Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 5
Last Season: 52-30
Notable Additions: Wilson Chandler (trade), Mike Muscala (trade), Zhaire Smith (draft-day trade), Shake Milton (draft-day trade), and Landry Shamet (draft), Elton Brand (general manager)
Notable Subtractions: Marco Belinelli (free agency), Ersan Ilyasova (free agency), Richaun Holmes (trade), Justin Anderson (trade), Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (trade), Bryan Colangelo
Vegas Over/Under: 54.5
Team MVP: Joel Embiid
Best-Case Scenario: It’s been a weird few months for the Sixers. You might have noticed. After making it through the offseason with a makeshift front office hierarchy, the organization officially installed Elton Brand as general manager. It’s a rapid rise for Brand, who only three years ago signed with the team as a player to provide old-dude wisdom on the bench and in the locker room. When Joel Embiid was asked about Brand’s promotion, he responded in typical JoJo fashion.
#Sixers @JoelEmbiid on new GM Elton Brand. He joked about “remember dunking on him really bad” when the two were teammates two seasons ago. pic.twitter.com/YNfQCkrVC3— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) September 21, 2018
Joel Embiid on Elton Brand becoming GM: "As soon as I heard the news, I just thought about how two years ago I was dunking on him...I just remember dunking on him really bad."— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) September 21, 2018
If Embiid dunks on his competition half as hard as he threw down that joke, the rest of the league is in trouble. The Sixers center broke through last season, averaging 22.9 points, 11 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.8 blocks in 63 games. (He would have appeared in more outings if not for a freak collision between his face and Markelle Fultz’s shoulder late in the regular season.) Embiid spent much of the offseason working out with NBA players (including Jayson Tatum, Jordan Clarkson, Mo Bamba, and Meyers Leonard, among others) in Los Angeles in an attempt to improve his conditioning and polish his game. That Embiid dedicated a good portion of his summer to those pursuits bodes well for the Sixers, who obviously have high hopes for the season after winning 50-plus games for the second time since the turn of the century; head coach Brett Brown recently told his team and anyone else who would listen that the Sixers expect to reach the NBA Finals this season.
For that to happen, Ben Simmons will also need to improve. Like Embiid, the Rookie of the Year spent the summer trying to sand down the rough spots of his game. Simmons was a triple-double threat in his first season, but his shot was also somewhere between suspect and nonexistent. Simmons took 46 percent of his shots in the restricted area and avoided the 3-point line in historic fashion. He was also a liability at the line, where he shot just 56 percent on 4.2 attempts per game. If he can improve any or all of those areas, he’ll go from someone who is already very good to being among the league’s elite. And he knows it. Simmons told the team’s official website that working on his jump shot and free throw form will cause teams to “give him a little more respect” in terms of how they play him defensively. That, he reasoned, is “how you become great.”
The Sixers would probably settle for something south of great as it pertains to Fultz. Good or even regularly available would be a solid start for the point guard. At media day, Fultz said he has his “swagger back” after spending the summer working on his jumper—a shot his personal trainer insisted had been overhauled and fixed. If that’s the case, Fultz would be the perfect fit for what the Sixers need: a guard who can play on or off the ball, distribute, and—in a perfect scenario—stretch the floor with a (semi)reliable jump shot. If that Fultz shows up, give him all the pre-workout treats he wants as a reward.
If all of that happens—if Embiid and Simmons elevate their games into the upper NBA atmosphere, and if Fultz can prove useful—the Sixers will challenge the Celtics and Raptors for the Eastern Conference title. Which is why Embiid wasn’t all that broken up about the Sixers failing to add another star during the offseason. He sees all the talent they need whenever he passes by a mirror.
“I don’t think it matters, big free agent or not,” Embiid told reporters in August. “My goal going into the offseason was to get better. I want to win the MVP. I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I’m an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level.”
Worst-Case Scenario: With LeBron James playing in Los Angeles, the Eastern Conference is theoretically wide open. By most accounts, it should be a three-team race between the Celtics, Raptors, and Sixers. As odds go, one out of three isn’t bad. That’s good news for the Sixers this season and moving forward. They have a bright present and future. But they also have obstacles in their way.
As we learned last postseason, the Celtics have young stars too and figure to be the Sixers’ primary rivals for a while. Despite not having two of its best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston dispatched Philly from the postseason. Now Irving and Hayward are back for the Celtics, making their already-deep roster even more formidable. Meanwhile, the Raptors—how quickly we forget they were the best team in the East last regular season—got better by swapping an All-Star in DeMar DeRozan for one of the best players in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard.
For the Sixers to push past Boston and Toronto and control the East, everything probably needs to go right. Simmons needs to develop a jumper, or some semblance of one. Embiid needs to stay healthy, stay in shape, and become the MVP candidate that he actually believes he is. And Fultz needs to be a consistent contributor who can tune out the trash talk that’s sure to come his way—even from yappy owners who should probably spend more time being seen than heard these days.
“Shoot it! Shoot it!” Mark Cuban yells when Markelle Fultz catches the ball in the corner. Fultz took two dribbles and hit a 12-foot pull-up.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) October 8, 2018
Beyond that, the complementary pieces—from Ringer staffer JJ Redick, to last season’s primary sidekicks Dario Saric and Robert Covington, to newly acquired wing Wilson Chandler—will have to shoulder whatever load is left. Failing all of that, the Sixers might find it harder than expected to fulfill Brown’s prophecy and reach the NBA Finals. And while the core is young and the organization is set up well, things can change awfully fast in the NBA. One moment you look like you’ll be good indefinitely, the next you look around and wonder what happened.
TL;DR: The Sixers are the only thing standing between NBA fans and either another ascendant Boston team or more unbearable “Hey, you think Toronto could pull it off this year?” questions. No one wants that. Philadelphia is your only hope.