By Kevin McCormick, Sports Talk Philly Editor
It seems that we are closing in on an official return plan for the NBA season to resume. Although it has not been made clear how the NBA will resume its season, we have an idea of when.
Shams Charania of The Athletic recently reported that commissioner Adam Silver informed the Board of Governors that his target date for the season to return is July 31st. This would be about a four and a half month layoff as the season was suspended on March 11th.
With the Sixers potentially returning to action soon, here are five storylines to look out for when the action resumes.
5) Will we see a change in Al Horford’s role?
It has been no secret that the Sixers and Al Horford have not been a match made in heaven throughout this season. There have been numerous issues on offense and he has not been the best pairing with Joel Embiid in the frontcourt. But could we see a change?
We saw that Horford was much more effective as a sixth man for the Sixers, sadly we only got to see it in action once. With all this time off to analyze and discuss with coaching, it will be interesting to see if Brett Brown decides to move Horford to the sixth man role permanently.
Turning Horford into a super-sub brings a lot of benefits. The biggest one being Horford playing center, where he has looked much better this season. Sliding Horford to the bench would also open up the floor for the starting lineup and give Embiid and Simmons more space around the rim to attack.
Just because Horford starts the game off the bench does not mean he has to end the game there. An ideal situation with Horford would be using him off the bench to start the game, and then letting him run with the starters to close games when the Sixers want to shut down teams on defense and overwhelm opponents with their size.
4) Can the role players continue to show progress?
Role players are a key piece in the making of a championship team. Having those guys on cheap contracts who can produce when needed is what separates the good teams from the great teams. This has been something the Sixers have lacked in recent years, but there were a handful of players this season that showed a lot of progress over the year.
Two players in particular that come to mind are Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton, but you can also give an honorable mention to Matisse Thybulle even though this was his first season in the league.
Korkmaz came into his own this season and showed he could be a solid rotation piece when given regular minutes. This season he upped his scoring numbers to just under ten points a game (9.7) and increased his three-point percentage to 39.7 while shooting two more attempts a game than last season.
Shake Milton was a huge opportunist this season. The injury bug cost him a regular spot in the rotation throughout the year, but he came into his own before the season being suspended.
When the Sixers lost multiple starters to injury Milton took that opportunity as a chance to show the Sixers’ coaching staff what he can do when given the chance. In the 16 games, he started this season he averaged 14.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG, and 3.6 APG. Including a 39 point outburst against the Clippers on national television.
Sadly the suspended season has taken the momentum these two guys were building, but it will be interesting to see if they can take what they did this season and continue to build on it when they can step back on the court.
3) What kind of Joel Embiid will we see?
Conditioning has always been an issue for Joel Embiid throughout his career. He has always been one of those players that opt to “play himself into shape”. Throughout a regular season it might not be as much of an issue, but it could be now.
If the league decides to go right to the playoffs then Embiid is going to need to be ready to go day one. Having one of your best players and anchor of your defense sluggish and not being able to keep up in playoff basketball is not going to get you to the championship.
With that being said, Joel Embiid looked very locked in before the suspended season. After a good showing in the All-Star game, things seemed to be starting to click for him. Excluding a game against the Cavaliers when he got injured, he was nothing short of dominant.
Whatever kind of shape and mindset Embiid is in when play resumes is going to play a major factor in how far the Sixers go in this crazy season finale. If he comes back locked in how he was after the All-Star break the league is going to be in trouble. But only time will tell what form of the All-Star big man we see when the action picks back up.
2) Will we see a jump-shooting Ben Simmons?
This has been a primary Sixers’ storyline for years now, the mystery of Ben Simmons and his reluctance to shoot three-point shots. One positive note is that although they were far and in-between, Ben Simmons shot and made multiple three-point shots this season.
Back in April ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan wrote a column about Simmons and the journey that has been the development of his jumper. In this piece, Simmons admits that there was a confidence issue that led to his lack of shooting from range. At the end of the article, Simmons is quoted saying that he is ready to start shooting now, the question is will we see it?
Simmons taking this leap in his game could do wonders for the Sixers. We all know he is capable of knocking down shots from deep as every time he did it this year his jumper looked fluid and the shots went right in.
That jumper is the missing link of Ben Simmons launching himself into the conversation of elite players in the NBA right now. He has already shown this season that he is going to be one of the top defenders in the league for years to come, now is time to elevate his game on the other side of the ball.
On top of opening up the floor for Embiid down low with his shot, Simmons pulling out this new weapon now could throw teams off. Defenses are now going to have to develop a new game plan of how to defend the Sixers, which could give them an edge in this sprint to the NBA championship when play resumes.
1) How will no crowds affect the Sixers?
“There’s no place like home” is about the perfect quote to describe the Philadelphia 76ers this season. When playing on their homecourt the Sixers were one of the most elite teams in the league, but when they went on the road things got shaky.
When on the Wells Fargo Center floor the Sixers posted a record of 29-2, beating NBA elites like the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers. Then outside of Philadelphia were 10-24 losing to teams like the Cavaliers, Magic, and Wizards.
This night and day play between home and road games was very concerning. It can also be magnified as the NBA plans its return to play. As when the NBA does return, games will be played at neutral sites and with no crowds.
Playing in front of the Philadelphia faithful gave the Sixers a positive environment to go out and show just how good they can be. It will be interesting to see how they can perform in an empty arena.
On one side you can say there will be no opposing fans booing and heckling them as there would be in a road game, but there will also not be a roaring Philadelphia crowd backing the Sixers in big moments.
There are plenty of things to keep an eye on with the Sixers when play resumes, but these are key storylines that will gauge just how far the team can go this year when the NBA has its return plan set in stone.