They were seven days out from the regular season, two days away from their most meaningful dress rehearsal, and Brett Brown and Ben Simmons were speaking with all the excitement of a couple of sherpas who’d finished their latest climb to base camp.
“I said it before, and I’ll say it again loudly, talent doesn’t trump time," Brown said as he looked toward Friday’s preseason finale against the Washington Wizards and the following Wednesday’s season opener against the Boston Celtics. “As excited as we all are, we’re new, and so to think that I know what’s going to happen on October 23rd would be arrogant and I don’t think very smart.”
“If I play, I play," said Simmons, who returned to practice on Wednesday after taking a precautionary DNP (back) against the Detroit Pistons the night before. "If not, I’m very confident I’ll be 100 percent by the time Boston comes.”
That’s more than fair, of course, especially when you pull the lens out and realize that the only games that anybody will remember are still three-quarters of a calendar away. Legacies aren’t made on opening night, let alone several days beforehand. Last year, the Sixers lost by 18 points in the season opener at Boston. Those games matter in the standings, sure, but they don’t always tell us much about a team’s identity.
At the same time, the finding-out is part of the fun, and that process begins in a very real way on Friday night. Brown says he will treat the preseason finale against the Wizards as a dress rehearsal for the season opener against the Celtics, and while he might not get too carried away with what he sees, there’s nothing stopping the rest of us from doing so.
Already, we have seen plenty of reasons to think that the hype surrounding this team will prove to be deserved. In their three preseason games against NBA opponents, the Sixers have a plus-65-point differential that is second-best in the NBA. They have outscored those three teams by an average of 21.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranks third in the league. While none of their opponents ranks better than, at best, a fringe playoff contender, the Sixers played with their full projected rotation in only one of those three games.
More than anything, what we have seen thus far out of the Sixers is a testament to their depth, a characteristic that becomes even more glaring when you look back at last preseason. In James Ennis and Matisse Thybulle, they have a couple of wing defenders off the bench that simply did not exist at this time last year. Same goes for Kyle O’Quinn, who represents a significant upgrade behind Joel Embiid compared with the 2018 version of Amir Johnson. But it’s the versatility of the starting five that truly makes this such a unique depth chart.
At the two most important defensive spots on the floor — the one responsible for protecting the rim, and the one responsible for guarding the primary ballhandler — the Sixers have the ability to keep a starter who is a plus defender on the court for virtually all 48 minutes. The last couple of seasons, the Sixers’ defensive performance has plunged whenever Embiid was not on the court. This year, they have the ability to replace him with one of the most technically gifted defensive big men in the game by sliding Al Horford down from the four spot. Similarly, one of the Sixers’ biggest kryptonite in recent years has been a quick scorer on the perimeter similar to the one the Celtics signed in Kemba Walker. With Simmons’ continued development into a defensive force and the ability for Brown to play Josh Richardson at point guard when Simmons goes to the bench, the Sixers will have the flexibility to keep an elite high-low defensive combination on the court even once they get into their bench.
In their three NBA games this preseason, the Sixers have allowed just 87.3 points per 100 possessions, third-fewest in the NBA behind Boston and Miami. From three-point range, opponents are averaging 6.5 makes and 25.3 attempts, both the lowest marks in the NBA. Opponents are shooting just 35.9 percent from the field, second-lowest in the game (again, the Celtics). Their 13.4 offensive rebounds and 11.1 blocks per 100 possessions are the most in the league, and their 11.8 steals the fourth most.
“I think we see the roster kind of doing what we think it can do," O’Quinn said. “It feels good when it actually happens in your favor. I’ve had some chats with Ben, like, ‘You know, we’re really good.’”
On Friday night, we should get our first extended look at how all of the pieces fit together.
“If health permits, I’d play it like I play Boston,” Brown said of the preseason finale. “And I think incrementally, we had a plan, I think we’ve delivered on the plan, executed the plan. ... We’ve ramped up to a stage where, in the final preseason game, I’d really like to play like I’m playing the Boston Celtics, and then take a deep breath with the day off and leave the game healthy and come back ready to dig in.”