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)

Give Brett Brown, Sixers credit for not playing NBA draft safe

Give Brett Brown, Sixers credit for not playing NBA draft safe

The Sixers had every reason to play it safe.

Selecting in the lottery without an actual general manager in the war room to make the tough, bold decisions and two franchise players already in place, not many would’ve rolled their eyes if Brett Brown and company simply sat at No. 10 and took a safe prospect that would fit and contribute right away.

At first, that’s exactly what it appeared they had done.

Mikal Bridges, who didn’t even look like he’d last until No. 10 a few weeks ago, fell right into the Sixers’ lap. And despite reportedly having discussions about taking high-risk/high-reward wing Michael Porter Jr., the Sixers ultimately selected the safest prospect and best fit on the board in Bridges.

But as the Malvern, Pennsylvania, native was making his media rounds wearing a Sixers hat and talking about continuing his basketball career in the Philadelphia area, Brown and the Sixers' front office didn't stop working the phones (see video). And just before the Suns were about to select fellow Villanova Wildcat Donte DiVincenzo No. 16 overall, the Sixers were faced with an offer they couldn’t refuse. 

Bridges was shipped out to Phoenix in exchange for Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech, who the Suns took at 16, and an unprotected 2021 Miami Heat first-round pick. Less than an hour after selecting a hometown kid whose mom worked for the team and could contribute to winning basketball from Day 1 as a three-and-D wing, the Sixers traded him for a raw, freakishly-athletic guard who attempted just 40 threes in college and a future first-rounder.

Look, this move was obviously surprising and sprinkled with some bad optics. There were rumors all week leading up to the draft that the Sixers had interest in trading up into the top five, but it just seemed unlikely they’d make that drastic a move for a prospect, especially without a GM in place. That narrative felt legitimized when the Sixers wound up staying at 10 and selecting a high-floor/low-ceiling player. And that’s what made flipping Bridges six picks later for a raw player like Smith and a future pick so surprising. It was an abrupt shift from a win-now move to a long-term, upside play.

But after the initial shock (and awkwardness of Bridges’ Philadelphia professional sports career not even lasting as long as Frank Gore’s) of the trade wore off, it was hard not to be impressed with the value that the Sixers came away with. Brown told reporters that Bridges was their “1A” and Smith their “1B.” If that’s indeed so, the Sixers got one of the top two players on their board, at least at the time of making their pick at 10, and added a potentially super-valuable pick in the process. Put aside how perfect a fit Bridges would’ve been or how concerning Smith’s shot is, that’s a great value deal in a vacuum.

Is it a sure thing that pick even lands in the lottery? Of course not. But the Heat’s pick was slated 16th this year and they’re projected to be over the cap for the next two seasons. Then, the only players currently under contract for the 2020-21 season are James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo for a total of $23 million. While they have a ton of projected cap space to still improve their roster in the 2020 offseason, that’s not too bad of a current outlook for the pick.

And there’s certainly risk in swapping out Bridges for Smith as well. For starters, it’s not a reach to say it probably makes the Sixers worse in the immediate. And if Smith’s three-point shot doesn’t develop, it’s hard to see how he fits with Ben Simmons and the Sixers long-term, whereas Bridges would've been a perfect complementary player.

But the reason you make this deal is for the upside. Smith has a ways to go to be more than just a slasher in a half-court offense, but if he can improve his shot, which Brown seemed optimistic about, and handle he’ll become a dynamic two-way player. And remember, the Sixers surrendered an unprotected 2019 Sacramento Kings pick (which still conveys to the Sixers if it lands at No. 1) in the Markelle Fultz trade. While the Heat pick they acquired isn’t currently as valuable as the Kings pick, it gives them a future asset that could bolster their trade package for a star or just be used to draft a cost-controlled player in 2021, when the one-and-done rule could be abolished.

There’s no crowing a winner of this trade at the moment, that won’t come for a few years down the line when the actual value of the three assets in this trade is actualized. But give credit where credit is due to Brown, who is wearing two hats all of the sudden during the franchise’s most important offseason of this century and isn't shying away from it. A concern with coaches also acting as general managers is whether they're able to keep their natural desire as a coach to win in the now out of their executive decisions. 

Making his first major transactions as interim general manager Thursday night, Brown rightfully left his coach’s hat at home.

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Brett Brown admits human side of Mikal Bridges trade is 'disturbing'

Brett Brown admits human side of Mikal Bridges trade is 'disturbing'

CAMDEN, N.J. — As far as basketball is concerned, we’ll see how the Sixers’ move to trade Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith and an unprotected 2021 first-round pick works out.

From a human side, it was absolutely brutal to watch Bridges talk about playing for his hometown team with a huge smile, minutes after proudly putting on his Sixers cap and shaking hands with Adam Silver, unaware of the report that the seemingly perfect fit wasn’t to be (see video).

“She’s very, very excited,” Bridges said of his mother’s reaction, before he was informed of the trade. “She’s been wanting this. She’s probably more excited than I am. She’s about to cry and all that but she said she didn’t want to ruin her makeup, so she’s trying to hold it in. But she’s very excited. I’m her only son, momma’s boy, so she’s happy her son is right there around the corner again, and it’s just really cool.”

By now, you probably know Bridges’ story. His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, is the Global Vice President of Human Resources for Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the Sixers. Bridges went to Great Valley High and won two national titles at Villanova.

Coach and interim general manager Brett Brown knows Bridges’ story, too. When the Sixers took Bridges 10th overall, Brown was thrilled, and not just because he thought Bridges was a great basketball fit.

“I live in this city with you all," Brown said. “I watch Villanova. I love his mom. I love his college coach. There is a human side of this that’s really kind of hard to explain. And we all, I’m assuming, go from this level of excitement and coincidence, like you can’t make this up, to there’s this thing that involves our 1B, who we had targeted and brought back twice…”

That “1B” is Zhaire Smith. According to Brown, he felt obligated to do what could best help the organization win championships. To him, the high upside of Smith and a valuable asset in that future unprotected first-rounder outweighed the defensive ability, three-point shooting and winning mentality Bridges would have brought to the table. That doesn’t mean it was easy to pull the trigger.

“There’s a 20-minute, 15-minute window where you play text tag with the people involved," Brown said. "Everyone in that room knew how excited I was personally. As I said before, it really was 1A and 1B. And they’re really different, because Mikal could probably come in and play and embrace an immediate role now. And Zhaire is this thing that can definitely turn into something incredibly unique, I really feel that.

“Emotions carry over that it’s pretty cool, he’s from Villanova, it’s the city of Philadelphia, you can’t make this stuff up, his mom works across the street, all that stuff. And then the human side of, ‘Wow, look at this deal!’ Look at this incredible Godfather of a deal that can move our program forward in ways we couldn’t have imagined before this draft. So you’re caught. You really toggle between different emotions. Everyone here gets it. We all live here and understand the city and all that, and just at the end of the day, as time unfolds we’ll realize how important a decision [this was] and how unusual an opportunity that we had that we just didn’t feel comfortable [not] accepting. That’s the human side of tonight.”

Ultimately, Thursday night could work out just fine for everyone involved. Bridges could have a long, successful NBA career, Smith could fulfill his intriguing potential, and that 2021 first-rounder could be an important piece in the Sixers acquiring a star.

But it sure would have been cool for Sixers fans, 15 years from now, to be able to smile looking back on Mikal Bridges talking about how thrilled his mom was when he was taken by the Sixers. Instead, even if the Sixers form a dynasty thanks in part to Smith and that 2021 pick, they’ll probably still cringe watching a beaming, oblivious Bridges think he’s staying home.

“The human side of tonight is disturbing," Brown said, "but the process and how we grow the program and the thoughtfulness and the study that we put in, I feel like is wise for the program.”

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