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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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