76ers

Fearless Forecast for the Sixers' 2017-18 season

Fearless Forecast for the Sixers' 2017-18 season

It’s time.

The Sixers are ready to tip off their 2017-18 season, and the group has made one goal very clear: reach the postseason.

Will they be able to accomplish the feat, and if so, how will they make it happen?

The real questions will begin to be answered on Wednesday night when the Sixers open the regular season on the road against the Washington Wizards (7 p.m. on ESPN — Sixers Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. and Postgame Live after the game on NBCSP, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports App).

With that said, let’s get to our season projections from Sixers insider Jessica Camerato, anchor/reporter Marshall Harris and producer/reporters Matt Haughton and Paul Hudrick.

Camerato
The Sixers finish seventh in the Eastern Conference. This was my original prediction back in the summer and it hasn't changed, even with Joel Embiid's tighter minutes restriction to start the season and the uncertainty surrounding Markelle Fultz.

The competition in the East got significantly weaker this offseason with the departures of Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap to the West. The Bulls, Pacers and, following the trade of Dwight Howard, the Hawks have seemingly dropped from playoff contention. That leaves room for three new teams to move up into the top eight.

Last season, only a .500 record was required for a playoff berth and it may be the same this time around. The Sixers have an extremely challenging schedule to start the season, but the second half is Eastern Conference-heavy. That shift should give the Sixers the opportunity to make a push after the All-Star break and lock up a spot.

Projected record: 42-40 (seventh seed)

Harris
Remember January? It wasn't that long ago. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times. The Sixers went 10-5 in their best month and showed glimpses of what they could be once the team gelled and had Embiid driving the bus as he was cleared to play 28 minutes a game. 

I see this season starting off similarly to the last one in that this team could very easily start 4-10 with 10 of its first 14 games on the road. However, with nine of 10 at home following that opening stretch, things can turn in the Sixers' favor quickly.
 
Since JJ Redick was signed, I’ve said the Sixers are a team that would win 39 games and I'm going to stick to that. I know there will be fans that believe this team is winning 40-plus or even 50 games. I just can't see it. This team will take its lumps early. The number 39 is based largely on the understanding that Embiid may not get to that 28-minute mark until December. Brett Brown has said in the past he envisions Embiid playing 35 minutes a game at some point. That point doesn't appear to be coming anytime soon.
 
The reason the Sixers can still get to 39 games without the training wheels coming off Embiid? The Sixers’ second unit is basically the starting unit that won way more games than most thought it would last year. T.J. McConnell, Dario Saric, Timothe-Luwawu Cabarrot, Fultz, Justin Anderson and Amir Johnson should make up one of the better (not to mention energized) benches in the NBA. Outside of Fultz, they've all played starters’ minutes, with McConnell and Saric showing plenty of mettle last season.
 
Of course, if Embiid can play 65 or more games and average 28 or more minutes a game, then these expectations can all rise. But let's be pragmatic. Based on what we know, who really expects Embiid to play that much? Not me. But, hey, I'm just a "receiver of information."

Projected record: 39-43 (eighth seed)

Haughton
I hear you, Sixers fans. This is the time you’ve been waiting for. 

All of the losing. All of the injuries. All of the players shuffling on and off the roster (whatever happened to what’s his name?). It’s over.

But this is the NBA and teams don’t just go from the basement to bathing in championship champagne overnight. This will be, for lack of a better word, a “process.”

Getting a healthy Embiid back on the floor was step No. 1. While he doesn’t exactly agree with his playing time to start the season, it’s crucial for him to be on the court. 

The Sixers need Embiid’s production and the attention he draws for others to thrive. That means Ben Simmons has a big man to dump the ball to down in the paint as he adjusts to being a full-time point guard, while Redick and Bayless get open looks off defensive helping/double-teams, and Fultz can ease his way into action off the bench, etc. The trickle-down effect all starts with Embiid.

But while the Sixers finally appear to be getting on the right track, their opponents having been sitting in silence. They have been working to improve as well, mainly the ones the Sixers face up to when the calendar flips to December (21 games). Of those 21 foes, 16 are playoff teams from a season ago.

I do think the Sixers overcome that uphill climb to start the new campaign and reach the playoffs, but it will be far from easy.

Projected record: 40-42 (eighth seed)

Hudrick
I see the Sixers finishing with 41 wins, which I think is good enough for them to earn the seventh seed.

The Sixers will have their struggles early on. There are so many new pieces that need to figure out how to gell. Fultz needs to get healthy and get acclimated to the NBA. Simmons needs to grow into a true NBA point guard. Embiid needs to stay healthy, of course.

With that said, the East is just so weak this season. Three playoff teams lost All-Star players. The Bulls and the Hawks will likely take significant steps backward this season.

The Sixers will get off to a slow start, but a strong finish to the season — including clinching a playoff berth — will build momentum for 2018-19 and beyond.

Projected record: 41-41 (seventh seed)

Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

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Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

HOUSTON -- James Harden scored 31 points and the Houston Rockets won their 11th straight game with a 120-102 victory Friday night over the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost All-Star Jimmy Butler to an apparent right knee injury.

Butler left the game late in the third quarter. After grabbing a rebound late in the third quarter, he pivoted and planted hard on his right foot before collapsing and grabbing his right knee. He was on the floor for at least three minutes before he was carried off the court by two teammates. He appeared to avoid putting weight on his right leg when heading to the locker room.

A Timberwolves official said during the fourth quarter that Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau would provide an update on Butler's injury following the game.

Clint Capela had 25 points and 11 rebounds for Houston, getting his 10th double-double over the past 13 games. Chris Paul added 14 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

The Rockets trailed for much of the first half before going ahead to maintain the NBA's best record.

Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 21 points, and Jeff Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns both had 18 points. Towns added 13 rebounds (see full recap).

Davis sensational in Pelicans’ OT victory over Heat
NEW ORLEANS -- Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami's third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans' winning streak -- and 42 or more three times -- raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points (see full recap).

Balanced Celtics rout Pistons
DETROIT -- Kyrie Irving scored 18 points and rookie Daniel Theis added a career-high 19 to lift the Boston Celtics to a 110-98 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Friday night.

Jayson Tatum scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half for the Celtics, who went into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak but returned with a solid win on the road. Boston took control by outscoring the Pistons 38-21 in the second quarter.

Blake Griffin scored 17 points for Detroit but shot just 5 of 19 from the field.

Theis eclipsed his previous career high of 12 points. He played an important role after Aron Baynes, the starting center for the Celtics, went to the locker room in the first half with left elbow soreness. Baynes ended up playing only 2:39, but Theis shot 8 of 10 from the field and had seven rebounds.

Ish Smith made his first eight shots and finished with 20 points for the Pistons. Detroit led 39-37 in the second quarter before a 21-5 run by Boston. The Celtics were ahead 61-49 at halftime.

The lead was only four late in the third before Boston scored seven straight points -- five by Irving. The Celtics broke the game open at the start of the fourth (see full recap).

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

The Sixers have been rising steadily in the standings and players around the league are taking notice. 

The young squad improved to 31-25 with a victory over the Bulls Thursday. They have won six straight and have not lost at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018. That totals up to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, only two games behind the Wizards for the fourth spot and two games ahead of the Heat for the eighth. 

"I like them," Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler said at the All-Star break. "They've got a lot of great young talent. We do as well. But I think the way that they're going and how they play so hard and play so together, that's how you win basketball games. They're going to be really, really good for a long time."

The Sixers turned heads with a statement win over the Rockets in only their seventh game of the season. From there, they have defeated playoff teams, including a rare sweep of the Spurs, while struggling against sub.-500 opponents. 

They have 26 games remaining to make a postseason push. Of their upcoming opponents, only 10 games are against current top-eight teams in their conferences. Brett Brown has emphasized they can't take any team lightly. This is the time for the Sixers to maximize their schedule and show they learned from previous letdowns.

"They look good," Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. "Obviously as a young team, it takes time to learn how to win. ... The mature, really high-level teams, they find a way to get it done. I think for them, that's what their record shows. You play against them and it's hard to play against them. 

"They're really talented, they play hard, they play for a great coach. It's just those nights where you might not have it, having that understanding and that experience that'll lead you to more wins. I think once they get to that point, that's when maybe nine or 10 games that they've let slip, maybe they win those games."

The Sixers wrapped up the majority of their Western Conference schedule prior to the All-Star break. They have only the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Mavericks left to play. Those in the conference still are keeping an eye on the Sixers' progress, even if they may not face off again for months. 

"Everyone definitely sees the talent there," Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. "Any time you've got Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid to build around, they've got a very bright future. I think everyone had very high expectations, but it's hard to have high expectations with a team that's got a lot of first-, second-year guys that have never been in the playoffs. 

"But you can tell that they're going to be in the playoffs for, shoot, the next decade or so, probably be upper echelon pretty soon."