NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Coach: Brett Brown (fifth year)
Last Season: 28-54 (14th in Eastern Conference)
Notable Additions: Markelle Fultz (draft), J.J. Redick (free agency), Amir Johnson (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: No one you’ve ever heard of.
Vegas Over/Under: 42.5
Best-Case Scenario: It’s complicated. On one hand, some incremental improvement over last season’s 28 wins would feel immensely satisfying. After all, getting from 10 wins to 28 felt pretty good, even if most fans selectively forget the last three months of the 2016-17 season after Embiid went out with a torn meniscus. On the other hand, part of the mystique around this team is how, philosophically, it has eschewed incremental improvement in hopes of taking what ex–Sixers president of basketball operations and Process architect Sam Hinkie called “big leaps”—the kind of leap the Oklahoma City Thunder made from 23 wins in the 2008-09 season to 50 wins in 2009-10.
Joel Embiid is the leap. Any best-case scenario for Philadelphia—both this year and long-term, after the max extension he signed Monday—is tied to Embiid’s health and his becoming the Pace-and-Space Olajuwon that he showed flashes of being during last season’s 31-game stint. When Embiid was on the floor, the Sixers outscored their competition by 3.2 points per game. Embiid powered the offense and anchored the defense. More than that, he was the avatar of the team—his full-throated embrace of the Process made him perhaps the most beloved Sixer since Allen Iverson. AND HE PLAYED ONLY 31 GAMES.
Embiid’s supporting cast this season is drastically improved, with two no. 1 picks—Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz—joining podcaster J.J. Redick to form one of the more beguiling rosters in the league. Philadelphia has three legit generational talents on one roster. How do you defend this team? How do you not love them already?
Simmons has Jason Kidd’s vision and Tracy McGrady’s body; Fultz is James Harden 2.0; Redick and fellow veteran new arrival Amir Johnson will teach the kids how to be in the NBA; role players like Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and T.J. McConnell, all worshipped by fans, can finally settle into actual roles (Croatian Larry Bird, 3-and-D wing, and solid backup point guard, respectively). There are interesting little subplots all over this team—Furkan Korkmaz has been filling it up in the preseason, Justin Anderson is a useful rotation guard, any team would like a guy like Richaun Holmes coming off the bench. They play fast (fifth in the league in pace, last season), and they play fun, and their rabid fan base has walked through the desert with them for more moments like this.
With only four legitimately good teams in the Eastern Conference—Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, and Washington—there is no reason Philly can’t be among the best of the second tier. Fifth place in the East. Dare to dream.
Worst-Case Scenario: This is much easier to conjure. Embiid, like most big men with a history of lower-body injuries, can’t stay healthy, calling into question his new contract. While De’Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith Jr., and Lonzo Ball make significant contributions to their teams in their rookie seasons, Fultz joins the Anthony Bennett All-Stars as a historically bad no. 1 pick. Somewhere Danny Ainge laughs and then picks up the phone and trades for Anthony Davis.
Teams beg Simmons to shoot and he grants their wish, ambidextrously building cathedrals of iron. Redick gets old right in front of Philly fans’ eyes, and Amir Johnson gets paleolithic. Jahlil Okafor gets back on carbs and never gets traded. Bryan Colangelo, feeling the need to do something midseason, fires Brett Brown (who was never “his guy” to begin with), and brings in, like, Mike Brown, or someone. Process Trusters feel betrayed, more casual fans start talking about Rhys Hoskins in February, but the problem is Brown keeps the team competitive and the Sixers miss out on the upper echelon of the Michael Porter Jr.–Marvin Bagley III–Luka Doncic sweepstakes in the 2018 NBA draft. Turns out the Process led Philly all the way back to where it began: in the middle.
TL;DR: With all the young talent, this team will be must-see TV for the first few months of the season, but the success of the squad depends on one man:
What could go wrong?