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July 18, 2019

What they're saying: Sixers have the best chance of winning the NBA Finals this season

Plus, a look at where Simmons and Embiid rank among the NBA's best duos and much more

The NBA free agent frenzy has calmed down over the last couple of weeks since July 1, and with Summer League in the rearview for the Sixers, we've hit the slowest part of the basketball year.

Still, there is plenty happening with the Sixers, who signed Ben Simmons to a five-year max deal earlier this week. Beyond that, the team is still looking for a few late additions to fill out the roster after a busy free agent period that saw them lose Jimmy Butler, bring back Tobias Harris and sign Al Horford (among several other moves).

But now that things have slowed down a little bit — and with our Sixers writer Kyle Neubeck on vacation this week — we decided it was a good time to take a look around at what some other writers are saying about the Sixers chances this season, their recent moves, and what stood out during Summer League.

Here's a fresh Sixers edition of What They're Saying...

So you're saying there's a chance?

Staff | FiveThirtyEight

Over at FiveThirtyEight, they recently posted their CARMELO team ratings for the 2019-20 NBA season, which are based on a complicated formula that essentially places a value on each player. Those values are then combined to come up with an overall number for the team. (More on what CARMELO is in a minute.)

As it turns out, the Sixers have the second best CARMELO in the NBA behind the Rockets. 

More impressive, however, is the fact that FiveThirtyEight believes the Sixers will have the best record in the NBA this season, and gives them a 56 percent chance of making it to the Finals and a 28% chance of winning it all (both are also the best in the NBA). 

Here's a look at the top five teams, sorted by their chances of winning the NBA title this year:

PHI 1702 59-23 +7.1
HOU 1716 58-24 +6.7
LAL 1641 51-31 +3.6
MIL 1643 54-28 +4.9
GSW 1634 50-32 +3.3

PHI >99% 56% 28%
HOU 99% 37% 25%
LAL 86% 21% 13%
MIL >99% 25% 9%
GSW 83% 16% 9%

Now, these numbers are definitely different than how bookmakers come up with their odds, which explains why despite having the best chances in the above list, the Sixers are still somewhere around fourth when it comes to actual betting odds. Here's how FiveThirtyEight describes their rating system:

How this works: These forecasts are based on 50,000 simulations of the rest of the season. Our CARMELO forecast doesn’t account for wins and losses; it is based entirely on our CARMELO player projections, which estimate each player’s future performance based on the trajectory of similar NBA players. These are combined with up-to-date depth charts — tracking injuries, trades and other player transactions — to generate talent estimates for each team. Full-strength CARMELO is the team’s rating when all of its key players are in the lineup. Current CARMELO reflects any injuries and rest days in effect at the moment of the team's next game. Elo ratings — which power the pure Elo forecast — are a measure of team strength based on head-to-head results, margin of victory and quality of opponent.  []

You can read more on it, here.

There are a few reasons the Sixers are ahead of teams like the Rockets, Clippers (6th in CARMELO), and Lakers: it's because they play in an easier Eastern Conference, meaning they not only have a clearer path to the Finals, but given the lower level of competition during the regular season, there's a chance they can finish with the NBA's best record and earn home-court in the Finals, much like the Raptors did a year ago. 

Sure, it all looks good on paper, but we'll have to see how this Sixers team looks when it takes the court in October. 

The best duos in the NBA

Kelly Scaletta | Bleacher Report

Over at Bleacher Report, they ranked the top one-two punches in the NBA, and the Sixers' combo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid did pretty well for themselves, coming in at sixth overall. They come in one spot behind the Bucks' duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. 

If Embiid comes back in better shape and Simmons' shot begins to improve (easier said than done), the Sixers young pair could find itself much higher on this list when all is said and done. Added B/R's Kelly Scaletta, "They're just outside the top five for these rankings, but they could very well end the season in first place."

The Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid show might have taken a bit longer to process than originally intended. But two years into it, they're both proving their mettle. ...

Last year, the pair averaged a combined 44.4 points, 22.4 rebounds, 11.4 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.7 blocks. 

Folks, those numbers are remarkable. 

Yes, both their games have enduring flaws. For example, it would be nice to see Simmons, who is 0-of-17 from deep throughout his career, learn how to make a jump shot.

That doesn't change the reality of what Embiid and Simmons have already done on the court, or that they can continue to improve their games tremendously while just 25 and 22 years old, respectively.  []

Zhaire Smith could be a big addition

Jonathan Tjarks | The Ringer

Zhaire Smith's rookie season was doomed the minute the Sixers wing decided to eat a chicken sandwich for lunch one day at the team facility. Smith suffered an incredibly serious allergic reaction to sesame seeds and spent several months hospitalized, unable to eat or drink after tearing a hole in his esophagus. Smith lost 30 pounds and was in pretty bad shape.

But if you watched the Sixers' Summer League team, it might've been hard to notice, as Smith looked even bigger and stronger than when the team first drafted him. He was flying all over the court, throwing down highlight-reel dunks and proving to the team that he deserves a spot in the team's rotation. Last summer, Smith averaged 7.7 points on 32.1 percent shooting. This year, those numbers increased to 12.4 points on 48 percent shooting. 

Sure, it's a small sample size, but it's impossible to ignore what Smith can potentially bring to the Sixers this year. There's been a lot of talk this summer about what Matisse Thybulle can bring to the team, and not nearly enough about what Smith can do. Over at The Ringer, Jonathan Tjarks took an in-depth look at Smith, his year from hell, and why he's primed to be an important piece in Brett Brown's rotation this year.

The last six months of his life were a training montage from a Rocky movie.

“I lost a lot of weight with the food allergy. I’ve been hitting the weights hard. I’m doing push-ups every night. Basically I had to start all over again. Build my foundation,” Smith said. “I’ve been with my kinesiologist and my trainer in California [since the end of the season]. Getting right to it.”

All that hard work paid off during summer league, when Smith was one of the most impressive athletes on the floor. One NBA executive told me that Smith looked like a different person. He told me he came in weighing 210 pounds, which is about 45 more than his lowest point. ...

But his dunks were what everyone in Vegas was talking about. By my count, Smith had nine in five games. One of my favorite things to watch this summer was how often he would point up in the air to ask his guards for an alley-oop. The 6-foot-4 wing can stretch the defense vertically and force it to account for his leaping ability when he’s playing off the ball. It’s like playing a rim-running 7-footer at shooting guard.  []

Underpaying for Simmons?

Derek Bodner | The Athletic

Now, let's take a look at what's being said about Ben Simmons' max deal, starting with The Athletic's Derek Bodner, who believes the Sixers were smart to make the deal, both basketball-wise and financially. According to Bodner, someone was always going to sign Simmons to a max deal, and given the state of the salary cap and the NBA's labor situation, this deal could look relatively cheap by comparison in just a few short years. And, if for some reason the marriage ends in divorce, there will be no shortage of teams willing to pay a king's ransom for a guy like Simmons on the open market.

The $170 million sounds like a big number. But in the NBA’s post-salary cap boon, it’s not that big in the grand scheme of things. In fact, according to Spotrac, Simmons’ $29.25 million salary for the 2020-21 season places him tied for 28th in the league with Jamal Murray, just ahead of Andre Drummond and well behind Gordon Hayward, Khris Middleton and Sixers teammate Tobias Harris. Simmons is sure to drop more spots in the rankings once next summer’s free agents ink new deals.

In a league desperate for top-end talent, Simmons — a 22-year-old All-Star — will be underpaid for the next six years, especially as the cap is projected to rise by $20 million (or more) over the duration of the deal. By limiting a max contract for Simmons at just 25 percent of the salary cap, the NBA has all but guaranteed that to be the case.

In the past, we’d talk about contracts as teams showing a commitment to players, and vice versa. In reality, that’s not the landscape of today’s NBA, and in truth, it really never was. In the past, teams would routinely break this “commitment” by trading a player if the fit or on-court results wasn’t as they imagined. Now, more than ever, players are willing to use their leverage to force their way out of partnerships that aren’t beneficial to them. It’s a two-way street.  []

Breaking down Simmons' salary figures

Sean Kennedy | Liberty Ballers

With reports about the structure of Simmons' contract leaking out, it's a good time to take a look at how this deal breaks down each year.

Over at Liberty Ballers, Sean Kennedy broke down the deal — and the ones signed by Tobias Harris and Al Horford — to show how the Sixers were actually able to maintain some flexibility down the line, despite having so much money committed to just handful of players, by putting Simmons' incentives into tiers like this rather than using a flat incentive structure. 

The Sixers bought themselves some additional financial flexibility moving forward by structuring the contract in tiers like they did, rather than going with the full 30 percent of the cap for any All-NBA designation. That negotiation could mean the difference in a couple extra million dollars each year.

We saw similar forward-thinking cap shaving moves in the other contracts Philadelphia doled out this offseason to Tobias Harris and Al Horford. Harris took around $10 million less than his max contract, but the deal has him set to receive what his max would have been in year one, followed by smaller raises than the 8 percent max raise each year going forward. Meanwhile, Horford will make $28 million this season, with $500k step-downs over the next couple years.

With Simmons in the last year of his rookie deal, the Sixers recognized they could front-load those other contracts as much as possible, while still making the other necessary moves to round out the roster. Philadelphia will almost certainly be in the luxury tax beginning in the 2020-21 season (the tax for that season is set at $143 million), but all of these moves made in conjunction could help the team remain below the apron.  []

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