Back again: Previewing the 2020-2021 Philadelphia 76ers … before they possibly trade for James Harden

What was once a process has turned into something of a purge in Philadelphia, as the Sixers have taken their shot and missed the past two seasons and whatever patience once existed has long since dried up. Brett Brown is gone. Doc Rivers is in. Elton Brand got pushed down the totem pole, and Daryl Morey is now running the front office. 

Morey wasted no time in shaking up what had become a woefully ill-fitting roster, almost miraculously moving Al Horford, who is on one of the worst contracts in the league, to Oklahoma City for Danny Green, and flipping Josh Richardson to the Mavs in exchange for Seth Curry. 

Might Morey have a much bigger move in store? 

It’s entirely possible, as the Sixers are among the betting favorites to eventually land James Harden, who wants out of Houston and has listed Philly among his preferred destinations. It’s difficult to preview the upcoming Sixers season with this uncertainty; obviously acquiring Harden, which would almost certainly cost the Sixers Ben Simmons, would make Philly an entirely different team. 

Until that happens, however, let’s look at this team for what it is today. On paper, the Sixers once again look formidable, particularly on the defensive end. They’re going to be huge again. Dwight Howard will back up Joel Embiid while, if Doc wants to get wild, offering the option of a seven-foot-squared lineup vs. certain matchups, though the spacing in such a lineup would be something close to a phone booth. 

Speaking of spacing, that shouldn’t be quite as big a problem for the Sixers this year with the additions of Green and Curry, both of whom will likely start alongside Tobias Harris, Simmons and Embiid. Shake Milton and rookie Isaiah Joe are shooters off the bench, and Matisse Thybulle shot 35 percent from deep in his rookie season and showed glimpses of potential beyond even that number. 

This is looking at the glass half full. Unfortunately, there’s also a very reasonable half-empty outlook for this team. With that in mind, let’s forecast Philly’s 2020-21 fortunes from both an optimist’s and pessimist’s standpoint. 

Taking the Temperature

Sixers Optimist: Morey pulled off a minor miracle shipping out Horford for Danny Green, who is perfect for this team. Add him to the list of long wing defenders, and Green’s shooting (36.7 percent from beyond the arc last season, the exact same mark as Tobias Harris) is an upgrade over Josh Richardson. On top of that, we get Seth Curry, who’s literally one of the best 3-point shooters in the world. We’ve seen how dangerous Philly can be when Simmons is surrounded by shooting. 

Sixers Pessimist: It’s a stretch to say Simmons is surrounded by shooting. Green had stints last season when he couldn’t hit the ocean from the beach, and he could fall off at any moment. Embiid is doing the defense a favor every time he puts one up. As for Harris, Sixers fans know all about trying to talk themselves into him being something more than he actually is. 

Hell, Brett Brown once tried to call Harris a 6-foot-8 JJ Redick, which is laughably ridiculous. Harris is nowhere near that kind of shooter, not does he move like Redick, who often provided the Sixers’ only real half-court action save for the short time they had Jimmy Butler, which was the only time this team was actually dangerous. Why? Because Butler gave them a real half-court playmaking option. Green doesn’t give you that. Curry and Harris are secondary creators at best. You can talk about the better spacing all you want, but this team is still going to have to play through Simmons on the perimeter, and that is what it is. 

Sixers Optimist: First of all, you’re forgetting that Embiid is one of the most unstoppable post-up forces in the world, and with even a couple shooters around him, that’s a viable half-court option. Also, don’t sleep on Shake Milton. I see big things for him. He’ll be an option to close games as a pick-and-roll creator. 

Sixers Pessimist: So now we’re back to relying on Shake Milton? Wasn’t he all the rage going into the bubble? How’d that work out? 

Sixers Optimist: You can’t base any of this on how we looked in the bubble. Simmons was out.

Sixers Pessimist: I’m glad we got back to Simmons here, because this is the whole problem. You just can’t get around the problem of Simmons in the half-court. This goes back to 2017-18 when Brett Brown was literally benching Simmons for TJ McConnell in the fourth quarters of playoff games. He can’t be at the head of your offense as a non-shooting threat, and he isn’t going to provide any spacing as an off-ball player. He needs the ball with four shooters around him, including a stretch big who will leave the paint vacated. A team like the Bucks have built for Giannis. That is not the Sixers. 

Sixers Optimist: I know it’s getting old talking about all the ways the Sixers can use Simmons to mitigate the problem of his shooting, or lack thereof, but there’s truth in all of it. He can be, and should be, one of the best screeners/rollers in the league. He should be one of the best cutters in the league. He should be able to occupy a defender in the dunker’s spot for fear of the lob. We’ve seen him and Embiid run deep pick-and-rolls and DHOs, and that’s a lot of size and finishing power to defend that close to the basket. There are ways to get creative, and I think Doc Rivers will be able to unlock some of this stuff after Brett Brown just hit a wall trying to solve the problem. 

Sixers Pessimist: Classic denial. It was the coach’s fault. Simmons can’t shoot, or won’t shoot, there isn’t anyone else who is capable of being the primary point of an NBA offense (you’ve already tried to jam Josh Richardson and Milton into this), and somehow changing coaches is going to change that reality. By the way, isn’t Rivers the guy who just got fired in Los Angeles because … *checks notes* … he didn’t adjust enough in the playoffs when certain lineups and actions weren’t working? Rivers says the Sixers are going to run more pick-and-roll, which sounds great on paper, but again, who’s going to run that? Are we back to Milton again? 

Sixers Optimist: You’re underselling Simmons’ ability to be effective in pick and roll as long as shooters are around him. He is a huge threat to get downhill if you go way under the screen and give him a runway. Also, we haven’t even talked about what he can do in transition. And that’s a big key to this team. Play defense, then get out and run. 

Sixers Pessimist: Again a personnel problem. Now you’re going to be a running team with Joel Embiid? Now Simmons is going to lead some 1990s UNLV attack with Seth Curry and Danny Green as his super-athletic wings running the lanes? Yes, modern transition is largely about running to the 3-point line rather than the basket, and Curry and Green can do that, and there are a couple of bench players who look like they can shoot on paper. We need to see more out of Milton and Thybulle. Isaiah Joe is a rookie. Ultimately, you’re depending on peripheral players to make your star player (Simmons) viable. It’s supposed to work the other way around, with the star lifting the supporting guys  That backward equation is at the heart of Philly’s issue. I’ll give you the last word, but you’re not getting around that. 

Sixers Optimist: We all know the Sixers aren’t perfect, nor is Simmons. But the Steph Curry-Kevin Durant Warriors don’t exist anymore. No team is perfect (though the Lakers are getting close). There was a day in the NBA when you didn’t have to fit together like a puzzle. Talent trumps a lot, and the Sixers, at the end of the day, have two All-NBA players on their roster. They can overpower teams, as well as their own shortcomings, with sheer talent and size. The Lakers just did it. They weren’t a great shooting team. They didn’t have a traditional point guard that you feared as a shooter. They just won the title. 

Sixers Pessimist: OK, I said I was going to give you the last word, but did you honestly just compare what the Lakers did to what the Sixers are capable to doing? Give me a break. Call me when you’ve got LeBron James and Anthony Davis on your team. Hilarious.

Eye on: Seth Curry

Curry has quickly become one of the better supporting players in the league that nobody talks about. He fits any team, and he will be like oxygen to a suffocating Sixers team with his shooting. But he’s more than a shooter. He can create off the dribble, and he’s a tougher defender than you would think. It’s dangerous asking too much of Curry, but I think he has a chance to be much more than just a supporting player in Philly. I think he can step into something not too far from a JJ Redick role, though he’s a bit more of a spot-up shooter than an on-a-dead-sprint assassin like Redick. Still, if Curry can become an actual go-to threat rather than more of a floor-spacing, release-valve shooter, his career goes to another level, as do the Sixers. 

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