After going from #Process2Progress last season, can the Philadelphia 76ers establish themselves as championship contenders in 2018-19?
In 2016, Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil began using the hashtag #Process2Progress, a not-so-subtle shot at former general manager Sam Hinkie. After three years of blatant tanking to replenish their collection of top-tier prospects and draft picks, the Sixers were ready to move on to Phase 2 of their rebuild.
Two years later, they’re poised to enter Phase 3: championship contention.
“It’s our goal to go play in an NBA Final,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown told reporters last month following the team’s first training camp practice. “It’s a respect of championship habits. It’s a respect of each other. There are a lot of pieces that clearly have to be involved for us to achieve such a high goal but that’s our goal.”
Thanks to some critical midseason additions, the Sixers weren’t far off from that goal last year. They ripped off a 16-game win streak at the end of the 2017-18 regular season to finish as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and it only took them five games to knock out the rough-and-tumble Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. With the injury-ravaged Boston Celtics awaiting in the conference semifinals, a Cinderella run to the NBA Finals seemed to be within reach.
Boston had other plans.
Fueled by pristine late-game execution, Al Horford’s brilliant all-around play, huge scoring outbursts from Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier and timely, unexpected 3-pointers from Aron Baynes, the Celtics knocked out their division rivals in five games. In doing so, they exposed concerning weaknesses for the Sixers, some of which threaten to upend Philadelphia’s surge up the NBA’s hierarchy.
Boston exploited Ben Simmons’ refusal to shoot mid- or long-range jumpers, packing the paint and staying glued to shooters such as JJ Redick and Robert Covington to thwart assist opportunities. With Markelle Fultz still hobbled, Philly lacked creators outside of Simmons and sparkplug backup T.J. McConnell, who flirted with swinging the series single-handedly. Baynes’ ability to stretch the floor drew Joel Embiid into defensive no man’s land, where he couldn’t close out in time and got sucked too far away from the rim to block shots. Covington’s inability to create shots off the dribble rendered him a liability, too.
That defeat provided plenty of fuel for the young Sixers over the summer.
“Everyone took that Boston series as a lesson for us to go in and go overboard with our summer goals, and the way we were going to come in ready for this year,” Covington told reporters at media day. “And a lot of guys, they exceeded that. It was our first time experiencing that. We knew the preparation that we didn’t have. This year is going to be different.”
After losing to Boston, the Sixers had their sights set high heading into the offseason. Brown told reporters Philly was going “star-hunting,” as it was one of the few playoff-caliber teams with enough salary-cap space to make a splashy free-agent signing. Once LeBron James and Paul George were off the market, though, the Sixers opted for plan B: re-signing J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson and rounding out the bench.
Out went Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, each of whom provided a much-needed boost to the reserve unit upon signing with Philly in February. In came Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala after a failed dalliance with Nemanja Bjelica. Add in rookies Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet and Jonah Bolden, and the Sixers’ bench looks far better equipped to not cough up double-digit leads, as it repeatedly did prior to the arrival of Belinelli and Ilyasova.
The wildcard for Philly is 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, whose shooting struggles as a rookie ranked among one of the strangest NBA storylines in recent years. After spending the summer with trainer Drew Hanlen, Fultz’s work-in-progress shooting stroke appears vastly improved, and he’s reportedly less hesitant to fire away from deep during five-on-five scrimmages in training camp, according to new general manager Elton Brand (via Jeff Smith of Sixers Wire).
Fultz shot 41.3 percent from deep on 126 attempts during his lone season at the University of Washington, so it isn’t as though he’s never been a prolific 3-point shooter. If his offseason work with Hanlen helped him to recapture his mojo, the Sixers may already have the third member of their Big Three in-house. He’s the secondary shot-creator they sorely missed last season — particularly in the Boston series — and could be a picture-perfect fit alongside Simmons and Embiid.
There are far fewer questions regarding the Sixers’ other two centerpieces. Embiid is fresh off his first All-Star nod and is eyeing the MVP award this season, while Simmons is the reigning Rookie of the Year and should join Embiid in the All-Star Game come February. If those two remain healthy, they’ll give Philly a puncher’s chance against any team.
“When my season ended, there was a lot of talk about adding guys. I literally did not really care because I want to get better,” Embiid told reporters in August. “I want to be better than those guys that were mentioned if I’m not already better than them. That was my message, just going into the offseason, finally the first one healthy and able to do whatever I want. That was my goal regardless.”
As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noted, the Sixers’ starting five of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Embiid and Dario Saric had the best net rating of any starting lineup in the league last season. With Fultz, McConnell, Chandler and Muscala likely to round out the rotation — along with a sprinkling of Bolden, Shamet, Smith (once he’s healthy) and Amir Johnson — the Sixers will be far deeper than they were at the beginning of last season. That should allow them to get off to a faster start, rather than hovering around .500 like they were until the arrival of Ilyasova and Belinelli.
Whether they measure up to the loaded Celtics and Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors is anyone’s guess at this point. On paper, the Celtics look like the clear favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals this year, and the Raptors may well be better than the Sixers, too. Given the age of Philly’s top players—Embiid’s 24, Simmons is 22 and Fultz is 20—the team doesn’t have to be in the championship-or-bust mentality just yet.
For the Sixers, the 2018-19 season is all about progress. Can Embiid force his way into the MVP conversation? Will Simmons develop any semblance of a jumper? Has Fultz regained confidence in his shot? Can Covington create off the dribble? Those questions will go a long way toward determining how close Philly is to legitimate championship contention.