The 76ers’ sky-high expectations returned the moment Doc Rivers accepted the coaching job on Oct. 1, and only increased after the organization hired Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations a month later.
A team in disarray inside the bubble in August is now among the Eastern Conference elites entering the 2020-21 NBA season, with Rivers’ coaching and Morey’s history of acquiring blockbuster talent putting the Sixers back in the conversation with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.
Even the players feel that way.
The Sixers veterans “are always harping, we’re a contender, this is our year,” rookie Isaiah Joel said. “Why wait a year? This is our year. Let’s take it now.”
Well, um, not yet.
Unless Morey makes one of his trademark roster moves, the Sixers could battle for the fifth spot at best in a much-improved Eastern Conference. That’s not a knock on the team with two cornerstone All-Stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but the supporting cast will need to produce career seasons to make that a reality.
The Sixers, to their credit, focused training camp on being the best version of themselves. Team chemistry on and off the court has improved drastically and should lead them to a successful season. However, there are major questions that need answers.
Fans riding the Sixers’ hype train will point to Al Horford’s departure and the offseason acquisitions of Danny Green, Seth Curry and Dwight Howard as their reasons for optimism, not to mention possibly landing the steal of the NBA draft in Tyrese Maxey.
But who will be the Sixers’ closer? Who’s the go-to perimeter guy? Shake Milton could develop into that role, but he’s a third-year guard who came off the bench in the Sixers’ first two preseason games.
Will Simmons finally shed his hesitancy to shoot the ball? It doesn’t have to be three-pointers, but will he at least attempt midrange jumpers to keep defenses honest, especially in the playoffs?
Curry had quiet showings as the starting shooting guard in last week’s preseason games. Will the Sixers be able to get more production and better looks from him in the regular season?
Embiid is the key. The three-time All-Star has to remain healthy, especially down the stretch and in the postseason. Howard’s availability will allow Embiid to rest during a grueling 72-game season.
But again, who is going to help Embiid down the stretch on the perimeter? That’s what this team is missing. Philadelphia has the shooters in Curry and Green and post presence in Embiid. But the Sixers need a dependable perimeter player in the regular season and in the postseason. That’s where James Harden comes in and why the team has had trade discussions for the Rockets’ MVP.
The Sixes’ priority heading into the season was installing their defensive system. Offensively, Rivers feels the Sixers are good in transition but concedes they are not a good halfcourt team on offense. Yet, the expectations remain high. Folks think the Sixers have a shot at the NBA titles. Rivers loves his roster, and always has high praise for the players on it. But fans should exercise caution.
The Sixers should have a 7-1 or 6-2 record heading into their Jan. 7 matchup against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center due to a favorable schedule and should become one of the early feel-good stories in the NBA. Six of their next 11 games are against the Denver Nuggets, Heat (twice), Celtics (twice) and Los Angeles. By late January, we should have a better idea of who the Sixers are as a team.
Last season’s squad was more talented. This season’s squad is a better all-around fit. But it’s hard to say if they will be better overall without a closer.
It’s best to practice patience this season.