The 2022-23 Sixers will start their season on Sept. 27 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Before training camp begins, we’re looking at questions that will define the team’s season and ultimately determine whether the Sixers advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Next up: Are the Sixers truly “built for the playoffs” this time?
Embiid and the Sixers were swept the one occasion he suited up for every game, concluding a mostly miserable stay in the NBA’s Disney World bubble with a thorough first-round loss to the Celtics.
After Brett Brown had insisted throughout the season the Sixers were “built for the playoffs,” that year was his last as head coach. Though Ben Simmons‘ season-ending left knee injury was significant, the Sixers certainly did not play like a team that merited such a label. But two seasons and two second-round defeats later, might the Sixers live up to it?
One simple and reasonable way to answer the question is, “Yes, because they’re deeper.” With PJ Tucker, De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House Jr. aboard, there’s a good chance head coach Doc Rivers will feel better about his bench options than last playoffs. After Game 3 of the Sixers ‘Round 2 loss to the Heat, Rivers acknowledged that, in his eyes his, none of Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton had earned a stable role yet.
“Guys like Shake and Furk and even Matisse, they’re going to keep changing,” Rivers said. “And every coach in the NBA would say, ‘I would love to have an eight-man rotation where we do it every night.’ Well, that’s not up to the coach. That’s up to the players to define the roles so well that you never want to change. But when you don’t have that, you have to be willing to keep changing, keep moving those three around. And that’s what we’re doing.
“It’s not one thing one guy is doing over the other. It’s every night you look at the team, you look at the game, and you look at how one (player) can help you in this game and then one can help you in the next game, because no one’s really taken that role over. Shake was good last night (in Game 3) and we need more of that.”
For most successful playoff teams, “depth” does not mean a consistent 10-man rotation. Insurance never hurts, though. Embiid missed just two playoff games last season with a torn thumb ligament, orbital fracture and concussion, but the five-time All-Star was not the best version of himself upon returning. He played through injury in the 2021 playoffs, too, sitting out the Sixers’ Game 5 win over the Wizards and then coming back for the team’s second-round series with the Hawks.
“Joel, you feel awful for him, honestly,” Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said at his end-of-season press conference. “Last year in the series in Washington, he comes down wrong, and he was never really the same after that. Right when the thumb (injury) happened … listen I’m a realist. You knew that that was going to be a struggle — your right hand, your thumb has literally nothing to keep it in place. It literally flips back if you try to pass the ball. And then getting hit in the face on top of that.
“Sometimes (it’s) a lot of skill, but you also have to have good fortune to win. You also have to have good health to win. And for your best player two years in a row to have to go and play in the playoffs not being right is difficult. It really is. And that’s where, obviously, we need to make sure we support him and keep giving him more help so when those things happen, we can still steady the fort.”
On paper, Paul Reed, Tucker and Charles Bassey are the Sixers’ three primary candidates for backup center minutes at the moment.
The 6-foot-5 Tucker’s inclusion on that short list is one example of his robust versatility. He’s nice to have on your team when pre-series defensive plans fail or intense double teams mitigate your stars’ impact. Tucker has ample experience capitalizing on the space and shots created by James Harden. And the 37-year-old has proven himself capable of fiercely, smartly guarding whoever you ask him to.
Decent health permitting, the Sixers look more naturally adaptable overall. Handing Melton a larger role than usual against the Celtics or Bucks if his jumper’s hot and he’s bothering Malcolm Brogdon sounds less desperate than juggling the Korkmaz-Thybulle-Milton trio.
The Sixers are obviously not the only Eastern Conference team with valid reasons for playoff self-belief. The Celtics are the team to beat. The Bucks won it all in 2021 and held a 3-2 series lead against Boston last year without Chris Middleton. Jimmy Butler savors the spotlight and led Miami incredibly close to the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant is still a net and Donovan Mitchell is now a Cavalier.
All of the teams above — or one not listed — could find fatal cracks in the Sixers’ playoff structure. We’ll have to wait until April to learn just how well the Sixers are built.