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June 26, 2020

Mailbag: What does successful restart look like for NBA, Sixers? Will Sixers use extra roster spot?

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11_Brett_Brown_Sixers_Bench_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Head coach Brett Brown talks to Sixers players on the bench.

After a bit of a hiatus, the Sixers mailbag is back here at PhillyVoice as we inch closer to the restart of the 2019-20 NBA season. No news is good news at this stage for the Sixers, with other teams in the process of announcing positive COVID-19 tests, players dropping out of the Orlando games, and so forth.

Don't rule the Sixers out of delivering some unpleasant news, of course. Philadelphia doesn't leave for Orlando for another two weeks (they depart on July 9th, to be exact) and a lot can happen during that window. Especially for a franchise that has, to put it gently, often managed to pull bizarre news out of thin air.

While we continue to wait on the return of basketball, here are answers to some of the questions you all had regarding the local hoops team.


My version of successful looks a lot different than I would imagine the NBA's does. So long as no one suffers serious complications as a result of the restart, and so long as they can bring some cash in during a time where lots of businesses are bleeding money, they'll come away satisfied. A star player being quarantined mid-stream would be disappointing and lead to a bunch of asterisk discussions, but they just need the show to go on.

"Success" to me is setting an example that the rest of the sports world can follow during these times. It'll be difficult for other leagues to duplicate the campus environment, as Malcolm Jenkins noted on Thursday, but the NBA can still lead. As one example: it would be a huge positive if well-known NBA players follow proper protocols with social distancing, mask-wearing, and other safety measures that have inexplicably become political debates. I don't think athletes should be expected to be our top role models, but they have considerable influence and could go a long way toward shedding the idea that "toughness" has anything to do with wearing a mask or not.

Beyond that, the hope would be to pull through the season without any further positive tests and with as satisfying a conclusion as you could hope for in this setup. I don't think it's likely, but you always hope for the best at the outset.

On the Sixers' side of things, winning a title would obviously be the ultimate success. Given how unrealistic that seems at the current juncture, what is worth focusing on outside of that? 

The Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid partnership is the first thing that comes to mind. Sure, it would be great if Al Horford looked more like the guy who tortured them for years with the Celtics, if Tobias Harris morphed into the big-time scorer he's paid like, and if young bench players blossom under the bright lights of Disney World. But the title window for Philadelphia hinges on the two stars coexisting. That's not just being on the court simultaneously — it entails running plays together, making each other better, and planting the seeds of success for years to come.

Considering the holes in each of their games, I'm about as bullish on that happening this summer as I am about the league's broader chance at "success." But it's what the situation demands.

Perhaps it has been too long since I've gone down a comic book wormhole, but I was struggling to think of a superhero (or villian) that was actually made of radiation. There's a long list of characters altered in some way by radiation, though I'm not sure what the precedent is for fictional characters composed only of radiation. Can he manipulate matter, a la Dr. Manhattan, or is he just sort of there?

I think the upside is pretty tantalizing so I'd take him No. 1, but I understand people who would approach the situation more cautiously.

I touched on this a bit in an article earlier this week, but the way players respond and adapt to a fan-less environment is one of the big points of intrigue in Orlando. In the past, I probably would have been generous to Embiid and said that I believe his competitive instincts will take over, but this season has been more of a mixed bag for him than any previous year.

Early in his career, Embiid was often too fired up for his own good. He would try to run down every player he could for chasedown blocks, go careening into the stands chasing loose balls, and often land in a manner that would scare everyone in Philadelphia. 

While toning it down has allowed him to stay relatively healthy, it has led to some maddening bouts of apathy on the court. Is that simply his way of getting through the long haul, or are there other factors at play? The fit with Al Horford, for example, has to be frustrating for a guy who has already had to make concessions for it to work with Ben Simmons.

And for what it's worth, Embiid has never been shy about the impact of crowds, friendly or hostile, on his play. The mental side of the game is huge for him — we're talking about a guy who has claimed that cutting down on trash talk took him out of his rhythm earlier this season.

I don't think you become as good at basketball as Embiid is as quickly as he did without having serious competitive fire. The hope has to be that is what will shine through in Orlando, and not the side of Embiid that has had trouble maintaining focus or committing 150 percent to health and conditioning when he's away from the hardwood.

Here's the short version: the cap is going to drop in absolutely insane fashion and the league is going to have to alter the CBA/salary cap rules in order to avoid most, if not all of the league becoming luxury tax teams. Too early to know the specifics yet, but this is a storyline that isn't going away.

I suppose it's within the realm of possibility, but it feels unlikely that an entire team could get derailed by this at once. Maybe that's wishful thinking, but so far, even teams that have had players test positive have avoided a team-wide outbreak. Is that dumb luck or a result of teams prepping for COVID-19? Not for me to decide, but given the extra precautions and isolation in Orlando, it doesn't seem like the time for a departure from that trend.

A star being ruled out? That's a different story. It only takes one big-name player being removed from action, one guy coming into contact with the wrong person, one guy not taking proper precautions or ignoring rules he isn't supposed to. The only thing that gives me pause? The guys at the top of the league totem pole are often maniacal competitors on a level different from those below them, and perhaps in this instance, that manifests as being hyper-vigilant about doing everything they can to stay out of harm's way.

But there's only so much they all can do. They'll be playing a contact sport in a "bubble" environment that isn't quite a bubble. A big-deal positive test seems inevitable.

Hot take and jokes aside: Horford is going to be super important during the Orlando restart. While everyone has rightfully focused on how and why it hasn't worked for him in Philly, we can't just ignore the problem the Sixers have had finding a suitable backup for Joel Embiid in years past. The Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater was the final dagger last season, but Philadelphia's inability to get any competent play with Embiid on the bench was the constant issue.

From a big-picture perspective, Horford being great for 12 minutes a night as Embiid's playoff backup isn't going to make anyone feel better about the contract he was given. But it could absolutely be the difference between Philadelphia winning or losing a series. 

Is the partnership with Embiid suddenly going to look awesome? Hell no. Should he be replaced as a starter, as it looked like he would post-deadline? Almost certainly. And I can't imagine Horford would be happy with (or even agree to play) a severely diminished role. But he'll have a part to play.

Speaking of...

I think Shake Milton probably has to be given the chance to stick with the other four no-doubt guys (Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Embiid). He's the guy who makes the most sense on paper, he was trending upward in a big way last we saw him, and getting him reps sooner rather than later can help them figure out just how prominent a role he might be able to play moving forward.

It has been said many times but should be repeated: the fifth starter does not have to be one of the five best players or guaranteed to close out the game. The Sixers are going to have to tinker late in games depending on the matchup. Sometimes they're going to need Matisse Thybulle's superior defensive skills on the perimeter. Sometimes they'll need Horford's size and experience in big moments. Sometimes, they'll just need a guy who can dribble and knock down an open three.

Milton doesn't have much of a track record to speak of, but conceptually, he does the best job helping to tie together the rest of the starters. That's more relevant than what Horford did in years past on teams built to better complement his skillset. 

I have asked on this a ton and haven't heard anything to suggest so yet, but it's a big TBD. They have a handful of upcoming free agents and players with growing families at home, so you never know how they all weigh the risk vs. reward of the Orlando situation.

Can they? They could win the whole damn thing if they were able to stay healthy and get their shit together. They have a ton of talent, the size and skill to matchup with just about anyone, and a defensive gear that allows them to play games on their terms when they're at their best.

Will they? That feels like an outcome similar to those they have had the last two seasons. Their likely opponents in round two, should they advance, are either Milwaukee or Toronto. The former has been the league's best team, and the latter is a cohesive, tough team in the midst of a title defense who also happens to own perhaps the league's best Embiid defender. Is it reasonable to expect the Sixers to win against either opponent in an average series? I don't think so.

Inventiveness has not exactly been the Sixers' M.O. with the back of their roster, so I'm not expecting any 5D chess moves with the additional roster space they have thanks to the pandemic situation. Ask around and you'll get the same boilerplate answers about always looking to improve the team no matter who you reach out to right now.

As far as what they need, shooting and ballhandling are no less valuable now than they were before the world was shut down. If they can grab somebody who can do one of those things, great. Both? That'd be a huge win.

Anything short of a Finals appearance, even in these unique circumstances, feels like it will be enough for a coaching change. It's an area where you can make a "big" change without undergoing another overhaul, it's easy to sell to the publc, and perhaps most importantly, it's a plausible route to improving the team. I would say I'm higher on Brown's acumen then a decent chunk of the fanbase, but he's certainly not sniffing the top tier of NBA coaches, and just as you want to strive to have the best players, you certainly want to strive for the best coaches and executives.

I think there are scenarios where he could be back without a Finals appearance. Would they let him go if Sixers-Bucks is the Eastern Conference Finals matchup and Philly loses in another seventh game heartbreaker? Maybe, but that's different than a sweep, which is different from a second-round exit, and so forth. 

Context is always worth considering. But in more scenarios than not, I think there will be a new sheriff in town next season.

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