The NBA season is nearly upon us, and the future is still bright for everyone. Bad teams can hope for a miracle, or for their young guys to show out. Teams on the fringe hope to make the playoffs, some of them for the first time in a decade. Championship contenders gear up for another season of winning, and hope to get past the final threshold to glory. The Milwaukee Bucks are preparing to defend their crown. The Philadelphia 76ers fall somewhere in between fringe and contender. Their regular season record suggests a team with a legit shot at a title, yet their playoff results don’t paint quite the same picture with an ignominious defeat in the second round. With the Ben Simmons drama still ongoing and unlikely to return major value, if the Sixers want to take the jump into true championship contender status, each player will need to get better, even more than they did last year. Here’s one improvement each 76er needs to make this year.
With Simmons refusing to play for the team, it doesn’t feel right to include him here. Let’s move on.
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Take the Ball Inside More
Ironically, his upgrade last year, his mid-range game, is kind of the cause of this year’s room for improvement. With Embiid, who was a MVP candidate last year, it’s not so much a skill he needs to majorly improve on, but perhaps a mindset. Embiid got so good at mid-range jumpers that he started to use them TOO much. Embiid’s game should be centered around the post, where his size, touch and athleticism make him near impossible to stop without fouling. The mid-range game is good as a change of pace, but too often it becomes the main weapon instead. The 76ers had way too many extended cold stretches with Embiid in because of a reliance on the jumper, when he should at least be able to force a foul shot which he is extremely adept at taking.
Embiid took 46% of his shots last year from 10 feet out to the three-point line. In the 2019-2020 season he took 37.5 percent, and the year before that he took 25.4%. His mid-range jump shot is becoming more and more a part of his game, and as NBA data tells us, mid-rangers are the most inefficient shots in the game. It’s not bad Embiid takes them, as he is hitting them at a clip where it’s still a solid shot, but he’s so absurdly good at shots inside and foul shots it’s almost a waste not to take it to the rack.
It’s hard work, but it has to be done.
Of course, other factors are a part of not going in the paint. The opposing defense often denies Embiid the ball down low, which combined with a lack of teammates capable of running pick-and-rolls and executing entry passes, forces Embiid to receive the ball very far from the hoop. As seen in the final moments of Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks, Embiid isn’t really a steady ball-handler, which no one his size ever has been. Even when Embiid does receive the ball in a decent spot, defenders often play him with 3-5 feet of space, daring Embiid to shoot and making it difficult to get inside. The fatigue factor can’t be ignored either, and it’s 1000% easier to take a essentially uncontested jumper versus driving into big bodies over and over and getting hacked. All that being said, Embiid can (and has) dominate inside despite those factors, and at the end of the day it’s his best chance of scoring, not the mid-range jumpers. Keep the mid-range to change things up and keep defenses honest, but the primary game plan has to be pounding it inside and too often it wasn’t. The 76ers have had spacing issues as well and, not naming any names, major changes to the roster could hopefully open things up for Embiid to resume work in the paint.
Sort of a weird one, but honestly Harris had a pretty great season all things considered. Something else that could have made the list is playoff consistency, as he did go missing a couple times, but he was A. remarkably consistent in the regular season and B. basically every player will have off games. If Tobias Harris, who’s supposed to be the third best player on the team, needs to go off every single time to win a series, that’s a problem in and of itself. Khris Middleton for instance, had quite a few terrible games for the Bucks in last year’s playoffs (he shot under 40% seven times), and they still won the Championship.
One thing that Harris needed to do in both the regular season and the playoffs was take more threes. Last year, Harris had his least threes attempted since the 2015 season with just 3.4. Considering he is a career average shooter from deep, and he shot 39.4% last year, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be taking more triples when the 76ers are often crying out for spacing. In the playoffs it was a similar story. He shot 37.2%, but only took 3.6 per game which was fifth on the team. Not to harp on the Middleton comparison, who is a better shooter than Harris by a decent margin, but Middleton took 7.6 threes per game on 34.3% shooting. Even if you are missing them, just being a threat can help, and it’s not even like Harris was missing that many. Especially when Danny Green went out, Harris needed to help shoulder the load from deep to space the floor at the very least and he didn’t.
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This one is an obvious one. As good as Curry was offensively last year, especially in the playoffs against the Hawks, his defense was almost as bad. Curry was hunted by basically every Hawk over the course of the series, and Game 7 in particular was a revolving door of guys taking advantage of Curry. Kevin Huerter and Lou Williams in particular were a problem throughout. Curry couldn’t leave the floor because he was the 76ers best player on offense (which is sort of problematic in it’s own right) but the Hawks were able to keep up shot for shot pretty much at Curry’s expense. Given how good the guard play is in the East (Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Trae Young, etc) there will be no place to hide Curry against anyone if he can’t make a jump defensively. Curry’s size will always limit the top of how good he can be, but guys like Chris Paul are shorter than Curry and have excelled. He isn’t Isaiah Thomas size for goodness sake.
This one is contingent on other players (cough, Matisse Thybulle, cough, cough) improving enough to take Green’s spot on the floor, but in an ideal world Green shouldn’t be as important to this team as he is. Green is pretty much the only balanced wing on the roster, the only one that isn’t a liability on defense or offense. Even though he isn’t an All-Defensive Team caliber player anymore (he’s 34) the other four wings on the Philly roster have something they are pretty much terrible at. Green, on the other hand, had a career year shooting, still going over 40% on his most attempts ever. That doesn’t mean he isn’t streaky though, which makes it even more important that someone steps up when he is cold.
Green is a valuable piece for sure, and still has a good role to play, but he shouldn’t be a starter playing 28-30 minutes a game at this point in his career. Green had his second most minutes per game ever last year, which isn’t ideal. Green’s all-around game and especially his shooting would be incredible to have off the bench, or if he’s hot he can stretch his minutes longer. If he isn’t, which is often the case of a man nicknamed Icy-Hot, then the Sixers can sit him and without missing too much. Again, this “jump” is nothing against Green, but time is undefeated and someone needs to prove he doesn’t deserve the minutes first.
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Maxey was a surprise breakout performer for the 76ers, and he played more than anybody thought he would by straight up earning his minutes. He’s already got one of the best floaters in the game and is improving on defense. He’s also coming along as a three-point shooter, and although it’s a work in progress there’s potential there. Maxey’s real issue is that, for a point guard, he really doesn’t set teammates up all that well. Passing isn’t a forte of his, and it doesn’t seem like he’s really looking to set others up with any regularity. With the 76ers losing (theoretically) Ben Simmons, who for all his flaws is kind of the only capable passer on the team, it will be more important than ever for Maxey to step up in that role.
Embiid doesn’t need a lot, but someone who can run the PnR or even give an entry pass without it getting stolen half the time would do wonders for him. How many easy buckets do we see Trae Young, another small guard with a killer floater, give to Clint Capela and John Collins on a nightly basis? The 76ers don’t need Maxey to jump to Chris Paul level, but a few easy shots for Embiid and finding open shooters on drive and kicks would go a long way.
The more obvious and correct answer here would be shooting, but that’s a bit generic honestly. Virtually everyone could improve their shooting and it would help their game, and Thybulle’s shooting has been talked about ad nauseam. It’s true that if Thybulle got a consistent shot from three and the free-throw line he would become one of the most valuable wings in the game due to his already stellar defense, but there’s another improvement he could make in case the shooting doesn’t really happen.
The fact is, a player’s shooting percentages rarely increase by a significant margin in the NBA. The few people who have done it have literally become MVP’s. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Embiid even. Of course, there are some lesser examples, but by and large it doesn’t happen often and it’s really significant when it does. Banking on a massive improvement in year three for Thybulle (who’s going to be 25 going into the season, so not exactly young) isn’t an amazing bet.
One thing that Thybulle showed hints of last year was cutting off-ball. He wasn’t really rewarded for his efforts, but it’s an offensive skill that he can theoretically excel at. He’s above average athletically, which he’s shown on multiple occasions with flashes of speed and big dunks, and his long arms should help him finish over people at the rim. In the Olympics, Thybulle was the most athletic player on the court in any game that wasn’t against the USA. The point is, Thybulle has the willingness and physical profile to do some damage cutting off the ball, and that should be a more attainable goal than becoming an asset from three.
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Putting it All Together
This one is sort of a cop-out, but Milton showed flashes of everything last year, where if he can just do it all at the same time he can be a real threat off the bench. His primary weapon was his driving, which he used to dominate multiple games in the regular season. His 3.1 assists were actually third on the team, showing a bit of playmaking. His second year in the league he was a three-point specialist, and while he struggled from deep most of the year he won a playoff game for the 76ers with his prowess from deep. He had a developing mid-range and fade away game similar to Tobias Harris, and his size, wingspan (7’0”!) and decent athleticism should make him a good defender too.
The problem is he never really consistently did all of these things at a high level at once, and he often struggled to get going in limited minutes. If he was penetrating well, the three-point shot abandoned him. When he was hot from deep, that was all he was doing. For every good defensive play, a boneheaded one would follow. There were more games where all of Milton’s skills went away at once versus him using them all at once.
When Milton is at his best, he can be a Sixth Man of the Year type player, and if Maxey graduates to a starting role, Milton will have another year as the primary scorer off the bench. If Milton can make that jump, that will open up another scoring dimension that could significantly elevate the potential of the Sixer offense.
This is the most nebulous one, as it’s really hard to work on consistency. To be honest, it’s debatable if that’s even a possible thing TO work on. If it is though, Korkmaz could really use that jump. Korkmaz is still fairly young, but his role in the NBA seems to be fairly set. He’s a three-point specialist. That’s not even a bad thing either. Guys like Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick and Duncan Robinson were all incredibly valuable members of championship level teams because of that one thing. The Sixers especially need all the shooting they can get. Korkmaz has the ability to fill that role very nicely on the Sixers. His combination of height, quick release and fearlessness to shoot is already there, now he just needs to do it night in and night out.
The only problem is the consistency with which Korkmaz does his job. He needs to be able to come in cold off the bench and immediately knock some threes down, often in limited minutes with large gaps between shots. It’s not an easy thing to do, and Korkmaz often came up missing. He had a troubling amount of games where he went 0-fer from deep, and for a guy that has one NBA skill that cannot happen. Robinson, who Korkmaz should aspire to be, had just one game where he didn’t make a three. Of course, Robinson is so good at that one thing he just got paid 90 million dollars to do it, but there’s no reason Korkmaz can’t be a discount Robinson.
Korkmaz has flirted with some other skills, but realistically there’s only one role for him in the NBA, and he can be really good at it. He just needs to find that last missing piece that takes him from solid shooter to one of the premier stand-still knockdown shooters in the league.
That’s pretty much it for the returning Sixers. Everyone else is either new to the team, or didn’t see many minutes last year, not enough for them to have one thing they need to really improve. Paul Reed and Isaiah Joe will hope to follow fellow draftee Maxey in carving a role on the team, and first round draft pick Jaden Springer will try and make an impact as a rookie, also just like Maxey. Beyond that, Andre Drummond takes the backup center role from Dwight Howard, who will be missed, and Georges Niang can hopefully take over Mike Scott’s role.
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