For a team that hasn't spent a season not already out of playoff contention by the end of December since at least 2012, there certainly are a lot of expectations for the Philadelphia 76ers this season.
As has frequently been the case with the Sixers since Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie took over five summers ago, it's hard to remember another NBA team being quite in this position. Philly has not sniffed a winning record in ages, and only won 29 games last year. But despite not adding a star to the roster in the offseason anywhere near the caliber of a Jimmy Butler or Paul George -- hell, even a Paul Millsap -- the Sixers' over/under for wins this season was projected by Vegas at 42.5, nearly a 50% bump in wins from '16-'17.
The number is explicable. Ben Simmons, consensus No. 1 overall pick in 2016 who missed the entire '16-'17 season after suffering a broken foot two Septembers ago, is finally healthy and in the lineup, as (most likely) is Markelle Fultz, the consensus No. 1 overall pick in 2017, who the Sixers traded up to select as the final piece of their burgeoning prospect core. And the anchor of that, center Joel Embiid, seems to be healthy enough after a season-ending meniscus tear limited him to 31 games last year -- that the Sixers felt relatively secure handing him a contract worth nearly $150 million over the next five years. Add to that a couple lineup-stabilizing veteran signings in swingman sharpshooter J.J. Redick and solid advanced-stats frontcourt fave Amir Johnson, and why shouldn't the Sixers win 40+ and threaten the playoffs this season?
The team themselves certainly think it's within reach. Both coach Brett Brown and a number of the squad's marquee players have mentioned the "P" word as a goal for the season, in a way that feels like more than either fan service or optimism-because-what's-the-alternative. After four seasons at an average of over 60 losses a year, it's hard to blame Brown for grasping at immediate success as a goal -- where just two seasons ago the team was starting a combination of Ish Smith, Nik Stauskas, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant and Jahlil Okafor, Brown now can look at his roster and pencil in two No. 1 overall picks, a proven star in Embiid, perfect complementary wings in Redick and Robert Covington, and a legitimate bench behind all of 'em. Assuming things broke the team's way a little for once health-wise, there's no reason why the postseason should be an impossible goal this season.
But it's also fair to ask if making the playoffs should really be the priority this season -- or if the pursuit of postseason basketball for the first time since Obama's first term may end up short-changing the team's long-term future.
Let's start from here: Assuming health for all involved -- so obviously perilous an assumption it's barely worth still superstitiously qualifying, but sure, knock on a whole lumberyard -- the Sixers already have three spots in their starting lineup and overall rotation as secure as secure can be. Joel Embiid, Robert Covington and J.J. Redick can absolutely be three of three five starters on a contending Philly squad as soon as this season. Embiid is simply a world-conqueror; he makes everyone better and everything better by virtue of being on (or even near) the court. And Redick and Covington both do what they do as well as anyone in the NBA -- shooting and off-ball gravity from J.J., perimeter defense and wing rebounding from RoCo -- without giving much, if anything, back with their relatively complete all-around games. With those three dudes in their starting lineup, the Sixers will be in a position to succeed right away.
What to do with the other two spots is a matter for debate that's not getting settled anytime soon. Common sense would dictate that the two slots should go to our two No. 1 picks, Fultz and Simmons, who slot logically sizewise among the other three dudes, while also creating considerable matchup problems with Simmons' ball-handling and passing at the ostensible power-forward spot. In a perfect world, Fultz would be one of four potential knockdown shooters around the ball-dominant Simmons, as well as a secondary playmaker in the backcourt -- a future that the Sixers certainly envisioned when they traded a future Lakers (or Kings) pick to move up two spots in the draft and grab Fultz.
It's tough to envision those two dudes adding much to winning early, though. Aside from the time-honored truism that rookies -- sweet, sweet, Embiid aside -- rarely produce positively on the NBA court, there are glaring deficiencies in both dudes' games at the moment that will make forming a coherent lineup around them tricky. Simmons not only has no jumper -- and may even be shooting with the wrong hand, according to some -- but he also has no floater or clear touch around the basket, and he converted free throws at an alarmingly low rate this preseason. He is fatal to opposing defenses in transition, can cause scrambles by posting up smaller players down low, and a couple times a game can just bull his way to the basket with near-Blake Griffin size and athleticism. But he cannot convincingly run a half-court offense at the moment, when defenders know to play off him, keep passing lanes congested, and force him to shoot over the top, with nearly any spot on the floor being out of his range right now.
Fultz's role on the team is similarly problematic at the moment. Our off-ball shooter and secondary playmaker declined shooting in basically any capacity this preseason, bothered by a shoulder injury that forced (or at least inspired) him to rejigger his shooting motion into an ugly, nearly two-handed hoist which he had understandably zero confidence in -- and without Simmons' imposing physicality or panic-inducing first step to the basket, Fultz had very little to offer the offense while his jumper-less game proved eminently predictable and counterable. He missed the final two games of the preseason -- arguably should have missed more than that if his shoulder was really screwing him up -- and was largely ineffective in the two games he did play.
So at the season's outset, Brett Brown has the unenviable task of integrating two rookies with fundamental mechanical issues into a rotation that should already have its share of challenges -- juggling minutes for a crowded frontcourt, acclimating other new pieces in Redick, Johnson and less-ballyhooed rook Furkan Korkmaz to the system, and dealing with the likely shuttling in and out of the lineup of Embiid, who is sure to miss games here and there throughout the season (and we'll be extremely lucky if that's all he misses). Brown has already announced that he'll opt to start the steadier shooter (but less dynamic playmaker) Jerryd Bayless over Fultz to start the season, pointing to the latter's time missed this preseason and a desire to bring him along slowly.
From a purely 5-on-5 standpoint, the move certainly makes sense. An offense can potentially survive one ball-handler who refuses to shoot, but two is a guaranteed disaster, and right now Simmons and Fultz just aren't playable together for extended periods. Meanwhile, though Simmons certainly had his preseason moments -- his passing in the opener was electric, and he was the best player on the floor against Miami in the final game, with a 19-7-5 performance that was his most complete yet -- there will undoubtedly be stretches, even whole games, where he strangles the Sixers' offense entirely with his own lack of shooting. Hell, if he doesn't get his free-throw shooting above Andre Drummond territory, there might even be nights where opposing coaches force Simmons off the floor by playing Hack-a-Ben.
Of course, none of this is unfamiliar for the Sixers, who've faced the challenge of integrating freshman with incomplete games basically every year since the Process started -- the only thing really new is that Over/Under. But that might change the entire balance of the equation for Brown, who will be faced with nightly choices tantamount to deciding whether the team's priority is growing their young core or winning the damn basketball game.
If Fultz gets healthy but the starting five is still more productive with Bayless in it, will he continue to come off the bench? If all the advanced metrics show that the Sixers rate better with T.J. McConnell -- unquestionably the team's most effective point guard in the preseason -- than Simmons running the show, who'll get the majority of crunch time minutes bringing up the ball? If the Sixers are down two with one possession to go, will either rookie even be out there, or will Brett trust instead in the floor-spacing and decision-making of Dario Saric and one of his veteran PGs? And of course, we haven't even talked about defense, where both first-year players are also works in progress -- how often will one or both of 'em end up getting pulled for matchup reasons?
Despite finally having a team consisting almost entirely of pro-caliber players, this may still end up being Brett Brown's most hair-pulling season yet on the Sixers' bench. For 82 out of 82 games, he will have to make difficult personnel calls that will leave him damned either way. Lean mostly on the vets to win him games, and he'll get flamed on the Internet for selling his young core out long-term. Play the rookies big minutes and damn all the rest, and he'll alienate an increasingly impatient base of season-ticket holders as the team racks up struggle-through-it Ls -- and potentially risk his own job, if ownership decides that another year of hard losing requires a scapegoat to fall. Brown will have to walk the tightrope, and hope that Embiid's brilliance is enough to cover up for any peripheral irritation.
And speaking of Embiid -- at this point, it would probably be irresponsible not to mention once more that if Joel isn't healthy this season, none of the rest of this matters. We may have two No. 1 overall picks on our roster, and a handful of trustworthy vets surrounding them, but there's still only one player on the roster that's irreplaceable, only one player that really makes the difference in this roster being closer to a contending team than a rebuilding one. If JoJo proves broken -- still far from an impossibility after just 31 games in three seasons -- trade Fultz and Simmons, fire Brown, turn the Wells Fargo Center into a mini-golf course. When it comes to this Sixers season, the success flow chart from last year definitely still applies.
But assuming Embiid actually stays healthy for a majority of games, what should the focus of this season be? Bringing along the young guys, or getting the team officially over the tanking hump? I don't think the answer is as simple as some may think, and I think a good deal of it will depend on the players themselves, and whether they're willing to put in the potentially painful work of fixing their jumpers, committing on the defensive end and/or learning to properly diversify their offensive games, to allow themselves to be playable at most times in most lineups. The fact that the team is relatively loaded at this point, with the potential to be good even without their contributions, could end up influencing them in either direction -- either they hustle to catch up, or they get frustrated and fall further behind.
Does it matter whether the team actually does turn the corner with their win-loss record this year, though? Well, in the grand scheme of things maybe not, except that the team has to start caring about winning at some point, and obviously it would benefit our head coach (who we generally like and want to keep around) for that point to come this season. Not to mention that with J.J. on a one-year deal, making a playoff push may impact how likely he is to want to re-sign in the offseason -- or, dreaming a little bigger, a step towards contention could play a big role in attracting legit stars to Wawa country in free agency, or in keeping them around should we swing a blockbuster deal for one on an expiring contract.
Is any of that more important than developing Fultz and Simmons? Probably not, but the rookies will have to meet the team halfway. The Sixers are pot-committed enough to fielding a competitive squad this season that if the two aren't producing, and aren't making the kind of strides the team needs them to make, big minutes will not be guaranteed for them simply because of their draft slot. The most positive sign for the duo might be that Embiid has taken an early shine to both, with JoJo spending the offseason gassing up Simmons (and vice versa), and recently raving about Fultz's quiet demeanor, even claiming responsibility for the frosh's progress. The future is still first and foremost about doing whatever it takes to put Embiid in a place to succeed, so it'd behoove all other prospects to make getting on Joel's good side on and off the court a priority.
Regardless of how our rotation shakes out, it's a pretty remarkable situation for the Sixers to be in; to essentially have too many players is still a pretty novel concern for a franchise that started Chris Johnson and Henry Sims not that many opening nights ago. Having to develop so many young guys and still trying to win every night is going to be a new experience for this team, but with a little injury karma maybe finally owed our way, it should be doable: We already saw in those last two preseason blowouts how potent this team is with Joel just being available, and if the team can start out on close to that level and buy Brett & Co. a little breathing room, you just have to hope the rest kinda falls into place from there. Trust the process, and trust The Process.