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All eyes on Sixers’ Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as Houston’s James Harden awaits a trade

Is this the year that Embiid and Simmons prove to be big winners together, or will the Sixers make a deal for the Rockets’ Harden?

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons open the season with a new coach in Doc Rivers, who looks to bring order to an organization that cleaned house in the offseason.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons open the season with a new coach in Doc Rivers, who looks to bring order to an organization that cleaned house in the offseason.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

The 76ers return with a new look, spurred by the hiring of president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, coach Doc Rivers, and several new players. Coming off a first-round playoff sweep by the Boston Celtics, the Sixers are hoping to rebound from last season’s disappointment.

Here are the five main storylines entering the 2020-21 season.

1. Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons win together?

The Sixers have been to the playoffs the past three years, losing in the second round the first two seasons and being swept in the first round last year. The excuse that Embiid, 26, and Simmons, 24, are too young won’t fly anymore.

Embiid is entering his fifth season (not counting his first two that he missed with foot injuries), while Simmons is entering his fourth (not counting the first season that he missed due to a foot injury).

The Sixers have qualified for the playoffs in each of the last three years and twice won a first-round series before being eliminated, in addition to last year’s sweep.

When asking the question, can the two win together, that means competing for the Eastern Conference championship. If the Simmons-Embiid duo clicks, there is no reason why the Sixers shouldn’t be among the contenders in an admittedly deep Eastern Conference, where Miami, Milwaukee, Boston, Brooklyn, Toronto, and Indiana could all make an argument.

Simmons has been criticized for not shooting enough from the perimeter, while Embiid has drawn just as much criticism for shooting too much from the outside. With Rivers’ new offense that puts an emphasis on spacing, Embiid should have more room to maneuver. He led the NBA in post-up frequency (36.8%), but the way he dominates down low, there is a case to be made that he should increase that figure.

Embiid has had issues with staying in shape. Rivers has raved about his conditioning, but former coach Brett Brown used to praise Embiid’s conditioning, only to see him struggle, especially later in the seasons.

Simmons is always in shape, but after missing 16 games and the playoffs with a back injury and a partial dislocation of the left kneecap, he has to prove he can be durable.

With Simmons out for the playoffs, Embiid stepped up, averaging 30 points in the four playoff losses to Boston. Now can the two win together in Rivers’ system, which should provide Embiid better spacing on the floor?

2. The Sixers outside shooting: Is it enough?

Embiid was often double- and triple-teamed in the post. One way to avoid this from happening is to surround him with shooters. Seth Curry and three-time NBA champion Danny Green were acquired and both should boost the Sixers’ perimeter game. In addition, Shake Milton shot 43% and Furkan Korkmaz shot 40.2% from three-point range last year.

The Sixers were ninth in the NBA in three-point shooting (.368), but in the playoffs, it was a different story (.264). So a second question would be, if the Sixers are an improved perimeter team, can it be sustained in the postseason?

» READ MORE: A small-ball lineup featuring Ben Simmons at center is a work in progress for the Sixers | Off the Dribble

3. Will the Sixers trade for James Harden?

Until he gets traded from Houston, the possibility of whether the eight-time Rockets All-Star will be traded to the Sixers will linger.

That means the questions of whether Simmons would be part of a potential trade for Harden could continue until the March 25 trade deadline.

Last week, Morey was quoted as saying, “We are not trading Ben Simmons.”

Not to say that Morey isn’t to be believed, but things often change. It will be interesting if this story negatively impacts the Sixers.

» READ MORE: What will it actually take for Sixers, others to pry James Harden from Houston Rockets?

4. Shake Milton’s development

For a second-round pick with little fanfare, third-year combo guard Shake Milton has become a vital part of the Sixers. He has the ability to run the offense at point guard when Simmons gets a rest and can be an effective shooting guard as well.

It appears Rivers likes Milton as a sixth man, because the new Sixers coach has always had success with guards in that role. In his seven seasons as head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, Rivers had guards win Sixth Man of the Year award four times, twice each by Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford.

Milton had a strong end of the regular season, and he looked confident in the Sixers’ two preseason games. He will no doubt be the key to supplying the second unit with offense.

5. Can Tobias Harris take that next step?

Since being traded in February 2019 from the Clippers, Tobias Harris has been a solid player for the Sixers. Last season, there was even some mention of him as an All-Star. One of the problems, however, is that he has come up short during his two postseasons.

In the regular season for the Sixers, he has averaged 19.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and shot .471 from the field and .356 from three-point range in 34.5 minutes. During 16 postseason games for the Sixers, he has averaged 15.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, and shot .414 from the field and .308 from beyond the arc in 37.0 minutes.

Now in the second year of a five-year, $180 million contract, Harris will have to show he can elevate his game in the postseason.