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Before the Sixers tip of their season Wednesday night against the Wizards, it’s prediction time.
NBC Sports Philadelphia's Amy Fadool, Danny Pommells, Brian Brennan and Noah Levick give their bold predictions for the 2020-21 season.
Ben Simmons wins Defensive Player of the Year
Simmons has made no secret of the fact that he would love to win this award, saying candidly in years past that personal accolades aren’t as important as team wins, unless it’s the DPOY.
Simmons started building his case last season. He led the NBA in steals per game, was second in overall steals (119) and third in steal percentage at a hair under 3 percent. Looking at those numbers, it’s no surprise that Simmons was an All-Defensive First Team selection and finished fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Defense has long been a calling card for Simmons and something he takes great pride in. All great defenders do.
He’ll have a chance to build on his numbers and make a stronger case this year, thanks to a retooled lineup and style of play. The Doc Rivers system, while still unknown in its Sixers form, should lend itself to plenty of opportunities for Simmons to shine on the defensive front. Rivers has expressed admiration for Simmons' defensive game, and I think he will do everything he can to maximize that aspect of Simmons.
Tyrese Maxey starts 10 or more games
I know, I know. Big surprise that I’m going with Maxey on a bold prediction. But I was not alone in my positive impressions of the rookie in the Sixers' two preseason games. While it was a very small sample of his game at the NBA level, Maxey acquitted himself quite well.
I watched Maxey every game in his lone season at Kentucky and if you were within earshot (and sometimes beyond) of me while I was doing so, you’d remember that I’d yell the same thing every game: "Give the ball to Maxey."
He just makes things happen. He makes plays and players better around him. He does what he needs to do and what’s asked of him. To be more succinct, he plays within himself and the game at hand. Not the quickest, but his speed can deceive. Not the most accurate shooter, but he can step up and make the shot. Not the biggest defender, but he can lock down his guy when called upon.
Maxey has impressed viewers, teammates and coaches alike. I think he has All-Star potential and we could see him on that stage in a few years.
Because he can play point guard as well as off the ball, he’ll fit in where he needs to in this Sixers system. And that's why I think he’ll get the call to start at least 10 games for Rivers this season.
Sixers have three All-Stars
Depending on where you look, the Sixers have the seventh-best odds to win the NBA championship. Pretty lofty for a team that was the sixth seed in the East last year and was swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Although, this new season has infused the roster and fan base with some new hope. With that optimism firmly tucked under my arm, I’m stepping out on a limb to say that I believe the Sixers will get three All-Stars this season.
While there won’t be an All-Star Game this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Sixers placing another player with Joel Embiid and Simmons among the East’s best is significant. It’s unclear if the NBA will still hold fan voting or how they’ll reward players for their stellar play, since the All-Star Game has been postponed. But they will do something, and a third All-Star from the Sixers would be a very tangible sign that the offseason moves are working well and the franchise has a chance to meet its many lofty goals and expectations. +2000 to win the NBA title could be worth looking into. Will that third All-Star be Seth Curry, Tobias Harris, or even Danny Green?
Simmons and Embiid bring in the awards
No matter where the Sixers’ run ends, I’m picturing some very successful and productive campaigns for the organization's two cornerstones, Embiid and Simmons. So much so that I believe each of them will make the All-Star team, an All-NBA team and an All-Defensive team. Simmons pulled off the trifecta last season, earning All-Defensive First Team and All-NBA Third Team honors. Embiid pulled it off the two prior seasons, earning Second Team honors both years, but strangely didn’t make any All-NBA team at all last season.
You could see it as a true testament to his talent. Despite missing 22 games, Embiid still averaged 23 points and 11.6 rebounds, but it was considered a down year for the 7-footer by some. The 26-year-old has admitted he’s entering the season with a bit of a chip on his shoulder because of the perceived slight, saying earlier this month, “It is what it is. You can’t get mad at it, but ... I was extremely disappointed because I didn’t get the respect that I deserved.”
Simmons averaged 16.4 points, 8.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds last year. Those numbers are sure to improve with Rivers’ emphasis on pace and spacing. Not to mention Simmons’ elite defense. A healthy Embiid with something to prove in a new scheme and Simmons finding open shooters with the organization stressing a high tempo is a definite formula for the pair’s success. The Sixers will go as far as the Ben and Jo show will take them.
Simmons is traded for James Harden
There’s too much smoke here for a deal not to eventually happen. Daryl Morey came to Philadelphia for one reason: to win a championship. Trading Simmons for Harden at this point in their respective careers raises the Sixers’ championship odds for the next couple seasons. While losing Simmons’ all-around excellence will hurt, a Harden-Embiid partnership could be devastating offensively, especially with shooters like Curry, Green, Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz around them. And a team anchored by Embiid in the post will always be solid defensively unless Al Horford has to guard power forwards.
Milton averages more PPG than Curry
In his role as the team’s sixth man, Milton is going to get buckets. It’s a small sample size, but Milton averaged 17 points in the two preseason games and wasn’t shy about looking for his own shot. Curry should get a ton of open looks in Rivers’ offense, but he also has to share the floor with more prolific scorers than Milton will on the bench units. I like Curry to average about 14 points per game and Milton to be above 15 due to their respective roles. Rivers has found his next great offensive sixth man.
The Sixers are a top-five defensive team
New defensive coordinator Dan Burke is widely regarded as one of the NBA’s best assistants. After the Sixers finished last year eighth in defensive rating with players often not at their best positions, I'll say they crack the top five under Burke.
Embiid and Simmons’ health will be paramount here, and I'll predict the Sixers’ stars have better luck with injuries than last year. If they’re going to be key rotation players, the Sixers will need Milton and Korkmaz to improve defensively, too. Among the changes to watch with Burke are less emphasis on limiting opponents’ three-point attempts and Embiid playing more “up to touch” in pick-and-roll coverage.
Dwight Howard plays more minutes than Matisse Thybulle
“He’s probably in better shape than everybody on both teams,” Rivers said of Howard after the Sixers’ preseason finale.
The 35-year-old is indeed still capable of playing extended minutes, and he’ll be an important player for the Sixers this season. Rivers is very cognizant of how badly the Sixers need Embiid to be healthy in the playoffs, and the team should approach the nuanced issue of load management accordingly. Tony Bradley is a promising third-string center, but Howard is 13 years his senior and will likely be the backup big man the Sixers prefer in almost every situation.
Meanwhile, Rivers said the Sixers were taking their time with Thybulle during the preseason after the second-year wing sprained his left ankle during training camp. Regardless of why Thybulle didn't see much preseason time with rotation players, Milton, Korkmaz and Maxey boosted their respective stocks. Maxey can create his own shot, a skill the Sixers need, and it seems that could lead to him cutting into some of Thybulle’s minutes.
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