A whole lot of people liked the Philadelphia 76ers to win the Eastern Conference this year. The thought was that their size and physicality — which received a boost last offseason due to the addition of Al Horford — would overwhelm teams. Mix that with Ben Simmons taking a step forward, Tobias Harris settling in after receiving a max deal, and Joel Embiid getting to occasionally rest due to the addition of Horford, and beating the Sixers four times in seven games would be quite tough.
The results haven’t always been there. While good and occasionally dominant, Philly has been inconsistent, mired by injuries and a general sense that players haven’t quite been able to put it all together. The hope for them is that the team that went 29-2 at home shows up in Orlando, because if it’s closer to the squad that went 10-24 in away games, Philly isn’t making it out of the first round.
Glenn Robinson III
1. Milwaukee Bucks: 53-12
2. Toronto Raptors: 46-18 (6.5)
3. Boston Celtics: 43-21 (9.5)
4. Miami Heat: 41-24 (12.0)
5. Indiana Pacers: 39-26 (14.0)
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26 (14.0)
7. Brooklyn Nets: 30-34 (22.5)
8. Orlando Magic: 30-35 (23.0)
9. Washington Wizards: 24-40 (28.5)
Saturday, August 1 — 7 p.m. ET — Indiana Pacers
Monday, August 3 — 8 p.m. ET — San Antonio Spurs
Wednesday, August 5 — 4 p.m. ET — Washington Wizards
Friday, August 7 — 6:30 p.m. ET — Orlando Magic
Sunday, August 9 — 6:30 p.m. ET — Portland Trail Blazers
Tuesday, August 11 — 4:30 p.m. ET — Phoenix Suns
Wednesday, August 12 — 6:30 p.m. ET — Toronto Raptors
Friday, August 14 — TBD — Houston Rockets
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
Well this is a tough question, ain’t it? Based on what we’ve seen this year, success for this Sixers team is earning a top-4 finish in the Eastern Conference, then battling with the Bucks, Raptors, or Celtics in the conference semifinals but falling a little short. Based on the expectations for this franchise, though, success is playing for a conference title and, if they lose, going down swinging.
As such, the answer to “what does success look like” is probably closer to the latter than the former. Philadelphia will get eight games to iron out various wrinkles. Once the postseason starts up, all of those wrinkles will need to be figured out, and the team has to win. The future of head coach Brett Brown might depend on it, and who knows what the front office will determine about the Embiid-Simmons pairing if they crash and burn.
Shake Milton: The Sixers are extremely weird. They’re always extremely weird! But even by that standard, it is weird that they are handing the keys to the offense over to a second-year point guard who was the 54th pick of the 2018 NBA Draft as has 16 starts to his name in his career.
Then again, it’s hard not to get optimistic about what Milton — an outstanding collegiate player at SMU who has looked quite good when he’s taken the floor for the team — can do. The 23-year-old gives the team some much-needed floor spacing, averaging 9.5 points in 19.1 minutes per game while connecting on 45.3 percent of his triples. With him at the one, Simmons slides to the four, and the early returns have seemed promising, both in terms of what Milton can do and how Simmons is still able to impact games from that spot. He’s able to play-make, too, and had seven-consecutive games with double-digit scoring before the shutdown, including a 39-point explosion against the Clippers.
There’s a very plausible path where this implodes and Philly needs to put the ball back in Simmons’ hands. If it goes well, though, Milton gives the team exactly what it needs alongside the rest of its starting five.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
Will they be able to space the floor? The answer: Maybe! Milton has been quite good from deep, while Furkan Korkmaz (39.7 percent) and Raul Neto (39.4 percent) can hit triples, too. Still, when two of Embiid, Horford, and Simmons on the floor, the other three guys have to be able to consistently shoot. Harris (36.2 percent) and Mike Scott (35.8 percent) have been up-and-down. Josh Richardson and Alec Burks are both at 32.7 percent, while Glenn Robinson is at 28.6 percent, which is especially tough considering he hit 40 percent of his threes with the Warriors. Embiid and Horford can hit threes, even if they are better elsewhere, and while Simmons hit a triple during the tune-up games, he’s not exactly Ray Allen.
Any combination of those aforementioned dudes — and we’ll toss in rookie defensive maestro Matisse Thybulle (35.2 percent), too — getting hot from deep would be gigantic. When Embiid and Simmons have space to work, and when Horford has room to do all the stuff that makes him such a fun player, all three are quite dangerous. When they’re not afforded that, the offense gets gummed up far too easily.