As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 26th edition focuses on the Philadelphia 76ers.
Joel Embiid is finally healthy. In the three years since Embiid was drafted by the 76ers, the Cameroonian big man had played a grand total of 31 games in the regular season and zero in the postseason. The former number expanding was the Sixers' most likely path to increased playoff appearances, and indeed, Embiid tripled his regular-season total by playing in 63 of 82 this season - a number that would've been even bigger if not for a fluke injury that cost him the last few weeks of the schedule - while making the playoffs for the first time. Embiid was awesome when he played, averaging 23 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists on 48 percent shooting, transforming the Sixers into an elite team defensively and earning Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
Ben Simmons, rookie of the decade. Simmons not only averaged 16 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists this season - numbers of which only Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson had previously imagined in their rookie season - while shooting nearly 55 percent from the field, but he also proved an immediate All-Defense-caliber contributor with his length, versatility, quickness, and smarts. Along with a healthy Embiid, Simmons gave the Sixers a young superstar tandem to serve as the envy of the entire league, and as ultimate vindication for Sam Hinkie and "The Process."
The 16-game win streak at season's end. Following the addition of sharpshooting forwards Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova - and a run against relatively easy competition - the Sixers went on an absurd tear to end the season, winning the final 16 games of their schedule by an average margin of 14 points. Most impressively, half of it came with Embiid sidelined, as Simmons pushed the 76ers to a new run-and-gun pace, and few teams were able to keep up. A marquee home win against the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed to prove that not only were the Sixers now the league's most exciting young team, but they were legit contenders in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Dario Saric's second-year improvement. With jokes about him "never coming over" still loudly echoing off the walls of Sixers Twitter, second-year Croatian forward Saric not only proved his Rookie of the Year-caliber season wasn't a fluke, but he also got dramatically better. "The Homie" upped his numbers in points (14.6), rebounds (6.7) and assists (2.3) per game, all while cutting down on his turnovers and improving his defense. But most importantly, his shooting numbers skyrocketed from a 41.1/31.1/78.2 percent slash line last season to 45.3/39.3/86.0 percent this year, an overall true shooting bump from 50.8 to 58.2. His superior floor spacing allowed the Sixers to thrive while playing their big lineup with Simmons at the point. Saric now looks to be a major fixture in the team's lineup for years to come.
First playoff series hosted in 15 years. The 76ers hadn't gone into a playoff series as the favorites since the Allen Iverson days - a decade and a half earlier. But after the 16-win surge brought their record from 36-30 to 52-30, the Sixers entered the Eastern Conference playoffs as the 3-seed, hosting the sixth-seeded Miami Heat as dramatic favorites. And though they ended up splitting the first two games at home - largely thanks to vintage Dwyane Wade postseason heroics - they took care of business from there, securing their first playoff series victory since they upset an injury-decimated Chicago Bulls squad in 2012. "We've got more to do," coach Brett Brown offered after the win. "We've got more to give."
Markelle Fultz's ... whatever. As successful a season as the 76ers had, it came with one rather sizeable "Yes, but ..." in Fultz. The Washington point guard taken with the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft - a selection that came at considerable expense to the Sixers - had perhaps the strangest rookie season in recent league history, beginning the year with completely different shooting mechanics, a development alternately blamed on a misguided offseason adjustment, an improperly diagnosed shoulder injury, and a bad case of the yips.
Whether it was physical, mental, or spiritual - or some combination thereof - Fultz missed the majority of the season with a mystery ailment. He was useful to the Sixers as a backup point guard upon returning, distributing and defending well while somehow racking up a triple-double off the bench in Game 82. But his shot was still mostly MIA, and in the playoffs, Fultz proved too erratic to get burn for Brown - a stark contrast to Jayson Tatum, the rookie the Sixers essentially traded away for him. Tatum was in the midst of a breakout postseason for the Celtics and scorched Philly in the conference semifinals.
The Okafor/Stauskas trade. How would this headline have looked in 2015? Of course, a lot happened in the careers of both former top 10 overall selections by the time they were packaged with a second-round pick and sent to Brooklyn in exchange for veteran forward Trevor Booker. But, it was an unnecessary waste of a pick for the 76ers, and somewhat of an insult to both players, who could've easily been waived and allowed to find a home that made more sense to them rather than the rebuilding Nets, who ended up having little use for either player. As for Booker, he never was a particularly logical fit for the Sixers either, and ended up being waived to make room for Ilyasova - meaning the Sixers essentially gave up a draft pick for nothing.
Simmons' one-point game. The Sixers' rookie point guard was unstoppable for the entire second half of the season, and had a brilliant first playoff series against Miami, averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists. But against Boston, Simmons was finally neutralized - at least for one game, when the Celtics held him to just a single point on 0-of-4 shooting in their Game 2 escape victory. Simmons' lack of a jump shot was hardly an industry secret, but he'd been so physically and athletically imposing that it seemed to not hinder his effectiveness. Boston's tough defense and switchability showed that when the competition is its strongest, he'll need a more polished offensive game to remain productive.
Lack of two-way bench players. The Sixers' reliance on Belinelli and Ilyasova as key reserve contributors worked during their regular-season win streak, but against the Celtics, their shooting was largely taken out of the equation, and Belinelli's defense, in particular, made him a liability. The series exposed just how thin the Sixers' bench was in terms of playing two-way basketball. Of Philly's reserves, only T.J. McConnell really ended up being trustable against Boston, to the point where Brett Brown needed to insert him into the starting lineup, as the coach's rotation shrank substantially over the course of the series.
Play in the clutch. Even with everything that went wrong for Philly in their second-round matchup against Boston - the shallow bench, the disappearing shooting, Simmons' offensive frustrations - they still could've taken the series if they weren't so routinely and thoroughly outplayed in the clutch. The Sixers' brutal Game 3 loss at home came as a result of inexcusable late-game turnovers, and they were also about one made shot or successful stop away from stealing Game 5 in Boston, but missed open looks and couldn't deny Al Horford or Tatum on the other end. The Sixers seemed, for a while, like they were able to skip about three steps in their development on their way to an ahead-of-schedule Finals appearance, but their youth and lack of playoff experience finally manifested at the worst of times.
How big can the Sixers dream in free agency? The Sixers are in a place few franchises are rarely lucky enough to find themselves in: Good enough to attract marquee free agents, and open enough in terms of both personnel and cap space to actually have room for them. Of course, The King will be the primary target - usually, when you have the chance to sign arguably the greatest player in league history while he's still playing at an MVP level, you at least make a phone call - but if he proves out of reach, the Sixers could also make a run at an All-Star like Paul George, or a less-sexy addition like Trevor Ariza, who could still make a two-way impact. Restricted free agents Jabari Parker or Aaron Gordon could also be an option. In any event, even Brown acknowledges the need for another major pickup, so expect the Sixers to show a high level of activity this summer.
How many of their own guys will the team retain? Carving out max cap space for LeBron would require some pretty tough calls to be made about the Sixers' own outgoing free agents, including both Belinelli and Ilyasova, as well as veteran leader JJ Redick. Losing all three of those guys would damage the team's floor-spacing offensive identity - not to mention their depth, something also at risk up front for the Sixers if they let Amir Johnson walk and decline Richaun Holmes' $1.6-million player option. It's a lot to sacrifice to make a run at one player, but if it works out, it's hard to imagine many tears will be shed over the role players lost in his wake.
What do the Sixers do with their 10th pick? There was a time, deep in the Sam Hinkie era, when it seemed like the Sixers would never run out of extra lottery picks. But now, with only a No. 1 protected pick from the Kings they'll otherwise owe to Boston - which will have no better than a 14 percent chance of conveying, thanks to new lottery-flattering odds - it's likely that their No. 10 pick this year, owed to them from the Lakers via the Michael Carter-Williams trade several years earlier, will be their last chance to add an obvious blue-chipper via the draft for the foreseeable future.
The Sixers still have several needs - two-way wings, a scoring guard, frontcourt depth - so they need to hit on the pick. Mikal Bridges, a three-and-D forward and local Villanova product, seems like a logical choice. But some draftniks might prefer Michigan State's Miles Bridges, or Kentucky's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. There's even a chance the Sixers will try to move up to snag Missouri wing Michael Porter Jr. And then, there's the possibility of the organization moving the pick entirely for a veteran contributor, or even as part of a package for a star like Kawhi Leonard. There are a lot of good options for Philly, but it's pretty incumbent upon the front office figuring out the best one, since they don't have a ton of other non-core assets remaining in the pipeline.
What can Philly expect from Fultz? You'd love to continue to turn a blind eye to Fultz and his struggles and say that if he gets it together, it'll be found money for the Sixers. But, the fact is, Philly has too much invested in Fultz, not only because they gave up a shot at Tatum as well as a potentially awesome first-round pick from the Kings next year for the privilege of drafting him, but because they so badly need a player of his purported skills - ball-handling, defense at the point of attack, and in particular, shooting and shot creation - to reach their ceiling with this core. He doesn't have to be an All-Star right away, but if next year doesn't bear significant fruit, it's going to be pretty tough for them to swallow.
Can Philly keep pace with Boston in the East? Objectively speaking, it was a dream season for Philly. The Sixers went from the lottery to 52 wins and the second round without a single pre-2018 All-Star on the roster. But, the way it ended - with a similarly young Boston team laying waste to them in five games, despite missing two max players with injury - has to give the front office serious pause: The Celtics now appear much further ahead of the Sixers, timeline-wise, than it seemed just three weeks ago.
That's not necessarily a huge problem for Philly, whose two best players had played a combined 31 regular-season games before this year, and who have obvious and considerable paths to growth that will make them tough to handle in the years to come. And of course, the Sixers' cap space remains a huge variable, and the addition of LeBron (or even George) could swing the balances dramatically. But the Celtics are already great, they have two All-Stars returning next season, they have their own improving young guns in Tatum, Brown, and Terry Rozier, and they also have a whole lot of potentially game-changing draft picks to work with over the next few years. The Sixers' future is bright, but they've got work to do to avoid being totally outshined by their rejuvenated rivals in Boston.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)