NBA Season Preview 2020-21: 5 big questions for the Philadelphia 76ers

Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images /

After a disappointing 2019-20 campaign, can the Philadelphia 76ers bounce back under new head coach Doc Rivers and new team president Daryl Morey?

The Philadelphia 76ers entered the 2019-20 NBA season on the shortlist of title favorites. Nine months later, the Boston Celtics demoralized them with a first-round playoff sweep.

Their sixth-place finish in the Eastern Conference standings and comically short playoff run caused heads to roll. Out went head coach Brett Brown and some of the front office; in came Doc Rivers to replace Brown and longtime Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey as the new team president.

Morey didn’t take long to begin reshaping the team, sending out Al Horford and Josh Richardson on draft night while bringing back Danny Green and Seth Curry. Will that be enough to help this year’s Sixers get back on track?

1. Is the additional shooting with Seth Curry and Danny Green enough to unlock the ideal versions of Embiid and Simmons?

That’s the hope, at least!

Following the 2020 NBA draft, Morey wasn’t allowed to speak about his acquisition of Green since that move didn’t become official until Dec. 8. But he said the following about Curry, whom he acquired in exchange for Richardson and the No. 36 overall pick that night:

“Having a truly gravity-elite shooter really changes the dynamic for Ben and Joel. … When Joel and Ben have had that, it’s actually insane how good those lineups and how good those teams played when everyone was healthy.”

To Morey’s point: When Simmons and Embiid shared the floor with J.J. Redick in 2017-18, the Sixers averaged a scorching 116.3 points per 100 possessions and had a net rating of plus-17.2, according to Cleaning the Glass. That offensive rating ranked in the 97th percentile league-wide, while the net rating was in the 99th percentile.

If defenders can’t leave Curry and Green alone around the perimeter, it should open up more space in which Simmons and Embiid can operate near the basket. Whether it’s slashing lanes for Simmons or one-on-one post-up opportunities for Embiid, the Sixers offense should be far less of the clogged toilet that it was last year.

2. Why should (or shouldn’t) the Sixers trade for James Harden?

James Harden has the Sixers on his shortlist of preferred trade destinations, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, and the Sixers “have signaled a willingness” to include Simmons in such a deal. However, “those talks have come nowhere close” as of yet, per Woj and Shelburne, perhaps because the Rockets reportedly want three first-round picks in addition to Simmons, according to Yaron Weitzman.

If the Rockets eventually relent on a Simmons-plus-filler package, the Sixers have to consider it. Harden is a far better conceptual fit alongside Embiid, and no executive has better insight into the pros and cons of a Harden trade than Morey.

But if the Rockets insist on an Anthony Davis/Paul George-esque package with multiple first-round picks and pick swaps in addition to Simmons, the Sixers are right to back away.

Harden is 31 and has two guaranteed years left on his contract before a $47.4 million player option in 2022-23. Whichever team trades for him needs to be comfortable with giving him a five-year max deal heading into his age-33 season, but that contract is far more likely to age poorly than Simmons’ five-year max extension, which begins this season.

If the additions of Curry and Green don’t solve the Simmons-Embiid fit issues, the Sixers will likely consider breaking the two up ahead of the trade deadline or next offseason. But they should be in no rush to move either one until seeing whether Rivers’ system and their offseason roster changes help restore Simmons and Embiid to their 2017-18 heights.

3. What is Tyrese Maxey’s role as a rookie on a team with title aspirations?

Although the preseason hype train is full steam ahead, Maxey isn’t likely to make a huge impact on this year’s Sixers.

Simmons, Embiid, Curry, Green and Tobias Harris appear to be locked in as the starting five, and Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz and Dwight Howard should all have clear roles off the bench. Maxey will be competing with the likes of Matisse Thybulle, Mike Scott and Terrance Ferguson for minutes at the end of Rivers’ expected 10-man rotation.

Maxey shot only 29.2 percent from 3-point range during his lone season at Kentucky, which perhaps explains why he slipped to the Sixers at No. 21 despite his impressive pedigree. Morey expressed confidence that his shot will come around in due time, but the Sixers’ emphasis on spacing around Simmons and Embiid could limit his immediate opportunities.

The Sixers don’t have a single traditional point guard on their roster, which is perhaps where Maxey can gain some separation from Thybulle, Scott and Ferguson. If Curry and Milton flounder as the primary playmakers whenever Simmons sits, Rivers may give Maxey a whirl to see whether he can run the offense for short stints.

Given this unprecedented offseason — no summer league, a shortened training camp, etc. — it’s unfair to expect much out of any rookie at first. Maxey may start off slowly and begin to carve out more of a role as the season progresses, but he isn’t likely to play more than 10-15 minutes per game right out of the gate (if that).

4. How are 76ers’ fans feeling about Tobias Harris’ contract by the end of the season?

Better than they did this past season, but still lukewarm?

There’s no nice way to say it, but Harris is destined to be overpaid for the duration of his deal. He sticks out like a sore thumb among the highest-paid players in the NBA:

Because he isn’t producing near-max value on a near-max contract, he’s gotten the Andre Iguodala treatment from some Philadelphia fans. But remove his contract from the equation, and his production last season (19.6 points on 47.1 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 triples) is completely fine for a No. 3 option.

Reuniting with Rivers should do wonders for Harris, who thrived under his watch during their short stint together with the Los Angeles Clippers. Rivers wants Harris to get back “to being a quick-decision player” instead of overdribbling, and the increased amount of pick-and-rolls should do wonders for him, too.

If Rivers and Morey can convince Harris to continue letting it fly from deep even when he goes through slumps, it should do wonders for his confidence. In other words: No more of this, ever again.

5. How many 3-pointers does Ben Simmons take this year?

Last year, I said he would make 10. He attempted seven across 57 games, making only two of them.

With only 72 games on the regular-season slate this year, let’s go with anywhere between 10-15 attempted 3s, factoring in end-of-quarter heaves that have no prayer of going in.

During the Sixers’ Media Week, neither Simmons nor Rivers hyped up his shooting progress like former head coach Brett Brown did heading into the bubble. In fact, Rivers specifically said he won’t pressure Simmons into taking a certain number of 3-pointers every game, unlike Brown’s failed attempt to do so last year.

“I don’t care about Ben’s shooting as much as so many other people seem to care about it,” he said. “I care that he’s a great player, and I’m gonna let him play. I’m gonna give him the keys and let him be free and play. If he takes no shots, I’m fine. If he takes 10 threes, I’m fine. If he gets to the line 15 times, I’m fine. Ben is brilliant enough for me to allow to play and not get in his way and try to cloud his head up with a bunch of crap. It’s about winning. And that’s what I want Ben to focus on: how to make each other better and win.”

Simmons has been working with assistant coach Sam Cassell on his jumper, so it isn’t as though he’s completely ignoring that facet of his game. But when faced with the option of taking his own shot or passing it off to an elite 3-point shooter such as Curry or Green, he’s going to choose the latter more often than not.

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Unless otherwise noted, all stats via or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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