To be honest, you don't need this 76ers season preview. For all the trivialities we will busy ourselves with over the next six months as Sixers fans, none of them really matter. What matters is Joel Embiid, and whether or not he stays healthy, and we already covered that in our true 76ers preview, which you absolutely should read. But, if you can't spare the extra Firefox tab, I'll summarize:
1. Joel Embiid is already amazing, and we haven't even come close to scratching the surface of what could happen if and when he goes Full Lucy.
2. If Joel Embiid plays 65 games this year, he will win the Rookie of the Year, lead the Sixers to 20 wins, justify the entire Process beyond a Howard Eskin 5 o'clock shadow of a doubt, and generally make our wildest dreams come true.
3. If Joel Embiid goes down again, all is lost, everything is garbage, and we may as well get really into professional canasta.
So, that's what's actually at stake with this 76ers season. What's at pretend-stake? Well, the season starts tomorrow, we have our 15-man roster (so long, Elton, Cat, James, Shawn and Brandon), and a high-placed source within the Sixers organization tells me that Embiid is being confined to a moon bounce made out of twinkies from now until tip-off. So fine, let's humor ourselves. Here are ten (mostly) non-Embiid-related questions whose answers will otherwise define the 2016-17 76ers -- much like how the 28 teams that aren't the Cavaliers or Warriors will define this NBA season.
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Will either Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel will still be on the roster by the trade deadline?
Somehow, this situation just keeps getting worse. Much as we hate to question the infinite wisdom of Our Once and Always Dark Lord, it seems pretty clear now that Sam Hinkie made a gross miscalculation in drafting and keeping Jahlil Okafor, and now it seems the Colangelos may have exacerbated the situation by holding out for too much in trade talks for either player. Not that either decision was an objectively awful decision in a vacuum -- by the way, when do we actually get to operate a basketball team inside one of those things, it sounds much easier? — but the end result of them is that Jah's trade value is tanked, Nerlens' feelings (and knees) are hurt, and we might just have to trade one of them for a backup T-shirt gun to avoid this getting any messier.
Sadly, it seems likely at this point that Nerlens, despite being a young defensive anchor of virtually peerless skill, athleticism and versatility, will end up going. Whether or not you smell fishiness with his self-reported knee soreness and subsequent plica (??) surgery, the fact is that he's understandably pissed at the situation in Philly, and he's also one year away from being a Restricted Free Agent, at which point he'll become very expensive for a disgruntled backup center. Trading Nerlens at this point won't get us the home-run package we should receive for such a blue-chip 22-year-old, but he'll still get us something, and since it's starting to look like this guy just doesn't fit into our future plans, it might soon be time to admit we screwed up and take our late-fist-round lumps for it.
To be honest, though, I wouldn't be shocked to see Jah gone before long too. It's worth seeing what happens if we just let Oak feast on backup bigs for 15 minutes a night and hope he doesn't give it all back at the other end, but he just doesn't give the Sixers any of the floor balance we need -- and no matter what Brett Brown tries to sell us, I'm unconvinced that Okafor and Embiid will ever successfully play together. I'm not one of these TTPers who believes Richaun Holmes is the key to all earthly frontcourt delights for Philly, but it's hard to deny that his springiness and motor give him greater versatility (and maybe even higher upside) for the 2016-'17 NBA than Jahlil's plodding post moves. It's possible Noel could be traded and Okafor could end up third on the Sixers' center depth chart anyway.
Of course, this is all strictly If Joel Embiid Stays Healthy (IJESH), and one stubbed toe to our Franchise Processer could change this entire equation significantly. But failing that, I'm not sure either guy is still here in a year's time.
What can we expect from Dario Saric this year?
A lot of bricks, and a lot of fun. Super Dario's predictably uneven preseason play ultimately leveled out to a respectable 10 points and 4.5 boards on 45% shooting (31% from deep) in 21 minutes a night, all of which seemed about right for Saric. Boost those counting numbers about 20% to account for some more minutes — he'll likely play 25-30 a night, especially with Ben Simmons on the sidelines — and you'll know about what to expect from our rookie forward this season. He'll get hot some nights, hitting threes, making beautiful drop-off passes and generally looking like a future superstar, and then he'll go 2-14 with five turnovers and you'll wonder if he didn't come over to the NBA about a half-decade too early.
Which, of course, is all totally fine. We don't need Dario Saric to be anything this season but entertaining, and he will undoubtedly be that regardless, with his ambitious full-court passes, nifty moves around the basket, and teen-movie-villain swagger and handsomeness. If he can be a consistent outside threat from the four position while not getting completely toasted on the defensive end, that would also be a plus. But I'm keeping my expectations reasonable for Our Friend Dario's productivity in his first season against the greatest athletes in the world, on a team that isn't going to give him the benefit of a ton of spacing or ball-movement to work with.
Is this the year that Nik Stauskas makes the leap?
Considering he had a dreadful preseason and was on the bubble of losing his roster spot to Brandon Paul and/or a retired Elton Brand -- and once again starts the season with his buddy T.J. McConnell as the team's best drive-and-kick playmaker -- I can't say I'm overly optimistic.
The best Nik can hope for is an early hot streak that buys him enough good will to keep him on the roster until Ben Simmons (hopefully) shows up to make his life easier. Actually, that's only second-best: The best Nik can hope for is a trade to the Hawks or Spurs, who'll slot him neatly into a system that gets him open shots and capitalizes on his secondary play-making skills, inflating his open-market value to the point where we're debating if it's worth offering him $60 million for four years two summers from now. Just don't forget to send me my 15% of all merch sales, Sauce.
How much slack will Brett Brown get this season?
Maybe not as much as you'd think. Yes, there are excuses, and good ones: Brett Brown was given a roster that was never going to be good even at its best, and is now missing both its nominal starting point guard and its true starting point guard, the latter of whom also happens to have been the No. 1 overall pick (and our anointed franchise savior). But the Colangelos promised change, this Sixers roster is likely to start off the season a whole lot like the last two did, and the Hink's not around to scapegoat anymore. If the Ballers start 3-27 and a sacrifice must be made to the NBA's karma gods (and/or our own few remaining season-ticket holders), it's probably gonna be Brett.
Of course, by that point, he might just quit anyway. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a result with fewer lower-body injuries, so this team has undoubtedly made Brett Brown the nuttiest goddamn coach in NBA history. If we do let him go partway through a fourth season of ceaseless misery, he might simply be grateful that he can escape while he still has a few remaining championship memories from his days as a Spurs assistant -- ones that haven't yet been swallowed by an avalanche of careless backcourt turnovers and missed technical free throws.
Can Jerami Grant show enough range to be a convincing stretch four?
If you want to dig for a subplot of stealthy importance to the Sixers season (IJESH), I think this might be your best bet. Jerami Grant is very possibly one of the three or four most important players on this roster right now -- a combo forward with unbelievable athleticism and relentless attacking instincts on both sides of the ball. Paired in a frontcourt with You Know Who, the Sixers could have a defensive backbone of devastating versatility, one that could tag-team to both play goalie at the net and unleash the neutral-zone trap on the perimeter. Sounds fun.
But, of course, it'd be strychnine to our offensive spacing if Jerami can't hit a jump shot. He hit a couple threes this preseason, but missed a whole lot after those, and that thing still looks UGLY when it bricks. Grant's only reliable offensive game remains hurtling toward the basket and playing wallball with himself off the backboard until he gets fouled or one of 'em actually drops. It's proven surprisingly effective -- indeed, Grant led the Sixers in preseason scoring with 13 a game, and averaged nearly five made free throws a contest. But that's not how you sustain a coherent team offense, and until Jerami can flash enough of a jumper to command more than Andrew Bogut-like respect away from the hoop, he might not be able to help us enough there to make him playable for starters' minutes.
How many games will it take me to hate Gerald Henderson (if I don't already)?
Not many and possibly zero. It's not totally his fault, he's just my least-favorite type of player: the shooting guard who specializes in the long two, and makes a couple passes a game that are absolutely terrible. Yes, that also sort of describes Kobe Bryant, but Gerald ain't Kobe -- even when he's cooking, which probably won't be very often on this team where he somehow may end up our most proven source of offensive potency. He'll play good defense, he'll get us a couple tough buckets a night, and he will make me tear out my hair until I am as bald as he is.
Who will be our starting point guard to begin the season?
Tomorrow night, it sounds like Sergio Rodriguez is expected to get the nod. But ultimately, between Sergio and T.J., I expect this season at the point to work a lot like last year: Ride one guy until we get sick of him, then switch to the other guy until we get sick of him, and repeat until we get so sick of both guys that we have to add a third guy, until we get sick of him, and then... you get the idea. Luckily for us, that fabled Third Guy is already on the roster in Jerryd Bayless, and hopefully by the time we get irritated enough with Sergio's lack of penetration and T.J.'s lack of shooting to call on a third starter, he'll have recovered from his mysterious wrist ailment and be ready to lace up for us.
Of course, this season is volatile enough that there might even be Fourth Guy or Fifth Guy options at our disposal, depending on Ben Simmons' health and the potential trade return for a future Noel and/or Okafor trade. Get ready for a season of talking ourselves into a whole lot of empty "well, once [point guard] is around and running the team, our offense will look a lot smoother" guarantees.
Does Robert Covington still like basketball?
Hard to tell. Watching RoCo this preseason was a largely dispiriting experience, as our oft-trumpeted steal of a cheap three-and-D wing continued on his end-of-last-season contentedness to chuck up threes with only the lightest of discrimination, largely uninterested in contributing further on offense. The urgency has been missing from Covington's game for a little while now, and while it's hard to really blame him for sagging interest, it's also hard to continue to pump him up as a vital contributor for the Sixers when he shoots a mediocre percentage from deep and barely ever gets to the line: He shot far more triples (36) than he did combined two-pointers and free-throws (25) this preseason, and only made a quarter of 'em.
We may need a early-year surge to re-energize Robert and make him care about hooping hard again. Another losing streak to start this season, and Lord Covington might just decide he'd be happier giving up basketball altogether for a career in fly fishing or calligraphy.
Will Ben Simmons come back this season?
Despite my initial calls for cautious optimism, the Ben Simmons foot injury ended up being what we most feared -- a Jones fracture with a highly indeterminate time-table for return. Brett Brown tried to reassure us that he was on track to be back in January, then someone screamed in his earpiece and our coach had to clarify that it was mostly just wishful thinking. Now, it seems like smart people are split about 50-50 over whether or not we should expect B. Simmons Dogg to play at all this season.
If I had to guess, I would say he does come back this season. As much nervousness as it'll cause people, the experts say he won't actually benefit more from extra rest once he's done healing -- he'll risk re-injuring the foot, but so will he pretty much whenever he plays from now on, whoopee. There's a difference between not rushing him back and locking him in the basement to protect from the cruel outside world, and while Hinkie might've still leaned toward the latter approach, the Colangelos are motivated enough to cultivate good feelings in the Sixers fanbase that they probably won't be able to resist debuting their prized No. 1 pick this season.
Not definitely, though. The sad thing about the Process-era Sixers is that the Colangelos could come out and announce "There's no real reason to keep Simmons out any longer, but we're superstitious and this team's history is terrifying, so we're gonna keep him in bubble wrap forever anyway," and we couldn't possibly argue with the logic. The only saving grace here is that (IJESH) this won't even be the primary focus of Sixers fans this season.
How many games are we gonna win?
Covered this already in our real season preview, but again, IJESH-willing, I do think we can scare up 20 this season, mostly just due to That Dude. If the worst happens and we're left with Dario Saric as our star rookie (best player?), getting anywhere near ten might be an achievement, especially if Jah takes till 2017 to play himself back into NBA shape and Nerlens stays sulking on the sideline. In either event, the Sixers don't get a ton of cupcake games to start the season -- game #13, at home to the Suns, might be the first contest where they're favored -- so we should be able to see pretty early just how long a season this is gonna be for our Ballers.
The good news is that the Sixers can still do a little scoreboard-watching over the course of the season, as well. The Lakers still owe us that top-three-protected pick, and it seems likely that this is the year we finally get it — their roster has improved just enough (through free agency, development, and a much-needed coaching change) for them to slide into a seventh-or-eighth-worst-overall record. Conversely, the Kings are (as usual) one setback away from all-out catastrophe, with starting point guard Darren Collison suspended to start the season, starting small forward Rudy Gay an open malcontent, and perpetually inflammable star center DeMarcus Cousins likely to go nuclear at the next misguided management decision. We still have a pickswap option from them for this summer, so if the Sixers somehow win a bunch of games this season, the Kings may end up doing our tanking for us.
Still, when it comes to the Sixers' own 2016-17 season, the process remains simple. Here's a helpful flow chart, in case you need the visual aid:
See you all at the not-WFC tomorrow night. Process Forever, but hopefully not forever.