When play was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Sixers had underwhelmed through 65 games. They were 39-26 and sat in sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Now, they get a chance at a fresh start with three scrimmages and eight seeding games to figure out their issues before the playoffs begins.
Here are five burning questions for the Sixers as they resume their season in Disney World.
Can Joel Embiid stay healthy and fit?
With the time off, Embiid is rested and healthy. He said on Thursday that he was working out six days a week for the last 2½ months.
Brett Brown has been impressed, giving Embiid high marks for his fitness level unprompted.
“I’m happy with [the team’s] conditioning,” Brown said when the Sixers first arrived in Florida. “I thought Joel especially stood out.”
Brown was asked last week if he still planned to play Embiid around 38 minutes a game in the playoffs like he said in May.
“I don’t know what footage is coming out of our practices,” Brown said, “but I will tell you when we got up and down and you watch Joel move and you watch him run, there is zero doubt that he would’ve had to put in a lot of time to arrive into Orlando in the shape that he’s arrived.”
Brown essentially doubled down on the fitness level of Embiid. We’ve all seen this movie before so it’s fair to be skeptical.
While there are certainly things Embiid will want to work on, the ultimate goal is delivering the All-Star center to the playoffs healthy for the first time in his young career.
Will Ben Simmons shoot?
If Embiid’s conditioning is the No. 1 question mark surrounding the Sixers, this saga is easily No. 2. While Simmons shooting isn’t as important as Embiid’s health, the idea of the two-time All-Star stroking the occasional three is intriguing.
Just like with Embiid, Brown didn’t conceal his optimism.
“His three-point shot is looking good,” Brown said last week. “He’s shot more threes in practice the last few days than he might’ve for almost half a season. And he looks good, he feels good, and I know he’s getting tremendous encouragement from his teammates.”
This was especially worth noting since Brown got burned when he said he wanted at least one three-point attempt a game from Simmons back in December.
Simmons playing free and shooting — and making those shots — when the opportunity presents itself would be a huge storyline, but how much would it change? Would opponents sag off him less? Would it actually open things up for the offense?
Simmons said at media day, “If it’s open, I’ll take it.” He’ll likely be open a time or two once the season resumes.
Will the new-look starting five help the offense’s clunky fit?
Well, it likely can’t hurt. The fit of Al Horford was awkward all season long. The veteran big didn’t stretch the floor next to Embiid the way GM Elton Brand had hoped. That two-man lineup was abysmal for the Sixers offensively.
If Brown does go with Shake Milton at the point, Simmons at the four and Horford on the bench to start games, that could theoretically present the Sixers with more options. Milton’s proficient shooting and ability to run a pick-and-roll should allow Brown to unleash Simmons as a screener and roller.
“The last few days I played [Simmons] exclusively as a four man,” Brown said last week. “He’s so dynamic. … Let’s just talk about running: There’s nobody faster in the NBA. And so to always have Ben have to have the ball and dribble it up against five guys … I think dilutes some of his potent weapons.”
This one could take time. This unit hasn’t played a single minute together this season, so everything is basically in theory as of now. Milton and Simmons will need to build chemistry in the pick-and-roll, while Embiid, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson will also have to adjust.
What is Al Horford’s role?
This is one is tricky. The Sixers gave Horford a four-year deal that could be worth up to $109 million this offseason. Brand didn’t sign him to that kind of contract simply to serve as Embiid’s backup.
That’s why it was a little odd to hear that Horford and Embiid have yet to take the floor together in Disney World.
“One of the groups that we haven’t done since we’ve been down here is pair Al and Joel up together,” Brown said earlier this week. “The Clipper game is a very good reference point to what I’m trying to explain, and then at that point you’re going to feel out what’s best for the team. I think that Al to date, when I watch him get up and down the floor and just his intelligence defensively, you’re again reminded of all the great things he can do.”
In the win over the Clippers Brown is referencing, Embiid played just 28 minutes and Milton wasn’t part of the rotation yet. It was Horford’s first game off the bench this season and he shared the floor with Embiid for less than nine minutes.
Don’t expect Horford and Embiid to play big minutes together. The seeding games will likely tell us more about the Sixers’ plans to use Horford.
We’ll also get a chance to see where the 34-year-old is in terms of health. He admitted before the team left for Florida that he wasn’t where he wanted to be physically at times this season.
What about the rest of the rotation?
Brown has said that his rotation will start with 10 players and be shrunk down to nine for the postseason. We know Embiid, Simmons, Milton, Harris, Richardson and Horford will be a part of it.
Brown also referenced a lineup he’s been using at practices where Simmons is running the point alongside Harris, Horford, Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz. If that five-man unit is used, that’s eight players.
That leaves two spots in the seeding games for three players in veterans Mike Scott, Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III. Nothing has been set in stone and there’s still plenty of time before the playoffs begin. The scrimmages and seeding games could be a good opportunity for guys fighting for rotation spots to stake their claim to one.
The good news for the Sixers is that they have way more options than they did last season.
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