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Perhaps I was still delirious from the sight of Markelle Fultz hitting a corner three early in the game, but I could swear that at some point during the Sixers’ telecast of their preseason win against the Magic that Alaa Abdelnaby said the Sixers weren’t going to win as many games this year as they did last year.
Lest we forget, Alaa is the guy who made it through the entirety of the 2015-’16 season without saying a single negative word about Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, or the rest of the ten-win 76ers. As a matter of fact, the only Sixer past or present I think he’s ever outwardly criticized is himself, when Marc Zumoff gives him a chance to yuk about how much he used to hate passing the ball. He isn’t a total yes man and has his strengths as an analyst and broadcast partner, but when it comes to the Sixers and staying objective in his appraisals, Kevin Pelton he is not.
And yet even he was preaching prudence with predicting this Sixers team’s win total. Of course, he’s not the only one. Bleacher Report has ‘em at 50 wins even. CBS Sports looks at the team’s over-under of 54.5 wins and recommends hammering the under. And speaking of Kevin Pelton, his system has the Sixers pegged at a cool 47.8 Ws on the season, 4.2 under last year’s total.
It’s not like I don’t see where these folks are coming from. They’re right that the Sixers struck out in free agency. They’re right that the team didn’t get much in the draft that’s likely to help them this year. They’re right that we lost some key pieces from the squad that made Philly look like true finals contenders for a couple months, and they’re right that we didn’t really add dudes who are going to properly replace them on the roster. They’re right that this team is highly flawed.
They’re right about all of that. But I think they’re wrong in believing that any of it actually matters. The Sixes are awesome, and they’re gonna win a whole shitload of games next season.
Now, I know what you’re possibly thinking: Still pretty delirious from that Fultz three, huh? Possibly. It’s true that Markelle Fultz’s progress is a key, maybe the key, to the team’s 2018-’19 success. But I don’t think he’s to be great, or even particularly good, to make the difference for this squad. I think he just has to be kinda fine, just consistently there and sometimes good and sometimes not so good but generally, totally playable. And then the Sixers will be close to unstoppable.
Again, this is mostly because while the Sixers’ faults are real, I believe they’re ultimately not that relevant. Let’s look at the three most commonly cited.
The Sixers have no depth, which is a problem for a largely injury-prone team.
True. Assuming Fultz stays a factor -- not a safe bet, exactly, but I think we’ve seen enough from him to upgrade it to “reasonable” -- they have seven guys you can definitely count on to be reliable parts of the rotation: the five starters, J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. T.J. McConnell looks to be odd man out currently with Fultz and Simmons at the point. Furkan Korkmaz still comes and goes. Wilson Chandler is already injured, and has maybe been dead since 2015 anyway. Zhaire Smith is hurt and a rookie, the latter affliction similarly affecting Landry Shamet and Shake Melton. We’ll have to see it from Mike Muscala. We’re just a couple bodies short at the moment.
But, y’know, our starting lineup last year was really, really good -- best in the league, by some metrics -- and all those guys are still here, even if we’ve shifted Redick for Fultz in the first five. What’s more, most of our guys are young and versatile enough that we won’t need to play full bench units: the Sixers are creative enough with staggering PT that we can play just two or three reserves at a time and patch our starters around them as needed. There are times where we’ll have to dig deeper on the bench and not find the answers we’re looking for, but it’ll be a once-a-week-or-so problem rather than an 82-game concern.
And injuries? Well, they’ll hurt our already shallow depth, but our topliners are flexible enough that I don’t think any one injury really kills ‘em. Fultz out? Let Ben loose at the one, play Redick at the two, steamroll teams like we did last year. Simmons out? Same thing with Fultz at conventional point. Saric out? Plug in Redick, slide Covington to the four -- where he should be getting some minutes anyway -- spread the floor and shoot the lights out. Embiid out? Maybe get nuts with Muscala at the five, have Simmons patrol the paint a little more on defense, let Saric and Johnson split coverage of his reserve minutes, spread the floor and shoot the lights out. Covington out? Well, defensively that could be tough -- though if healthy/alive, Chandler could do a kind of poor man’s approximation of RoCo’s contributions -- but if not, plug Redick in at the three, have Simmons get his back on D, and just outscore teams with a lineup consisting entirely of dynamic offensive threats. Sounds fun.
Of course, lose two or three of those guys for 30-plus games and we’re in the kind of trouble that actually matters. But how many teams in the league is that ever not true about? One, maybe two? If the biggest impending threat for the Sixers is the potential for half the team to get hurt, I think we’ll have to take that.
The Sixers won 16 games in a row to end last season, and no way are they doing that again.
Also true! That end-of-season run, which boosted the Sixers from a team six games over .500 in March to one 22 over in April, was a perfect storm of crappy competition, shooters in the red zone, and Ben Simmons essentially solving basketball like a geometry proof for 32 minutes a night. Only a team or two a season stays that hot for that long, and chances of Philly playing that sweet soul music for an entire month straight again this year are remarkably low.
But hey, as long as we’re talking about things that happened in 2017-’18 that aren’t going to repeat in 2018-’19: How about that 16-18 start to the season? That wasn’t quite the perfect fluke that the 16-win streak was, but it was still the confluence of a few exceptional things: an impossibly tough start to their season schedule, a young team that couldn’t hold leads and proved infuriatingly vulnerable to last-minute dagger jumpers, and a Joel Embiid with a minutes limit, a back-to-back restriction, nagging back and knee injuries, no real offseason training and just 31 prior games of pro ball under his belt. This year, the start of the schedule looks pretty soft, the entire team’s a year older, and Embiid should (at least at first) be able to play as much and as often as he damn well pleases. If you asked me what’s more likely to happen again -- the Sixers entering 2019 scraping their way to a .500 record, or that the team closing 2019 by winning 16 games in a row -- I might say the former, but not definitely.
The 2018-19 Sixers will, on the whole, be better than a 16-18 team, and not as good as a 16-0 team. I like our chances of looking more like the latter squad for most of the season.
The Sixers will miss Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli
Probably! A large part of the Sixers’ late-season supernovaing was due to the combined bench shooting and floor spacing of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, who helped the team achieve run-and-gun nirvana with the transition shooting opportunities Ben Simmons provided them on the break. The Sixers likely hope they have a couple lower-cost alternatives to those two players in the rookie Shamet and the recently acquired Muscala, respectively, but they’re untested and may prove unreliable. Without those two guys, the Sixers aren’t quite as dangerous top to bottom as they were at their deadliest last season.
But you know what the good thing about players like Ilyasova and Belinelli is? They are *always* available around the trade deadline. Maybe not them specifically -- though, also, maybe them specifically -- but aging vets with a couple high-level skills and no real use on a rebuilding team will always be in abundance as the Sixers’ season approaches its final stretch. It was a coup for Bryan Colangelo to land them both following the trade deadline and no consequential cost to the Sixers -- perhaps BC’s biggest -- but it wasn’t magic: Even if it takes a little extra commitment of assets (second-rounders, fringe young guys, cap space) than offered last season, teams rarely have difficulty picking up dudes like Ilyasova and Belinelli late in the season if so inclined.
To suggest in the preseason that these Sixers won’t be as good as last year’s Sixers because they don’t have those guys on the roster is inherently kinda ridiculous, because they didn’t have those guys on the roster last preseason either. The players on the roster for Game 1 are by no means guaranteed to be entirely the same bunch still around at Game 82; history suggests they won’t be. And maybe the new guys they get this season won’t slot in as seamlessly as Belinelli and Ilyasova did last season, but it’s far from impossible that they will -- and maybe they won’t need to as badly this time, anyway.
Basically, I think it’s like this: The Sixers were really good for half of last year and mediocre for the other half. All the most irreplaceable players are back and healthy and (possibly) improved, and now Fultz is a thing. They have holes, but none of them are unpluggable. They have questions, but -- so far -- none of them are unanswerable. They have two of the ten best players in the conference, both barely even beginning to wade into their primes, coming off their first full season, first postseason and first healthy offseason together. And this team is supposed to win fewer games than they did last year?
I’m not buying it. I’m going over on the 54.5, and I’m not looking back. The Sixers are not a perfect team, but you don’t need to perfect to win 55 games -- you just need to be really good, and the Sixers are going to be that. Give Joel the MVP. Sign Simmons to the lifetime max. Build the Drew Hanlen statue. Get Dario shooting four-pointers. Let Elton reshirt a year as GM. Sixers, Baby. Trust the success.