foot” to “man, he’s incredible”, a shift that naturally happens the farther away you get from an injury, the debate over whether the Sixers strategy had merit to it will slowly subside.
Note: we discussed some of these topics on our latest podcast, The Sixers Beat. You can listen to that below.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.