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October 20, 2021

Seven season-long predictions for the 2021-22 Sixers

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. And with the Sixers in complete chaos, as is their tendency, they're one of the hardest teams in the league to pin down ahead of their opening game on Wednesday night. 

But what kind of coward bails on predictions in those circumstances? With the league already up and running following a pair of games on Tuesday night, the Sixers kick off their season against the Pelicans in a few hours. In celebration of basketball's return, here are a few predictions for the upcoming season, which you can dismiss or take seriously at your own peril.

The Sixers trade Ben Simmons for a package without a star

I have reported over and over again this offseason that the Sixers were unmoved by the offers they're receiving for Ben Simmons, preferring to get him back in the fold rather than trading him for diminishing returns. They are, rather transparently, hoping for situations in Portland and Washington and frankly everywhere else in the league to blow up and prompt stars to look elsewhere. They have some semblance of control due to the length left on Simmons' contract. How much does all of that truly matter?

Not as much as the Sixers hope, is my guess. The Sixers are probably going to be decent, if not good without Simmons this season, which I believe will help them drag this out long enough to make a decent deal at some point. But Simmons very clearly does not want to be here, and even though he will make a lot of teams better, every other NBA executive has seen what he offers in the playoffs. Teams want to add him to what they have, not uproot what they already have going to try to build around an idiosyncratic player. Even if some team completely falls apart between now and let's say late December, it feels more likely that will simply bleed more draft picks out of a trade suitor rather than prompt someone to trade a legitimate star for him. 

For selfish reasons, I hope I'm wrong because I think Damian Lillard would be dynamite to watch every night and a hand-in-glove fit with Joel Embiid. I don't think they're going to get a bad return for Simmons, who has plenty of value to offer teams regardless of what you think of him. But this is where I stand on October 20th, 2021.

(A bonus wrinkle to this — I think the "main piece" coming back is more likely to be a young guy still on his rookie deal, a la Tyrese Haliburton in Sacramento, than a pricey veteran or a player either approaching or already on a big-time rookie extension. Under the assumption that Morey can't get the star back that he wants, my estimation is he would be trying to preserve financial flexibility to make bigger moves over the next couple of summers.)

The Sixers have a top-10 offense if Joel Embiid stays healthy

Putting together an elite two-way team has been a struggle during the Embiid/Simmons era, mostly on the offensive end. Their only top-10 offense season came in 2018-19, when they added Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris and rose all the way to eighth behind their deepest group of star talent in quite some time. So how do they get here on both ends with Simmons seemingly out on the organization?

Shooting the hell out of the ball and riding the big guy. The Sixers are going to put a gallery of shooters around the big guy this season, who is coming into the year in good shape and spirits, ready to pick up the playmaking burden on the offensive end (at least verbally). There are a lot of concerns about the dent to their transition attack in Simmons' absence, though I think some of the difference can be made up by democratizing the process there. Instead of (justifiably) force-feeding the ball to Simmons after stops, the Sixers can simply turn and run, hitting whoever is in the best spot to put pressure on the opponent.

Defense is the dicier proposition, despite the presence of Embiid and another All-Defense guy in Matisse Thybulle. The Sixers are going to be short on options to stop elite wings around the league, with Danny Green overextended in the role of top assignment defender right now. They're going to be relying on Thybulle a lot, and as disruptive as he can be against opposing guards, his discipline issues are hard to miss and will draw more scrutiny as the team's top perimeter defender. 

Ultimately, I think they'll still be pretty damn good on defense — having the anchor on the back-end is enough to make a lot of other guys look competent in their roles, and Dan Burke has a long and extensive track record of getting the most out of players who have historically been seen as weak defensive links. But to empower Embiid on one end, I think sacrifices will have to be made on the other. So it goes.

Joel Embiid shoots better than 35% from three again

This is the longest-standing prediction of this yearly column, and it finally came true last season after the big guy let me down every other time I showed belief in his ability to get here. I think this might get dicey, with Embiid promising to increase his volume from outside this year, but he puts the work in. Time to double down.

Matisse Thybulle starts more games than Tyrese Maxey

A few factors to consider here:

  1. The Sixers are likely to get a starting-caliber guard back if and when they trade Simmons, which will naturally push Maxey down the pecking order
  2. Maxey was likely to be in and out of the starting lineup regardless this season, with Rivers getting Shake Milton in the starting mix during the preseason in spite of Milton's struggles. As optimistic as a lot of people are about Maxey (including within the organization), he's going to experience ups and downs and might even be better served as the sixth man who can focus on playing "his" game in the short term.
  3. Thybulle is more important to their defense than he has ever been

I went the other way on the Maxey/Thybulle minutes dynamic last season, so I look forward to being wrong about this on a yearly basis. 

Embiid falls outside of the top five in MVP voting this season 

This says less about the season Embiid is going to have than how the league narrative is going to take shape this season. I think there is a lot of overthinking being done about the MVP "race" heading into the year — with the tailwind of his NBA Finals behind him, Giannis Antetokounmpo has a good chance to be the runaway favorite for this award. He puts up monster numbers, his team wins a lot, and now he can't be dinged for how his game translates to the playoffs (even if that should be a separate consideration from the MVP award, it isn't). I know winning a third MVP this soon might seem unrealistic, but the seeds are planted.

It's trickier after that. I'd expect Nikola Jokic to have another strong showing this season after winning it last year. LeBron James staying healthy is all that needs to happen (aside from winning games) to get him into the race. Steph Curry's offensive firepower has him in the mix even if the Warriors are on the fringes of the playoff picture. Luka Doncic is the odds favorite right now, though I suspect Dallas may not be good enough for him to be in that conversation. One of Kevin Durant or James Harden basically has to be at that level in order to overcome the absence of Kyrie Irving and ascend to the top of the East. There are even some dark horses to consider, a la Jimmy Butler in Miami, who could squeak into the picture by maintaining their level of play on teams that simply got better around them.

The problem Embiid has from where I sit is simple — it's unlikely they're going to be the No. 1 seed in the East again, and he will be judged harshly in some circles for failing to keep Philly in that territory without Simmons. To get in the MVP race, he needs to go on an ass-kicking tour and have the Sixers higher in the standings than most expect at the moment. He is already fighting an uphill battle with some voters/media members, who often exaggerate the impact of Embiid's health woes before he hits the shelf during a season.

I think Embiid will unquestionably be one of the 10 best players in basketball this season. I'm not sure the environment is set up for him to be in the MVP race, but I would love to be proven wrong.

Isaiah Joe takes someone's spot in the rotation but he shoots under 40% from three

Hard to figure out who yet, since the Sixers had so many guys in and out of the lineup in the preseason, but I will take whatever Joe stock I can at this point. Here's the catch — I think his presumed high volume will cut into his efficiency a bit, and the Sixers will be okay living with the trade-off if they get a confident shooter on the floor. He will make up for that with secondary playmaking and defensive attentiveness. 

The Sixers finish in the 4-6 range of the Eastern Conference

Brooklyn and Milwaukee are the two top dogs until time proves otherwise, even with the Irving nonsense hanging over the Nets. After that, it's dealer's choice to some extent, but I think there are safer bets to get top four seeds than the Sixers. As much as, "I can't believe they lost to Atlanta!" was a thing this summer, the Hawks have been very good since Nate McMillan took over and made their leap in spite of injuries on the wing, so the Hawks will presumably be better and deeper this year. Miami grabbing Kyle Lowry and adding him to whatever internal growth they get should make the Heat formidable, at least in the short-term.

Slotting the Sixers slightly behind that group feels fair for now, and a worst-case scenario (Embiid not healthy, Harris regresses) could certainly put them in the play-in territory. But when you look around the deeper East everyone has talked up all offseason, everyone else has question marks. The Celtics have a new coach and some wild card perimeter additions, the Knicks will be rock-solid but likely lack high-end upside, the Pacers can only gain so much from the coaching upgrade while effectively starting two centers, and though I'm excited to watch the Bulls this year, there are plenty of defensive question marks for them to answer. And that's without including the teams like Charlotte, who are probably just too young to make noise yet.

There is upside for more with this group, especially if they make a big addition and find their footing in the second half of the year. The key will be to hold the fort early while the Simmons situation sorts out.

Where do they end up when it's all said and done? 

Because of the uncertainty with Simmons, I am opting out of doing the usual season-long, end-of-year result prediction that usually ends this column. Philadelphia is essentially being graded as incomplete following this tumultuous offseason, and I don't think anyone is gaining anything from me trying to pinpoint where the road ends this year.

This group does not have the look or feel of a contender in any sense, I would say that. And as much as it would hurt to have a true re-tool year with Embiid in his prime, that's sort of what this looks like at the moment. The franchise-altering moves that can bring them there feel like a distant possibility at this point, though with the speed the NBA moves at, I suppose you never know. Now let's watch some basketball.

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