The Powers of 7: Reintroducing the 2022-23 NBA title contenders

Boston - June 10: With the Celtics logo as a backdrop, the Warriors Stephen Curry (right) and Draymond Green (left) celebrate after the Golden State victory. The Boston Celtics host The Golden State Warriors in game 4 of the NBA Finals at TD Garden in Boston on June 10, 2022. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

As training-camp scrimmages give way to preseason play, the onset of live games against actual opponents allows the NBA’s 30 teams to start figuring out what they actually are — and, more importantly, how that reality compares to what they imagined they might be.

For some, the mounting evidence will serve as a cold-cup-of-coffee reminder that even the best-laid plans of the best-paid decision-makers often go astray. For others, though, the results will support summertime optimism that they’ve got what it takes to walk the long road to championship glory. While the NBA hasn’t quite reached commissioner Adam Silver’s brass ring of near-perfect parity, the rise of a new generation of stars and the return of a slew of injured ones has produced plenty of teams that can harbor reasonable hopes of winning the whole friggin’ thing — perhaps more than in any season in recent memory.

According to BetMGM, seven teams enter the season with championship odds of 15-to-1 (+1500) or better. All seven feature at least one All-NBA-level game-breaker and a talented supporting cast; they also all feature some major questions that will need to be answered for them to reach the top of the mountain.

With opening night here, let’s get reacclimated with the NBA’s expected upper echelon by considering the cases for and against each of those top seven teams hoisting the Larry O’B come season’s end, working our way down from the suddenly precarious favorites.

Boston Celtics (+500)

The case for: They were the league’s best team for the final three months of last season, going a blistering 31-10 in the second half. In that span, Boston outscored opponents by an obscene 13 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — even better than what the Warriors mustered during Kevin Durant’s first season in the Bay. They made it all the way to the Finals before eventually running aground amid exhaustion, unforced errors and the irrepressible brilliance of Stephen Curry.

The silver lining to that six-game Finals defeat: After last year’s Celtics spent half a season finding an identity, this year’s model won’t have to.

Boston returns the entire top eight from its Finals run, headlined by Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first All-NBA First Team selection. Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston’s leading scorer in the Finals, pace a top-10 offense that should be even deeper and more dangerous after the addition of the sure-handed Malcolm Brogdon. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart returns to serve as the tip of the spear on the league’s most switchable roster, which should once again smother opposing offenses, even with roving shot-destroying menace Robert Williams III starting the season on the shelf. (For what it’s worth: Boston allowed 109.2 points-per-100 with Time Lord on the bench last season, still a top-five rate.)

With Al Horford and Grant Williams providing size and versatility up front, plus Brogdon and a full season of Derrick White to bolster the backcourt depth, Boston’s got one of the most formidable and balanced two-way cores in the NBA. That could be enough to get the Celtics through an increasingly stacked East and back to the Finals …

The case against: … if they can withstand the internal upheaval now rocking the franchise.

Ime Udoka is gone, suspended for the season following an internal investigation that uncovered multiple violations of team policy related to an improper relationship with a member of the team staff. The suspension evidently blindsided Boston’s players, leaving them in the unenviable position of having to speak extemporaneously about a situation that remains shrouded in secrecy. It also leaves assistant Joe Mazzulla — a 34-year-old whose previous head-coaching experience consists of a stint at Division II Fairmont State — suddenly serving as Boston’s interim head coach, introducing another discomfiting layer of uncertainty for a team that still has championship aspirations.

And then there are the injuries. Robert Williams, who emerged last season as one of the NBA’s premier rim deterrents, could miss anywhere from 18 to 35 games after an ominous doubling in recovery time for what was originally reported as “minor” arthroscopic surgery to the injured knee he played on throughout the 2022 postseason. On top of that, veteran forward Danilo Gallinari, signed this summer to add shooting and scoring depth to a Boston bench that often came up lacking in the postseason, is already lost for the year to a torn left ACL.

A handful of reserve options — centers Luke Kornet and Mfiondu Kabengele, second-year shooter Sam Hauser, 11th-hour signing Blake Griffin — could help cushion the blow of those losses. But a thinner frontcourt promises to place a lot of strain on Horford, who played a massive role last season after essentially taking a one-year sabbatical in Oklahoma City. Will he be able to shoulder an even greater responsibility at age 36, coming off his heaviest minutes load since 2017-18? One more hit to that second unit and the depth starts to look awfully shaky again; here’s where we remind you that Brogdon missed 81 games over his three years in Indiana and hasn’t played in more than 65 since his rookie season.

Maybe none of that really matters so long as Tatum, Brown and Smart stay on the court and play up to their level. In a conference this deep and this tough, though, how comfortable would you feel betting on that?

Golden State Warriors (+600)

The case for: Well, they just won it all, which seems like a pretty good start.

The Dubs return the top six from last year’s title team, headlined by their golden generation: Stephen Curry, still the sport’s most unsolvable equation; Draymond Green, still the beating heart of Golden State’s No. 2-ranked defense; and Klay Thompson, still a bona fide sharpshooter, who came back from two lost seasons to average 20 points per game. Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney return to quietly do the vital dirty work. Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and the tantalizing James Wiseman stand poised to step into larger roles. Donte DiVincenzo becomes the latest free-agent signing to evoke cries of, “God, how the hell did we let Golden State get a hold of him?” from opposing executives. JaMychal Green probably won’t cause much wailing, but still: good signing.

So much about the NBA has changed over the last decade — much of it prompted by Golden State, and by Curry in particular. One thing that hasn’t, though? When Steph, Klay, and Draymond suit up together, the Warriors win a hell of a lot more often than they don’t. It’s easy to forget, because they blitzed the West and broke the Celtics together in the playoffs, but Curry, Thompson, and Green shared the floor for just 11 total minutes last regular season … and Golden State still won 53 games en route to the chip. With better health, steps forward from the kids, and a couple of well-timed contract seasons, might this year’s team be even better?

The case against: It starts with knockout punches.

You can argue that the emergence of footage of Draymond cold-cocking Poole shouldn’t change our perception of what went down, but it very well could alter the league’s view of it — which, in turn, might impact how the Warriors wind up having to respond to it. A Green suspension to begin the season would hamper Golden State’s ability to get out to a hot start. Even if he’s there, though … well, despite what Bob Myers said, the vibes probably won’t necessarily be immaculate, is all I’m saying.

Setting aside the squabbling, it probably comes down to whether, and how much, Golden State’s youth will be served.

Whether motivated by ownership trying to trim an astronomical luxury tax bill, by a desire to create more opportunities for recent draftees, or a bit of both, the exits of Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, Nemanja Bjelica and Damion Lee in free agency have pushed 2021 lottery picks Kuminga and Moody to the forefront. Ditto for the decision not to sign another big body behind Looney, with Wiseman’s yearlong recovery from meniscus surgery finally complete.

They’ve got the pedigree, athleticism and talent to carve out larger roles and make an impact. But are they ready for the prime-time spotlight that comes with playing major minutes in high-leverage moments for a team in which championship contention isn’t just something you hope for, but rather the established standard? Moody looked comfortable when thrown into the fire against Dallas in the Western Conference finals. Kuminga has shown flashes of adding a physical dimension that Golden State has frequently lacked. Wiseman remains the franchise’s biggest wild card. At a minimum, giving maybe the most dangerous pick-and-roll player in the world a vertical spacer who can do this seems pretty smart:

But Wiseman struggled mightily to find his footing within Golden State’s free-flowing system and execute the finer points of NBA interior defense as a rookie, and the team as a whole moved on brilliantly without him last season. Whether he’s able to translate his size and skill set into consistently positive minutes within the role Steve Kerr will need him to play stands as one of the most intriguing X-factors in the entire league.

Age is a factor on the other end of the spectrum, too. Curry, Thompson, and Green will be 35, 33 and 33 by the playoffs, respectively. While Steph has certainly shown no signs of slowing down, Klay might be even better farther removed from his Achilles rupture and ACL tear, and a motivated Draymond’s still capable of wreaking havoc all over the floor, the amount of miles on their collective odometers has to represent at least something of a concern for Warriors brass.

Most of all, though, Golden State has to find a way to keep the offense afloat when Steph sits. With him on the court last season, the Warriors scored 115.2 points-per-100, just shy of a top-five mark; with him off it, that plummeted to 109.4 points-per-100, which would’ve ranked 26th over the course of the full season. It’s not exactly news that Curry is the difference between the Warriors looking like world-beaters and also-rans, but just because it’s not news doesn’t mean it’s not notable — or that it’s not a problem that could jump up and bite the Warriors in the long run.

Milwaukee Bucks (+650)

The case for: [double-checks the Bucks roster]

It says here they still employ Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s good enough for me.

The 2021 champs took the Celtics the distance in Round 2, despite Khris Middleton being in street clothes, Jrue Holiday shooting 36%, and Mike Budenholzer trusting at most seven guys on his roster, because Antetokounmpo was just that overwhelming. The two-time MVP continues to refine his game — the passing gets more precise, the free throws and pull-ups find the bottom of the net more often — while bringing to bear a relentless physicality that pulverizes even the NBA’s strongest defenses. Throw whatever scheme you want at him; he’s putting up 28-12-6, whether you like it or not. Still just 27 years old but entering his 10th year in the league, Giannis has become an immutable truth. You don’t beat him so much as you survive him.

We’ll never know if the Bucks could’ve outlasted Boston had Middleton not sprained his left MCL. We do know, though, that they’ve been monstrous whenever Giannis, Middleton and Holiday have shared the court, annihilating opponents by nearly 13 points-per-100 in both seasons since Holiday came over from New Orleans. We’ll have to wait a bit longer to see the All-Star swingman back on the court, as he continues his recovery from offseason wrist surgery. But ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported Thursday that he “shouldn’t miss much time” — excellent news for a Bucks team whose best chance of surviving without Giannis lies in having both of his All-Star running buddies available to shoulder the playmaking load when he sits. (The Bucks hammered opponents when Middleton and Holiday played without Giannis last season; the margin was much smaller when Jrue flew solo.)

It remains to be seen whether the supporting cast surrounding Milwaukee’s big three features enough playable two-way options for Budenholzer to find the right blend of offense and defense come the postseason. (That sound you just heard was every Bucks fan groaning at the memory of the Celtics hunting Grayson Allen for sport.) If the stars are healthy, though, the Bucks stand an excellent chance of entering most matchups with three of the five best players in the series — and, in arguably all of them, with the single best. That’s the power of Giannis, and it’s enough to keep Milwaukee in the championship conversation for the foreseeable future.

The case against: As The Ringer’s Zach Kram noted, Milwaukee’s rotation tied for the highest average age of any team in the 2022 playoffs. So, naturally, they focused on getting younger this summer … by signing Joe Ingles, who just turned 35 and is currently rehabilitating a torn ACL.

Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton bring plenty of juice, but the rest of Milwaukee’s role players — Brook Lopez, Wesley Matthews, George Hill, Serge Ibaka and Ingles, once he gets healthy — are all, shall we say, in the autumns of their respective careers. Depending on them to play significant minutes, stay healthy and have something left in the gas tank come April, May and June seems like something of a dicey proposition. If they don’t get continued growth from some of their younger players — that means you, Jordan Nwora — the Bucks’ suspect depth could doom them against elite competition.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that Milwaukee’s just one piece short. Maybe it’s uncharitable to suggest that the piece’s name is P.J. Tucker, whom the Bucks let go to Miami last year despite playing a pivotal role on their championship team. If it’s not him, though, then it’s certainly his type — a floor-stretching, multi-positional, defense-first hard-ass. Dudes like that aren’t easy to find, especially at a price point that the deep-in-the-luxury-tax Bucks can afford. Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst will have to hope to cobble together a package for Jae Crowder, or find a similarly styled two-way helper on the trade or buyout market, to give Giannis and Co. the support they need when they run up against the other beasts at the top of the East.

Brooklyn Nets (+700)

The case for: Only six teams boast multiple players who’ve made an All-NBA team in the past three seasons. Only two teams have three: The Lakers, with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook … and the Nets, with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, all of whom — in what’s honestly a pretty massive upset, given just how wild the last year and a half have been in Brooklyn — are finally actually suiting up together.

In theory, adding Simmons — the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up when last we saw him play — solves a lot of defensive problems for a Nets team that last season ranked 21st in points allowed per possession and opponent turnover rate, finished dead last in defensive rebounding rate, and lacked an elite option to deploy against perimeter weapons like Tatum and Brown, who combined to average 52 points per game as Boston swept the Nets. (Ex-Jazz wing Royce O’Neale ought to help on that front, too.) In theory, Simmons’ fabled discomfort with shooting from beyond arm’s reach of the rim — and, sometimes, even within it! — won’t pose quite as much of a logistical issue on a Brooklyn side featuring Durant, Irving and more complementary shooting than the Sixers ever had.

In theory, Simmons arrives in the Nets’ structure and pivots from trying to be LeBron or Giannis into trying to be Draymond — the low-usage-facilitating, 1-through-5-defending rhythm section who allows Brooklyn’s soloists to shine in the spotlight. That, combined with full(ish) seasons from KD and Kyrie, the healthy return of Joe Harris, and improved depth up and down the roster could vault the Nets out of the play-in mix and back into the ranks of inner-circle title contenders.

You know: in theory.

The case against: That sure seems like a lot of hypotheticals, doesn’t it? And, just maybe, a lot of assumptions to just grant for a team that, as recently as two months ago, had its superstar demanding to be traded unless the head coach and general manager were both fired.

As brilliant as we expect Brooklyn’s big names to be when they share the court, how confident can we be that Durant (who has missed 64 games over the past two seasons), Irving (who has, for one reason or another, yet to top 55 games since coming to Brooklyn) and Simmons (who hasn’t seen real action in 20 months and is coming off of back surgery) will log a ton of minutes together? When they do, who else will flank them in the starting lineup? Can Brooklyn play one of its rim-running centers, Nic Claxton or Day’Ron Sharpe, next to another non-shooter in Simmons without suffocating its half-court spacing? When Steve Nash wants to damn the torpedoes by plugging another shooter into the lineup, can Simmons control the glass and protect the rim well enough to hold up at the 5?

Also: All the talk about Simmons “playing the Draymond Green role” tends to gloss over a couple of things: A) Green’s an incredibly rare and special player, and just “doing what he does” is exceptionally difficult; B) Even if Simmons is capable of doing it, it seems reasonable to wonder if a former No. 1 overall pick who’d been the focal point of every team he’d been on up until Joel Embiid changed that math might not be eager to play that circumscribed role. I’m not saying he won’t be, or that he can’t do it; I’d just like to see it before I assume it all will go off without a hitch. Especially considering, when last we saw Simmons, he seemed deathly afraid of getting fouled and shooting free throws — the kind of thing that might make it tough to thrive in a screen-and-dive, take-dump-offs-and-dunk role in the playoffs.

The NBA isn’t laden with low-post brutes anymore, but I’m still curious how Brooklyn’s centers would hold up in a playoff series against, say, Embiid or Bam Adebayo. And how a rotation heavy with smaller guards (Irving, Seth Curry, Patty Mills) will avoid getting mismatch-hunted to hell by the many seek-and-destroy iso players dotting the Eastern landscape. And how a team that seemed to be fractured, then was essentially put back together out of necessity, holds up once it faces some fresh on-court adversity.

Maybe everything finally breaks right in Brooklyn. It seems equally likely, though, that everything finally just breaks.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 03: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Los Angeles Clippers looks on during the first half of the preseason game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Climate Pledge Arena on October 03, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. The Los Angeles Clippers won 102-97. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard looks on during the first half of a preseason game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Climate Pledge Arena on Oct. 3, 2022 in Seattle. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Los Angeles Clippers (+700)

The case for: The last time we saw Kawhi Leonard healthy, he was in the midst of maybe his best postseason ever, having just evened things up against the Jazz and sitting two wins away from a Western Conference finals matchup with a Suns squad he’d beaten both times he suited up against them during the regular season. It’s been 20 long months since Leonard tore his right ACL in Game 4 against Utah, but he returns to an L.A. team that has used that time — and Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft-branded Scrooge McDuck vault — very, very wisely.

No team in the league boasts more lineup options than the Clippers, who go a legit 12 deep in experienced, quality NBA players before even getting to some of the intriguing young guys (2021 draftees Brandon Boston Jr. and Jason Preston, solid swingman Amir Coffey) who dot the end of the bench. The healthy returns of Leonard and Paul George, who was limited to just 31 games last season and missed L.A.’s play-in contest in COVID-19 protocols, restore the Clippers’ high-end firepower and two-way linchpins. The battery of Reggie Jackson and new arrival John Wall ensure Kawhi and PG won’t be responsible for the entire shot-creation workload, while also posing a threat as catch-and-shoot secondary options whenever one of the superstar wings goes to work.

A staggering number of versatile wings of various sizes — Marcus Morris, Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Norman Powell, Terence Mann, Luke Kennard, the list goes on — allows puzzlemaster Ty Lue to mix and match his units for just about any eventuality. This team should be able to switch everything on defense and play five-out offense just about all the time … and, when it encounters a center too big for small-ball or Lue just wants to run more conventionally, he can turn to Ivica Zubac to bang down low, protect the rim, screen, dive and finish efficiently.

The Clippers’ roster contains answers for just about every question an opponent can ask, including, with Kawhi back, the toughest mano a mano challenges in the season’s biggest moments.

The case against: It starts, as always, with concern over how often Lue will have that full cupboard available to work with. L.A. has been devastating whenever Leonard and George have shared the floor; they’ve also only played in 104 total regular and postseason games together across three seasons, thanks to load management and a variety of injuries. The Clippers are holding out hope that this is the year their biggest guns stay healthy and show out. You wouldn’t blame them, though, if they’re also holding their breath, at least a little bit.

Beyond that: Having a rotation overstuffed with real talent is certainly better than not having enough, but it could still prove pretty nettlesome to navigate. Everyone says they’re cool with sacrificing for the greater good in September; how will those best intentions hold up when you’re only getting table scraps in January, or in the heat of the chase for the West’s top seed, or when you’ve been excised from the rotation in Round 1? How will Lue and his staff keep everybody fed and pulling in the same direction while also pushing the right buttons to make the most out of the boundless optionality at their disposal?

Just because something sounds like one of them good problems, that doesn’t mean it’s not still a problem. How well L.A. plays that numbers game could determine whether this is finally the year Ballmer spent billions for, or whether the Clips once again find themselves on the outside looking in as two other teams tip off for the title.

Phoenix Suns (+1000)

The case for: Listen, I’m not going to lie: It’s not easy to make one right now. But if you can peer through the staggering amount of cloud cover hovering over the franchise at the moment — from the Game 7 implosion against Dallas to Deandre Ayton’s contentious restricted free agency, from the Robert Sarver saga to Jae Crowder looking for the exits, from the depression of media day to getting boat-raced by a bunch of Australians — you’ll still see a pretty damn good team.

The Suns have won more games than anybody over the past two years. They were one of only two teams to finish last season in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency (Memphis was the other). They’ve got an All-NBA backcourt featuring one of the greatest table-setters of all time and one of the game’s best pure scorers, both of whom rank among the league’s most lethal crunch-time performers. Ayton might not like how he got his $132.9 million, but he’s being paid like what he is: an excellent two-way big man who, at just 24 years old, still has plenty of room to grow and evolve his game. The fivesome of Paul, Booker, Ayton, Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson has outscored opponents by 76 points in 239 minutes over the past two seasons, according to PBP Stats; that group will get even more opportunities to shine with Johnson in line to replace Crowder in the starting lineup.

There’s no doubt head coach Monty Williams has plenty of work to do in rebuilding the confidence and cohesion of the team that Luka Doncic reduced to rubble in Round 2. (A good first step might be starting to talk to his center again.) He’s still got the raw materials to work with, though. Phoenix has the tools and the talent to get right back to being the very best in the West — provided all parties involved can find the silver lining around all those dark clouds.

The case against: It’s just … that’s a lot of clouds, man.

Williams can insist there’s nothing to air out between him and Ayton if he wants, but he’s going to need to ensure that his young, newly paid center stays motivated and committed to keep Phoenix’s machine running smoothly on both ends of the court. Moving Johnson into the starting lineup is fine in and of itself, but it opens up the question of how Phoenix replaces his 26 minutes of production per game off the bench. If GM James Jones can’t turn Crowder into another viable contributor at the combo forward spots or convince him to come back into the fold, the Suns will need to find a rotation-bolstering answer.

Maybe they can find one in-house: Dario Saric, back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, provides depth as a playmaking 4 or small-ball 5, and perhaps Torrey Craig or Ish Wainwright could produce in a larger role. But those options feel shakier than you’d like for a team whose championship window is Right Freaking Now. That uncertainty extends throughout the bench. Cameron Payne came back to earth last season after shining as Paul’s understudy early in his tenure in Phoenix, and Landry Shamet underwhelmed next to him. Damion Lee couldn’t crack the Warriors’ postseason rotation; would you trust him in Phoenix’s? The Suns might not need a ton of shot creation in the second unit, since one of Paul or Booker will likely be on the floor at all times, but barring a bounce-back from Payne or a big step from Shamet, what’s on hand feels somewhat uninspiring given what some of the other contenders in the West can throw out. Jones might need to make a trade to find more help; good thing he still has all those first-round draft picks lying around that never wound up going to Brooklyn.

Hanging over all of this is a math question: How long can the Suns continue to coax a top-flight offense out of an approach that prioritizes midrange Js over generating high-value looks?

Phoenix finished last season dead last in shot frequency at the rim, and 25th in the share of its shots that came from 3-point range, according to Cleaning the Glass; it also ranked 25th in free-throw rate. It’s worked primarily because Paul and Booker are two of the game’s sharpest midrange shooters, but at a certain point, when that shot profile runs up against a team that bombs 3-pointers — like, say, the Mavericks, who averaged 39 long-range attempts a game in Round 2 — it’s tantamount to starting each game behind by a few baskets.

Elevating Johnson, who shot a scorching 42.5 percent from deep on higher per-possession volume than Crowder last season, should help; so, too, would finding more ways to feature Ayton in the pick-and-roll and from the post. Staying the course, though, means depending a lot on the midrange mastery of Booker and the now-37-year-old Paul when it matters most. I’m not saying it can’t work. It’s an awfully tough road to travel, though, for a team that seems like it could really use something easy right about now.

Philadelphia 76ers (+1400)

The case for: I can’t believe I’m saying this — I’m waiting for the floor beneath me to start shaking and lightning to strike my apartment — but … the 76ers … like, the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers … might be having the calmest, chillest, most beneficial, and best offseason/preseason of any contender? (Besides that whole tampering investigation, I mean.)

After Miami eliminated Philly in the second round of the playoffs, Joel Embiid told reporters that he felt the Sixers weren’t tough enough — that they lacked “someone like P.J. Tucker,” who had made a massive impact for the Heat with his energy, toughness and defensive versatility. So Daryl Morey went out and got … P.J. Tucker, dropping the veteran bodyguard into Philly’s starting five to hopefully make a massive impact with his energy, toughness and defensive versatility.

The additions of Tucker, fellow former Rocket Danuel House, and ex-Grizzlies chaos agent De’Anthony Melton give Philadelphia a level of defensive versatility on the wing that the Sixers have never had in the Embiid era. Tucker and House bring plenty of experience playing alongside James Harden from their time together in Houston; Melton, too, profiles as a perfect fit as a driver, complementary ball-handler, and off-ball cutter who can take advantage of all the attention opposing defenses pay to Embiid.

The big fella was double-teamed on isolation possessions more often than any other player in the league last season, according to Second Spectrum tracking, and doubled more often than anybody but Nikola Jokic on postups. Surround him with dudes who can knock down the wide-open looks they’ll get once he draws two — Tucker, Melton, and House all shot better than 39 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season — and eventually they might start getting skittish about bringing extra help. And if that happens, the dude who’s finished second in MVP voting two years running will absolutely run roughshod over the opposition.

With that newfound shooting depth surrounding Embiid, Harden, ascendant guard Tyrese Maxey, and now-overqualified-fourth-option Tobias Harris, this should be the best Philadelphia offense since … what, Charles Barkley’s heyday? Combine that with tighter perimeter defense backstopped by Embiid, and the Sixers have the makings of a team that could finally shatter its second-round ceiling — and maybe even deliver the franchise’s first championship in 40 years.

The case against: It’s commendable that Harden was willing to take a significant paycut on his new deal to create the financial flexibility to add Tucker and House. He appears to have come to camp in excellent shape, fully committed to the project of doing everything in his power to propel Philadelphia to the top of the East. Given both his lengthy track record of postseason flops with his back against the wall, though, and specifically his performance the last time Philly faced adversity … it seems reasonable to maintain some skepticism about whether he’ll show up when it matters most. If he doesn’t, then no matter how superhuman Embiid can be, what kind of leap Maxey takes as a pull-up shooter, or how much better the bench is, then I’m just not sure Philly’s got enough playmaking depth to withstand the likes of the Celtics, Bucks, in-theory Nets, Heat, or whoever else winds up comprising the top flight of the East.

There are other questions: whether the highly paid Harris will continue accepting/perform in the sort of narrowly tailored complementary role he assumed after Harden’s arrival; how Philly can hold up on defense in the playoffs with Harden and the undersized Maxey representing liabilities at the point of attack; whether the combination of Montrezl Harrell and Paul Reed can finally solve the problem of Philadelphia effectively capsizing whenever Embiid hits the bench; what becomes of event-creating demon/offensive ghost Matisse Thybulle; etc. All of them, though, pale in comparison to how Harden holds up in the playoffs. The Sixers will only go as far as he and Embiid take them. There’s a pathway to a championship here. Is he finally ready to walk it?

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