For an offseason that was predicted by some as the franchise’s most important ever, the Philadelphia 76ers fell short. For a front office that still hasn’t filled the glaring hole at general manager after losing Bryan Colangelo to a Twitter controversy, this offseason was a disappointment. For a team that spent the summer hunting with its target set on “stars,” head coach and de facto manager, Brett Brown, may have raised some red flags in the minds of casual fans.
But worry not level-headed 76ers fans, you need not stress. Because for a team that was labeled a fringe eighth seed this time last year, bringing back the core that led Philadelphia to its best record since 2001 isn’t half bad.
Sure, LeBron James’ remote and impersonal courtesy meeting might have been a tease before he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, perhaps trade talks with San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard might have been a swing and a miss. But returning the same young core that achieved the fifth best record in the league is a subtle win in the face of an over-hyped off-season.
Philadelphia is one of only seven teams with five or more players rated in The Crossover’s Top 100. Four of those five players are aged 27 or younger, three of which are entering only their second or third seasons in the league. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are completing their first healthy offseason workouts and Markelle Fultz has spent much of the summer improving his jump shot with Drew Hanlen, one of the league’s best-respected shooting coaches. If Fultz’s improvements come to fruition, then it’s safe to assume that each of the Sixers’ young pieces has improved markedly since last season.
The most troublesome changes in Philadelphia’s roster is the departure of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, both significant contributors to the team’s offense. Ilyasova and Belinelli averaged 10.8 and 13.6 points per game respectively during their short tenures with Philadelphia. Although neither started regularly, and their combined defensive impact was negligible at best, their shooting was a contributing factor to the 16 game win streak the Sixers had to close out the season.
Respectively, Ilyasova and Belinelli shot 36% and 39% from a three on four and five attempts per game. Compared to their offseason replacements — Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, who shot 36% and 37% on three attempts per game each — the 76ers downgraded, but only marginally. Chandler’s and Muscala’s fit is still to be determined, but they may hurt the team if their presence doesn’t immediately replace Ilyasova’s and Belinelli’s offensive impact.
Possibly the most exciting new piece for the Sixers is rookie wing, Zhaire Smith. Though he will begin the season in injury purgatory with a foot fracture (as is the tradition for all 76ers rookies, a possible curse from the basketball gods for tanking), his eventual return will satisfy a much-needed bench presence at the guard-forward position after the departures of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Justin Anderson. Smith is an uber-athletic, lengthy defender who is fast on his feet and can handle multiple positions and offensive schemes. He may struggle on offense during his NBA premiere, but he shot a confident 56% from the field, going 45% from three in college. His ceiling is unquantifiable but he has the potential to be a Swiss army bench player, filling multiple roles as a crafty defender, decent ball handler, and great off-ball scorer.
For a team that advertised its star hunting mission and front office improvement, perhaps this offseason was a flop. But for a team that exceeded expectations last season with a young roster, running it back with a growing core was an appropriate goal to reach. The Sixers gained the third seed with 52 wins last year, falling below only the Celtics and Raptors, but the East will shake a little at the top with Kawhi Leonard’s move to Toronto and Gordon Hayward’s return to an already dominant Celtics. Assuming superstars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid continue their improvement, the 76ers may be able to reach 55 wins and the third seed again, but if everything gels they could beat Toronto for the second seed.