Another crack at projecting the Sixers' starting 5 this season

Another crack at projecting the Sixers' starting 5 this season

The Sixers are going to look different this upcoming season compared to last and it begins with the starting lineup. With a new rookie and veteran free-agent additions, what you saw in the past will not be what you see when the team takes the court this fall. 

Last season, the Sixers rolled out 30 — yes, 30 — different starting fives. They wrapped their final game with T.J. McConnell, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Justin Anderson, Alex Poythress and Richaun Holmes. Not exactly what you would have expected back in training camp. 

Who the Sixers will start for the 2017-18 season has been a hot topic this summer, especially when it comes to the roles of Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Robert Covington. Let's look at the questions surrounding the projected starting five. 

Point guard/power forward
How the Sixers address these roles will be an ongoing storyline. The two positions are linked because of Simmons. 

Simmons said he is a starting point guard. From president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo’s point of view, Simmons doesn’t necessarily have to start at the one-spot to be the main ball handler.

The Sixers drafted point guard Markelle Fultz No. 1 overall because of his ability to complement Simmons’ playing off the ball. That doesn’t mean Fultz has to start at the two. 

It remains to be seen how the Sixers make their defensive assignments: 6-foot-4 Fultz or 6-foot-10 Simmons on opposing point guards? It seems likely Fultz will take that matchup. If Simmons did, there would be mismatches at power forward. Several NBA point guards I spoke to last season said they did not expect Simmons would defend the one. 

The Sixers' lineups are going to be positionless in many instances and this is one of them. It really doesn’t matter who is labeled the point guard when it comes to Fultz and Simmons. They have the backcourt skill sets to play off each other, but defensively, Fultz is the better matchup to guard the one. 

Shooting guard
The Sixers got a shooter, a veteran leader and a starting-caliber player when they signed JJ Redick to a one-year, $23 million contract. Redick was a starter for the last four seasons on the Clippers. He has not come off the bench since April 2014 when he was returning from a lengthy injury. 

Redick will give the Sixers another go-to scorer in the starting lineup in addition to Joel Embiid. Redick averaged 15.0 points last season and will spread the floor in this system. 

There are some who believe Redick should come off the bench in a scenario in which Simmons and Fultz start at the one and the two. One of the biggest impacts Redick will make, however, will be the way he makes his younger teammates better when he is sharing the court with them — leading by example, in-game huddles, those short conversations shared during free throws. The development of Fultz, Simmons and Embiid will be enhanced from playing alongside this proven veteran. 

Small forward
Covington vs. Saric: This has been one of the bigger debates on social media. A starting five needs more than just offense. Brett Brown is a huge fan of Covington’s defense, especially for the criteria on the Sixers’ “effort charts.” Take away those recurring three-point struggles that Covington gets criticized for, that’s not why he’s on the court. 

Last season, Covington averaged 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds. He led the NBA with 4.2 deflections per game, ahead of John Wall and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green (both averaged 3.9). 

Speaking of that award, Covington finished fourth in the voting. Green, Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard ran away with the ballots. Covington received a second- and third-place vote to finish one point better than LeBron James. Covington also garnered two All-Defensive first team votes. 

So where does Saric come into play in the small forward discussion? Let’s say Covington retains his starting role from last season and Simmons starts at power forward. That would mean Saric would come off the bench. Saric really thrived in the second half of last season in the starting lineup. He was doing it at power forward, though, and also as the main offensive go-to because of injuries. Saric, at this point, is better suited to defend fours. 

People will compare Covington and Saric because in many hypothetical lineups this would be the position up for grabs, but why force him to play small forward just to keep him in the starting five? There is potential for Saric to succeed in a sixth-man role where he most likely would receive more touches. If the Sixers are going to make a push for the playoffs, they will need depth in their second unit and Saric can anchor that. 

Given Embiid's restrictions last season, there is the possibility Simmons will have them as well in his first season back from a foot injury. The Sixers can turn to Saric in those situations. 

The question about the center position is not who will be the main starter, but rather who will be the backup.

The starting role belongs to Embiid when he is available. It remains to be seen just how many games he will play after only 31 last season and if he will be under restrictions (he previously could not play in back-to-backs). 

And so here we are again: Jahlil Okafor or Holmes? There was no clear-cut answer to that question last season, and each player had varying roles. 

Will the Sixers start Okafor when Embiid is out and bench him when Embiid is starting? Will Holmes only be Embiid’s backup or did he do enough to earn a starting spot when Embiid is out? It is hard to overlook Holmes’ 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks after the All-Star break. 

The starting five will change throughout the season, whether through experimentation, injuries, trades or finding unexpected combinations that click. At this time in the offseason, Fultz, Redick, Covington, Simmons and Embiid seems likely.

A breakdown of Eastern Conference playoff outlook for Sixers

A breakdown of Eastern Conference playoff outlook for Sixers

The Sixers are fighting to lock in home-court advantage in the postseason. That quest could be just as affected by their Eastern Conference opponents as their own wins and losses.

Let's take a look at the remaining schedule of the top-eight teams in the East and how those games and injuries could impact the playoffs. 

1. Raptors (53-19)
• Top-eight Eastern Conference opponents: Celtics (2), Cavs, Pacers, Heat

• Top-eight Western Conference opponents: None

The Raptors have a 4½-game lead over the Celtics, a distance that should be enough to lock up the No. 1 seed because of the Celtics injuries (see below). 

2. Celtics (48-23)
• Top-eight Eastern Conference opponents: Raptors (2), Bucks, Wizards

• Top-eight Western Conference opponents: Trail Blazers, Jazz

The Celtics’ playoff future is left hinging on the health of Kyrie Irving, who is seeking a second opinion for a nagging knee issue. Marcus Smart is eyeing a return for the playoffs after undergoing thumb surgery.

3. Cavaliers (42-29)
• Top-eight Eastern Conference opponents: Raptors, Heat, Wizards, Sixers 

• Top-eight Western Conference opponents: Pelicans

LeBron James has sat toward the end of the regular season to gear up for the playoffs, which could impact the standings in the final games if the Cavs cannot win without him.

4. Sixers (40-30)
• Top-eight Eastern Conference opponents: Cavaliers, Bucks

• Top-eight Western Conference opponents: Timberwolves

The Sixers' schedule is packed with sub-.500 teams, putting their hunt for home-court advantage in their own hands to grab.

5. Pacers (41-31)
• Top-eight Eastern Conference opponents: Heat, Raptors

• Top-eight Western Conference opponents: Warriors (2)

The Pacers' remaining schedule is unforgiving, including a West Coast road trip with a stop in Oakland. 

6. Wizards (40-31)
• Top-eight Eastern Conference opponents: Cavaliers, Celtics 

• Top-eight Western Conference opponents: Spurs, Rockets

The Wizards have turned heads with their success in spite of the absence of John Wall. How his return impacts the team is worth watching.

7. Heat (39-33)
• Top-eight Eastern Conference opponents: Pacers, Cavaliers, Raptors

• Top-eight Western Conference opponents: Thunder (2)

Keep an eye on the Heat’s two games against the Thunder, including one on the road, as OKC vies for home court in a Western Conference race.

8. Bucks (37-34)
• Top-eight Eastern Conference opponents: Celtics, Sixers 

• Top-eight Western Conference opponents: Spurs, Warriors

The Bucks’ final game of the regular season in Philadelphia could shake up the Eastern Conference seedings on April 11.    

Western Conference streaks give Sixers a boost

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Western Conference streaks give Sixers a boost

SAN ANTONIO -- LaMarcus Aldridge had 27 points and nine rebounds, and the San Antonio Spurs won their fifth straight, 98-90 over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night.

San Antonio remained in sixth place in the Western Conference, one-half game behind fourth-place Oklahoma City. The Spurs close out a six-game homestand on Friday against Utah, which is 1 games behind San Antonio in eighth place.

Bradley Beal and Kelly Oubre Jr. each had 21 points to lead the Wizards, who dropped into sixth in the Eastern Conference.

San Antonio's winning streak follows a 3-11 skid that briefly dropped the Spurs out of playoff position.

Aldridge has been critical to the turnaround, averaging 29.6 points and 9.2 rebounds during the streak.

Against Washington, Aldridge scored nine points during a 23-9 run that gave San Antonio a 17-point lead with four minutes left in the third quarter.

Without injured All-Star John Wall, the Wizards were unable to answer (see full recap).

Davis, Pelicans outlast Pacers for 3rd straight win
NEW ORLEANS -- Anthony Davis capped a 28-point, 13-rebound, five-block performance with a 15-foot baseline fade, a gritty put-back and two free throws in the final minute, and the New Orleans Pelicans outlasted the Indiana Pacers 96-92 on Wednesday night.

E'Twaun Moore scored 23 for New Orleans, which had to overcome a scrappy defensive effort by Indiana to win its third straight.

The Pelicans, who average nearly 112 points per game, were limited to 43 percent (34 of 79) accuracy by the Pacers, who also turned 20 New Orleans turnovers into 15 points.

The Pacers shot only 36.6 percent (34 of 93), but kept the game close with 15 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points.

Neither team led by more than six, and the game was tied at 87 with 1:49 left, after Victor Oladipo's block of Jrue Holiday sent Darren Collison away for a fast-break layup as he was fouled by Moore.

Moore put back his own miss with 1:24 to play to put the Pelicans back in front, and after Oladipo was called for a travel with 1:12 to go, Davis hit his clutch fade in front of the Pacers' bench, holding his right arm up triumphantly as the shot went down (see full recap).

Howard has historic night in Hornets’ comeback
NEW YORK -- Dwight Howard had 32 points and 30 rebounds, becoming the first player with a 30-30 game against the Nets since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978, and the Charlotte Hornets stormed back to beat Brooklyn 111-105 on Wednesday night.

Kemba Walker scored 10 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter for the Hornets, who trailed by as many 23 points in the second half to win in front of an announced crowd of 10,231 at Barclay Center while a heavy snowfall outside blanketed the New York City area.

Trailing 105-102 with 2:14 left in regulation, the Hornets went on a 9-0 run to pull off the impressive comeback.

Jeremy Lamb, who had 17 points to help end Charlotte's two-game losing streak, made a layup to cut the deficit to 105-104. The Hornets then called a timeout after a miss by Caris LeVert with 23 seconds left. On the ensuing possession, Walker spun around Quincy Acy and capped a three-point play to put Charlotte up 107-105, the Hornets' first lead of the night since a 16-15 advantage with 5:46 in the opening quarter.

LeVert missed a chance to tie it when he was met by Howard under the basket. Howard then hit a pair of free throws to make it 109-105.

D'Angelo Russell scored 19 points and LeVert added 11 for the Nets, whose two-game winning streak was cut short. They have yet to have won three consecutive this season (see full recap).