Philadelphia 76ers basketball is right around the corner and, more than ever before in the Joel Embiid era, fans are not ready for the season to begin. A miserable offseason from the Sixers has their fans ready to tune the team out for good, especially with James Harden still wanting out. The attitude of “wake me up when the playoffs start” has been replaced with furious, exasperated vitriol.
The Sixers will travel to Colorado State University for training camp this year. Philly is bringing a new coaching staff headlined by head coach Nick Nurse and some new faces — namely Patrick Beverley, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mo Bamba — as it looks to finally break through in the Eastern Conference playoff picture with Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey leading the charge.
Once again, the playoff-bound Phillies and Super Bowl-contending Eagles make the Sixers' shortcomings all the more embarrassing to fans. The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics were already positioned to be better and landed Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday in respective last-minute deals, trimming the already minuscule room for error Philly had left. This season could very well be a do-or-die campaign for this iteration of the team.
The Sixers are facing an avalanche of questions to answer about their upcoming season and future. Let's narrow it down to five key topics ahead of training camp.
5. What's going to happen with James Harden?
It's pretty dang hard to start anywhere else. Media Day came and went without an appearance from Harden. The same thing seems very likely to happen at training camp. Harden has now rendered himself stuck, though the Sixers have offered him a lifeline if he wants to return.
Harden knows the Sixers can’t trade him without leverage, as he wisely observed the environment teams need to offload their disgruntled stars when discussing the Lillard saga. Gritting his teeth and being a good soldier is the best way to help him help Philly. But he also probably tanked his trade value to the point where every single team would be convinced that it's a facade to facilitate a trade. It's pretty tough to come back from calling your team's lead front-office executive a liar…and then seemingly parading the sentiment all around town.
Until the Sixers figure out a trade for Harden, they’re stuck with the roster they have. The dearth of playmaking Harden leaves behind could come back to bite them badly. Philly brass has insisted on trying to convince Harden to buy back in, but these efforts seems to be like talking to a brick wall.
Daryl Morey has allowed his Sixers roster to get worse this offseason in the name of flexibility for the future. Numerous key rotation players went to other teams for reasonable contracts and, despite the space to at least retain one of them, Philly opted not to do so. Keeping Paul Reed was the obviously correct move,but there are no surefire improvements on the way.
Morey's plan to keep as much cap space as possible open for the future is having some pretty gnarly consequences in the present day. Unless Harden tries to come back, both sides are worse off. Morey and Harden, once close friends who put together some incredible displays of hoops, are now in the most miserable game of chicken that has no end in sight.
4. How much better will Nick Nurse be than Doc Rivers?
The Sixers let go of Rivers and hired Nurse in the hopes that he unlocks some of the little nuances that his predecessor couldn’t.
It bears repeating two things regarding Rivers' final season with the Sixers. First, no matter what he did, he was not saving Philly from that Game 7 disaster. Second, his tactics grew too stale for a roster that was a step behind those of other title contenders to succeed at the highest level.
Nurse, whose willingness to tinker, tweak and toggle with tactics has been promoted heavily this offseason, chose the Sixers over the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns. On top of suggesting Philly made the hardest pursuit for him — Morey did say he was their first choice — it suggests he sees something very promising in this group.
On offense, Nurse will have to get really creative without Harden. Even though The Beard really only plays one way, his ability to pass and open the floor for others were key assets the Sixers don’t have now. Generating more motion will be even more important as Embiid and Maxey look to grow as playmakers. Finding more success in transition opportunities would go a long way in covering up the deficiency in half-court production they lack without Harden.
The way Nurse builds the Sixers' defense will be interesting since their roster is a stark contrast from that of his most recent Toronto Raptors teams. While those rosters utilized long, wing-sized, athletic players to switch and scramble frequently, the Sixers are mostly comprised of bigs, guards and bigger forwards who masquerade as prototypical wings.
Embiid is always the anchor on defense for the Sixers and Nurse knows it. He said he wants his center to get as many opportunities to block shots as possible. Expect to see Philly's defense funneling players into Embiid and letting the big fella do damage. Nurse might also incentivize his perimeter guys to be aggressive in going for takeaways and have Embiid clean up whatever mess might be left behind.
Nurse has carte blanche to try anything to improve the Sixers. If anything, it should make for a very interesting and unpredictable season.
3. How many young players will step up?
The Sixers don’t have a ton of young players who are locks to be in Nick Nurse's rotation aside from Maxey and Paul Reed. Especially with the recent additions of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Danny Green, Philly has plenty of veterans to plug around.
Rivers' reluctance to give young players a shot infuriated Sixers fans. Nurse's last bosses in Toronto didn’t like how he went about that and neither did many of the fans there. At the outset of the season, it seems like the youngsters who weren’t rotation guys last year will have to claw their way into a spot in 2023-24.
Before going into depth on the Maxey component, let's look at Reed. He can clearly do more than what the Sixers have typically asked of him and by many indications, Nurse wants to see how many basketball things BBall Paul can really do. He should see an uptick in minutes, a chunk of which could come alongside Embiid. If Reed can trim his fouling rate from super high to just regular high, it can go a long way.
This upcoming season is a huge one for Jaden Springer, who is about to begin Year 3 in the league. There was some buzz about Springer during the last training camp, only for him to primarily play in the G League. He made the most of those chances, though, by leading the Delaware Blue Coats to the championship and increasing his production.
The main question for Springer is “Can he shoot the ball well enough to play?” — a sensible thing to ponder for any guard in the league. But could he be good enough at other things that his lackluster jumper doesn’t squash his shot (no pun intended)? It’s harder to imagine taking that route to playing time, but if his defense, decision-making and interior scoring are up to snuff, this year could be the year he shows why Philly made him a first-round draft pick.
Terquavion Smith dazzled in Summer League and held his own against NBA veterans at the Rico Hines runs. He could be the confident shooter the Sixers need in their lineup, but until his contract is converted from a two-way to a standard deal, it's tough to envision him getting consistent minutes. Fellow rookies/two-way contract guys Ricky Council IV and Azuolas Tubelis are shoo-ins to play almost exclusively with the Delaware Blue Coats this season.
For a team that only has a few young players who could emerge as legit contributors and has passed on the draft in recent years, the Sixers' youth movement is quite intriguing, though not guaranteed to pay off this season.
2. Will Tyrese Maxey become more of a creator than a pure scorer?
One of the first things Nurse said after being named head coach of the Sixers was that he wanted Maxey to become more of a creator. He provided a detailed explanation of the specific things he wants to see out of the young guard.
“Creating is you're scoring or you're drawing more people than one,” Nurse said in June. “Then, you're creating for others. Can you make reads, all the reads? I think that's the first place I would start offensively — getting him to know more reps in the pick-and-roll so he can make the reads to all the other players on the floor, depending on what he sees.”
When it comes to taking advantage of looks created by stars, Maxey has been spectacular. Nurse and the team now need him to make those looks for others more and more. Maxey could be one of the most dangerous change-of-pace ball handlers because his fastest gear is faster than most. To do this, he has to tighten his handle and get more comfortable going left. Those failed reverse layups on the right side of the basket have to be replaced by comfortable shots on the left side of the hoop.
Indeed, Maxey's growth is the duct tape holding the Sixers' hopes together. He is the last hope they have for major internal improvement and is faced with massive, unfair expectations. After already blowing past the level that can be reasonably expected for a late first-round pick still on his rookie deal, Philly is leaning on him to be a second option on a team with championship aspirations. It's asking a lot, especially after he was asked (and agreed) to be patient with his contract extension.
Drew Hanlen, one of Maxey's trainers, said he will be disappointed if he doesn’t average 25 points per game. Getting to that level seems feasible with the increased amount of touches Maxey will get with Harden in limbo. More important than Maxey's production is the way the team produces with him on the floor. Such is the way it works for players tasked with leading offenses.
1. How much better can Joel Embiid get?
Everything surrounding the Sixers boils down to the big man. Asking someone who is already one of the very best players in the NBA to get even better is a tough ask. But it's one that the front office and coaching staff have to make.
Embiid's routine of playing as hot as anyone in the regular season and freezing to sub-zero temperatures at times in the postseason has to be snapped for the Sixers to accomplish anything of note. The Sixers have asked a lot of him over the years — and he has given them a ton. But there's more that he can do.
The biggest thing Embiid must improve at is reading the floor. He bends defenses a lot but is not always adept at attacking the cracks as a passer. The big man doesn’t open spaces quickly — he's an enormous person, so that’s perfectly okay — but it means he has to make quick decisions with the ball. There can be no more waiting around to survey the floor for seconds at a time. When he gets the ball in his spot, he has to keep the defense on its toes.
Nurse will probably open up more opportunities for him to make those types of plays through off-ball motion and dribble handoffs. It's up to Embiid to take advantage of them, something he is absolutely capable of. If he does, his teammates will feel more empowered to move without the ball, much like the role players in Denver. If Embiid starts bending defenses more as a passer, it'll make his life easier when he's trying to get buckets on his own.
The Sixers will look to get Embiid comfortable with uncomfortable situations. Morey said it's important for Embiid to get trial by the fire of swarming, double-teaming defenses so that when the temperatures really spike, he's prepared to endure it. Embiid said he liked facing Nurse as an opponent in the past because of how much his defenses challenged him.
At Sixers Media Day, Embiid pointed out that teams that win are teams that move the ball and avoid being static. He must walk that walk with the team and lead by example. Showing he's still trying to get better after winning MVP will only get better results and a higher level of inspiration from his teammates.
Defensively, Embiid is perfectly fine with where he is at. Even if he doesn’t ever contend for Defensive Player of the Year, he's one of the most fearsome rim protectors in the sport and continues to play at a high level on that end in the playoffs. Maintaining health is not something he has as much control over but is vital nonetheless.
The Sixers and Embiid believe the talent is in place for championship contention. The answer to these five questions will determine whether they can prove it.