When the 2019-20 NBA season restarts in Orlando at the end of July, the Philadelphia 76ers will enter the fray facing a lot of lingering questions revolving around the health of the team and their rotation. How they answer them will go a long way toward shaping both their short- and long-term future. In other words, there will be a lot on the line for Philadelphia. With that said, here’s a look at the five biggest questions facing the Sixers when the season resumes after nearly five months of no basketball.
1. How will the 76ers fare at a neutral location without fans?
It’s difficult to predict how any team will fare in the Orlando bubble considering the fact that the entire situation is an unprecedented one. It’s especially to tell with the 76ers, who have been the NBA’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season. Before the league hit the pause button in mid-March, the Sixers were the league’s most inconsistent team. No other franchise in the league had a bigger disparity between how well it played at home vs. on the road. The Sixers were a league-best 29-2 inside the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center, but owned a dismal 10-24 record in away games. At home, they secured impressive wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks. However, on the road they suffered embarrassing losses to the likes of the lowly Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards.
There’s no telling exactly how the 76ers’ glaring home/road disparity will translate at a neutral site without fans in the arena, but it will be extremely interesting to find out. If you’re a Philadelphia fan, there’s reason for optimism. The Sixers showed their ceiling with some major wins — like over the Bucks on Christmas Day, or their 17-point victory over the Lakers in January — and that ceiling is extremely high. On any given night, the Sixers can compete with — and defeat — any team in the league. Consistency will be key for them in Orlando. If they can string solid performances together consistently they could potentially go on a deep run. Thanks to the win-or-go-home nature of the postseason, perhaps as a unit the Sixers will gain a singular focus that may have been M.I.A. during some of those road losses in December and January. Head coach Brett Brown and general manager Elton Brand have said repeatedly that the Sixers, as currently constructed, were built for postseason play. In Orlando, we’ll find out if that’s true.
2. How healthy is Simmons?
The fact that the start of the NBA’s postseason was pushed back from April to August could end up working in Philadelphia’s favor in a major way. Had the playoffs begun in April, the 76ers likely would have been without All-Star guard Ben Simmons, who was sidelined indefinitely with a lower back impingement when the season was suspended in March. Due to the extra time for rehab and recovery afforded by the suspension, Simmons is expected to be good to go for the Sixers’ postseason push in Orlando.
“I give Ben and our medical staff a ton of credit for all their hard work throughout his recovery,” Brand said on a conference call with media members last month. “I give Ben so much credit for him working so hard through this unknown time. Fortunately, we’ve been able to arrange the necessary treatment and rehab he needs during this hiatus. … I’m very optimistic he’ll be ready to play if and when we’re given that green light to resume.”
Sixers coach Brett Brown doesn’t necessarily expect Simmons to be at 100 percent in Orlando, but the young star certainly looks pretty healthy in a recent workout video:
While Simmons has clearly made positive progress, exactly how healthy he is — and how well he will be able to hold up over the course of weeks of game action — remains to be seen. At his best Simmons is a nightly triple-double threat and one of the best defenders in the entire NBA, and the Sixers will need him to be close to that if they hope to advance deep into the postseason.
3. What will Philadelphia’s starting lineup look like?
Brown will have no shortage of options when it comes to his starting lineup in Orlando. Before the season was halted, the 76ers coach had moved forward Al Horford to the bench in an attempt to maximize the talent on the team. That plan did not work as injuries to Joel Embiid and Simmons forced Brown to reinsert Horford back into the starting unit. With the Sixers healthy again, will Brown reinsert Horford back to the bench? And if he does, who will he name as the fifth starter alongside Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson?
If Brown wants to add additional floor-spacing to his first five he could go with Furkan Korkmaz. If he wants to solidify the perimeter defense he could opt to start Matisse Thybulle. Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, both acquired from the Golden State Warriors at the trade deadline, are viable options for a starting spot. Same for Shake Milton, who had really started to establish himself before the season was suspended, and projects to be a solid fit next to Simmons as a player capable of playing both on and off the ball. Brown could also ultimately opt to alter his rotation based on the team’s opponent. The postseason is where coaches really get to show their stuff. Brown will get an opportunity to do just that in Orlando, and ironing out his rotation will be one of his top tasks.
4. What kind of shape will Embiid be in?
Before the season was suspended, Embiid had just returned to action from a shoulder injury that had sidelined him for five games. He played in one game against the Detroit Pistons, but has been inactive since due to the suspension. After such a long layoff, and considering the fact that Embiid has dealt with conditioning issues throughout his career, it’s fair to wonder what kind of shape the All-Star center will be in when action resumes in Orlando.
While it will take every player some time — likely several games — to get back into game shape and shake off the rust, the good news for the Sixers is that Embiid hasn’t just been sitting around idly. The big man recently revealed that he has been working out nearly six times a week in preparation for a return to action. While he was underwhelmed with his own play throughout the first half of the season, Embiid thinks that he turned a corner after the All-Star break, and he’s hoping to continue that momentum moving forward.
“We’ve been going at it for the past four weeks, about six times a week, just trying to get a head start, and get ready for whatever’s coming,” Embiid said. “I have something to prove, and I feel like whenever that opportunity comes, it’s going to be my time. … I felt like before the season got shut down, I was on that path. Especially after that All-Star Game, my mentality completely changed. First part of the season wasn’t up to my standard, not even close. I was on that path of changing it all, go out, and make it happen.”
After the long layoff, Embiid will at least be well rested, which is a big positive for the 76ers. Just like they’ll need Simmons to be at — or near — his best if they hope to make a deep postseason run, the same can be said about Embiid.
5. Is Brown coaching for his job?
Heading into the ’19-20 season it was widely believed that Brown’s long-term future with the franchise depended on how the Sixers performed in the postseason, and that could very well still be the case. If the Sixers are able to advance further than they have over the past couple of years, even if they don’t win the title, then Brown’s job will likely be safe for another season at least. However, if the team suffers another early exit in the first or second round, Philadelphia’s front office could look to bring in a new voice. The Sixers’ front office would likely install a new system under a new coach before making the decision to move on from either one of their young All-Stars in Embiid and Simmons, especially since Brown is the only coach that either has ever had since entering the league. This ultimately puts the pressure on the 76ers head coach to succeed in Orlando.