By Scott Cashin, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer
With the dust settled on the offseason and the Philadelphia 76ers preseason complete, there are four intriguing story lines to watch early in the season that will dictate how deep the team advances into June.
1. The pairing of Al Horford in the front court next to Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid spent the offseason dropping his playing weight and improving his handle. With a sharpened focus of landing home court advantage for the playoffs, he is poised to explode on both ends of the floor this season. When general manager Elton Brand secured the services of Al Horford this offseason, he added someone who can help Embiid grow both on and off the court. The addition of Horford's versatile offensive game should free up Embiid to camp in the paint more on offense, where very few in the league are equipped to handle his growing repertoire. When fed the ball in the post in prior seasons, Embiid would be on the receiving end of a quick double team that often resulted in a turnover. An offseason spent improving his handle will help decrease these turnovers.
Horford was one of the two players who had the ability to slow Embiid down on offense. With Horford now in a Philadelphia jersey standing beside Embiid, it not only improves the team's inside defense but also makes the four matchups with the rival Boston Celtics easier without Horford wearing Celtic green. Horford’s ability to shoot from the outside allows for better spacing, and his presence on the roster marks the first time Embiid will have an All-Star caliber mentor showing him the subtle tricks needed to bring his game to the next level.
On defense, Horford will be able to show Embiid the veteran tricks he utilized in the past to keep him off balance and fast track his development. Horford has been proficient in not only guarding Embiid, but he has also been one of the few in the NBA with the ability to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo somewhat under wrap. This extra body could prove to be very valuable in late May as the Milwaukee Bucks project to be the team most likely to match up against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals.
For back-to-back games this season, Horford and Embiid will likely trade off patrolling the middle. This affords the 76ers to utilize a new plan with Embiid involving the “load management” rest that has become common in the NBA to ensure health and fresher legs going into the playoffs. With 13 back-to-back contests on the schedule, having either Embiid or Horford available for each game will provide a defensive anchor in the middle and help Philadelphia win the games they should win against lesser opponents. Of the 13 back-to-back pairings, there are not many that are against good teams in both games. Boston and the New Orleans Pelicans in December and the San Antonio Spurs with New Orleans in April would be the toughest combination of scheduled back-to-back match ups. See the full list below (with potential good teams in bold):
Nov. 12th Cleveland and 13th @Orlando;
Nov. 22nd San Antonio and 23rd Miami;
Nov. 29th @New York and 30th Indiana;
Dec. 7th Cleveland and 8th Toronto;
Dec. 12th @Boston and 13th New Orleans;
Dec. 20th Dallas and 21st Washington;
Dec. 27th @Orlando and 28th @Miami;
Jan. 17th Chicago and 18th @Brooklyn;
Feb. 6th @Milwaukee and 7th Memphis;
Feb. 26th @Cleveland and 27th New York;
Mar. 18th Toronto and 19th @Charlotte;
Mar. 26th @Chicago and 27th Phoenix;
Apr. 10th @San Antonio and 11th @New Orleans.
If head coach Brett Brown and the 76ers organization alternated rest for Embiid and Horford so they can have one of the two man the middle in each of the contests, both players would be available for 69 games, of which 56 would be with Horford at the power forward position paired in the front court next to Embiid at center. In games where either of the two sit, Tobias Harris would be available to slide from the small forward position up to the power forward spot. Mike Scott, James Ennis III and Matisse Thybulle would be positioned to play more minutes in those matchups. For added front court depth in the event of an injury, the organization can call up Norvel Pelle from the G League and use some of his 45 allowed days on the 76ers roster. Though only the preseason, Pelle displayed offensive efficiency and defensive competence in limited action.
2. The role of Matisse Thybulle and the development of Zhaire Smith
Going into training camp, most were expecting Thybulle to be battling Zhaire Smith for regular backup minutes at the wing position in a defensive specialist capacity.
Smith missed the majority of his rookie season recovering from a broken foot followed by an allergic reaction that required surgery and has not yet acclimated to the pro game. The hyper athletic wing is still new to playing guard after having played power forward and some small ball center during his lone season with Texas Tech despite only being listed at 6-foot-4. Smith had also shown a history of good positioning in college, finding himself in the right place at the right time to make a play on both sides of the ball. So much about Smith's potential is encouraging, but it has yet to be realized. If he can develop his shooting and stay healthy, the 20-year old can be an effective two-way rotation player in the NBA. Given he still needs further development, he is a candidate to get early-season playing time with the Delaware Blue Coats down in the G League.
For as slow as Smith has progressed up to this point, Thybulle has hit the ground running. Being viewed as NBA ready at the start of a player's rookie season is not something said about many players. But, as it stands currently, Thybulle did something increasingly rare for an NBA first-round pick by staying in college through his senior year. The result is some extra polish on his game which is easy to see – especially on the defensive end. Thybulle has pulled far enough in front of Smith that there is no longer a competition between the two and he can start to challenge veteran forward Mike Scott and wing James Ennis III for the role of being the first substitution off the bench.
While standing at only 6-foot-5, Thybulle possess a 7-foot wing span that benefits him greatly when playing the passing lanes. 76ers fans might be reminded of the defensive impact Robert Covington had on the game when watching Thybulle come off the bench and disrupt the flow of the opposing offense. Make no mistake about it, Thybulle has a higher ceiling than Covington on both ends of the floor. Averaging 3.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per game over 31 minutes during his senior season at Washington, Thybulle will need to continue to work on his outside shot in order to secure regular minutes for the 76ers this season. He shot 30% from 3-point range during his senior season at Washington, but the low percentage looks to be more of an aberration. His career shooting percentage from beyond the arc is at 35%.
Thybulle should start the season in the nine-man rotation based on his preseason play. How high he can climb in the depth chart will be another exciting story line to follow for 76ers fans as the season unfolds.
3. Ben Simmons willingness and ability to shoot from the outside
The world watched 76ers fans lose their collective minds when Ben Simmons took and drained a long 3-pointer at the end of the first half during his first preseason contest of the year. Simmons' reluctance to shoot from outside was not just a focus in Philadelphia. The national media has been fascinated by the subject since he came into the league.
Simmons managed to become an All Star in just his second year, and he did it without possessing a jumper in his arsenal. If he manages to add a serviceable outside shot to his offensive game this season, he could vault himself into the MVP conversation as soon as this season. Already showing the ability to be a stopper on the defensive side of the ball, the addition of an outside shot is the only missing element to an otherwise well-rounded game. He boasts the size, speed and IQ to go down in the books as an all-time great.
How often Simmons launches the ball from the outside on a regular basis remains to be seen, but the promise of seeing it nightly is enough to place the league on notice that Philadelphia is primed to meet a Western Conference foe in June. The opposing defender being forced to guard Simmons tighter at the top of the key increases the effectiveness of him driving the lane. As defenders inevitably collapse into the lane to help stop Simmons, competent shooters camping in the corner such as Harris, Horford or Josh Richardson will have open looks. Just the idea of that scenario playing out is enough for coaches around the league to lose sleep.
4. Josh Richardson paired with Simmons in the back court on defense
When the 76ers broke their long playoff drought in 2018, the Miami Heat were the sacrificial lambs sent to slaughter. During the five-game series, many Philadelphia faithful took note of a former second-round pick named Josh Richardson. Richardson entered the league from the University of Tennessee with little to no fanfare in 2015, not having been one of the 63 draft hopefuls in attendance at the combine in Chicago. While Miami was clearly over matched by the up-and-coming 76ers, the league got a first hand look as to why Miami inked Richardson to a four-year extension.
Richardson does a little bit of everything on both sides of the ball as a two-way player often equated to a poor man’s Jimmy Butler. In Philadelphia, he is the shortest of the projected starters, but his versatility could make him the key cog for in head coach Brett Brown's defensive oriented system. Offensively, he can adequately shoot from outside, handle the ball and drive the lane. Defensively, Richardson offers something the team sorely lacked the past two seasons with JJ Redick – a competent defender to pair with Simmons in the back court. Too many times Redick allowed opposing guards to have a career night due to his lagging lateral foot speed prohibiting him from slowing down many of the quick, athletic guards the team faced. With Richardson’s man defense next to Simmons’s size, teams will need to figure out another way to attack the Philadelphia defense. The offseason acquisition of Horford paired in the front court with Embiid means the 76ers now boast four above average defenders in their starting lineup. The group will be in the running with the Los Angeles Clippers to be the best defensive lineup in the league.