4 Philadelphia 76ers storylines to track in 2018

There are a few storylines to track as the New Year starts, including the Sixers playoff aspirations.

Happy New Year! Hopefully, January of 2018 will bring the same fortune as January of 2017 to the 76ers. It has been an eventful season, to say the least, but for different reasons aside from the actual roster itself, and quite frankly, it wouldn't be a Sixers season if that wasn't the case. There are plenty of things to track as the 2018 year begins. 

1. The anticipated return of Markelle Fultz

It took two months but Markelle Fultz is finally practicing with the team in some capacity. The Sixers announced on Monday that Fultz has entered the "Final stages of his ready-to-play program" which honestly, it's amazing how many ways this team can come up with new phrases in relation to a player's health. It was still an update in the same vein of vague updates the fans have been getting from the team since Fultz was ruled out back in October.

The most important thing is that he is participating in 4-on-4 basketball and has been playing 1-on-1 in front of the media after practice on Monday and Tuesday, which means we now have the videos we've all been waiting for. That's right, videos of his jump shot.

Kyle Neubeck of the Philly Voice has more videos of Fultz taking some jumpers in his article

Granted some of these jumpers are low effort, and flat-footed, the hitch and the release point at the bottom of his chin that we saw in training camp, pre-season, and Fultz's 4 regular season games, is gone. The fact that the team is letting Fultz shoot in front of the media now after he was raked through the coals of the internet when his new look jumper first surfaced way back in late September, must mean that the team is confident in the progress of his shoulder and his shot. We should see Fultz soon, but it should be noted that while the team could certainly use a guard like him to create off the dribble, the team is exceeding expectations without him, so he should still take his time if he feels like he needs more of it. 

2. Dario Saric's recent play

I love Dario Saric. He shows up to play every game and it doesn't matter if he is struggling like he did at the start of the season, he always finds a way to figure it out. He was put in the starting lineup primarily as a shooter to space the floor, and he went through another mini-slump. Lately, he has returned to the Dario of last year. The Dario who scores, gets those tough offensive rebounds and does a little bit of playmaking. Over his last 16 games, he is averaging 17.8 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists per game on 48%/39.3%/87% shooting splits. The coaches are running the offense through Dario in the post and the elbows and it's paying dividends. He has a 21% assist percentage during this recent stretch which is well above his season average of 15%. Once Fultz comes back I can't wait to see more of the offense run through Dario when he comes off the bench with the second unit. 

I'm sure the team would throw Saric in a trade if a big offer came forward, but I primarily lean towards youth and cheap young talent at that. Saric is scheduled to make over $3 million dollars in the last year of his rookie deal in 2019-2020. That is extremely valuable as this team goes big game hunting in free agency, and starts handing out extensions to Simmons and Fultz down the line. 

3. Don't look now but the Sixers are in play for the first overall pick in the draft

I have voiced my uneasiness about Bryan Colangelo recently, but I have acknowledged some of the safe but good moves, one of the really good moves, however, was putting protections on the 2018 Lakers first round pick and the 2019 Kings first round pick in the Markelle Fultz trade.

For those who don't know, The Lakers pick conveys to the Celtics if it lands in the 2 through 5 range. If the Lakers pick becomes the first overall pick, or pick 6 through 30 then the pick conveys to the Sixers.

If the Lakers pick conveys to the Sixers then the Celtics would get the highest pick between the Kings 2019 first rounder or the Sixers 2019 first rounder, so basically the Celtics would get the Kings pick because the Sixers' pick is more than likely going to be in the late teens or early twenties. The caveat here is that the Kings pick is also top 1 protected, and if that pick conveyed to the Sixers, then the Celtics would ultimately get the Sixers 2019 pick.

That was a mouthful.

The Lakers are currently 1.5 games back of the Atlanta Hawks for the worst record in the NBA and the pick has a 19.9% chance of being the first pick. The worst record has a 25% chance, so you can see why Sixer fans will probably be pseudo-Hawks fans for a while as the Lakers are on this skid. 

If the Sixers lucked out and got to pick first in the draft for the third year in a row then it would really cement this team's future. They wouldn't go for DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley or Mo Bamba, but would have their choice of Luka Doncic --who is second on my non-Sixers big board behind Ayton-- or Michael Porter jr. both of whom are skilled big wings with scoring ability. I would go with Doncic as my easy top choice because of his passing ability and three-point shooting. He has a chance to be special on the offensive end, and the passing between Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Doncic along with the improved passing of Joel Embiid, would be too much for my brain to handle. They would be so fun to watch.

Rooting for the Lakers to lose and rooting for the other bottom barrel teams to win should be very familiar to Sixer fans over the last few seasons. Only this time the team is getting another lottery pick while it's on the rise, with cap space, instead of losing and getting its own lottery position. 

This was one of my recent visits to tankathon.com. Lets hope. 

4. Playoff push in coordination with Embiid's availability

Right now the Sixers are a half-game out of the 8th seed with an 18-19 record. Amazingly enough, the team is 2.5 games out of the 5th seed. It's a tight-knit race for the 8th seed between the Knicks and the Pacers --who are struggling as of late without Victor Oladipo-- as all three teams are separated by a half game each.

The Sixers are getting through the third toughest schedule in the NBA and the playoff push will largely depend on how often Embiid will be available to play. There are 8 sets of back to back games left and JoJo has yet to be cleared to play in back-to-backs, and there could be other times where the team decides to rest him for "load management" --again, only the Sixers can come up with buzz-terms like this-- so really it comes down to how many games the Sixers can win without Embiid which is a tough proposition. 

The Sixers are 2-7 without Joel Embiid and play like a lottery team when he is off the court. Wins in games without Embiid are found money, but they are hard to come by. Even playing the lottery-bound teams like the Kings or The Bulls have proven to be anything but automatic wins.

The Sixers playoff push and Embiid are connected, which isn't breaking news. A team typically needs it's best player, but the scary part for this team's playoff hopes are the blown leads that have happened when Embiid has played. The team can't squander many more games that Embiid plays in or else they will have to start winning more of the games that he doesn't play in. We all know how that usually goes.

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