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December 22, 2020

Season-long predictions for the 2020-21 Sixers, including record, final destination, and more

NBA Sixers Predictions
Sixers-Tobias-Harris-122320_USAT Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports

Will Tobias Harris show he's worth the money in 2021?

It's every NBA writer's favorite time of year, where we make predictions about your favorite team that will be held against us if we're wrong and forgotten if we're right. In the midst of a global pandemic, it's even more difficult to make sense of this stuff than usual, with limited practice access and a shortened preseason dooming us to ignorance. Add on that Philadelphia changed coaches, and there's every excuse to sit out this game for 2020-21.

But what kind of coward move would that be? What would the fun in that be? With the league already up and running following a pair of games on Tuesday night, the Sixers kick off their season against Russell Westbrook and the Wizards on Wednesday night. In celebration of basketball's return, I present 10 predictions for the upcoming season, which you can dismiss or take seriously at your own peril.

Joel Embiid makes an All-NBA team 

I am buying Embiid stock ahead of this season. All of his promises about getting in shape and taking care of himself in the past have come with caveats and assertions that he wasn't doing anything different other than working harder. There are clear differences this year, with Embiid hiring a team of people around him to get his mind and body right.

It goes without saying that this roster has been adjusted to better suit the man in the middle, and a change in disposition will make all the difference. I think it goes deeper than that, too, and believed so even before reports came out about Embiid supposedly vetoing Tyronn Lue as a coaching candidate. Embiid has a lot of power in the organization, and while he likes to dismiss and deflect every time that is brought up, he doesn't have the strongest poker face. The big guy vocally celebrated many of the team's big managerial changes as they happened, a contrast to many of his colleagues, who kept their heads down and stayed quiet.

Nobody doubts Embiid's talent, and now, nobody should doubt the improved situation around him. As Doc Rivers has been happy to point out during training camp, if teams want to double Embiid and concede open threes to guys like Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Shake Milton, the Sixers will celebrate. And they're not going to rely on Embiid creating everything out of the post, the system and personnel both taking some of the halfcourt burden off of his shoulders. He'll be quite happy to screen into a boatload of free-throw line jumpers. 

Embiid's happiness on offense, I suspect, will be enough to bring him back closer to his best on the defensive end of the floor, and that's where Philly really needs him this season. The Sixers have question marks on defense throughout the rotation, a roughly 50/50 split of good and bad defenders depending on how it shakes out, and they need him to be the stabilizing presence on the back end he was in years past. They can't afford to have him drifting through games and checking out of road games against lesser competition. I think the combination of looking lighter on his feet and a new voice in his ear will do the trick.

Here's the caveat I'll make here — while many would expect an All-NBA nod to mean he's a lock for All-Defense honors and hardware, I actually think the competition is pretty tough there. Anthony Davis delivered an A1 defensive season last year, Rudy Gobert is a yearly fixture in the voting there, and Bam Adebayo is riding high after a deep playoff run last year. He is not running unopposed. 

Joel Embiid shoots at least 35 percent from three 

I have given up on my "Will Smith rings the bell tradition" that made the list each of the last two seasons, but I won't let go of this one. Doc Rivers has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't want to limit Embiid exclusively to the post. In fact, he went so far as to condemn that strategy when the topic was brought up recently.

"Either we can make the choice let's choke him, let's say you can only choose post-play shots, I know that would hurt the offense if that's all he did," Rivers said. "I can guarantee you that when you have the ability like he does to mix up and change and do different things, I’ve been around offensively as long enough to know you allow him to be offensive. And that's important."

The big guy still has the green light. I'm expecting him to make use of it, and to finally start connecting more on 

Ben Simmons repeats on All-Defense, does not make All-NBA

If I haven't made it clear with my discussion of Harden trade proposals and thoughts on Simmons' development, I have reached the point of pessimism with Philadelphia's younger star. I think we will hit a point this season where the public perception begins to turn against him because this is the year frustration over his style of play may finally boil over.

A fourth straight season with Simmons playing basically the same game on offense is not going to go over well. He may have taken a three in their win over the Pacers last Friday, but the hang-ups with his approach remain. His first and second instinct is to create for others, not hunt his own shot, and unless that changes he is going to find it hard to win people over who prioritize the "getting buckets" portion of basketball. There's also expected to be more competition this year than last — Simmons was fortunate to make All-NBA last year with a couple of high-level guards (Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry) missing considerable time. Irving looks to be on a great team and is primed to have a huge year, while Curry remains one of the game's most ridiculous offensive weapons.

The good news is I think his defensive progress is real and believe he is on the path to becoming a consistent All-NBA defender. A healthy chunk of his improvement is due to considerably better effort and focus than he showed during his first two seasons, but there has been growth mentally as well, with Simmons having a much better grasp of when to gamble and when not to. His ability to guard five positions is overstated (I am a skeptic of the "Simmons at the five" movement) but he has what it takes to shut down an opposing team's best player every night.

The next two predictions are going to be popular ones around the media circuit, so I'll ride the current on one and go against the grain on the other.

Tyrese Maxey plays more minutes than Matisse Thybulle 

It is no secret that Doc Rivers wants lots of shooting on the floor at all times, and I think he is willing to sacrifice some defensive edge to make that happen. Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz have been talked about as a duo for most of the preseason, coaches and players are raving about Mike Scott, and Dwight Howard is going to be the guy asked to hold those backups together on the back end.

Maxey brings something to the table that the Sixers don't really have: a downhill style complete with pace changing and terrific touch around the basket. Thybulle has terrific defensive upside but is an erratic offensive player with no self-creation skills, and I'm betting on the rook to overcome Rivers' usual distaste for playing young guys. 

Shake Milton remains a bench player for most of the season, but he joins the closing lineup before the All-Star break

Based on our minuscule two-game sample, it seems Milton is poised for a breakout season. That being the case, everyone seems to be expecting him to get bumped up to the starting five and get his shot to run with the big boys. It's reasonable enough.

Here's why I'm going the other way — Rivers genuinely values the ability to bring punch off of the bench, especially in the form of a guy who can go and fill it up on his own. While Milton is not Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford, he's a bit less dependent on others than, for example, Seth Curry, who would be the early candidate to switch spots with Milton if things change. I think Milton can control the second-unit offense in a way Curry can't, especially if Rivers favors all-bench or bench-heavy lineups the way he did early in the preseason.

By the same token, I think the extra bit of dynamism (and a bit more size) earns Milton a spot in the closing lineup before the first half of the season comes to a close. 

Tobias Harris doesn't look much different under Doc Rivers than he did last season

Harris returning to "Clippers Harris" form has been a popular question among media members and a hot topic with fans. It's a logical enough premise — get the big-money guy back in the system of the coach who earned him the fat paycheck, and maybe he returns to the form that inspired the old front office to trade for him.

Consider me a skeptic. Coaxing Harris into being a quicker decisionmaker was a point of emphasis throughout training camp, yet it didn't seem to take if we judge him on his preseason reps. Harris tends to be a methodical guy even when he's at his best, sizing up opponents and relying on shotmaking to win the day. If he were shooting 40+ percent from three, as he did for a two-year stretch, I think a lot of people would be willing to cut him some slack. But I think he probably settles in somewhere around 38 percent, a good but not great mark and not enough to settle anger about his contract.

That last part is important, if not for on-court reasons then at least for off-court discussions. This is not a town all that willing to forgive players they believe to be overpaid, even semi-productive ones. It would take a pretty sizable step forward for Harris to win the admiration of the public, and I don't see it. 

Furkan Korkmaz, not Seth Curry, is Philadelphia's best three-point shooter this season

Look, I have to go out on a limb for some of these or there would be no sense in reading all of this. Korkmaz will have a smaller role, but I think Rivers is going to get the absolute best out of him, and I love what I've seen from him and Milton playing together so far. This is also a small bet on a player coming to Philadelphia and getting worse, which is written into the bylaws of the city's charter, I think. At least a step back for Curry would still be elite shooting.

Philadelphia earns a top-four seed in the East 

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I think Milwaukee will win a lot of games again, I think Brooklyn is a threat to be taken seriously, and I think the Heat will continue building momentum after a strong playoff run. Beyond that, I have a lot of questions about how teams respond to roster shifts and injury-related issues. In Boston, they lost Gordon Hayward and have looked pretty shaky in the preseason. In Toronto, they lost their two best bigs, and while I think Aron Baynes was a nice pick up for them, he has missed time each of the last two seasons and is certainly not as versatile as Serge Ibaka.

So why not Philly as the fourth team in the top half? They were a trainwreck in every way last season, and they still weren't that far off the pace of the Pacers, who nabbed the four seed in the bubble. 

The coaching change alone should be enough to add a few extra wins to this roster. I am sure some people think the Brown-Rivers swap is worth much more than that, but I think a several win jump is actually pretty significant in that respect. Rivers' arrival certainly doesn't mean they will be immune to second-half collapses, but I think his offensive prowess will lead to fewer dips in form, and the bench looks like it will be able to at least hold water, if not win Philadelphia some games this season, a major change from past seasons.

Mark me down for 47-25 on the prediction sheet.

The Sixers make at least one major in-season trade

This is intentionally vague language because I don't know how to set this bar. What constitutes "major" if I were asking you? We could probably use contract numbers to set a threshold (maybe a returning player making at least $15-20 million a year) but as many of you know, expensive does not mean good.

But this belief stems from one of my chief beliefs heading into the season — I do not believe this roster is that much better than last season's group. Do the pieces fit together better? Absolutely. Will they be a hell of a lot more watchable? I would personally guarantee that. Entertainment value should not be confused with their ability to contend for a championship (though the two are often related).

This roster has been revamped in order to basically clear the deck around Embiid and Simmons, allowing them to take this group as far as they're capable. What happens if they're not? I'm not trying to beat a dead horse, but Simmons' offensive approach has not appreciably changed in three years. The most likely outcome, then, is that he's not making sweeping changes this year, and the Sixers end up relying too heavily on shotmaking from role players to carry them to victory. It is not an accident that this group was at its best when they basically kicked Simmons out of his preferred offensive role and allowed Jimmy Butler to run the show in the 2019 playoffs. Contenders are built around players who are elite shot makers and creators rolled into one player, not one or the other.

Guys like Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey appear as though they'll give this rotation some teeth. But if and when the Sixers need a high-level perimeter engine to pick up the slack in the playoffs, it seems unfair to expect those guys to be enough. I don't think Morey will sit on his hands.

The Sixers do not make it past the second round

One of the major questions I've been asked when positing that Philly should trade for Harden is, "Who would the Sixers have left to defend elite perimeter players?" It's a fair question, and a problem they would have to figure out. I counter with a series of questions: what perimeter player do the Sixers have that opponents actually have to worry about in the playoffs? What will stop teams from doubling Embiid and just daring a bunch of role players to beat them when it counts? If Embiid has a tough matchup in the playoffs, a big physical opponent who manages to bother him, what is Philadelphia's path to victory? There is no Jimmy Butler here to grab the team by the neck and drag them to victory.

Winning by committee is a much easier task in the regular season. Guys like Shake Milton can get away with a lack of top-end burst or a decent, but not great handle when they're playing a team like the Hornets in mid-February. Banking on them to sustain your offense in pressure cooker moments against good defenses who are exclusively scouting and prepping for you is a different story. That is a problem even when you have better (or at least more decorated) players than Milton, or Maxey, and so forth. 

Doc Rivers has been a victim of this phenomenon. Lou Williams is one of the league's best bench scorers and owns a career 39.3 percent mark from the field across nine playoff appearances and 71 games played, nearly the full length of this year's abbreviated season. Williams also gets to the line less in the postseason, regardless of whether you use rate statistics or his basic per game averages, making it even more difficult to offset the drop in efficiency. His strip club chicken wing controversy was so loud in the bubble that it covered for the fact that he shot 23.5 percent from three in the midst of L.A.'s collapse. And this is not just an excuse to rag on Williams — he is one of many players who is a difference-maker across 82 games who sees the margins shrink when he's trying to win 16 games.

To win in the playoffs, you need your top dogs to be borderline immune to circumstances, matchups, and setting. Simmons has come nowhere close to proving he is that, and I would argue Embiid hasn't either, with the big fella struggling to beat double teams or big, physical defenders like Marc Gasol. 

Doc Rivers' big talking point has been to point out that these two haven't won "yet," not that they simply can't win. While the coach's point is well taken, they would have to be a mold-breaking champion to reach the summit unless Simmons makes a sudden and drastic step forward as an attacker, making a leap larger than I think anyone could reasonably expect.

Even setting those concerns aside, there are no easy matchups in the East anymore. Let's say 1-7 is some combination of Milwaukee-Brooklyn-Miami-Toronto-Boston-Indiana-Philly. Your best-case scenario is drawing the Pacers in the opening round, and then every matchup after that has pitfalls (although weirdly enough, I think they are better suited to beat Brooklyn than most of the conference).

I reserve the right to change my opinion on this if they swing a deal for a major impact star on the perimeter, whether that's Harden or some other name that hasn't been discussed yet. Failing that, I think we end up in a familiar place at the start of next offseason, asking questions about how (or if) you can turn an odd couple into a title-winning tandem.

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