76ers

2020 NBA playoffs: Predictions for Sixers' postseason fate

2020 NBA playoffs: Predictions for Sixers' postseason fate

What should we expect from the Sixers as they resume their season at Walt Disney World? 

Before the team's first seeding game Saturday night against the Pacers, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Serena Winters, Danny Pommells, Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick predict how the team will fare in the playoffs.

Hudrick 

What I’ve learned in my time covering the Sixers is that you can’t predict anything with this team … ever. They have the talent to make a run to the Finals but underperformed through 65 games and could just as easily lose in the first round.

There are just so many questions. Will the new-look starting five give the offense a spark? Can Al Horford find his place and play well next to Joel Embiid? Will Embiid and Ben Simmons elevate their games? The bench is deeper than last season, but is there enough postseason experience among the reserves? Is Brett Brown the guy to get this team over the top?

Though they’re not unbeatable, the Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the NBA and arguably the best player in the world in Giannis Antetokounmpo. While the Sixers match up well with two big bodies to contend with the Greek Freak, I don’t think they can beat them in a best-of-seven series. So, whether it’s the second round or the Eastern Conference Finals, I see Milwaukee ending the Sixers’ season.

Winters 

If the Sixers can stay healthy, I’m taking them to win the East. The more we’ve talked to the players over the past couple weeks in the bubble, the more I get a sense that the time off, coupled with an environment where players are building an off-court chemistry (playing golf, fishing, team dinners, etc.), could be just what this team needed. On top of that, we’re seeing significant on-court changes being made to remedy what has been the Sixers' most prevalent issue on the court: spacing.

Are you ready for my run-on sentence? If sliding Simmons over to the four in the starting unit gives Embiid more space to go to work, while adding another perimeter shooter in Shake Milton, while also tapping into Simmons’ scoring ability at the elbow and giving him the freedom to run in transition, and Horford is there to lock down the Embiid-less units (which was one of the biggest concerns last postseason), well then … hello, Eastern Conference Finals!

But I’ll be watching like everyone else as the new starting five takes the court for the very first time in a meaningful game, just eight games before the playoffs. I do know one thing — when Embiid is at his best, there is no stopping him. And if this new unit increases Embiid’s productivity, the Sixers are going to be a problem.

Pommells 

There's no Sixers fan around the globe that isn’t expecting something significant from this talented team come the postseason. Time, an abundance of talent and dollars spent has backed the Sixers into a high-stakes corner. Can they deliver is the ultimate question ... and I say yes! If you haven’t been paying attention since the season's restart, the Sixers are exuding more chemistry and camaraderie than Matisse Thybulle loaded down with a team’s worth of Popeye’s biscuits.

The Sixers are the sixth seed no one wants to face. The biggest reason isn’t Horford coming off the bench or Milton in the starting lineup. It’s not even a healthy Embiid. Simmons at the four has made him more free and able to roam, morphing into a pick-and-roll nightmare. His playmaking ability coupled with a group who can shoot and spread the floor is the team no one wants to face. I see the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Where they go from there will be the biggest test of their resolve to date, but undeniable progress for a team whose superstars are in their mid 20s.

Levick

The Sixers are highly talented and what seemingly every player on the roster has said about team chemistry having improved in the four-plus months since their last game shouldn’t be discounted, but they have issues that may plague them in the playoffs. We don’t know precisely what to expect with the Embiid-Horford pairing, since those two only played together for a little under four minutes in the Sixers’ first scrimmage before Embiid exited with a right calf injury. Still, it’s worrisome to consider that the Sixers have a minus-8.8 net rating with that duo on the floor since Dec. 1. Maybe elite defense will paper over the pre-hiatus problems we saw in the minutes when Horford and Embiid were together, or perhaps Brown will be ultra-frugal with the time those two share the court if things aren’t working.

The team’s bench is deeper than last year’s, though likely reliant on young players in Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz. In their first 65 games, the Sixers had little continuity or fluidity, and an offense that ranked 18th in the NBA. They’re healthier and better positioned to make a deep run than when the season shut down on March 11, but the path won’t be easy, regardless of seeding.

While there’s an especially wide range of possible outcomes with a team that has a brand-new starting lineup, was so brilliant at home and so perplexingly poor on the road, I’ll say the Sixers’ season ends with a six- or seven-game loss to the Bucks in the second round.  

Subscribe and rate Sixers Talk: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Updated: 8:42 p.m.

Ben Simmons is out for the Sixers’ seeding game Friday against the Orlando Magic with a left patella subluxation and there's not currently a timeline for his return as he considers treatment options. That news is clearly significant in the Sixers’ world, and it raises a range of questions. 

Let’s run through some of the bigger ones: 

What exactly is the injury? 

A simpler way to classify the injury is as a partial dislocation of the kneecap. 

How long will Simmons be out?

This is the largest question and still murky. Brett Brown on Thursday said “stuff is still being evaluated” and that he wasn’t in a position to offer a timeline. Presumably, factors such as the state of the ligaments around the knee could play a key role in determining how long Simmons is out. 

Outside of Simmons’ physical status, the team’s approach will be important. There’s no reason to put Simmons back on the court before he’s healthy. 

Shake Milton is hoping for a speedy return.

“It’s tough for us,” he said Thursday. “Ben is an incredible player, an incredible athlete. I don’t know, he’s like a freaking superhuman, so hopefully he’s able to heal super fast and get back on the court, because we definitely need him.”

How will the starting lineup change?

On March 11, the Sixers’ final pre-hiatus game, the team started Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. That’s one possibility. The Horford-Embiid pairing is still the Sixers’ worst regular duo in terms of net rating despite having a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World.

If Brown wants to prepare for a scenario in which Simmons is available and in the postseason starting five, he could keep Horford as the sixth man. He could instead turn to a wing such as Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III, all of whom have started games for the Sixers this year. Robinson, who has missed the Sixers' first three seeding games with a left hip pointer, is doubtful for Friday's game. 

What about the rotation?

Robinson’s health is a relevant issue with the rotation, which Brown shrunk to nine players when the Sixers played the Wizards. Raul Neto didn’t play against Washington after seeing time in the first two seeding games.

It’s interesting to note that Neto started in Simmons’ place on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 when the Australian was out with a shoulder injury. The circumstances were very different, however, as Milton was sidelined by a bone bruise and left knee sprain, leaving Neto and Trey Burke as the two main ball handlers on the roster. Trade deadline acquisition Alec Burks now appears ahead of Neto in the backup point guard pecking order, and Simmons’ injury should increase Burks' value a touch. 

As of Wednesday, Brown said his plan was still to have a nine-player rotation for the playoffs. 

What’s the intangible impact? 

When Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back on Feb. 22, Brown recalled him vomiting because of pain. He’s lauded Simmons often for the diligent rehabilitation he did to recover from that injury and be ready to go when play resumed amid a pandemic.

Injuries aren’t anything new to Brown, but he admitted it hurt some to learn about this one after witnessing the process of Simmons’ back rehabilitation. 

“It’s the life that we've lived since I have been in Philadelphia,” he said. “I’m sure every coach has some level of a similar story. This one stings, for sure. We all felt with the pandemic and are we going to play again, it obviously bought time for Ben — had the season kept going, it’s anybody’s best guess. In relation to being incredibly down about it, I’m not. When I think too long about it, probably I can go there.

“But I feel numb to it. I feel conditioned, that we’ve gone through this type of thing before. There is a level of faith that I have in the rest of the team that we can hold the fort until we hopefully get him back. But snakebitten, woe is me, I don’t go there.”

In addition to dealing with the disappointment of a star going down, the Sixers will have to tinker with ingredients like leadership that aren’t necessarily evident to an outsider.

“It’s going to be kind of everyone has to step up by committee,” Richardson said. “I think we have a few guys that can step up as leaders, who can step up and have big games for us. We don’t really like to put too much pressure on one or a few guys. Everybody’s going to step up in his absence.”

Can the Sixers manage without Simmons? 

Again, the lack of a timeline looms large here. We can say without question that the Sixers are 6-5 this season without Simmons and don’t have direct replacements for his elite defense, transition talents, creative passing and more.

It’s also logical that the Sixers will rely on Embiid defensively and feed him frequently in the post. His 34.4 percent usage rate so far in Florida may very well rise. 

“Offensively, he needs to get as many touches as we can get him,” Brown said. “And I think that one of the areas of most noticeable growth … is what he’s been doing passing out of the post. It’s maybe the single thing that stands out most to me offensively when you look at whether it’s Jo, or just us as a team — I like our post spacing.

“I like Jo’s unselfishness quarterbacking the gym. His ability to read where the double teams are coming from I think has been shown.”

Thybulle, Richardson, and perhaps Robinson when healthy could assume challenging defensive assignments that otherwise would have been Simmons’. Players like Harris and Korkmaz will miss Simmons’ ability to drive and set up three-pointers. 

Initially, the Sixers are coming to terms with the situation and hoping the injury doesn’t dent their playoff hopes.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now and really we're all coming to grips with the news that we’ve received,” Brown said. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Updated: 8:37 p.m.

The injury Ben Simmons sustained in the Sixers' win Wednesday night over the Wizards is a subluxation of the left patella. He's out for the team's game Friday night against the Magic and treatment options are being considered.

Simmons exited Wednesday's game in the third quarter after throwing a pass for Al Horford. He immediately flexed his left knee and headed to the locker room.

Brett Brown was not prepared to give a timeline for how long Simmons will be sidelined.

"Some of the information is fluid, it’s still moving," he said Thursday. "In relation to saying any type of deadline, timeline, playoff, whatever, I’m not in a position to offer anything. Not because we don’t want to, but stuff is still being evaluated. What I do know — it’s boring, but we play Orlando tomorrow and we don’t have him. That’s kind of all I know at this point.”

The 24-year-old Simmons made his second All-Star team this season and has averaged 16.4 points, 8.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds. The Sixers shifted him to power forward in their new starting lineup, and he was open to the change.

"You've just gotta work with different things,” he said on July 14. “You’ve gotta try different things out, see if they work. We’re not at a stage where we can be comfortable yet. I’m still trying to figure it out myself ... what feels comfortable, what’s right for this team and how we’re gonna win. 

“If it’s this way, then I’m all for it. I’ve been having fun in that position — whatever you guys say, the four — whatever it is. But at the end of the day, when you see me I’m on the floor, I’m making plays."

He'd missed the Sixers' final eight games before the NBA's hiatus with a nerve impingement in his lower back but recovered from that injury and said he felt explosive heading into the restart. 

Without Simmons, Brown will have a few options to replace Simmons in the starting lineup, including original starting power forward Al Horford and wings Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz.

Brown said he spoke with Simmons and Sixers medical director Scott Epsley on Wednesday night during a team dinner.

"There is clearly disappointment," Brown said, "because I don’t know if anybody really understood what he did to get ready to play basketball again. He really invested time, he really was diligent during the whole pandemic about recovery and rehab and strength and conditioning. ... And so I feel like there is certainly some disappointment, I think (there’s) the uncertainty of what really is it right now, is obviously there.

"But he’s a great teammate and his teammates care about him, and I think more will unfold, I suspect, in the next 24 hours where we can maybe provide more information.”

In other injury news, Mike Scott (right knee soreness) is questionable for Friday's game and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is doubtful. Both participate in the Sixers' practice Thursday after missing the team's first three seeding games. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers