• Tom Gilbride

Sixers 2020-21 season preview

The Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers kick off against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, marking the start of an era sure to be filled with twists and turns. The Coronavirus pandemic is the least disruptive thing to happen to the Sixers this year, as they have sacked their former head coach, Brett Brown, and brought in a President of Basketball Operations above general manager Elton Brand.

When the Bubble season came crashing down for them in a 0-4 sweep against the Celtics, one thing loomed on all of our minds as fans: Brown was no longer the solution. Brown was the perfect coach for player development, but just couldn’t cut the mustard when it came to creating a cohesive unit that could string together a good playoff run. The Bubble marked the third straight year that the Sixers were exploited in the playoffs, essentially leaving the Sixers with no other option but firing Brett Brown.

When the Sixers future seemed cloudy, a beacon of light shined upon the city. The Los Angeles Clippers fired Doc Rivers after their own disappointing playoff exit, clearing the way for him to coach the Sixers. Rivers may not be a panacea--he had several postseason shortcomings in L.A.--but he has a proven track record of success, which is a refreshing change of pace.

The Sixers also added to their front office before the offseason began, hiring Daryl Morey in a stunning move. Morey was the man who mentored Sam Hinkie, the architect of "The Process" that started this era of Sixers basketball. Morey is a beautiful basketball mind and knows how to work a front office. He’s one of the best executives in the sport, responsible for the Houston Rockets' acquisition of James Harden and the subsequent moves to maximize his talents. Morey's departure from Houston was tumultuous, but it’s best to leave that in the past and focus on what he has done to prepare the Sixers for the upcoming season.

Morey had a stellar Draft night, getting rid of two stains from Elton Brand’s past. First he offloaded Al Horford's terrible contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder, in which he not only received Danny Green, a 3-and-D wing who fills a huge need, but also only had to fork over a protected first round pick in 2025.

Later on Morey traded Josh Richardson to the Mavericks in return for Seth Curry, another big addition that will alleviate the spacing concerns around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. In both cases the Sixers traded away the superior player, but in exchange they got much better fits around their young stars.

In tandem with the trades, Morey also got a steal in the Draft, selecting Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey at 21st overall. He also brought in Dwight Howard to be Embiid's backup, filling the old Horford role in a much less expensive way.

So with a fantastic offseason behind us, where do they stand amongst the elite of the league? That's where things become a little less fantastical; even with a new head coach and pieces that fit better, it's probably not enough to get the Sixers to the promised land.

The Milwaukee Bucks are as good as they ever have been, the Miami Heat are fresh off of a Finals trip, the Brooklyn Nets have emerged as another favorite with Kevin Durant’s miraculous return from an Achilles injury, and the Celtics are still the Celtics, aka the Sixers' playoff nightmare.

In order for the Sixers to be a real contender at the top of the East, one thing needs to happen: a Ben Simmons coronation. Last season Simmons averaged 16.4 points (on 58.0% shooting), 7.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists and led the league in steals with 2.1 per game. He's a dynamic player with unique strengths, but he needs to take the next leap into superstardom for the Sixers to battle with the big boys. The shooting average is perfect where it is for Ben, but if he could start taking shots further away from the basket, his game will take the jump that it needs to.

For clarity's sake, I am NOT saying that Ben needs to take three pointers. He simply needs to expand his range a few more feet from the basket than it is now, into what we call the mid-range. This would prompt defenders to not act completely careless when he is away from the basket. It would also open up more looks for Embiid, his partner in crime who is already a deadly close-range scorer. On top of that, more open looks become available for role players like Curry, Green, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and whoever else plays himself into the rotation.

The two preseason games were gone in a flash, but they provided us with a sneak peek into what could happen this season. Speaking of Milton, he is showing to be a candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award as he builds on his breakout season. Milton will likely run the bench unit, affording Ben some much needed rest, and will also play alongside Simmons at times, creating a force to be reckoned with in the backcourt.

As for Korkmaz, despite an impressive stretch mid-season last year, he had a disappointing Bubble run. He was looking to be improving his game during the regular season, becoming the “bomah” that Brett Brown so aptly named him, but that was all cut short due to the Coronavirus. This year I expect Furkan to have a breakout season, either solidifying his role within the Sixers as a three point specialist, or perhaps even growing into more and earning a huge payday.

Embiid is always a hot button topic, but going into this season the word has been quiet around the franchise player. Rather, the massive changes around him have been the main talking points. Joel looks to be in the best shape of his life, but we’ve heard this story before. It seems all too familiar to have Joel ready to take on the season, only to have him limping and out of breath three weeks into the season. If Joel can mysteriously catch Gastroenteritis every now and again, and the team can properly manage his workload, a playoff push with a fully healthy roster may be within reach

One of the bigger question marks heading into the season is Tobias Harris. Tobias has shown up underwhelming for two straight playoffs, and looks to be much of the same heading into this season. The only hope for us now is that we have Rivers, the man who unlocked Tobias’ full potential in LA.

If Ben takes the requisite next step in his game, and the supporting cast can make decent improvements, this team is destined for greatness. It may not rear its head this year, but it will in due time. There may just be too much competition in the East this year. But even if they can get through some combination of the Bucks, Heat, Nets and Celtics, there’s still whoever comes out the West, whether it be either Los Angeles, a burgeoning Denver Nuggets team, or some other surprise contender. Those three are arguably on another level than the East's beasts; a Finals series would not be easy.

However, none of that matters if Ben looks like the same timid, unwilling to shoot player he has been since being drafted. This year is predicated on a lot of what ifs for the Sixers, and it’s shaping up to be a season worth watching.