By Harry Allison
The Sixers are deeper and bigger than they were last May when they came within a four-bounce buzzer-beater of advancing to the Eastern Finals.
Star center Joel Embiid is slimmer and hungrier and Ben Simmons, bless his heart, even made a 3 in their preseason opener.
But nothing really has mattered yet, and we won’t know if the new-look Sixers have the stuff to go to the NBA Finals until they unwrap Wednesday night against the Boston Celtics at the Wells in the regular season opener.
Free agency yielded veteran big men Al Horford (late of Boston) and Kyle O’Quinn (late of Indiana), as well as backup guards Trey Burke and Raul Neto. The Sixers also made deals with Miami and Boston for guards Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle, respectively, the latter on draft night in June.
Departing were Jimmy Butler, the team’s best player in last year’s playoffs (in a sign-and-trade that netted Richardson), JJ Redick, their foremost perimeter threat (to New Orleans in free agency), and backup point guard T.J. McConnell (who signed with the Pacers).
Best Addition: Horford. Labeled “the consummate professional” by Brand, the 33-year-old will start at power forward and see some action at center in relief of Joel Embiid. He is a threat out to the 3-point line, and a versatile defender.
Biggest Loss: Butler … or maybe Redick. Hard to say. It remains to be seen how well the 26-year-old Richardson, promising as he is, compensates for all that Butler brought to the table. While the younger man improved all four years he spent with the Heat — last year he averaged a career-best 16.6 points a game — Butler gave the Sixers an attitude, an edge. As for Redick, his skills are hard to replicate. Much of the Sixers’ halfcourt offense was predicated on his movement and shot-making.
For all that has changed, the team’s foundation (coach Brett Brown, Embiid and Simmons) remains the same. It was thought that Brown might be on thin ice after last year’s playoff flameout — the team’s managing partner, Josh Harris, hinted as much in midseason — but ultimately he was retained, amid assertions on Harris’ part that the coach’s job was “never in jeopardy.”
Brown’s fate going forward remains tied to that of Embiid, the talented but oft-injured center, and Simmons, whose shooting shortcomings have been magnified against better competition. While there are other concerns, like whether veteran forward Tobias Harris (he of the new five-year, $180 million contract) will deliver in big spots, to a large extent the Sixers’ success will be determined by Embiid’s health and Simmons’ shot.
Team MVP: That would be Embiid, without question. The stated goal of the two-time All-Star this season is to become league MVP while playing a career-best 70 games, six more than a year ago. Brand wouldn’t rule out the latter — nor the fact that the fourth-year center will play some back-to-backs — but the GM said the approach to Embiid’s minutes will be “thoughtful, strategic (and) aligned with the wellness,” in hopes of seeing “the best Joel possible” in the playoffs. That was not the case last year, when Embiid was slowed by a balky knee and poor conditioning in the postseason.
Best Value: Richardson is making just over $10 million this year, which according to HoopsHype.com makes him the 124th-best-paid player in the league. The Sixers obviously hope he turns out to be somewhat better than that, in terms of production.
X-Factor: Simmons’ shot? The production of veteran reserve Mike Scott, a fan favorite? It just might turn out to be Thybulle’s energetic defense off the bench.