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Sixers dealing with lofty expectations for first time in six seasons

Despite the hype, this roster doesn't have the offensive firepower of a year ago.

(From right) Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric lead a team dealing with lofty expectations for the first time in several years.
(From right) Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric lead a team dealing with lofty expectations for the first time in several years.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Will the 76ers live up to the lofty expectations?

That's the biggest questions heading into this season. Despite several key roster changes, oddsmakers have the Sixers winning around 54 regular-season games and being the Eastern Conference's second-best team behind the Boston Celtics.

The team boasts two of the league's best young stars in all-star center Joel Embiid and rookie of the year point guard Ben Simmons. Folks also talk about the team re-signing JJ Redick and having 2017 first-overall pick Markelle Fultz at coach Brett Brown's disposal.

Brown is excited about coaching this season's collection of players. But despite the hype, this roster doesn't duplicate the offensive firepower of a year ago when it lost in five games to the Celtics in the conference semifinals.

Five players from last season's final 15-man roster are on different teams, either traded or let go in free agency. None of the losses were bigger than reserves Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, two sharpshooters the team has been unable to replace.

As good as Simmons, Embiid, and Redick were last year, it was Belinelli and Ilyasova, both waived by the Atlanta Hawks, who turned the season around.

The Sixers were three games above .500 (28-25) before Belinelli signed on Feb. 12. On Feb. 28, Ilyasova rejoined a Sixers squad that was 32-27 with 23 games remaining. The team went 20-3 down the stretch, including setting an NBA record with 16 straight victories to conclude the regular season. The 52-30 record was the Sixers' best mark since going 56-26 in 2000-01.

But in their effort to go "star-hunting" during the offseason, the Sixers tried to lure LeBron James and Paul George in free agency and trade with the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. To create the necessary cap space, Ilyasova and Belinelli became expendable and they, in turn, signed with other teams.

One problem: The Sixers failed to sign James and George while Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors.

Not only did the Sixers miss out on trading for Leonard, but the two-time defensive player of the year made one of the Sixers' Atlantic Division rivals a better team.

>> READ MORE: Mike Muscala, Sixers' GM Elton Brand apologize for 'inappropriate' tweets from Muscala's father

On paper, the Raptors, who also acquired Danny Green in the deal, have more talent than they had last season, when they had the conference's best record, 59-23. That squad, which included DeMar DeRozan who was traded to the Spurs, was swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As a result, Toronto – not the Sixers – is arguably the conference's second-best team behind the Celtics heading into the season. The Sixers, who failed to make any upgrades and lost Leonard to a rival, drop to third. And the Sixers might have to hold off the Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, and Milwaukee Bucks, who all made offseason upgrades.

The Sixers' biggest offseason acquisition is reserve forward Wilson Chandler.

The 31-year-old Chandler can play small forward and power forward. He also can switch off and defend shooting guards.

The Sixers are looking for him to be a modern-day playoff guy, tough and versatile like twin brothers Marcus and Markieff Morris, who play for the Celtics and Wizards, respectively. They're looking for him to anchor the second unit. The problem is Chandler hasn't practiced or played in a game since straining his left hamstring on Sept. 28 in a preseason game against Melbourne United. He's expected to be sidelined for at least the first two to three weeks of the regular season.

Meanwhile, Fultz's shooting hasn't lived up to the hype of being the first overall pick in the 2017 draft.  The guard, who experiences documented shooting woes, was inconsistent in four preseason games.

Reserve post player Mike Muscala has turned into a solid addition after being acquired in an offseason trade with the Atlanta Hawks. But it might be asking too much for him to become a poor-man's Ilyasova.

And there's rookie guard Landry Shamet, who has exceeded the Sixers' expectations thus far. Another rookie, Zhaire Smith, is sidelined until December with a Jones fracture in his left foot. He and rookie power forward Johan Bolden could be relegated to seldom-used reserves at least for this season.

With so many new faces, head coach Brett Brown believes it will take his squad up until Christmas to get a rhythm.

But that won't take away from the outside expectations, especially when they'll play 39 of their 82 games (47.5 percent) of their games on national television.

For the first time since the start of the 2013-14 campaign, teams will be looking at the Sixers differently at the start a season.

"With the expectations, you realize that you become the hunted," general manager Elton Brand said. "Beating the Sixers is a big deal. That can make a team's week, a team's month, a team's season depending on where they are in the trajectory of their arc.

"We are not surprising any teams any more. So we have to come in with that mind-set that teams are coming after you now."

So the Sixers will try to focus on finding ways to keep Embiid, who is no longer on minute restrictions or being held out of back-to-back situation, on the floor as much as possible. They realize that the second-team All-NBA selection gives them the best chance to live up to their lofty expectations.

It's not going to be easy to live up to the hype, though.

Maybe Shamet will continue to display the three-point shooting that quickly made him a fan favorite this preseason.

But the players the Sixers drafted to be stars must show that they can shoot. Simmons might have to get out of his comfort zone and shoot corner three-pointers in games just like he does during workouts. Fultz must also prove that he can shoot from the outside.

"It's hard to have pressure [to excel] this year," Dario Saric said. "But I think this team is ready to handle things. The coaches will help us, because they know the team has quality to do that. I think we will be really amazing on the court.

"I expect we will show that on the court."

We'll find out shortly, as the season begins Tuesday night against the Celtics at TD Garden.