On Tuesday, the NBA basketball season gets underway when the Sixers meet their arch rival, the Boston Celtics on the parquet floor in TD Garden. Last year's incredible second-half surge and successful first-round victory in the playoffs by the Sixers have filled fans with a sense of excitement and optimism for the coming season. After all, they have two young stars in legitimate MVP candidate Joel Embiid, and last year's rookie of the year, Ben Simmons. It's reasonable to expect that Embiid and Simmons will get even better this year as they gain experience and knowledge.
Although I believe this optimism is well founded, there will be two teams in the East that will be tough to overcome, the Celtics and the Toronto Raptors. The Celtics beat the Sixers last year fairly soundly in the playoffs without arguably their two best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Raptors finished with the second-best record in the East behind LeBron James' Cavaliers and will almost certainly be better this year with the addition of superstar Kawhi Leonard.
So, can the Sixers overcome the Celtics and Raptors? I'm not sure. Though I agree Embiid and Simmons will be even better this year, as will the vastly underrated Dario Saric. I think the Sixers' offensive firepower may not be as good as last year, particularly if Markelle Fultz and Simmons make up the backcourt for a significant amount of time. I worry that the Sixers will miss Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. One of the team's great strengths last year was its ability to run. Embiid would clear the boards, pass to Simmons who would fly down the court and invariably find Ilyasova or JJ Redick for an open three. But the Sixers have not replaced Belinelli and Ilyasova with any spot-up three-point shooters. Fultz, on balance, may be an amazing scorer due to his ability to drive to the hoop, but he does not look like he has made any improvement from beyond the arch. When Simmons and Fultz are paired in the backcourt, they could set an all-time NBA record for having a backcourt that didn't hit one three-point shot during the entirety of the previous season (granted, Fultz only took one three-pointer while Simmons attempted 11). Having them in the backcourt goes against the current trend in the NBA of teams relying on excellent three-point shooting. The only remaining dependable three-point shooter is Redick and using Fultz as the "shooting guard" will invariably take minutes from him.
Is there an answer to this problem? Sure. First, the Sixers could go out and acquire one more shooter, like bringing back Kyle Korver and have him end his career where it began. Absent that, it means the Sixers will have to play Redick, Fultz, and Simmons at the same time, which might create matchup problems. The problem is concerning but in and of itself should not stop the Sixers from being a genuine contender for the Eastern Conference crown, particularly if Embiid, who has looked great in the preseason, continues to develop his inside game where he is virtually unstoppable. Though we'll have to see how it plays out once the season starts, one thing is for sure — it's going to be a wild ride for the Sixers and will be great fun to watch.