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July 06, 2019

Kawhi Leonard's move to Clippers opens up Eastern Conference for Sixers to take

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Sixers-Raptors-Game-4-1-050519_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

With Kawhi Leonard heading to Los Angeles, the Sixers may be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

The immediate future of the NBA rested in the hands of Kawhi Leonard. He could have stayed in the place where he won his second NBA title, or he could have joined a long line of stars who have signed with the Lakers in free agency, creating a new super team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Leonard chose neither, and his overnight move to the Clippers will inspire hope in fanbases across the country.

For the first time in a long time, there is no air of inevitability hanging over the league. The Warriors lost the player who made them truly unbeatable, and the fallout from Kevin Durant's move to Brooklyn, combined with Klay Thompson's uncertain health, has created a wide-open NBA without a clear "superteam" in sight.

And the Sixers, despite losing Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat in free agency, may have the best case of any team in the East heading into next season.

Joel Embiid can follow the Kawhi Leonard blueprint

After missing two full seasons due to injury, it was hard for the Sixers to convince Joel Embiid he should be sitting out of any games to preserve his health. But his tune seemed to change on that subject during exit interviews this year, and the very player who ended his season showed the value of playing the long game during an 82-game regular season.

Pascal Siakam's emergence for Toronto was essential last year, as it allowed the Raptors to avoid a massive drop-off every time they wanted to buy Leonard a game or a stretch of rest. By keeping Leonard in tip-top shape for the playoffs and building a cohesive identity with and without him, the Raptors were built to respond to playoff adversity, which they did numerous times bouncing back from big defeats.

Up until they signed Al Horford on the opening night of free agency, the Sixers were drawing dead anytime they tried to buy Embiid a moment of time on the bench. Without him on the backline, they have crumbled regardless of how large or small the stakes were.

Horford may not be Embiid, but he will lift the floor of the Embiid-less Sixers basically by himself. Combined with the acquisition of Josh Richardson in the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade, and suddenly the Sixers have a clear-cut identity — long and defensive-minded. That they can preserve that with or without Embiid is a great thing for this group, which has lacked continuity for years even as they've ascended to win 50+ games in each of the last two seasons.

What has taken place at the top of the East will make it easier for the Sixers to live with resting Embiid during the regular season. Toronto is suddenly in murky territory, having lost their best player and another starter from a Finals winning team. The Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana and Nikola Mirotic to an overseas deal. Boston managed to replace Kyrie Irving with Kemba Walker, but they will miss Horford desperately around the rim.

All of these teams will threaten the Sixers in one form or another, and the Brooklyn Nets are coming at some point, too, dependent on Durant's health. But with Embiid missing a large chunk of the season following the All-Star break and other Sixers players actively mailing in games, the Sixers still managed to win 51 games and pose the stiffest test for the eventual champions in round two.

The regular-season wins matter here only in the sense that they will factor into homecourt advantage when the postseason begins. By simply having Embiid on the floor, the Sixers have a chance against any team in the league. They don't necessarily have to juggle the priorities of keeping him healthy for the stretch run and fighting for playoff seeding, because there is a chance they will accomplish both.

Matchups may matter more than ever before

One of the justifications for building a superteam is to matchup proof your team no matter who comes down the pipeline. If you run up against a team with great post defenders, you turn to your pick-and-roll dynamo. Against a team with good perimeter defense, you play bully ball in the paint. You collect as many players as you can who can win one-on-one matchups in their own unique ways, and you adjust the gameplan and touch distribution depending on the team. The pieces might not fit perfectly, but talent finds a way to overcome.

The Sixers did not fit cleanly last year, but there was nowhere for defenders to hide. Either you were putting a smaller defender on Ben Simmons in the post or asking them to chase JJ Redick through and around screens. Neither was a good option. 

At the moment, the league seems to be trending away from that model and in the direction of two-star duos with supporting casts of different strengths. That may be more situational than an active choice, but because these top contenders now have fewer players who can dictate matchups on their own, specific individual quirks may end up being more important in deciding a champion.

One example — Milwaukee will probably be favored to capture the East's No. 1 seed again, but the Sixers can cause serious problems for them because of the addition of Horford, who has defended Giannis Antetokounmpo better than pretty much anyone in the league over the last couple of seasons. The Bucks are Philly's most obvious competition for the Eastern Conference title next season, so it goes without saying that is a huge deal. What is their counter if the Sixers can limit Giannis' effectiveness in a series? They've shown they can bother Milwaukee's other top players, and solving the Giannis puzzle would go a long way toward besting them in a playoff matchup.

On the other hand, imagine a series pitting the Sixers against these newly-formed Clippers. The trio of Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley is one of the best defensive perimeter units in recent league history, and a Sixers team without much ballhandling ability has the potential to get eaten alive by that group. Leonard alone has given Simmons fits in the past, and Simmons no longer has Jimmy Butler to take lead ballhandling responsibilities if things go south. It would take a massive performance from Joel Embiid in particular for the Sixers to have a shot against them, and even then, the league tends to skew in favor of big, shot-making wings.

From the outside, that makes this season a lot more fascinating to observe. There will overreactions to big matchups and national television games as there always are. But this dynamic might put even more pressure on front offices to tinker and find ways around problems, and to react quickly to situational problems by shifting role players in and out of town. Elton Brand will have to closely monitor the team's offensive viability this season and look for ways to plug holes around the core.

Speaking of that core...

The pressure is on for Brett Brown and Ben Simmons

The Sixers will feel good about their chances this season, but expectations can be a burden. If you need evidence of that, think of how much fanfare these Sixers received in Ben Simmons' rookie year vs. the amount of angst caused by avoidable losses in year two of the Embiid-Simmons partnership.

Now, more than ever, that scrutiny is going to point in the direction of the head coach and the point guard.

The pressure on Brown is nothing new around here, but he has quite a task in front of him this summer. The Sixers have sustained themselves predominantly on dribble handoffs the last couple of seasons, often to the chagrin of the fanbase and players who want to run more pick-and-roll. With JJ Redick out of the picture, they've lost their biggest weapon in the former, and Butler's exit was the biggest hit to the latter.

Even setting aside the play types they end up using, where do you stick everybody on the floor? Al Horford can step out and shoot threes, but a majority of his looks from deep come from above the break, where Embiid tends to get his three-point attempts. If he's on the block, it's harder to stick Simmons at the dunker's spot, though you're also going to see a clogged paint either way unless Simmons emerges as a shooter of any kind.

And that is really the million dollar question for this Sixers team — does Simmons come back with any semblance of a jumper next season? His brother, Liam Tribe Simmons, has been the instructor working closest with Simmons over the last year, but he has spent chunks of this summer working with renowned NBA trainer Chris Johnson, who typically has dozens of NBA clients every summer and previously worked on a more full-time, in-season basis with Jimmy Butler.

Simmons' jumper (or lack thereof) has only become more important now that Butler moved to South Beach. There is no perimeter initiator to turn to if teams sag off of Simmons and dare him to shoot in the playoffs. And they likely will no matter what — Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala have hit massive shots in the playoffs over and over again, and yet the Raptors were happy to leave them wide open all throughout the Finals, daring them to beat them.

Simmons and his coach have made it clear that he is a point guard, end of discussion. On a team devoid of handling elsewhere, that is a massive responsibility, and in many ways Philadelphia's summer is a bet on him becoming the player people theorize he can be. But all the hoping and wishing in the world isn't going to matter if we get to round two and teams don't have to pretend they have to guard him on the perimeter.

They get forgotten because of his struggles beyond the first round, but Simmons has had some huge playoff games already in his young career, including the game of his life so far against Brooklyn. Brett Brown's round two adjustments helped push the Raptors to seven games, though ultimately what the record shows is that a very talented team didn't advance.

Both men are under pressure to show growth next season, and with Simmons likely to agree to a contract extension in the near future, Brown is the obvious fall guy if they don't get where people believe they should go.

The Eastern Conference champion has fallen apart, and the Sixers have a top-10 player in the league with a talented supporting cast around him. They are a sight to behold on paper, but only time will tell if they live up to the hype.


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