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April 11, 2019

Revisiting our preseason predictions about the Sixers

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041119-JimmyButlerBenSimmons-USAToday Eric Hartline/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) and guard Jimmy Butler (23) during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

Preseason predictions often look foolish by the time the end of the season rolls around, and I think that's sort of the point of the exercise. Everyone gets to have a laugh at the sportswriter, and since I'm a good sport, we're going to revisit what I had to say about the Sixers way back in October, when everyone was still counting on Robert Covington and Markelle Fultz to be part of the Sixers' long-term plan.

The good news for yours truly — some of my predictions ended up looking good. There are a few that won't be decided until end-of-season honors are handed down by the NBA, but at the very least, I did not make a complete fool of myself, which is a definite plus.

Alas, no one is perfect, so let's run through these from first to last. For reference, the predictions were published on October 16 on the morning of the season opener against Boston. You can read my explanations in full here if you so choose.

Prediction: The Sixers will not win more games than last season

Outcome: Sixers finished with fewer wins than last season

Las Vegas' win total (54 or 54.5 depending on where you looked) was always a bit high for Philadelphia, in my eyes. But that was for the former version of the team that didn't also have Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, and I wonder what the predictions would have looked like if anyone could have foreseen those moves coming.

In hindsight, I wish I would have predicted less wins than 2017-18 instead of hedging a bit, though I probably would have been sweating that one before the Sixers decided they wanted to punt the end of the season.

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

Outcome: All-Star, with All-NBA voting TBD

Still feeling pretty good about this one based on how the season has unfolded. If I had to guess, I would say James Harden, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and Russell Westbrook will be the All-NBA guards this year, with Simmons on the outside looking in. The first four are locks, so it's the final two spots that will be in the eye of the beholder.

Simmons' lack of progression as a scorer makes it easy for voters to take the view that he has not developed as much as he should have (and that may be the case), and when you're competing against a handful of stars for season-long recognition, I think that will hurt him. I think his defensive ability should probably matter more than it will, but rarely does that serve as a trump card in these discussions.

Prediction: Landry Shamet will be the most impactful Sixers rookie

Outcome: It was Shamet by a mile

Shamet didn't end up having a lot of competition here, thanks to the emergency surgery that complicated Zhaire Smith's return to basketball. But when you consider the season he has had, both as a scoring option off of the bench and later as an integral piece in the Tobias Harris deal, it would have been difficult even for a healthy Smith to match Shamet.

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

Outcome: Maybe they're saving him for the playoffs

This was made with the May 24th release date of the new Aladdin movie in mind, so I am still holding onto this one for now. Plus, we've seen some Sixers link up with Smith recently...

...so maybe they have something in store for the postseason. As of right now, it's a point against me. I need to do a better job.

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

Outcome: Close, but no cigar

The final tally for Muscala in Philadelphia: 59 percent of his minutes at power forward, 41 percent at center. At the beginning of the year we saw more of him next to Joel Embiid, and I think Brett Brown probably would have liked to play him there more if their backup centers were any good, but that was not how it worked out.

Honestly, I was surprised he even got to 59 percent looking back at the season. Muscala took over the backup center job for long stretches, and I thought I would have been further off than I was. During his Lakers stint, we saw more of what I expected in Philly, with Muscala playing 8 percent of his minutes at power forward in L.A.

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

Outcome: Nope

Still part of the rotation, still leaned on plenty despite the team adding ball handlers who could have prompted the team to look for a different option at backup point.

As they say on the Iron Islands, what is dead may never die

Prediction: Markelle Fultz will make less than 35 threes this season

Outcome: Well, I definitely wasn't wrong 

In fairness, Fultz did only appear in 19 games. But he only attempted 14 threes during that time, making four of them. If you turn that into an 82-game sample, Fultz would have been expected to make just over 17 threes, and that feels generous based on what we saw this season.

Here's a crazy stat for those of you who have the fortune of not following me on Twitter: in the six games he appeared in after returning from injury, Zhaire Smith already has more made and attempted threes than Fultz has across 33 games over 2 seasons. That is not an outcome I ever would have been prepared for when Fultz was drafted. In fairness, I also was not aware of Zhaire Smith when Fultz was drafted, but I don't think that would have made a difference.

I wish him the best of luck when he's back up and running in Orlando.

Prediction: JJ Redick will start more games than Markelle Fultz

Outcome: Not even close

As it turns out, shooting and reliability tend to matter.

Prediction: The most prominent in-season trade rumor will concern Bradley Beal

Outcome: Whoops!

Needless to say, I was not expecting one, let alone two franchise-altering trades this season. I ended up being right about the Wizards turning into a disaster this year, but Beal never really surfaced in any Sixers talks that I'm aware of. And my read on the Butler interest, which many in the organization downplayed when inquired about it, obviously ended up being incorrect.

I will certainly stand by the idea that Beal would have been a better fit, but that would have come at an even higher cost, and I don't get the impression he was ever truly available this year anyway. 

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

Outcome: Progress, but not enough

Simmons sought out more contact and got to the line more consistently this season, but he only managed to climb up to 60 percent on the year. I thought a full offseason spent working on his free throws would bring substantial progress, but now I'm a bit less optimistic that he's ever going to develop a jumper. His form is still a mess, the ball comes out of his hands with side spin, it's all pretty ugly.

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

Outcome: Happy trails, JB

When your most valuable trait is that your contract can be used to match salary in a bigger deal, it turns out your team doesn't need to do a lot of showcasing of your talent in advance of a trade.

It took a trade to Minnesota to get Bayless off the pine this season. His return to Philadelphia in mid-January featured some of the loudest boos I've heard at the Wells Fargo Center in recent years, which is pretty hilarious when you consider how insignificant he was during his time here. The guy was not even a little bit good, but the real problem was Bryan Colangelo paying him too much.

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

Outcome: Well, they did trade for one

Based on my own criteria from before the season, Tobias Harris doesn't count here. But since Jimmy Butler was in the group of players I suggested would qualify, I think it counts as a win when you consider that he's, you know, already on the roster.

(I think there are doubts about him re-signing, but the ties are undeniable, obviously.)

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

Outcome: To be determined

This is a tough one, because I believe Embiid has a strong case but think there are numerous factors working against him. The top-two on every ballot will almost certainly be Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden, and after that is where it gets tricky. 

I think Joel Embiid is straight up better than Nikola Jokic, but Jokic has played more games and the Nuggets are the No. 2 seed in the tougher conference, which will help him with voters. Paul George lost momentum during Oklahoma City's second-half downturn, but he had a career year and plenty of buzz throughout the season. After that, it's anyone's guess. Will people vote for one of the two primary Warriors stars? Damian Lillard? 

If I had a ballot, he would be in the top-five. It remains to be seen if the basketball media at large feel the same way, and my guess is no.

Prediction: Embiid will score at least 25 points per game

Outcome: 27.5 is even better than 25

Despite adding stars who demand touches to the roster, the world still revolves around Embiid in Philadelphia. It should — he's the team's best player and will ultimately decide whether they win a championship one day. This has been quite a season for him, even with the games he has missed.

I wish I had gone in stronger on Embiid predictions, in hindsight. He has been so good without real offseasons to work with that it should have been obvious he would come out and kick everyone's butt once he was able to do work in the summer.

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

Outcome: To be determined

Here's part of what I wrote in October:

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.

We have not seen a full-strength matchup of this year's Raptors and the new-look Sixers, and we should get one in round two. It's not one that I think favors Philadelphia, even with all the changes. Toronto is deep and versatile and has been dominant since the trade deadline, and their continuity will likely matter against a Sixers team that still plays as if they don't recognize each other at times.

The Sixers have the talent to go stride-for-stride with anybody in the league. But in the final few rounds of the playoffs, everyone has talent, and it's in those moments where things like depth and continuity matter. Your stars can play their hearts out and you can still lose because your opponent killed you whenever Embiid hit the bench.

At this moment, I would still pick Toronto to win a series against Philly. The Sixers have more options to beat them, but they need to prove they can make that matter before I take that as a given.


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