October 25, 2023
The Sixers season is about to begin on Thursday night against the Bucks, perhaps under the most dire terms imaginable. James Harden’s trade request is still in effect and his status remains in limbo. He will not play in the team’s first two games of the season; beyond that it is anybody’s guess when (and if) he actually will play in a Sixers uniform again.
So, what do we know about this team going into 2023-24?
Joel Embiid is a perennial MVP candidate, with three straight top-two finishes including his victory last season. That alone puts the Sixers in the category of definitively good teams, which counts for something. Barring an Embiid injury, their floor is quite high compared to most teams. They should cruise into a playoff spot — not the goal, but certainly a perk.
It is a luxury to spend an entire season without stressing about playoff contention. It is also a luxury to enter every single game with a reasonable case that you have the best player on the floor.
I say all of this to say: things may feel disastrous right now, and the situation is suboptimal. But the Sixers could be worse off than this just because their floor is so much higher than the average team’s. That starts and ends with Embiid.
We also know the team has new on-court leadership. Nick Nurse has replaced Doc Rivers as head coach, and his endless creativity should help a team which at times sorely lacked it over the last three seasons under Rivers. Not every decision Nurse comes to will lead to success, but his willingness to try unorthodox methods — perhaps his signature trait— should lead to some revelations.
The sorts of schemes Nurse devises to better utilize the talents of this roster are yet to be known specifically. But they sound good on paper: being more aggressive with Embiid as a defensive weapon, for example, encouraging him to seek out more shot-blocking opportunities, could change the way the Sixers look on that end of the floor, giving them much more versatility, a particularly helpful thing when the playoffs arrive.
Nurse has also declared that his offense will be more egalitarian than those of the Sixers in the past. Multiple players have already commented on their feeling of increased empowerment within the offense during training camp and the preseason. Of course, an important task is making sure the right players are the ones who are actually empowered the most, but again, any added semblance of adaptability can do a team a whole lot of good.
Without swinging a big trade or flexing noteworthy cap space, the Sixers were extremely limited in how they could improve their roster. They had to improve on the margins, and attempted to do so with a slew of veteran’s minimum signings.
Patrick Beverley is likely the surest bet of the newcomers to make an impact. He’ll bring defensive prowess to their guard rotation. Kelly Oubre Jr. is a wing who has always been better in theory than in practice, but is one of the league’s highest-volume three-point shooters.
Mo Bamba had a rough preseason that likely has him on the outskirts of the rotation. His time will come, though, as Embiid’s eventual absences will grant him noteworthy minutes.
Whether the Sixers can reclaim true championship contender status may depend on Harden’s whereabouts — even if he sticks around and plays, it’s not a lock. But, bad ending and all, this is a team that was one win away from hosting a conference finals series.
If Harden eventually does play on a full-time basis and resembles his 2022-2023 form, the Sixers’ offense is in good hands between the reigning points and assists per game leaders in Embiid and Harden, respectively. Their defense will always be good enough with Embiid roaming and protecting the rim.
But there are some incredibly talented teams in the NBA right now, and it’s hard to see the Sixers overcoming just the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference alone. Those teams were already arguably better than the Sixers, and both made extremely noteworthy acquisitions while the Sixers remained in a holding pattern with Harden.
It has been the legacy of this era of Sixers basketball. Unfortunately for the franchise, it may continue: good, but just not good enough.
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