76ers

Sixers-Wizards thoughts: Finally, a season opener with meaning

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Sixers-Wizards thoughts: Finally, a season opener with meaning

Sixers vs. Wizards
7 p.m. on ESPN
Sixers Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m., Postgame Live on NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports app

This is different.

For the first time in a handful of years, the Sixers are set to tip off an NBA regular season with legitimate expectations and hope (see Fearless Forecast).

That all gets started in our nation’s capital as the Sixers open up the 2017-18 campaign against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup:

• You know the numbers by now: 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game.

Joel Embiid was an absolute force during his rookie season. After sitting out two years with foot injuries, Embiid showed the entire league just how dominant he can be when healthy. However, that lasted only 31 games before the big man suffered a torn meniscus.

That brings us back to the final section in that stat line: minutes. Embiid will be on a minutes restriction to start the season, a decision the center made clear that he does not support (see story). With the team eyeing around 16 minutes on opening night, things can get tricky. If he has it rolling early, do the Sixers still take him out at his designated time? Will they go light on playing time early to save him for down the stretch?

With the Sixers finally focused on actually winning some games and not solely on building for the future, it will be interesting to see how Brett Brown handles Embiid’s time on the floor.

• Time for take two on Ben Simmons' rookie season. Much like recent Sixers before him, Simmons sat out what would have been his entire rookie year after fracturing his foot in training camp.

While Simmons likely could have returned at some point in 2016-17, Rookie of the Year campaigns aren’t built on portions of seasons (just ask Embiid). And make no mistake about it, the Sixers’ new starting point guard has his sights set on bringing home the hardware.

Leading a team on the rise with his versatile skill set suggests Simmons will be among the frontrunners for the award. He put up 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game during the preseason. 

But at some point, he will have to give teams a reason to respect his shooting ability from outside the paint. Simmons was 0 for 3 from three-point range and 9 for 22 from the free throw line during preseason action.

• Speaking of rookies, when is the last time the No. 1 overall pick has come into his first season as under the radar as Markelle Fultz?

Since being selected atop June’s NBA draft, it’s been an up-and-down transition for Fultz. The Washington product showed his scoring prowess in summer league play before going down with an ankle injury. Then a shoulder injury suffered during camp caused him to alter his shooting stroke. Finally, an ailing knee forced him to the sideline for the rest of preseason.

Now Fultz will come off the bench with the second unit. It should be a better situation for him as he can be more of a focal point and to handle the ball more often without sharing the floor with Simmons. However, if the 19-year-old continues down a rocky path to start, will he be able to handle the criticism?

• Outside of the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson pairing, there is always debate about which team owns the best backcourt duo. Is it Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan? What about Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland?

Scratch all of that. Besides the “Splash Brothers” in the Bay, my money is on the Wizards’ John Wall and Bradley Beal.

The guards simply get better each season, with 2016-17 being their best yet. Wall and Beal combined to average 46.2 points (23.1 apiece), 13.8 assists, 7.7 rebounds and 3.1 steals.

They are simply electric. And if matchups shake out as planned, veterans Jerryd Bayless and JJ Redick could be in for a long night.

• If anyone is looking forward to tipping off a new season, it has to be Brett Brown. The Sixers' head coach has endured one of the most extensive rebuilds in professional sports history and the anguish that goes along with such a plan.

Despite a 75-253 record over his first four seasons, Brown was able to not only keep the Sixers together but also still get them to compete to their best ability on a nightly basis.

And while that is certainly to be commended, things have flipped in a hurry for the head man. Brown’s objective now is to win and a fast start would go a long way toward proving he is really the man to transition the Sixers to the next phase of their rebuild. However, with 16 of the team’s first 21 games against opponents that reached the playoffs last season, it will be far from easy.

• The Sixers took two of the three matchups against the Wizards last season to win the season series. Jahlil Okafor actually led the way with an average of 18.7 points against the Wiz.

What now for Sixers after Kawhi Leonard trade to Raptors?

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What now for Sixers after Kawhi Leonard trade to Raptors?

LeBron James is a Laker. Kawhi Leonard is a Raptor.

The Sixers went star hunting and came up empty. So now what for a team that won 52 games but is likely one more superstar away from winning a title?

You may not like this answer, but the correct course of action is … nothing — at least not this offseason.

The only star that could possibly be available is the Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler — if you choose to believe the rumors. Butler, who is an outstanding two-way player, will be 29 entering next season and has an expiring deal. He already forced his way out of Chicago and reportedly wants to force his way out of Minnesota. How much are you giving up for that?

On a smaller scale, the Sixers lost Nemanja Bjelica, who reportedly agreed to sign with the team for the mid-level exception. The Serbian forward decided instead to take his talents back to the EuroLeague. Bjelica certainly wasn’t a star but he appeared to be a solid bench piece that might’ve actually been an upgrade from Ersan Ilyasova. So what should the Sixers do with their MLE?

Nothing — again, at least this year.

Who do you want that’s left? Joe Johnson? Michael Beasley? Jamal Crawford? That’s three hard no’s for me.

The Sixers should go into camp with what they have and let the competition play out. Maybe they’ll figure out what to do with Jerryd Bayless’ deal or waive Richaun Holmes or sign Jonah Bolden or make a small trade, but this roster is mostly set. And that’s fine.

This team, that again won 52 games, should be better. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons should only improve. Markelle Fultz can only go up. Dario Saric took a huge leap in Year 2 and we know the kind of worker he is. Wilson Chandler is an upgrade over any player the Sixers had on the bench last year, especially when you factor in defense.

They’re not the favorites to win the East, nor should they be. But that’s fine. With the Warriors continuing to load up and James now out West, what chance does any team in the East have? (Zero is the answer, by the way). 

Fast forward to next offseason. Leonard, Butler, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving are among a loaded free-agent class. Any one of those players would be a fit and a huge upgrade for the Sixers and they’d be joining the team at the right time. Embiid and Simmons will both be a year more mature and developed and the Warriors will be a year older with their cap situation tighter.

As for the MLE, if the Sixers go star hunting again next offseason and wind up with someone like Leonard, they could use it on a ring-chasing, veteran mercenary. That’s much more valuable than one year of Johnson, Beasley or Crawford on a team that doesn’t have a realistic shot at a title next year.

Brett Brown may have set a tough bar for the offseason. When he did his now infamous star-hunting presser, it raised expectations from the fan base. Since the Sixers came up empty in their quest, most look at the offseason as a bad one.

There’s no nice way to put it: Missing out on James and Leonard sucks for the Sixers. But all is far from lost. Name another team in the NBA that has two superstars the caliber of Embiid and Simmons both under the age of 24. You can’t because such a team does not exist.

Would the Sixers have been better off if they landed a star this offseason? Of course. But now knowing that they swung and missed, their best course of action is inaction — for now.

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Movement of 2014 picks highlights how well Sixers did in that draft

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Movement of 2014 picks highlights how well Sixers did in that draft

Despite it taking place over four years ago, the 2014 NBA draft continues to look better by the day for the Sixers.

Of course, that’s the draft in which the Sixers selected Joel Embiid at No. 3 and dealt the No. 10 choice (Elfrid Payton) to the Orlando Magic for the rights to Dario Saric at No. 12 along with a pair of draft picks.

Even recapping that first-round haul for the Sixers should bring a grin across your face.

That’s mainly because of what is transpiring with the careers of the other players from that draft class.

The latest move was the No. 2 overall pick that night, Jabari Parker, being allowed by the Milwaukee Bucks to sign an offer sheet to join his hometown Chicago Bulls earlier this week.

Now think back to 2014. Remember when people were hoping and praying the Sixers would be able to move up a spot or two to snag Parker or eventual top pick Andrew Wiggins? Recall how some didn’t want to touch Embiid, who was coming off a back injury at Kansas and suffered a broken bone in his foot during the pre-draft process? Add on those that weren't supportive of grabbing the then-mysterious Saric (you know he's never coming over, right?).

It’s unlikely you’ll hear those individuals speak up now. Not with Embiid as the Sixers’ All-Star anchor in the middle and Saric serving as a rock-solid forward next to him.

And they’ll be even quieter once you factor in the statuses of those other 2014 selections.

Look at Wiggins. Yes, he’s found a home in Minnesota and even signed a $146 million extension prior to last season. However, his inconsistency has been maddening at times and even forced Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor to recently say he’s not ready to give up on the 23-year-old swingman.

When it comes to Parker, the Bucks let him walk for a reason. The combo forward suffered two torn ACLs in his four-year stint in Milwaukee. And while he was a solid contributor when on the floor, it was clear the Bucks now run through budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Even after that trio at the top, things aren’t exactly booming career-wise for the players that followed in the draft. 

Aaron Gordon, the No. 4 overall pick, inked an $80 million deal this summer to remain in Orlando for the next four seasons. However, the team has a 114-214 record since Gordon was drafted.

The Jazz committed $33 million over three years to guard Dante Exum earlier this offseason. But realistically, the team had so much confidence in the oft-injured fifth pick in ’14 that it drafted Donovan Mitchell and acquired Ricky Rubio from the Timberwolves just a year ago.

There are plenty of solid players after the top five from the 2014 draft, but none of them are the caliber of Embiid and few measure up to Saric.

Things really get hairy when you take a look at the middle of the lottery. Former Sixer Nik Stauskas, who was taken eighth, is now on his fourth NBA team. Noah Vonleh was picked ninth and is now playing for his third franchise. Payton was the Sixers’ pick at No. 10 before being shipped to Orlando. He signed to join the New Orleans Pelicans in free agency earlier this month, which marks his third team in four years. And the 11th name called that night, Doug McDermott, will suit up for his fifth NBA team when next season rolls around.

In all, only 10 of the 30 players taken in the first round in 2014 are with the original team they suited up for on opening night (that includes Marcus Smart and Clint Capela, who remain on the market as restricted free agents).

Two of them are Embiid and Saric, who are still helping the Sixers climb from the cellar just a few years ago to the top of the NBA food chain.

Not a bad draft haul at all and it looks even better now.

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