We go over the reasons why the Sixers have a realistic shot at making the playoffs.
We are less than 70 days away from the start of the 2017-18 NBA Season, and NBA news – barring a trade of Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony – has finally hit a dead period. There really isn't a lot to cover in August other than examining recent moves over and over again and trying to predict the future... like projecting playoff odds for the Sixers.
Back in June before the draft, if you asked me whether or not the Sixers would make the playoffs this upcoming season, I would've probably put them as a borderline ninth or eighth seed, given how the Eastern conference was constituted at the time. But much like in life, things change quickly, and trades, unforeseen moves, and free agent signings have made the conference considerably weaker and it has me singing a different tune. There is a pathway for the Sixers to make the playoffs this upcoming season, but a few things – weaker Eastern Conference aside – need to go right in order for the next step of The Process to be considered a success.
First and foremost, before we get into any other reasons, HEALTH(!!!!!!) is clearly the most important and obvious thing that needs to go right for the Sixers. I will mention a certain Cameroonian's health later on but just in general, the team needs to just stay healthy and whole heading into the start of the regular season. The injury luck this team has had to its key players the last few years has been nothing short of astounding, and the 2016-17 season did not let up:
- Ben Simmons missed his entire rookie year after breaking his foot on the very last day and the very last scrimmage of training camp.
- 2016 free agent signing Jerryd Bayless dealt with a left wrist injury that kept out for all but three games.
- Both Robert Covington and Joel Embiid had to have season-ending meniscus surgery.
- Former Sixer Gerald Henderson played with a Hip injury all season and could miss the entire 2017-2018 season due to surgery.
- Nerlens Noel had "elective" surgery on his knee before the season started and did not return until December.
There were some games towards the end of the season – the Overtime loss in Orlando is one example that comes to mind – where the team had eight or nine active players, and fear of injuries wasn't exactly quelled when 2017 first overall pick, Markelle Fultz, went down with an ankle injury in Summer league. It was a minor injury, but it seems that any injury that happens to any player from this point on will feel like a death blow, especially when you consider that the trust between the fan base and the Sixers' medical staff is on ice so thin it looks like the current state of the Earth's ice caps.
If the team wants to grow and realize its potential then the players have to stay healthy first so they can all get reps together.
2. Continue to chuck those threes
Head Coach Brett Brown hasn't exactly had a stable roster during his time in Philly, so he hasn't been able to really dig into how he wants to run his team, however, he has been consistent in hammering down basic philosophies. Running, Pace and Space, and Defense.
The last three seasons the Sixers, as a team finished in the top 8 in three point shots attempted per game, and finished in at least in the top 11 in three pointers made per game. As you would expect, however, given the lack of talent, offensive spacing, and ever changing roster, they haven't been efficient percentage wise, finishing no higher than 24th in three point percentage. The lowest rank came at 29th in the 2014-15 season.
It's a problem when the team's best shooter is Joel Embiid. Shooting has been a huge need for a long time, and the team addressed it by signing one of the best three point shooters in NBA history in JJ Redick. Redick has shot 44.6% from three over his last three seasons, but only at 5.8 attempts per game, a number that should increase to at least seven or eight attempts per game with a bigger role, and more spacing thanks to the infusion of talent on the roster.
Factoring in the natural variance that comes with three point shooting a more talented roster will also benefit the likes of Jerryd Bayless (who shot 43% from three in 2015-16), Nik Stauskas who shot 37% this past year, and Robert Covington.
Covington was a topic of debate early on in the 2016-17 season when he was struggling with his shot, at one point being showered with boos at the Wells Fargo center every time he simply touched the ball. Brett Brown was steadfast in sticking with RoCo, and as his shooting numbers normalized after the new year, only then did he start to get recognition as a 3 and D player. Despite only shooting 33% from three this past season, he shot 41% on wide open threes per NBA.com, and shot 37% and 35% in the 2014-15- and 2015-16 respectively from three when he had considerably less talent around him.
I'll chalk up Covington's down year shooting the ball to just that. A down year. It happens to literally every player in NBA history. He has shown more than enough times that he can be a knockdown shooter, a few hundred attempts early on in a season doesn't trump the other 928 attempts the previous two seasons. Now that he will most likely be 5th option in the projected starting lineup and won't have a defender sniffing the odor of his jersey when he shoots, I wouldn't be surprised if RoCo had a career year shooting the ball.
Three point shooting covers up a lot of things, and shooting will be really important early on in the season as this team learns to play together. If the Sixers can maintain the number of three point attempts and makes from the past three seasons but up the efficiency to around league average or close to the top 12 then shooting will be a reliable staple in the offense for the first time in Brett Brown's coaching career.
3. Need to improve in transition
Similar to the team's three point shooting, The team has been getting out and running in transition – another basic principle Brett Brown has kept – but have converted those opportunities at a low and inefficient rate. The Sixers ranked 8th in pace in the 2016-17 season, running in transition 15.2% of the time according to Synergy but in the same token, the team ranked dead last in transition points per 100 possessions.
As the roster kept dwindling during the season, it certainly affected the transition numbers, both in the number of possessions and conversion rate, but the addition of Fultz and Simmons coming back from injury should be enough to give an anemic transition attack a much-needed jump-start. Just take a look at the Simmons' college stats in transition that were posted by BballBreakdown's Mike O'connor, it has been awhile since the Sixers have had a player of Simmons' caliber that can put immense pressure on a defense in transition.
The addition of JJ Redick could also theoretically boost the potency of the Sixers transition attack. His old team, the Los Angeles Clippers, were a potent transition team over the past three seasons, ranking no lower than 6th in Points per 100 in the Synergy rankings (ranked first in 2014-15). Redick himself ranked in the 84th percentile during those three seasons in transition, and it was easy to see why with his potent three point shooting and ability to leak out and locate at the three point line. The surrounding talent definitely helped in this regard, but it works both ways because Redick's shooting prowess created gravity that really made it a pick your "poison type" of attack.
With Simmons and Fultz barreling down in transition, a freakin' 7'2" monolith trailing the play, and Robert Covington's shooting and improving cutting ability, it's easy to envision some of the beautiful plays in transition this team can produce this upcoming season.
4. Wheater the storm of having two rookies as primary ball handlers
On paper, there is no question this team looks exciting, but games aren't won on paper. It's easy to forget that Fultz, an incoming rookie, and Simmons, who is for all intents and purposes is a rookie, are 19 and 20 years of age. There will inevitably be some growing pains. Brett Brown is insistent on having Simmons become a point guard – or primary ball handler to avoid debate – and that in itself will come with rough patches. Fultz will also have an adjustment period himself, trying to play more off the ball, which is certainly capable of doing, but shifting from having the ball in his hands most of the time at Washington and then not having the ball as much is never a seamless translation.
Turnovers will be around as the two work through their mistakes, but with combination of a weak eastern conference that has seen three playoff teams (Chicago, Atlanta, Indiana) lose their best player via trade or free agency, and the listed reasons already discussed above, the Sixers have more games as fodder, so to speak, to survive the peaks and valleys that come with having your offense ran through two really young players.
This, of course, all circles back to the main reason the Sixers have a real chance at making the playoffs...
5. Joel Embiid
Can't have a Sixers write up and not have a section dedicated to Joel Embiid right?
It's pretty obvious the reason he is listed on here – and is probably listed as the first reason why the Sixers WON'T make the playoffs – is not because of his otherworldly potential, but because of whats holding him back. Health.
Last year Embiid exceeded the wildest expectations in his brief time on the court, he showed that he has the potential to be a top five player in the NBA with his skill-set, the ability to learn the nuances of the game quickly and anchor a championship level defense. The Sixers – albeit in a 31 game sample size – posted a 99.1 defensive rating with Embiid on the court, which would have led the lead. The team also fell off a cliff defensively when Embiid was off the court to the tune of a 108.1 defensive rating which would have put them in the bottom third of the league. That impact is rarely seen from a player, especially one that only started playing Basketball in 2011 and missed two and half years of playing actual basketball, and why it's all the more infuriating that Embiid didn't win rookie of the year.
It wasn't just the defensive end, the Sixers heavily relied on Embiid to be the focal point of the offense, really since pre-season. He finished his short season with a 36.3% usage rate – for reference, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins finished the season with a 40% and 36.4% usage rates respectively – the result? 20.2 points/7.8 rebounds/2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks, in only 25.4 minutes per game.
The month of January was pure bliss for Sixer fans when all those skills were put on display. The city was on fire (I could see it even all the way from here in California), Embiid was playing at an all-star level, and the team posted a 10-5 record...
But that brief period of excitement was torn away when Embiid hurt his knee against the Portland Trailblazers and then, not to pile on the medical staff, inexplicably played on that torn meniscus against the Houston Rockets a week later before being shut down for the rest of the season.
Sixer fans, me included, have tried to rationalize why he can't stay healthy and have tried to play internet doctor. Maybe Embiid is still getting used to his new body? After all, he did grow from 6'10" to 6'11" when he started playing in 2011 to now a 7'2" and 270-pound human being. That type of rapid growth does take some time to get used too.
Maybe he is still learning how to move properly on a basketball court? He did play Volleyball and Soccer before ultimately choosing Hoops as his sport of choice and he doesn't exactly have the instinctual movements of a player who started playing at an earlier age.
Fans have probably seen this video studying his landing mechanics. View at your own caution.
No matter how we rationalize it, we have passed the point of "scary" when it comes to how little basketball Embiid has played due to injury. Before the start of last year's training camp Brett Brown referred to Embiid as the crown jewel of the team, and at the time, given that he hadn't played a single NBA minute, it was probably met "roll your eyes" and "let's wait and see" type of reactions.
Now. It's pretty clear. We can talk about the three point shooting, improving the Transition offense, and the impact of Fultz and Simmons, both of whom I think will be great players in their own right, but the playoff proposition is tough without Joel Embiid, who has the Hall of Fame level potential.
The success of this team rests, for better or for worse, on his body and whether or not the injuries are truly behind him.