The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions, having escaped a conference semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers thanks to four fortunate bounces after time expired in Game 7. The Sixers, with two stars that are 23 and 25 years old, respectively, and with the Raptors' best player having left the conference, are not running it back. Instead, they've retooled around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid for the third time in the last year.
> 30 Teams in 30 Days: Philadelphia 76ers
Contradicted rumors by keeping coach Brett Brown after the team's loss in the conference semifinals ... Moved up in the Draft to select forward Matisse Thybulle with the 20th pick ... J.J. Redick left for New Orleans ... Jimmy Butler went to Miami in a sign-and-trade deal that brought back Josh Richardson ... Al Horford was signed away from the Celtics ... Tobias Harris re-signed for five years and $180 million, while Ben Simmons signed a five-year, max extension that kicks in next season ... Key reserves James Ennis and Mike Scott also re-signed.
1. Potential for the No. 1 defense. The Sixers were a bit of a disappointment defensively last season, ranking 14th in that department. The defense was better in the playoffs and the Sixers only got bigger in the summer. With Simmons and Richardson defending opposing backcourts and with the ability to have Embiid and/or Horford as the anchor for all 48 minutes, the potential is there for this team to lead the league in defensive efficiency.
2. Star chemistry. As they enter their third season together, there are still questions about how well Simmons and Embiid fit together offensively. Because he hasn't been able to shoot from the outside, Simmons (along with his defender) has more often occupied space (in the paint) best utilized by Embiid, who has too frequently received the ball too far from the basket in the Sixers' offense. While Simmons attempted just 73 shots from outside the paint last season, Embiid attempted 493. But his effective field goal percentage on those shots (40.9 percent) ranked 210th among 218 players who attempted at least 200. Brown said before training camp that, this season, he would position Simmons more in the corners, rather than in the dunker's spot (baseline below the block). Defenses will ignore Simmons out there until he proves he can shoot, but the positioning is a start toward allowing Embiid to be more prolific and/or efficient offensively.
3. The stagger. Tied into both of the points above is the fact that Brown staggers his starters' minutes like no other coach, subbing out early and generally keeping at least two starters on the floor at all times. That gives the Sixers advantages against the second units of their opponents (Brown often had all five starters back on the floor to start the second and fourth quarters in the playoffs), but also means that the starting five-man unit plays fewer minutes per game together than those of other teams.
MAN ON THE SPOT
With Butler taking his isolations to Miami and Redick taking his dribble hand-offs to New Orleans, the Sixers need new go-to actions down the stretch of close games. With Simmons' shooting issues, the onus of creating shots for both himself and his teammates could fall on the shoulders of Harris. Last season, Harris shot 41.3% on pull-up 3-pointers, the second-best mark among 69 players who attempted at least 100. But he's not as dynamic a scorer as Butler and his playmaking would need to improve in a go-to-guy role. He recorded assists on 13% of his possessions, a mark which ranked 73rd among 111 players with a usage rate of 20 percent or higher last season.
Ben Simmons | 16.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 7.7 apg
All eyes are on his jumper. But even without competence from the outside, he presents a huge matchup advantage as a 6-foot-10 point guard.
Josh Richardson | 16.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.1 apg
Much better defender who is a more versatile scorer than Redick, whose off-ball movement will still be missed.
Tobias Harris | 20.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.8 apg
Struggled in the conference semis (effective field goal percentage of 44%) after flourishing in the first round (57%).
Al Horford | 13.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.2 apg
Might be the league's best Embiid defender. Also one of five centers that averaged more assists per game than his new teammate.
Joel Embiid | 27.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.7 apg
Kia MVP and Kia Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Has ranked second in the league in usage rate each of last two seasons.
James Ennis | 6.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.7 apg
Provided good playoff minutes, but shot just 20-for-68 (29%) on 3-pointers in his 29 total games with the Sixers.
Mike Scott | 5.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.8 apg
Sixty-three percent of his shots in Philly were 3-pointers. That was up from 58% in his time with the Clippers and 31% in 2017-18.
Zhaire Smith | 6.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.7 apg
Got a small taste of the league after a foot injury and allergic reaction kept him sidelined for most of his rookie year.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Sixers may be the most unique team in the league, and they will have clear advantages over every team they face. They lost the Toronto series because they were outscored by an amazing 109 points in Embiid's 99 minutes on the bench. They addressed that issue with the addition of Horford (who will move to center when Embiid sits), but time will tell how much they lost offensively with the departures of Butler and Redick. They should be competing for an Eastern Conference championship come May, and their ceiling will be determined by how well the pieces fit together.
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