• Alec Liebsch

76ers 2022-23 Season Preview

I can’t believe we’re already here. The Philadelphia 76ers tipped their season off on Tuesday night, which means there’s going to be basketball in the city for the next seven-plus months. It snuck up on us, too; the Phillies’ playoff run and the Eagles’ 6-0 start have protected the Sixers for the time being, but trust me, the microscope will be on our local hoopers very soon.


That’s where I come in. As a longtime Sixers fan turned general NBA writer turned coach, I’ve followed the team and its position in the league landscape for quite some time. They’ve been at the forefront of hoops discourse for nearly a decade: starting in 2013 was “The Process,” which forever changed how stakeholders of the sport viewed team-building; in 2016, Joel Embiid played his first NBA game, which vaulted the Sixers to the doorstep of title contention; in 2018, a lead executive tweeted sensitive information from burner Twitter accounts, resulting in his exodus from the industry entirely; and in 2021, the franchise’s second-best player held out for a trade with four years left on his deal. Chaos has always followed the Sixers.


However, this year, that trend seems to have been bucked. The core of the team is intact: Embiid, James Harden, Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey represent the top of the hierarchy, and are all here to stay. The newcomers won’t rock the boat either; P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr. and Montrezl Harrell each have histories excelling in specific roles. Shoring up the back end of the rotation are returnees Paul Reed, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang and Furkan Korkmaz. The only notable loss was Danny Green, who was traded for Melton and will miss most of the season with a torn ACL and LCL.


The Sixers went into this offseason with one clear goal: get tougher. Tucker is a certified dog, willing and able to defend nearly the entire league while also crashing the glass for rebounds and making shots at a decent clip. Melton finished second in the entire NBA in steal rate last year (first was Thybulle, his new teammate), and slots in as a connector offensively. House played a competitive 3-and-D role for the Utah Jazz last season and has experience with Harden and Tucker. Last but not least is Harrell, the premier “hate him when he’s on the other team, love him when he’s on my team” guy. This is the deepest and most balanced team the Sixers have had in a long time.


That being said, depth isn’t going to be the difference between a second-round exit and a finals berth. A stable of reliable players is nice to have in the regular season, but in the playoffs, the Sixers’ ceiling will be tethered to their top-end talent.


James Harden (left) and Joel Embiid (right)
Matt Slocum / Associated Press

It starts with the Big Two


Now that Embiid and Harden have a rapport of over 900 minutes (regular season and playoffs) and an offseason together, it should be easier for them to complement each other. Their coexistence had very high potential before the big trade, and the early results bear that out too. Philly was plus-15 per 100 possessions in the regular season and plus-5 per 100 in the postseason with Harden and Embiid both on the court. It stands to reason that they can build on those figures and be even more dominant in 2022-23.


Harden is truly unlike anyone Embiid has teamed up with: his dexterity as a scorer, brilliance as a passer and innate ability to draw fouls combine to create a very good offensive engine. Harden takes care of all the initiating and then some, leaving Embiid to focus on where he can be most effective: as a play finisher and defensive linchpin. The seven-footer will get plenty of chances to operate from the low block when necessary, but now that is more of a side dish than the main course. He can be much more efficient when picking his spots than he has been as the offensive fulcrum for all these years.


There are a few hiccups for each of them to work out, but assuming they are committed to winning a title, the odds are on their side. Firstly, Harden’s hall-of-fame-level abilities on the ball have allowed him some…creative liberties off the ball. As the sun at the center of the Houston Rockets’ solar system, The Beard was often found standing in one place, like a statue, once the ball left his hands. Some of this was justified, given how much he was responsible for in Houston (six straight years with a usage rate over 30 percent), but it is borderline destructive against great defenses that can take away his Plan A. There aren’t many teams that can take him out of his element, but those that can are the ones he needs to care the most about.


One encouraging sign was that after his trade to the Brooklyn Nets, he was significantly more engaged and willing to move around via cuts, screens, curls, and the like. The Nets were an offensive powerhouse, and Harden was one of the engines. Playing with Embiid should push Harden even further in that direction.


Because past Sixers teams needed Embiid to carry such a heavy load on offense (mostly because he’s so good), they also had to live with the results, which weren’t always pretty. Post-ups are tough to pull off consistently in the NBA, and one reason is the rulebook, which allows smaller defenders more slack when physically overmatched against big centers. Embiid counters this by drawing plenty of fouls himself, which is why many consider him to be “the James Harden of centers.”


However, it’s not a foolproof strategy, especially in the playoffs when whistles get quieter and teams get away with more physical defense. Those situations are when Embiid is most vulnerable, especially if the opposing team double or triple teams him. If he can’t beat his man quickly, good team defenses can swarm him and immediately take him out of his comfort zone. This has been a difficult hurdle for Embiid his entire career.


To his credit, he’s made major improvements as a passer and decision-maker over the years. His turnover rate has consistently dipped since coming into the league, while his assist rate climbed to a career-high in 2021-22. Those trends were especially impressive last season, given how limited the roster was and how much easier that made it for defenses to focus on Embiid. The expectation is that a lighter offensive load should boost his efficiency, both in shot accuracy and ball security.


Those concerns, if they’re not addressed, will still only pop up occasionally in the regular season. A few great teams, such as the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, may stymie Embiid or Harden here or there, but for the most part they should be a great duo for the next 81 games. Where these benign tumors could become malignant is the playoffs, a place that neither star has had much success.


I am well aware of Embiid’s impact metrics. His plus-minus of plus-94 in the 2019 second round vs. the Toronto Raptors will never be forgotten. The net rating swings with and without him are incredible. I know his defensive impact goes untold in the box score. I get all of that, and I often campaign for him in those aspects. However, I ask you this: what is his signature playoff performance?


I’m inclined to say his 33-point, 13-rebound affair against the Raptors last year, which included a 3-point dagger in overtime to put the Sixers up 3-0 in the series. One could argue Game 2 of the 2021 second round Atlanta series, in which he dropped 40 and 13 to tie the series at 1-1. He dominates inferior teams, and that’s usually because he does so well in the regular season that the Sixers maintain a high seed, thereby drawing a weaker opponent. Those factors are very, very valuable. However, the injury bug always seems to bite him at the worst times. From an orbital fracture in 2018 to gastroenteritis in 2019 to a torn meniscus in 2021 to a concussion this past postseason, there is a laundry list of ailments that has kept the big fella from being at his best when they need him most.


How do the Sixers mitigate that? Injury luck isn’t an exact science, but sport science continues to evolve, and with it we find out more about how linked it is to common sense. Embiid leading the league in minutes for the first two months, and not taking any games off, probably has an impact on his play at the end of the season. Averaging 35 minutes a game for six months is probably not a good idea. These recommendations sound basic, but time and time again the Sixers let Embiid play past his limit, only to see it burn them at the worst possible junctures.


Harden isn't getting any younger either. He just turned 33 and we’re not sure how recovered he is from that nagging hamstring injury. There’s a world where he spends most of the season as the guy we saw last year, and we only see the old Harden on occasion. And even if the old Beard is back, he can’t be overused in the regular season. It’s not about winning the first 82. It’s about winning the last 16.


Those 16 have been an insurmountable task for Harden too, who usually finds a way to shrivel up under the brightest lights. His best playoff performances have been when his team is up or down by a substantial margin in the series, such as 3-0 or 3-1. In those close contests, he tightens up and tends to be less efficient. He draws substantially fewer fouls in the playoffs (like his new partner) and has a tougher time firing off those step-back 3s.


Not all of it is his fault. He did come back from down 3-1 to the Clippers in the 2015 second round. He was the best player on a Rockets team that went toe-to-toe with the juggernaut Warriors multiple times. If not for the hamstring issue he suffered in the 2021 playoffs, we could be talking about the Nets as the next dynasty.


There is reason to be encouraged about this duo. The schematic fit is evident and tantalizing. The motivation to make it work is there too. As long as they use the regular season to develop their partnership, everything else should fall into place.


Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris
George Fisher / USA Today Sports

The Next Two


The second-biggest benefactor of Harden’s arrival is Tyrese Maxey. After the trade he might as well have been shot out of a cannon, freed from the weight of running the offense. Philly finally got its point guard, and Maxey was allowed to be the scorer that he is.


Before the trade he was forced to become a more willing and accurate shooter in order to coexist with Embiid, and he reaped the rewards after the trade. Over the last 24 games of 2021-22, Maxey averaged 18.7 points per game on shooting clips of 56.3% on 2-pointers, 48.0% on 3s and 85.3% on free throws. Deadly.


It’s wild that Maxey is already this good at age 21. His synergy with Harden could legitimately break records. Harden takes care of setting the table, and Maxey feasts. When Embiid or Harden draws attention, Maxey can score from all three levels: he can shoot the open three with little daylight, he can blow by a tilted defense with his elite speed and get to the rim, or he can settle for the floater that he made waves with early in his career. If the defense rotates in time to stop him from taking a shot, he has the playmaking chops and processing speed to make the correct read. It would not surprise me if Maxey averaged more points than Harden this year.


The three-headed monster of Embiid, Harden and Maxey brings a mix of offensive potency and variety that the Sixers haven’t had in decades. Head coach Doc Rivers made it sound like he’ll be staggering them throughout the season, meaning each of them should get some “me time” as well. They’re each skilled enough to fit in with each other, while also talented enough to stand out.


Tobias Harris doesn’t pop off the TV like the aforementioned three do, but he’s a damn good fourth option to have. As a catch-and-shoot player who occasionally attacks mismatches, he can be a valuable connecting piece in a championship lineup. He also exhibits talent as a glue guy, someone who fights for loose balls, grabs rebounds and defends multiple positions.


His best stretch doing this was in the first round last season. He embraced the assignment of workhorse against the Raptors: firing 3s when open and making quick decisions when not. Asking him to do that for an entire season, however, will be a much tougher task.


Even on teams where Harris is clearly the third or fourth-best player, it has been difficult for him to consistently buy into that role. Some of that is justifiedhe is, after all, the highest-paid player on the teambut some of it is maddening and probably a reason he has played for five different teams. There are far too many instances of him chucking up a contested mid-range and/or record-scratching the offense at an inopportune time. He’s good for playing bully ball against defensive liabilities, but that’s a card he and Rivers play too often.


As long as Harris sticks to the henchman role he adopted last spring, his opportunities will come, especially on nights when Embiid and/or Harden need a break. It’s a long season.


(Left to right) P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and James Harden
Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images

The Newbies


Speaking of henchmen, Morey’s offseason acquisitions know exactly how to fit in. Rounding out the starting five is P.J. Tucker, who helped the Heat reach the conference finals last year, bolstered the Bucks in their title run in 2021, and reinforced the Rockets’ back line during their clashes with the Warriors. Those teams relied on Tucker to guard players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard in important games. He’s also reliable as a shooter from the corners, with a career 3-point percentage of 36.4%. Even at age 37 he adds tremendous value as a physical defender and capable spacer.


De’Anthony Melton is another gritty, 3-and-D accomplice who will augment the team’s win total. He’s a capable shooter (38.8% on 3s the last two seasons) and certified defender who can play next to either Harden or Maxey. That he can grab a rebound and initiate in transition is a welcome addition to a Sixers team that ranked near the bottom of the league in both categories last season. As long as the team doesn’t ask him to create offense in the half court, he’s a great fit around the stars.


Here come the Rockets jokes. I know Danuel House Jr. doesn’t do anything extraordinary, but he does play both ends of the court capably, something a lot of recent Sixers cannot say. Since 2018 he has made 37.3% of his threes (806 attempts) and maintained a good assist-to-turnover ratio (1.51) while playing solid defense on the wing. His stint with the Utah Jazz last year was especially encouraging, as he often held ground while defending some of the opposing teams’ best players and shot 41.5% from downtown. House is essentially a Danny Green Lite, something the Sixers desperately needed with the original Green gone.


And now for the backup center, Montrezl Harrell. I protest his signing with the Sixers, but that’s because of the coach, not the player. Harrell is going to be great in a backup role, where he’ll just be asked to play to his strengths as a roller and interior scorer. Harden has a history with him and will maximize his minutes. It’s reasonable to argue Harrell is as good as, if not better than, Andre Drummond. However, just like Drummond, I fear Rivers will overuse Harrell. The 6’9” bruiser has blatant defensive limitations that the right teams can capitalize on, and many of those teams are potential playoff opponents. Harrell will be unplayable in certain matchups, and it’s up to Doc to put those fires out. If he leaves Harrell in too long and costs the Sixers a series, the city of Philadelphia may literally catch fire.


Spot Minutes


I hope Paul Reed gets a chance. He was legitimately useful in the second round last year despite minimal NBA experience. There is legitimate potential here for a stat stuffing defensive 5 who can hold his own on a switch. The latter is already true, and the former probably would be if he could get more minutes. He gives the Sixers a different look than Harrell or Tucker, and it is Rivers’ duty to figure out if that can work. Not trying it at all in the regular season would be a complete and utter waste.


Reed is likely going to be a full-time 5 for this team because the pathway to minutes at the 4 is blocked. Georges Niang, the quintessential stretch 4, is an excellent shooter who knows his role and sticks to it. He looked terrible in the Heat series, but he also looked more exhausted than anything else. Jumping from 1154 total minutes in the 2020-21 regular season, to 1736 in 21-22, will do that to you. That speaks to his overall limitations too; the Jazz limited Niang’s minutes before he signed in Philly, and for good reason. He is a defensive liability in high leverage situations. The correct move is probably to play him 12-15 minutes a game, as Harris' de facto backup, and make sure Embiid, Reed or Tucker is the center when he's out there.


If anyone lost the Melton trade, it’s Shake Milton (I can already hear the WIP callers mixing those two up). Milton flashed a lot of good stuff in Rivers’ first year here, flourishing as a sixth man and occasional hot hand. But with Maxey leapfrogging him last year and Harden being here now, Milton doesn’t have a path to consistent minutes unless there’s an injury. As long as one of the star guards is out there, Shake is just a shooter, a role that other players can fill better than him.


On the flip side is a strong defensive player who is getting squeezed out of the rotation. Matisse Thybulle had a steep fall from grace last year, going from starting small forward in March to the equivalent of a special teams player in May. Thybulle chose not to get the COVID vaccine before the Toronto series, resulting in him being unavailable for the road games in that series. Rivers’ adjustment was to bench him outright and start Danny Green for the sake of lineup continuity. It was the correct strategy, but it caused Thybulle to quickly plummet out of the rotation, as his inability to shoot became restrictive against both Toronto and Miami. As he enters the final year of his rookie deal, there’s a good chance the Sixers trade him for a piece who helps them win more now.


Is Furkan Korkmaz okay? At media day a few weeks ago, he said he had nerve damage in his shooting hand and that’s what caused him to have a down year. I hope that’s healed for his sake, because if not, he is not an NBA player. His 3-point frequency (7.9 3-point attempts per 36 minutes) and accuracy (37.8% on threes from 2018-21) are his path to minutes.


At the very end of the bench are Jaden Springer, Michael Foster Jr. and Julian Champagnie. None of them will get major minutes unless there’s a catastrophe, so I’m not going to spend much time on them. Springer has a long way to go and will probably get time in the G-League again. Foster Jr. projects as a potential rotation big down the line. Champagnie can find a niche if he can shoot consistently.


Whew. That was a lot. If you’ve gotten this far, thank you and congratulations! Now you get to read the fun part.


Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) drives into Joel Embiid (right)
Stacy Revere / Getty Images

Predictions


I. Embiid competes for Defensive Player of the Year


The big fella will not win the scoring title, but he shouldn’t have to if the other guys are good enough, which would be a great indicator. If Harden and Maxey cook like they’re supposed to, he’ll see the easiest looks of his life and be able to hone in on his strengths as a defensive swiss-army knife.


II. Maxey outscores Harden


I alluded to this earlier, but I’m making it official now. If Maxey has another leap in him, which it looks like he does, then Harden may feel more encouraged to defer during the lulls of the regular season. Harden will also get some games off for load management, and those will be the nights Maxey gets the most opportunity. Harden will (and should) outpace Maxey on average, but I think Maxey will win in the aggregate.


III. Harden bounces back


We won’t get the MVP Harden of old, but we should get a better version of him than the “spicy Ricky Rubio” guy we got last year. He knows that wasn’t good enough. As long as father time doesn’t catch up to him, he should approach averages of 24 points and 12 assists per game.


IV. Sixers win 57 games and get the 1 seed


This may contradict what I said earlier about not focusing on wins in the regular season, but I think this team is really good. Even with some experimentation here and there, the three-headed monster is going to be too good on most nights. They should be a top-5 offense or close to it.


The defense got markedly better, and it was already not terrible with Embiid on the back lines. Tucker and Melton should make his life easier, and the unit as a whole should finish in the top 10.


It sounds intuitive: if you have a good offense and a good defense, you’ll win a lot of games. The Sixers have a high floor this year with their talent and depth. Embiid had them on pace for 50 wins last year, and now he has a co-star (or two), depth, and stability.


V. Playoff Prediction: Conference Finals, lose to Bucks


They get over the hump! Well, sort of. It’s progress from the last few years, at least. For the first time since 2001, the Sixers will make it to the NBA’s final four. However, that’s about as high as I can put them without seeing more.


I’ve explained my doubts on Embiid, Harden and Rivers. If you polled most Sixers fans right now about who they trust most to close out a game, they’d probably say Maxey. That’s as much an indictment on Joel and James as it is praise for Tyrese. If he takes them to the promised land, then so be it. That would be yet another 99th percentile development from a guy who already had an unexpected leap last year. Maybe he is That Dude.


Or maybe the collective triumvirate is too much for other teams to handle, and they get by with diversity and dominance. Not many teams have an answer for Embiid these days, and even fewer will if the spacing is as good as it looks on paper. Harden and Maxey are the second- and third-best guards Embiid has ever had; that has to count for something.


I’m not ruling anything out, but I am in “wait and see” mode. For the Sixers to win the title as currently constructed, a lot has to go right. The chemistry needs to be absolutely phenomenal. Embiid, Harden and Maxey have to be a well-oiled machine that knows exactly how to play off of each other. The game plan needs to be fluid from night to night, from minute to minute, and the big three have to buy into that. Tucker’s body needs to not give out. Harris must buy in. Rivers needs to become a taskmaster.


Until I see otherwise, the Bucks are my pick to win the Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the universe right now, and the team is well-constructed around him to amplify his strengths and account for his weaknesses. Injury luck could push the Sixers up the ladder, but it’s more likely to push them down.


Overall, I think this will be a really fun season for the local basketball team. Just enjoy the ride.


Cover Photo: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images


All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.