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October 16, 2018

15 bold Sixers predictions (and explanations) for the 2018-19 season

Predictions are the bane of every professional sports writer's existence. Getting something right is often only rewarded with the satisfaction of a job well done, while getting them wrong is just fuel for Twitter acounts that screenshot bad takes and mock anyone with the nerve to be skeptical.

It is in that spirit that I bring to you a series of predictions concerning the Sixers this season.

Joking aside, the Sixers may be one of the most volatile teams in the league entering the year. They're handing the starter's keys to a mostly unknown guard, bringing back this year's top pick midseason, leaning on one of the most talented stars in the sport who unfortunately has trouble staying healthy, and transitioning from underdog darling to a team with a target on their back. If you were to tell me they would win between 45-60 games, I could probably be convinced.

And on that note, let's start right there and get into some of my overarching thoughts heading into the season. For a rundown of over/unders and other prop bets this year, we already have the degenerates among you covered. For an assorted list of thoughts from my own brain, continue on the journey with me below.

The Sixers will not win more games than last season

The biggest misconception about progress, in sports or otherwise, is that it unfolds in linear fashion. When we look back at dynasties and some of the great championship teams ever, the journey to the top gets muddied and we end up settling on a couple easy-to-digest memories as signs a team took off.

History is usually a little more complicated than that. So while I think the Sixers will ultimately be a better, more consistent team this season, I do not think they will eclipse their O/U win total of 54 as set by Las Vegas.

This probably will be, but should not be viewed as a case the Sixers will stagnate. I think there are competing forces to consider to open the year. Philadelphia's bench is much better than it was to start last season, but it will not be as lights out as it was to end last year (mostly because that group played above their heads). Joel Embiid is coming off his first healthy offseason, but the Sixers have to figure out a way to incorporate Markelle Fultz. And so on.

Combining all these ideas, I think the Sixers will simply have a more normal path to 52 wins. They won't need a monster winning streak to close out their season in order to take the East's No. 3 seed, which I believe ultimately should be viewed as a positive.

Ben Simmons will be an All-Star but miss out on All-NBA again

Making an All-NBA team is extraordinarily difficult, but Ben Simmons was already on the cusp of doing so last season. The top-four vote-getters on the outside looking in were quite a group themselves: Chris Paul, Rudy Gobert, Kyrie Irving, and Simmons.

The issue for Simmons in getting All-NBA consideration is the lack of what I'd call flexible spots on these teams. The following players are basically mortal locks to be on one of the three teams pretty much every year: LeBron, Westbrook, Harden, Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. There's another group behind them that includes Damian Lillard (a first-team selection last year) and Joel Embiid (who should have no trouble locking down this spot moving forward, assuming health).

That leaves just six spots "open" for All-NBA, and I would argue it's really five, because a healthy Irving is almost guaranteed a spot if the Celtics maintain their grip on the top of the East.

I think Simmons will suffer in these sort of year-end awards unless he starts to impose himself more as a scorer. Voters appreciate all-around contributions, but we're still at a point where he gets docked for not assuming enough of the scoring burden himself. His defense will make up some of that ground, but without growth in his jumper, I think awards voters will punish him for what they view as a lack of growth to catch the top group.

Landry Shamet will be the most impactful Sixers rookie

This is equal parts confidence in Shamet after watching him in the preseason and skepticism concerning Zhaire Smith's place in the team. He also, you know, has to prove he'll return to play this season, which isn't a guarantee as we saw when Simmons suffered the same injury.

With Fultz rejoining the rotation and my confidence in his jumper lower than I thought it would be at this stage, the Sixers need shooting at the other spots on the court as much as they need length and athleticism. Brett Brown's track record to date has shown he will prioritize the former in order to get the best out of his stars, and I think that trend continues here.

There are too many factors working against Smith to bet on him being a big contributor this year.

Will Smith will ring the pregame bell at least once this year

The most prominent celebrity of the Sixers' co-owners has been mostly absent at games since purchasing a stake in the team with his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. If he has been around, it has been in a much less visible capacity than, say, M. Night Shyamalan.

The Aladdin reboot he is playing the Genie in releases May 24th of next year. Since his press tour obligations will have him tied up and in L.A., New York, etc. closer to the movie, I believe he'll make a stop through Philly during the playoffs in late April/early May to build more buzz.

Mike Muscala will play a least 65 percent of his minutes at power forward

To date, Muscala has been an option to split time between the frontcourt positions. During his last season with the Hawks, he spent roughly 52 percent of his time at center and 48 percent of his time at power forward, according to possession numbers provided by Cleaning the Glass, dividing his responsibilities almost exactly down the middle.

I think he will see a huge boost to his usage at power forward this year, mainly because it's the sort of lineup configuration Brown has shown a desire to play during his time in Philadelphia. Every year he talks a big game in the offseason about positional versatility and moving Covington up a spot in the lineup, and every year we see him go bigger on most occasions.

Brown's affection for Amir Johnson will also impact the minutes distribution here. He trusts the veteran to hold it down at center, and I think Muscala at center lineups will be more situational.

MORE: Starting Fultz will define Sixers' season, for better or worse

T.J. McConnell will be traded at some point during the season

Leaguewide interest is there for McConnell, who has proven he can come in and impact a playoff series and always seems to find a way to rise above expectations. This is a numbers game above all else — the Sixers have minimal minutes to offer him, and he's going to be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

McConnell currently exists in a sweet spot where the Sixers can get some deadline value out of trading him (or moving him as a sweetener in a bigger deal) without compromising the top of their rotation. They are betting on Fultz to be both a starter-level player and the backup point guard behind Simmons, and the fan favorite feels like he'll be the odd man out unless the Sixers decide to abandon the Fultz plan altogether this season.

Speaking of...

Markelle Fultz will make less than 35 threes this season

I have gone back and forth on this a million times, debating on whether to believe Fultz's work this summer will lead to him to shoot and make more three-point shots this season. I earnestly believe he put the work in, and I think the coaching staff will give him enough playing time to test out the new shot.

I remain unconvinced he is going to take those opportunities when they present themselves. The same habits we saw last season that saw him passing up open shots to drive into traffic have not dissipated altogether. In a preseason setting where failure was relatively meaningless, we saw Fultz shoot just five long-range shots in four games.

Across 82 games in meaningful minutes with pressure and road crowds and the fight to establish himself as a legitimate NBA player weighing down on Fultz, I find it tough to believe that will suddenly go up. If Fultz averages that same amount of attempts over a full season and doesn't miss any time, that will leave him with about 107 attempts from three. He would have to make almost a third of them to make 35 triples.

Bovada set his line at 44.5 for the year. I'm setting a lower under.

JJ Redick will start more games than Markelle Fultz

As I mentioned yesterday, I think the Sixers are in a really tough spot with regards to their investment in/reliance on Fultz. Every option comes with its own downside, and I do suspect the Sixers will give Fultz ample time to figure things out as a starter.

Until evidence is presented to the contrary, however, I'm just not convinced he's going to stick in that role for the full season. Redick will require no adjustment period to hop back into the lineup, and once teams really begin scheming around Philadelphia's collective lack of shooting, I believe the need to reconfigure things will become clear.

(For the record, I would love to be wrong on these Fultz-related predictions, but I can only use the evidence presented to date to make these guesses.)

The most prominent in-season trade rumor will concern Washington's Bradley Beal

This prediction is based on both sides of this potential trade equation. I believe the Sixers are going to start seeing the writing on the wall as it pertains to their chances of nabbing a star in free agency, thus increasing their willingness to instigate trade talks for the proverbial missing piece. And I think the chances of things going south in D.C. are fairly high, which will open up discussions about the availability of their most valuable trade chip.

I don't know that Beal is better than John Wall in a vacuum, but he is a much more movable player because of the absurd extension Wall signed to keep him in Wizards colors through 2022-23. Even if a team desired him as a player, he is owed an insane $46.8 million in the option year of his deal, which makes moving him near-impossible. There have already been rumblings about friction between Wall and Beal, and Dwight Howard joining any team makes a situation more combustable. The Wizards have moved backward in the Eastern hierarchy despite heavy investment — that's always worth watching.

From the Sixers' perspective, Beal is just about the perfect get if they can somehow land him in a deal. He's a perfect fit stylistically for what the Sixers need on the wing, and the Florida product doesn't turn 26 until next June. Beal is both good enough to move the needle right away and young enough to fit Philadelphia's long-term timeline for contention.

But I also think a deal will not get done here, at least this season. A first-time GM executing a trade for a player of Beal's caliber midseason — one that would cost a pretty penny, too — seems unlikely.

Simmons shoots 65 percent or better from the free-throw line

This is not going to inspire a parade down Broad Street, but would represent a nine percent jump or better from Simmons compared to last season. More than anything, Simmons' willingness to seek out contact and earn points at the line will define his progress from last year, as it has been a constant point of emphasis from the coaching staff dating back to last season.

The jump shooting is still a ways away. And though I think his form at the stripe still looks fairly ugly, it's one of the easiest individual skills to rep out and work on during the season relative to other larger changes in your game. I think he has put work in here, even if I'm skewing a little optimistic on the level of improvement.

Jerryd Bayless will play in at least one game for the Sixers this season

This is less "unlikely bold" based on recent evidence (he got early minutes in a preseason game for them already this season) than it is a reflection of how inexplicable it is that he is hanging around. Bayless was out of the picture altogether to end last season and is so reviled in Philly that he was booed before he could even shoot in his lone preseason appearance.

Like the ghost of Bryan Colangelo's past, Bayless will suit up at some point, before they eventually (probably?) part ways around the deadline.

At least one major free agent will be connected to the Sixers by a credible report in season

First, some criteria: sub-stars and good role players do not count here. This has to be a needle-moving player, a la Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, or Klay Thompson. Those players are much different in stature from first to last, but they would all transform the Sixers.

Even though I've already expressed my doubts that the Sixers can get any players like that to sign in Philadelphia, I believe there will be smoke signals similar to those sent about LeBron James last year. The connections are obviously not as strong as the Klutch connection between LeBron and Simmons, but Embiid is trafficking pretty rare air space right now.

MORE: Breaking down Sixers' championship odds, plus other bets for this season (and beyond)

Joel Embiid will finish outside the top-five in MVP voting

MVP is at the top of Embiid's individual goal list, which he has made clear in several interviews during the offseason. I think his talent level is that of an MVP candidate, but I think there are too many factors working against him this year.

For a player to get legitimate MVP consideration without being a top-two seed in their own conference, you need extraordinary forces to come together. Lots of guys make the top five that are below that tier, but the award tends to be awarded to the best player on one of the league's best teams. Before Russell Westbrook won the MVP two seasons ago thanks to a historic triple-double pace and a media-friendly narrative created by Durant's departure, the last MVP to win the award on a three seed or lower was... Michael Jordan in 1988.

With all due respect to Embiid, I am dubious that he can put together a statistical season strong enough to measure up with '88 Jordan, who averaged 35-5-6 on 53 percent shooting from the floor, led the league in steals en route to winning Defensive Player of the Year, and became the only player to win the scoring title and DPOY in the same year. And just for style points, he won the Dunk Contest and was named MVP of the All-Star game.

Let's say we throw out the seeding concern. Embiid still has to fight through mainstays like Curry, LeBron, and Harden, and I think there's another layer to penetrate beyond the top tier. Should he rest even a few games Embiid will get docked points, while contemporaries like Antetokounmpo, Davis, Leonard, Durant, and Westbrook will all offer strong cases of their own.

... but he will score 25 points per game

I still believe in the above notion, but I think Embiid is going to take a noticeable step forward after a healthy offseason. I don't think he needs to dominate the ball at the same level in order to score more, and you have already seen him flash his improved physique during the preseason. Embiid simply getting down the floor and establishing position quicker will lead to better scoring opportunities.

Some will see Fultz's addition as a potential drain on Embiid's scoring, with Fultz assuming a heavier portion of the scoring load than, say, T.J. McConnell would in his position. But Fultz is also much more dynamic as a playmaker, and the Sixers can run more pick-and-roll to set Embiid up for buckets with Fultz.

Besides, Embiid was already up to 22.9 per game last season in spite of personnel limitations and his own rawness. Averaging a little over two more points per game is within his reach, particularly if the NBA continues to enforce freedom of movement in the post as strict as they have in the preseason.

The Sixers will not make it past the second round of the playoffs

This will be the least popular prediction of the bunch, and I will admit I tend to skew negative when it comes to projections this far out. But barring a franchise-altering trade, I think the Sixers will either be too young or too unequipped to get it done in the playoffs once again.

Leaps from Embiid and Simmons will matter a great deal, but Philadelphia's success in the playoffs beyond those two players still hinges to an uncomfortable degree around Fultz. In a perfect world, he will have a good second season and then simply have a tough time adjusting to the physicality and pace of the playoffs. In a more realistic world, Fultz would have an up-and-down year and probably be exploited by an opponent once they can scout him for a full series.

All the talk in Philadelphia has centered around the Celtics as the big bad down the road, and I think the Raptors are being dismissed far too casually. They were the East's best team last season, and they made a major upgrade from DeMar DeRozan to Kawhi Leonard as long as they keep the latter healthy. Factor in Danny Green's addition, a deep and athletic bench, and being less reliant on midrange shots with DeRozan out of the picture, and you have a team with an even higher ceiling.

The overarching narrative is that Toronto folds in the playoffs, but some of that leaves with DeRozan, and another large chunk of it headed out west with LeBron James. I'm not prepared to call them "chokers" for not being able to overcome one of the three best players of all-time in the playoffs, and they have way more playoff reps than the Sixers do.

Their time still feels like a year or two away.

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