The 22-team schedule is out and the NBA season will resume in a month in Orlando. The first games are July 30 and the Sixers will open Aug. 1 against Indiana. Teams will play eight “seed” games, another name for regular-season matchups.
The Sixers (39-26) are currently seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference. Here are some key questions as the Sixers and the NBA prepare for their re-opening after the season was suspended March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Which Ben Simmons will show up?
When we last left the Sixers, Ben Simmons had missed eight consecutive games with a lower back impingement. Simmons last played a full game on Feb. 11. He will be rusty, but at least he has company because so will everybody else.
We outlined last week how good Simmons looked in recent videos posted by his trainer Chris Johnson. Again, it’s only a short video, but the way he was moving had to encourage Sixers fans.
What might be forgotten is how well he was playing before he hurt his back. In his last 15 games leading up to and including the 110-103 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 11, he averaged 21.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.9 assists, while shooting 69.4% from the foul line. During that time, he averaged 7.4 free throw attempts. Before that 15-game stretch, in 38 previous games, he averaged 14.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists. Simmons averaged just 4.5 free throw attempts per game and shot 58.5% from the foul line. He was also playing at an All-NBA defensive team level, although it’s been that way for the entire season. If the more recent Simmons shows up, the Sixers will be a dangerous team.
Will Simmons emerge taking threes? Not likely. He attempted only six this season. These eight games would be a great time to experiment, but it would be a surprise if he does. Even without shooting from long range, the Simmons leading up to Feb. 11, especially with his defensive ability, is good enough to lead the Sixers to victory.
2. Will Joel Embiid be in shape?
Isn’t that the question in any season, and especially heading into the postseason? Coach Brett Brown talked about wanting Embiid to play 38 minutes a game in the postseason. That seems like a high total for somebody so injury prone and not always in tip-top shape.
As a comparison, Embiid played as many as 38 minutes once this season and that came the first game after the All-Star break when he played 41 minutes, 6 seconds in a 112-104 overtime win over the visiting Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 20.
The most minutes Embiid averaged came in the 2017-2018 playoffs (34.8 minutes per game) in eight games.
The Sixers should be happy with 33-34 minutes of Embiid in tip-top shape.
3. Will Al Horford retain his starting spot?
Brown had Horford coming off the bench for three games through Feb. 22, when Simmons reinjured his back against Milwaukee. After that, Horford started the final eight games before the season was suspended. With Simmons expected back, will Horford return to the bench?
Two factors could lead to this decision: Shake Milton was sensational when he was inserted into the lineup for Simmons, and Horford and Embiid have not jelled on the court. The spacing problems are well known, turning Horford into a jump-shooting power forward, albeit one hitting 33.7% of his three-point shots. Horford doesn’t make waves, but he wasn’t happy when first sent to the bench.
Will Brown return him there and essentially make him a $28 million backup center?
4. Can Shake Milton keep it going?
Milton certainly took advantage of increased playing time. In his final nine games before the season was suspended, Milton averaged 17.8 points, 4.1 assists and shot 60.4% from three-point range in 29.9 minutes per game. He has the ability to play either guard spot. At the very least he has earned serious rotation minutes, even if Horford is in the starting lineup.
5. What is the most important game?
That would be the opener against Indiana. Both teams have the same 39-26 record, but Indiana is seeded fifth due to a 2-1 head-to-head series lead. A Pacers win essentially puts them two up on the Sixers. After Indiana, the Sixers play five straight games against teams with losing records before finishing against Toronto and Houston.
6. What to make of the rest of the Sixers schedule
The Sixers play five teams with sub .500 records but are 3-4 against those teams. So much will depend on whether certain teams remain in the playoff hunt. For instance, Washington is 5.5 games out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Wizards have three games before facing the Sixers and might be eliminated by then. Phoenix is six games out of the final Western Conference playoff spot and has six games before meeting the Sixers. So even though the Sixers are 1-2 against Washington and Phoenix this year, they could be facing teams just playing out the string and looking to go home. One has to wonder if the final two games against Toronto and Houston will mean anything – for either team by then.
7. Is Brett Brown coaching for his job?
In most non-pandemic situations, the answer would be an emphatic “yes,” but this could be different.
A major reason is that Brown has two years and $10 million left on his contract after this season. In a year that NBA owners are expected to lose a great deal of money, we might not see teams eat eight-figure contracts easily.
In addition, can somebody be judged on these games in such an unusual scenario? The anti-Brown camp will say yes and that the Sixers underachieved in the regular season. No argument about the Sixers underachieving in the regular season, but Brown’s fate was always going to be decided by the playoffs.
Now in a situation like no other, will Brown receive a pass if the Sixers can’t get past the second round?
8. Can newcomer Ryan Broekhoff contribute?
Since the Sixers aren’t playing for home-court advantage, these eight games should serve as an experiment.
In 59 career games with Dallas, Broekhoff shot 40.3% from three-point range. A person who can stretch a defense, especially in the playoffs, could be valuable. It’s worth a shot to let him see what he can do in the eight games and determine if there is a rotation spot, even for a few minutes a game in the postseason.
9. Will the chemistry be there?
Tobias Harris said on ESPN recently that the Sixers haven’t had the best chemistry throughout the whole year, but he said he feels the Sixers are a sleeper and a championship contender. The main reason for his optimism is that he feels the team will be healthy after battling injuries. He says the Sixers haven’t met expectations but feels that will change in Orlando. It’s great to have the confidence, but whether the team can play like a cohesive unit will be the biggest question other than health entering Orlando.
10. What team, other than the Sixers, should Sixer fans be rooting for?
That’s easy, it would be the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Sixers own OKC’s first-round pick, but it is top-20 protected. Right now that pick is at No. 22 and would belong to the Sixers. While the Sixers face three teams with a winning record, the Thunder meet five of eight with winning records, including one game each with the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. If the Thunder pick ends up in the top 20, then the Sixers would receive OKC’s 2022 and 2023 second-round picks.