August 01, 2020
Predictions for the NBA season are an annual source of mockery and insanity, so why not bring that same energy to the Orlando restart? The Sixers have their first game of consequence against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night, and before that tips off, we have a series of predictions to offer on the action yet to come.
For the record, I am not liable for any decisions and gambling losses you make as a result of his column. I am just a man with opinions like anyone else. But let's have some fun. Feel free to chime in with your own predictions below.
Let's split these games up into wins and losses.
WINS: Indiana, San Antonio, Washington, Portland, Toronto
LOSSES: Orlando, Phoenix, Houston
There are going to be at least two bad losses in this slate. My money goes on Orlando (a team with a good defensive coach) and Phoenix (the front half of their only back-to-back). The Houston game could end up being a laugher or an easy win depending on what the standings look like, but I'm not picking them to win in advance until I see more.
San Antonio and Washington should be cakewalks. Portland isn't a guaranteed W, but they should be expected to win that one. Indiana is behind the eight ball without Sabonis, and Toronto would be their signature win that sets expectations unreasonably high for the playoffs, only for the eventual gut punch to come.
The Korkmaz breakout year has been a sight to behold, and being around the team all the time, it's hard not to feel good for the Turkish wing. His buzzer-beater vs. Portland gave him a massive confidence boost, and his growth hasn't been limited to on-court production. Korkmaz acts more comfortable and confident at all times these days, and getting to see his funny side come out has been delightful.
I'm skeptical he hangs around when the games matter, though. Brett Brown trusts him a lot and went to him early during scrimmage rotations, but I would be nervous about his playoff inexperience and the ability for teams to play him off of the floor. Teams zero in on specific matchups and target poor defenders more in the playoffs, and Korkmaz will have a target on his back whenever he's on the floor despite his improved defensive awareness this season.
With Brown raving about Glenn Robinson III's two-way play and Alec Burks offering dynamism on offense, Korkmaz seems like a guy who could get buried.
This feels like a safe bet to me for multiple reasons. For one, Joel Embiid's health remains a constant uncertainty, and it would be naive to think he won't deal with any issues between now and the end of Philadelphia's season. Hell, I know it was mostly precautionary to keep him out of 2/3 scrimmage games — Embiid didn't even make the injury report for Saturday's opener vs. Indiana — but health issues pop up seemingly at will for the big fella.
But I don't think Embiid's health is the end-all, be-all factor you'd think it is here. The real reason I think Horford will start again at some point is because I have low-ish confidence in their chances down in Orlando, and I think Brown might need a lineup curveball at some point. The most obvious place to look is the $100+ million player who has been relegated to sixth man duties.
This might not end up being an indictment of Shake Milton, for the record. The young guard has had a nice start to his stay in Orlando, and his shooting seems to be for real, if nothing else. But sizing up is the first obvious move to make if things go south for Philly at some point, and, well, hold that thought for later.
If Tobias Harris shot the same in Philadelphia as he did when he played for the Clippers, we might be talking about the Sixers attempting to repeat as champions. Reality has been much harsher. Harris was below average from deep during the regular season last year, slightly below average in the playoffs, and closed at a slightly above average 36.2 percent before the season shut down in mid-March.
My belief in Harris is multi-faceted. I think he's a better shooter than he has shown himself to be in Philadelphia, but I also think the environment will tilt toward offense in Orlando. The defensive sharpness that comes with playing basketball from late October through the end of the playoffs will not be there this season, opening the door for offensive explosions in the playoffs. Open looks aren't all it takes, but pair that with the lack of pressure in a crowdless environment, and I think guys like Harris could have a field day in Orlando.
So why not higher than 37 percent, given that logic? Listen, I'm not that confident in Harris having a good run. You've all read what I've said about him all year. Great guy, sometimes confusing player.
This sounds like a big old pile of nothing, and for most players in the modern NBA, it would be. But taking a three every other game would be a galactic step forward for Simmons, and we've already seen an early sign of progress.
As with Harris, don't you have to factor in the "benefits" of a fanless environment? There are no more fans on the road jeering him from the sideline, no more Sixers fans at the Wells Fargo Center braying "SHOOT!" like he's a nondescript Flyers center at the helm of the Peco Power Play. All that's there with him are his teammates and the work he has put in, and while we've heard this song and dance before, it seems something different has gotten into Ben Simmons.
I'm buying conservatively on his shot, at least in the regular season. In the playoffs? Ehhh....
Brett Brown has made his expectation quite clear for the big man: 38 minutes per game is the magic number. The head coach hasn't backed off it one bit, repeating the number on several occasions, and with his job likely on the line this postseason, it's understandable he wants to go down swinging with his best player leading the way.
I just don't see how he gets there. Even if Embiid stays mostly healthy for the restart, there's the matter of staying fresh from game-to-game. He is a big man dragging a lot of weight up and down the court, a hell of a lot more than he carried coming out of Kansas or in his first year in the league, and it's natural to get fatigued with the two-way burden he carries at that size. You're asking him to add several minutes per game on top of a heavy workload, with the consideration that their expensive sixth man is ready to come in and spell him.
Even the 36-minute mark feels ambitious and optimistic for me, but I can at least conceptualize that. 38 minutes feels like much more of a stretch.
Pretty straightforward for me. The Pacers are missing one of their best players and are a "try hard" team in an environment where I don't believe effort is going to be an issue. I think the Sixers pass them and sit in fifth heading into the playoffs.
This brings me to my last point, one I made before the season.
I predicted the Sixers would fall short of the NBA Finals when I did season predictions in the fall. Man, that feels like a lifetime ago.
I want to revisit something I said back then:
The Sixers are going to spend this season just trying to figure out who they are. Do they have enough shooting? Who gets the ball in crunch time? Is Simmons a 16-game player on top of being an 82-game player? Their assumed crunch-time five, no matter what they tell you, is trending in the opposite direction of where the league is headed. It's too soon to tell whether that gives them a market advantage or if it's a weakness sleeker teams can exploit when it matters, but as a new group, the onus is on the Sixers to prove it's the former.
Meanwhile, the Bucks are coming back with what is effectively the same team as last season, with the same bad taste left in their mouths that the holdover Sixers feel after losing to the Raptors. They have the advantages of being an incumbent without the risks of pride and complacency that cause backslides for more successful groups. They were the best team in basketball during the regular season last year, and though the loss of Malcolm Brogdon will hurt them, the guy who makes it all go is a 24-year-old freak of nature who has a case as the best two-way player on Earth.
The Sixers have done nothing to make those questions go away since late October, and the Bucks have lived up to their billing as a great team led by a transcendent star ready to come back and kick ass this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly win his second consecutive MVP award, and the Bucks have a cohesive identity around their leading man.
Now is not the time to abandon instincts that have proven to be on the money. The thing is, I'm not confident the Sixers would beat Toronto in a second-round series either. 1-through-6 in the Eastern Conference is no joke, and the Sixers will have to work to win series in the playoffs. In spite of bold claims from players and staff, I can't buy into them too much without seeing them play a real game first.
Selfishly, I hope they play deep into the playoffs to give us something to talk about. Not holding my breath, though.
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