The magnifying glass is as focused as ever on the Philadelphia 76ers.
After an elongated and incredibly disappointing season that saw a team with Eastern Conference Finals hopes getting swept out of the first round of the Orlando bubble playoffs, the Sixers begin their 2020-21 season on Wednesday night against the Washington Wizards with more pressure than ever.
Brett Brown, considered the main scapegoat of Philadelphia’s disappointing campaign, is gone. One of the game’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, is in.
Daryl Morey, who built a threatening power in the Western Conference in the Houston Rockets, has taken over as president of basketball operations and has attempted to address some of the Sixers’ most glaring issues in outside shooting and roster depth.
They got the bloated contract of Al Horford off the books and brought in veteran shooters in Danny Green and Seth Curry to help spread the floor, which will open up more opportunities for Joel Embiid to dominate down low. Philadelphia’s lack of threatening three-point marksmen last season allowed opposing teams to key on Embiid and the other half of the Sixers’ dynamic duo, point guard Ben Simmons — who continues to struggle with outside shooting.
“I like our versatility,” Rivers said. “A lot of shooting on the floor, a lot of guys who can put the ball on the floor, a lot of length defensively. So we have a lot of good parts.”
As for the team’s depth, a litany of youngsters are stepping in to not only relieve the starters, but to challenge them.
“We have a really good group of young guys, who are hard workers, they listen, they want to get better,” Sixers forward Tobias Harris said. “They ask a lot of good questions to try to learn what’s going on. Tyrese [Maxey], Isaiah [Joe], Paul [Reed], Matisse [Thybulle] — those are all guys that I want to see have a great future in the league. They’ve been having a really good training camp by the way they’ve been playing, so it’s exciting to see that.
They also have the promising Shake Milton waiting in the wings behind Simmons and the veteran Dwight Howard at center to provide stability behind Embiid. That second unit was put on full display Friday against the Pacers when they outscored their opponents 67-33.
“To see them in the game, the second unit come out and play, and be that effective, is key,” Harris said. “We go at the second unit every day in practice. If you ask all of us on the white team, we would say we beat them every time. If you asked everybody on the blue team, they would say they beat us every time.”
Despite all that, the fate of the Sixers once again will come down to how Simmons and Embiid can perform together. There has been much talk over the past few months that their relationship just won’t work in Philadelphia, though management has reiterated that both players are a big part of their future.
Still, there is the looming presence of Rockets superstar James Harden on the market. The 31-year-old wants out of Houston and has listed the Sixers as a preferred trade destination. It would take Simmons and more to get the eight-time All-Star and three-time-defending scoring champion.
While the prospect of a deal seems unlikely for now, a difficult start to the season or an inability for Simmons to jell with Embiid could see things change the closer we get to the March 25 trade deadline.