2018-19 Season Preview: 76ers’ Ascend Into Championship Contenders
by 5 October 2018, 12:32 PM
The Philadelphia 76ers look to take the next steps toward an NBA Championship title. But will their young stars prove ready?
Are you trusting the ‘Process’ yet?
The Philadelphia 76ers’ 2017-18 season was a surprise to most, as they finished the season 52-30 and advanced to the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, putting the league on notice that the ‘Process’ is making progress.
Ben Simmons, in his first healthy season, asserted himself as a fringe top-15 NBA player by the end of the season, and Joel Embiid became a defensive player of the year candidate, as well as an All-Star starter. This was the sign 76ers fans needed to reassure themselves they weren’t victims of false hope.
Let’s look at some key components for the 76ers’ to take the next step toward becoming NBA championship contenders.
The most notable addition to the 76ers’ squad this season is their first-round draft pick Zhaire Smith from Texas Tech. Sadly, Smith injured his foot this past offseason and isn’t expected to return until December (the 76ers’ rookie injury bug lives on).
When Smith returns, Philly is hopeful he’ll be able to make a strong contribution to their bench unit; he’ll most likely spend a majority of his minutes backing up starting small forward Robert Covington.
When Smith returns he should bring an explosiveness and versatility unlike any other player on the 76ers’ bench. Standing at 6’4 with supreme athleticism, Smith will be able to guard multiple positions and shouldn’t have much trouble switching on defense.
In the Summer League, Smith showcased not only his explosion getting to the rim, but also a knack for getting a hand on the ball defensively, and looked to be a passer more than people originally thought. He also showed he can make an open jump shot when needed.
Brad Stevens Effect
Questions still loom in terms of Philly’s ceiling. Following a masterful coaching job by Brad Stevens in the Celtics’ playoff series with Philadelphia, many question whether this team can win the East with Simmons lacking a jump shot.
In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Stevens assigned the task of guarding Ben Simmons to forward Al Horford (along with a few other big men). This fixture made it much tougher for Simmons to score inside the paint, as he lacked the size advantage he normally had when defended by guards and wing players throughout the season. Stevens instructed his big men to sag in the paint and dare Simmons to shoot jump shots. This clogged up the lane heavily and caused many fits for the Philadelphia offense.
Many people feel Stevens revealed the blueprint on how to defeat this 76ers’ team. It’s reasonable to assume that a lot of teams will plan to attack Philly this season the same way Stevens did in the playoffs last year.
Simmons looks to have (somewhat) addressed the shooting struggles this offseason. He’s talked about working with his brother on his shooting mechanics this offseason but warns, “I’m not going to come out shooting threes this year.”
Head Coach Brett Brown insists that Simmons take the open mid-range looks this year.
Brett Brown on Ben Simmons shooting goals:”18 footers, look at the rim, and if you’re open, shoot it.”— Jon Johnson (@jonjohnsonwip) September 22, 2018
Those are positive signs for 76ers’ fans. A respectable mid-range shot should create plenty of fits for opposing defenses. Let’s not forget Simmons shot an incredible 74.4% within three feet of the hoop last year (per basketballreference.com). To put it into perspective, that was the same percentage as Anthony Davis. Those opportunities will only get easier as his shot develops, which is very scary.
Embiid The… MVP?
Embiid has made his goals clear for the 2018-19 season, he wants to be the MVP.
Embiid has never been one to back away from a challenge, and the numbers make a very compelling case in his favor. Embiid is coming off his best year in terms of not only statistics, but health as well. That’s a huge sigh of relief for Philly fans whose hearts take a long pause anytime he lands awkwardly.
Embiid showed last year he can stay healthy for a majority of an NBA season. That should result in another uptick in his minutes per game. They rose 4.9 minutes per game from 2016 to 2017 (averaging 30.3 MPG). Assuming his minutes rise again with stronger dependability on his durability, Embiid’s stats should look fairly similar to his per-36 totals from last year. Those numbers were 27.2 points per game, 48.3% from the field, 13.0 rebounds per game, and 2.1 blocks per game (per basketballreference.com).
Those 2017-18 stats resemble the numbers that Tim Duncan put up in his MVP season in 2001. That season Duncan averaged 25.5 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 2.5 BPG, and shot 50.8% from the field.
To put into context how impressive it would be if Embiid won MVP: No player that primarily works out of the post has won the MVP award since 2003 (Kevin Garnett).
Fultz Breakout Season?
We are finally starting to get some clarity on where the No. 1 overall pick last year looks in the restructure of his shooting form. A video was posted of Markelle Fultz’s new form and it looks to be much improved compared to what we were seeing last year.
Here’s what Fultz’ jumper looked like in the middle of last season:
SLAM (@SLAMonline) January 14, 2018
Here’s what it looks like now:
Markelle Fultz reveals his new shot 👀— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) September 20, 2018
Brett Brown says he took 150,000 shots this summer
What do you think?
It’s clear to see he’s not pushing the ball anymore, and his release point and follow-through are much improved. The shooting motion all around is much smoother and less mechanical.
If Fultz can contribute in solid minutes to this Philadelphia team, it can take them to the next level. Remember they won 52 games and made it to the 2nd round of the playoffs without him playing much at all last year. Many let the shooting struggles of Fultz blind them from the potential he still has in this league. Let’s not forget Fultz posted a triple double his first game back from injury last year. Fultz also still has freakish athleticism and can finish around the rim better than most.
Fultz’s ability to get to the rim with such explosiveness, and passing ability from his time playing point guard at the University of Washington should make it more difficult for opposing defenses to rotate and switch. Just another positive for this 76ers’ upcoming season.
Best And Worst Case Scenario
Granted everyone stays healthy, how far the 76ers’ season goes relies solely on the progression their young stars make. LeBron James is out of the East and the 76ers’ can put themselves on par with the likes of the Celtics if their young guns take their game up another level. If Simmons and Fultz are capable of hitting mid range jump shots, and Embiid takes his game up another level yet again, this team can reach the NBA Finals.
With the talent and roster they have right now, they are a lock for the playoffs. Worst case scenario for Philadelphia is that things get stagnant in their youth progression. There aren’t many veterans that play a major role on this team aside from Covington and the consistent and durable J.J. Reddick, so regression shouldn’t take place. The most disappointing outcome that could happen for the 76ers’ this year would be a first round loss in the playoffs.
Prediction: Philly finishes with a record of 58-24 and the second seed in the East. Their young players shows improvement but is still one year away from entering an NBA Championship, losing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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