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October 18, 2022

Making some Sixers season predictions

As you read this, I am somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean rather than preparing to watch the Sixers play the Boston Celtics. But as a dedicated servant for my readers, I would not be doing my duties if I left you without our typical yearly predictions heading into the year.

Enjoy the game, enjoy the column, and I’ll be back with you on October 25th (not that anyone is keeping track, definitely not me).

The Sixers win 55+ games

Let’s just start here, as it’s the belief that guides everything else. I think the Sixers are going to be really good this year, health permitting, and I think they have the sort of roster that will allow them to make the jump from “pretty good regular season team” to “one of the league’s best.” While they were the No. 1 seed during the 2020-21 season, they never felt like a team that broke away from the pack with a select group of contenders. I think this year can be different.

It starts with the team’s top three guys. Joel Embiid and James Harden built immediate and elite offensive chemistry last year, and Tyrese Maxey looks every bit like a guy who could make another leap this year. When you start with three high-end players on offense, it’s hard to avoid winning a lot of regular season games. At this point, I believe Maxey is a true third option, a player good enough to carry the offense on off nights for one (or both) of the top two, and the synergy is there for all three guys to thrive.

Around them is the deepest group of two-way players the Sixers have had during Joel Embiid’s time in Philadelphia. P.J. Tucker’s grit, De’Anthony Melton’s defensive playmaking, and Danuel House Jr.’s three-and-D skills put the Sixers in a position where players, even good players, are actually going to have to fight for minutes. Based on the usage of Paul Reed and Montrezl Harrell in the preseason, even the backup center spot will feature strong competition, a situation that should help bring the best out of everybody.

Let us not forget Tobias Harris, who seems to have embraced his role as a fill-in-the-blanks guy on and off of the floor, building off of a final stretch in 2021-22 where he played improved defense and upped his three-point volume considerably. This is a team that has a clear hierarchy, various danger men in the starting lineup, good depth, and two-way talent. Health is really the only thing that I could see limiting them this year.

And look, the health factor is real, but I am not going to go into a season predicting injuries. What’s the fun in that? So I’m left to conclude they rack up victories this season.

James Harden averages fewer than 25 points per game

No. 1 has only averaged fewer than 25 points per game twice since he left Oklahoma City in 2012. Those years came in the last two seasons with Harden splitting time across three teams (Houston, Brooklyn, and Philly) during that time period.

If I were completely out on a Harden renaissance, I would not be as bullish on the Sixers as I am. There have been some encouraging signs in the preseason, with Harden showing a bit of burst on the perimeter even if he lacks vertical pop at the hoop. I think he will provide an absurd amount of value to Philadelphia. But I am of the mind that his score-first days are done, for individual and team-based reasons.

Harden has fashioned himself into one of the great playmakers in basketball, and when you listen to him talk and watch him play, you can see that he is more focused on that part of the game than ever. It is partially a necessity based on how teams defend him and where his body is at, but it also seems to be driven by Harden’s desire to do what he thinks will push his teams toward winning. Despite being a more decorated player than Joel Embiid, he did not show up in Philadelphia as if this was his team to mold in his image. He has stressed the importance of making life easier for Embiid, easier for Maxey, easier for everybody else. That occasionally means a scoring barrage, but more often it has meant Harden scanning the floor, probing for what he feels is the best shot.

If the “old James Harden” never comes back, I still think he can be an ultra-valuable leader on a contender. Even if that guy stops by occasionally, it meaningfully changes their ceiling, so long as the normal days feature a steady, balanced attacker who sets up others.

Tyrese Maxey threatens for, but falls short of, his first All-Star appearance

I can hear the screams of thousands of Philadelphia fans echoing in my ears, chiding me for not doubling down on the Maxey hype. Let it be said that I am a believer in his talent, his will, and his year ahead. I just think making an All-Star roster is a high bar for young players to clear.

Here’s the full list of East guards who made the team last year: Trae Young, DeMar DeRozan, LaMelo Ball, Darius Garland, Harden, Zach LaVine, and Fred VanVleet. It’s a list mostly comprised of big names and/or guys who are the undisputed top guard on their team, and Ball only made it as a result of Durant missing the game due to injury. Making an All-Star roster as a third banana is tricky, particularly if it’s your first time pushing for a spot within that group.

Maybe you could foresee him jumping someone like VanVleet, or perhaps a guy like DeRozan who played at an otherworldly level to open the year. Even if multiple names on that list drop out, will he make it over someone like Kyrie Irving, who can actually play home games this year? Can he beat out Bradley Beal if the Wizards are better? If the Pistons make a big leap, a player like last year’s No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham will jump in the mix. Maxey is far from a no-name at this point, but he’ll have to beat out big-name guys.

Making All-Star or not doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, and I think anyone with two eyes can see he’s destined for big things this year. I just can’t go this far yet.

Paul Reed plays more minutes than Montrezl Harrell

I could simply be reading too much into the preseason, which has happened a time or two in the past, but Doc Rivers has genuinely made this look like a competition at backup center. It’s not what I would have guessed once they signed Harrell, but it’s a pleasant surprise if it stays this way.

Harrell owning this job by being a hand-in-glove fit for Harden pick-and-rolls on the second unit is not out of the question. I’m betting on Reed because he looks more mature, his coaches have been vocal about his progress, and because he’s a better/more versatile defender than Harrell. Both are going to be used, that’s for damn sure, but we’ll see who edges the other out when it’s all said and done.

(The creeping thought in the back of my head: perhaps the Sixers were trying to show off Reed in the preseason for a potential trade, rather than actually thinking he might be a guy who can go toe-to-toe with Harrell for minutes. Can’t say one way or another, but that would explain how things have taken shape aside from them viewing this as a real battle for minutes.)

Matisse Thybulle is traded before the end of the year

Contract year, no noticeable offensive improvement that we’ve seen yet, two-way players competing with him for playing time, and a credible sales pitch to bring to other teams: “Hey, this guy has already made multiple All-Defense teams!” Feels inevitable to me.

He was playing garbage time minutes in the final preseason game. It’s a bad sign for his place in the pecking order.

Joel Embiid makes First Team All-NBA

The real crime of the last two seasons has been Embiid missing out on this honor, not Embiid missing out on MVP. I think that changes with the Sixers improving their record.

(Of course, you could argue Jokic with reinforcements will make up more ground in the West, so prepare for another insufferable year of debates.)

The Sixers have a top-five offense and top-ten defense

James Harden and Joel Embiid were the best pick-and-roll combo in the league the moment they started playing together. Tyrese Maxey looks better than he did to end last season. The pieces around them make sense. I am all-in on them having one of the best offensive seasons in recent Sixers history, mostly because the Harden/Embiid duo is absolutely unbearable to play against for most teams in the league.

I can’t go as far on the other side of the ball. I think the Sixers will be better on defense than last season, and they almost have to be. They spent nearly 2/3 of last year with a Tyrese Maxey/Seth Curry backcourt, and their options off of the bench offered very little resistance either. Now they have a tougher starting group and an improved group behind them. Melton and House off of the bench offers solidity behind the top group.

That said, they still have a backcourt that probably won’t offer much resistance, for better or for worse. They can only be so good on defense if they have two guys that are absolutely nailed on in huge roles who also are either too small to be good on defense or too disinterested to regularly help. They will be better, but there will be a ceiling on it.

Danuel House Jr. inherits the title of “most routinely frustrating Sixers rotation player”

There’s always a guy who drives fans up a wall that plays a lot. De’Anthony Melton is not a bad nominee for the title this year, as I think he can fall way too in love with his own handle and ability to hit pull-up jumpers. But Melton is versatile enough that even maddening shooting nights should include helpful defense and some useful passing to set other guys up for buckets.

House, on the other hand, is someone who will live and die by what sort of shooting groove he’s in. He’s a good team defender, but not a routine shutdown guy, so there will be nights where the assignment is a little too much for him and he goes 0/6 from three. You live with it, because he’ll never stop coming and the confidence will never fade. But fans will go through periods where they’ll decide anyone else will do.

Over 1.5 Doc Rivers “media moments”

I will define a “media moment” as an occasion where Rivers gets into a spirited argument with a reporter questioning him following a game, a la “Would you ask Pop that question?” or something along those lines.

There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny on the team this year, so it’s natural that there will be some sniping back and forth between Rivers and people who cover him. The pressure is on, baby.

(An important note: I will not, as an impartial creator of this list, go out of my way to trigger Rivers anymore than I would usually. I have yet to be put on the SummerJam screen by a coach or player during a presser, so we’ll see if the streak ends this year.)

The Sixers make the Eastern Conference Finals

Regular readers will know that I have consistently picked against the Sixers to advance past round two in the preseason column. They have been a model of consistency (in a bad way) in the playoffs, so they’ve made my life easy, but I’m choosing to believe in the higher ceiling, and perhaps in the downfall of others.

I’m not sure how much you can trust the Celtics given, well, the whole Ime Udoka situation and some other factors working against them. Robert Williams’ health seems a bit dicey, but more importantly, they’re relying on Al Horford after he just played deep into June, rather than after the sabbatical year he got while he was in Oklahoma City. Their wings are elite, and they got even deeper in the offseason, but I wonder if last year will have taken some sting out of them.

The Bucks, assuming they’re healthy, remain a major threat to win the title, not just the Eastern Conference. But I do feel better about how the Sixers might stack up with them this year compared to in years past, even if I worry Jrue Holiday would make James Harden look and feel miserable over the course of a series.

Miami deserves to be taken seriously, but they got a bit worse this offseason. I’m not in on the new-look Hawks, my respect for Dejounte Murray’s game notwithstanding, until I see them actually line up together. We don’t need to dwell on Ben Simmons’ Nets. Keep going down the list, and there’s no one I think deserves to be spoken of with true reverence beyond perhaps the first two teams in this section.

Look, here’s the simple reality — you are not going to get many chances like the Sixers did two seasons ago, where you only need to beat a young and unproven Hawks team to advance to the Conference Finals. It’s more likely than not that the Sixers will have to beat a team with heavyweight talent just to make the league semifinals, and no one should take it as a given.

But I think now is the time for progress. It might not be the title win everyone is hoping for, but it’s movement in the right direction.

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