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The Sixers Aren’t Very Far From the Shallow

A rematch against their playoff nemesis in Boston exposed a lot of the same issues that plagued Philly last season. The Sixers know what they need out of their roster. They now have the rest of the season to find answers deep in their rotation.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

It was déjà vu all over again for the 76ers on the NBA’s opening night. The Celtics badly exposed Philadelphia’s supporting cast in a 105–87 loss, just like they did in May during the second round of the playoffs last season. Boston is much deeper than Philadelphia, who didn’t get much out of anyone besides Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on Tuesday night. The gap between the two teams looked as wide as ever. The 76ers didn’t make any major acquisitions in the offseason, and the players they added were inactive. Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown will have to make a lot of adjustments to his rotation for his team to take another step forward this season.

The biggest problem this game revealed was the lack of 3-point shooting around their two stars. The 76ers shot only 5-of-26 from behind the 3-point line, allowing the Celtics to send multiple defenders at Simmons and Embiid. The only consistent outside shooters at the moment are Robert Covington and J.J. Redick, and both have significant holes in their games that Boston has consistently exploited. Redick isn’t big enough to defend the Celtics wings, while Covington is a limited offensive player who can’t shoot off the dribble.

They are counting on Markelle Fultz, but it’s hard to know what to expect from the former no. 1 overall pick. He scored five points on 2-of-7 shooting and didn’t take any 3s. He wasn’t much of a threat from the perimeter: His two baskets were a pull-up jumper from the free throw line and a cut. It may take him a while to get comfortable with his new role. Philadelphia needs Fultz to be aggressive on offense. The Sixers don’t have many other guys who can create their own shot outside of Simmons and Embiid. Fultz can help the team if he attacks off the dribble and creates ball movement, even if he’s not ready to be a spot-up shooter.

The 76ers need more shooters. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were crucial to their hot streak over the second half of the season, and Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, their replacements, weren’t available to play. Chandler has a strained hamstring that could keep him out for a couple of weeks, while Muscala should return soon from a sprained ankle. They could have important roles. Muscala shot 37.1 percent from 3 on 3.2 attempts per game for the Hawks last season, while Chandler shot 35.8 percent from 3 on 3.3 attempts per game. They should be able to replicate Belinelli’s and Ilyasova’s offensive contributions, and they couldn’t be any worse defensively than those two were in the playoffs.

Philadelphia could make some changes on the perimeter as well. T.J. McConnell is one of Brown’s favorite players, but it’s hard for a team that already has spacing problems to play a 6-foot-2 guard who can’t shoot. The 76ers played Landry Shamet, the no. 26 overall pick in this year’s draft, over Fultz during a few stretches, and the Wichita State product may end up being an important player for them. Shamet is a good shooter (44.2 percent from 3 on 5.9 attempts per game last season for the Shockers) who played point guard in college, so he should be able to contribute as a secondary playmaker. He also has the size (6-foot-5 and 188 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan) to at least survive on defense against opposing second units.

Brown should be mixing and matching with his rotations over the next few months. Even a guy like Furkan Korkmaz, the no. 26 overall pick in the 2016 draft, might be worth a shot. He is a complete unknown in the NBA after playing only 80 minutes in his rookie season, but his skill set is exactly what the Sixers need. He shot 17-of-46 (37 percent) from 3 in a small sample at summer league, and he has the size (6-foot-7 and 185 pounds) to shoot over most perimeter defenders. He would relieve some of the pressure on Redick to space the floor. Bench lineups with Redick, Shamet, Korkmaz, and Muscala could stretch out the defense and create room for Simmons or Fultz.

The contrast between the two supporting casts was stark on Tuesday. Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving struggled, combining to score 17 points on 6-of-26 shooting, but it didn’t matter. The Celtics bench gave them a comfortable victory. Marcus Morris (16 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes) and Terry Rozier (11 points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes) were dominant, while Aron Baynes played excellent one-on-one defense on Embiid and shot 2-of-4 from 3. Baynes was a more effective outside shooter than anyone on the 76ers roster, which kind of says it all.

Brown is now the most powerful person in the organization after all the chaos in Philadelphia. His job over the next few seasons is to find a way to get past the Celtics. Brown has to make sure the front office, led by first-time GM Elton Brand, keeps adding talent to the roster, and he has to find the right roles for all the players they add. Simmons is 22 and Embiid is 24, so Philadelphia has plenty of time to build a great team around them. The Sixers will be a top-four team in the East this season no matter what. They just need to keep experimenting around their stars to see what clicks.

There’s still plenty of reason to hope. Simmons was the best player on the floor on Tuesday, with 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting, 15 rebounds, and eight assists. He may end up averaging a triple-double this season after coming pretty close (15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.2 assists) as a rookie.

He was more aggressive offensively than he was in the playoffs, taking advantage of his physical gifts. He’s bigger and faster than every player on the Celtics roster, and he was unstoppable in transition, putting his head down, turning on the jets, and getting to the rim. While it would be nice if Simmons could develop a 3-point shot, the 76ers need to make sure they have enough shooting around him until he does.

As much as most fans worry about the 3-point-shooting ability of Simmons and Fultz, the player who Philadelphia needs hitting them the most might be Embiid. He was 1-of-4 from 3 on Tuesday, but his shot looks pretty good when he gets the chance to set his feet. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Embiid was only in the 12th percentile of players leaguewide when shooting off the dribble last season. He just needs to rein in his shot selection. He scored 23 points on 9-of-21 shooting against the Celtics, and he often forced the issue against Baynes. If Embiid can create space for Simmons, it will make both guys better. Simmons could drive and then kick the ball out to Embiid, who would then be able to attack closeouts and get to the rim.

Philadelphia will be a contender as long as Simmons and Embiid stay healthy. Brown just needs to figure out the rest of the rotation. Dario Saric is a key player for them, and he struggled with foul trouble for most of the night. Covington and Redick are known quantities. The 76ers need to integrate Muscala and Chandler and find out what they have in Fultz, Shamet, and Korkmaz. Simmons and Embiid are a couple of years away from reaching their prime. Brown and their new front office are on the clock to build a team around them. They still have a long way to go to reach the Celtics, much less win it all.