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    10 Sixers season predictions for yet another unpredictable year

    Kyle Neubeck Avatar
    October 26, 2023
    Jaden Springer guarding Trae Young as Nick Nurse looks on.

    The people love Sixers season predictions as much as most writers hate doing them. But I have come to enjoy the process of looking forward to next April, May, and June, hoping I can try to guess what the Sixers will look like after multiple weather and roster changes for Philadelphia.

    So if you can forgive me for everything I get wrong — I feel like I usually get the big picture stuff and miss on the little things — let’s run it back for another season.

    The Sixers will win 50 games again

    Starting with Ben Simmons’ rookie year, Philadelphia’s record has been as follows: 52-30, 51-31, 43-30, 49-23, 51-31, 54-28. While he has not gone about this alone, having Joel Embiid available has been close to guaranteeing 50 wins. They would have hit that mark in 2021 if not for the shortened season, and the only season short of that pace (2019-20) was an absolute clown show disaster for reasons out of Embiid’s control.

    The possibility exists that Embiid could suffer an injury that throws the franchise into immediate disarray, and they don’t have the same cover they did last season with James Harden *gestures wildly at thin air* doing whatever he’s doing. But postseason injuries have been the problem for him as of late, and trying to price a major injury into a prediction is borderline impossible. They’re vulnerable, and we can leave it at that.

    In any case, a look at Philadelphia’s 2021-22 season up until the Harden trade is instructive. That team had a less capable Tyrese Maxey and (IMO) worse depth than they have currently. They hung around the middle of the pack on offense and were top-10 on defense prior to acquiring Harden, hovering around a 48-49 win pace. Factoring in Embiid’s improvement, Maxey’s improvement, better defensive personnel (more on that to come), and a more creative coach, I think the Sixers could squeeze an extra win or two out of that pace without an impactful Harden trade.

    While we’re on the subject…

    James Harden plays 10 games or less for the Sixers

    This is a prediction that could get blown to smithereens in short order. As the Sixers, Harden’s people, and anyone connected to this situation have admitted, nobody really knows what’s going to come next. So I have to read the tea leaves here a bit. I’m going to make a few assumptions:

    • James Harden and Daryl Morey are not going to make up
    • James Harden is not going to be a “good soldier” for longer than he thinks is necessary
    • Nick Nurse is not going to allow James Harden to blow up the team

    I do not believe Harden can take the floor and immediately go into full saboteur mode to open the season, as he understands by now that his leverage is not the same as it once was. But I don’t think it’s going to take months of work on the floor for Harden to show what he thinks he needs to in order to convince a team he’s worth the downside risk. And the second that he thinks he has shown or done enough, Harden’s history shows he won’t offer a second more of his time and energy than he thinks the team deserves.

    Harden, as he has shown in several ways up to this point, is deeply hurt by how this situation played out. I don’t mean this as a dig in any way — the type of emotion he is showing and feeling does not lend itself to Harden showing up to work for the next couple of months until a deal materializes. And with a new coach in the lead seat looking to establish a culture this season, I do not think half-committed Harden will be tolerated for long.

    So we’ll see when the “ramp-up” period ends, but I’m not sure it matters much.

    P.J. Tucker gets moved prior to the trade deadline

    While many of Philadelphia’s role players would seem to fit better in a Nurse-centric world, I’m not sure Tucker is. That’s not to say he has no value here, but without Harden spoonfeeding him looks in the corner and with Nurse asking for the “others” on the team to create and move more, he might have a tough go this year.

    He was in a lot of Harden-related rumors this summer, so I’m keeping an eye on this. If he does stick around, it’s worth noting he did look good physically in the preseason.

    The Sixers have a top-eight defense

    Joel Embiid should (keyword: should) have more energy to expend on defense if he is as bought into their offensive philosophy as he says. There should be much more movement, cutting, and passing for this year’s team, rather than Embiid trying to sledgehammer his way through multiple defenders for half of the game.

    Assuming we get an engaged Embiid on defense, there simply aren’t too many weak links on defense for Philly. Tucker, Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr., Patrick Beverley, Paul Reed, and Jaden Springer are all between decent and very good defenders depending on the assignment. Danny Green, if his preseason form holds up, has been an awesome team defender historically and could be so again now that he’s further removed from an ugly knee injury.

    While I think they hover more toward the middle of the pack on offense without Harden, they can make up for what they lose there with a swarming defense and aggressive transition play.

    De’Anthony Melton leads the NBA in steals

    Quietly, Melton was not far from taking home this honor last season. He finished tied for fourth in steals per game at 1.6 swipes per night, and he was second in total steals with 126. OG Anunoby led all players in both categories despite playing 10 fewer games than Melton, an impressive feat. But Melton also played fewer minutes than Anunoby despite that games played gap and led the league in rate categories (e.g. steals per 48).

    So I’m banking on two things here: Melton will have a bigger role, which is all but certain given the Harden holdout, and Melton fits perfectly in Nick Nurse’s style. He will be empowered to blitz ballhandlers, jump into passing lanes, and really get into opposing teams, leaving Embiid to clean things up if his gambles fail. He looked terrific in the preseason, and he has a future payday to play for. Buy your Melton stock now.

    Tyrese Maxey scores 25 points per game

    While many want Maxey to grow so badly that they’re hoping Harden never returns, it is worth saying here that Maxey has benefitted a ton from having Harden in the backcourt alongside him. The Sixers themselves have admitted there will be growing pains from having him play lead guard.

    But I am all in on Maxey this season. I think everything is lining up for him to take a huge leap forward this season. Nurse wants him to get at least five more shots up per game than he did last season when Maxey scored 20 a night on rock-solid efficiency. Embiid won’t stop telling him to let it go from three, so six attempts per game from deep could turn into 8-10 before we know it. And without Harden, there’s an opportunity for somebody to scoop up all those extra possessions and shot opportunities. It may as well be him.

    Unlike when Simmons had his holdout two seasons ago, Maxey is ready for this opportunity now. He has a better understanding of his role under Nurse, has taken on a vocal leadership role for the team, and he worked all summer with the idea of leading the team in mind. Doubt his progress at your own peril.

    The Sixers will eventually convince the Clippers to relinquish Terance Mann

    Not reporting anything new here, just a hunch.

    Jaden Springer makes at least 35 percent of his threes

    I have absolutely no doubt that Jaden Springer will be a high-level defender whenever he is on an NBA floor. It is less clear if he can turn the corner as a shooter, but I think the signs from preseason were basically universally positive.

    Springer’s release looks quicker, and more importantly, the confidence was there. In years past, Springer often looked overwhelmed by the pace of play and couldn’t find a rhythm in-game. Third-year Springer is looking off defenders with pass fakes to clear space for open jumpers, and attacking Al Horford on a switch to capitalize on a big thinking he can hang with him.

    For the foreseeable future, Springer is likely going to get sagged off of by opposing defenders, who would rather live with him shooting if it means slowing down the Embiids and Maxeys of the world. I think he’s finally ready to capitalize on that disrespect, and with the shot coming around, I think he has a major role for this team as early as mid-December.

    Will Smith rings the bell at a game

    I am 0/a million on this prediction and yet I still refuse to let it go. Bring the Fresh Prince home, damn it!

    The Sixers lose in round two…unless they draw Milwaukee

    Everyone is assuming the Celtics and Bucks will play a Conference Finals for the ages next spring. I would agree it is the likeliest outcome. But I think the Sixers should not so secretly hope that they end up on the Bucks side of the bracket if simply getting past the second round is considered an achievement.

    I have some lingering doubts about how Milwaukee fares without a single impact perimeter defender — Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo are awesome on the interior, with Giannis perhaps the best help defender in the league, but he has not been a “guard the best player” defender basically ever. Dame Lillard’s arrival will juice up the offense quite a bit, but the hit to their perimeter toughness is real and could be exploited by better teams (and coaches) in the playoffs.

    Speaking of coaches, Terry Stotts’ sudden resignation from a top assistant job under Adrian Griffin was an eyebrow-raiser. I can’t speak to Griffin’s aptitude overall, but with the new lead man already reportedly getting territorial with his leadership, I think it’s at least fair to call coaching a question mark. And Nick Nurse knows Griffin as well as anybody, having worked with him for five years in Toronto. If anyone can pick at his weaknesses during a seven-game series, it’s Nurse.

    And look, at some point, the Sixers are going to beat a good team in the playoffs. It might as well be this year, with the franchise in disarray and expectations at a low point.

    (But let’s be real — they will draw the Celtics half of the bracket and lose again.)

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