The Sixers season picks up where it left off nearly five months ago when they take on the Pacers tonight in the bubble. It’s the first of eight seeding-games prior to the playoffs, and the Sixers currently sit in a tie for fifth with today’s opponent, the Pacers, and two games behind the four seed Miami Heat—though there’s not really a difference between the four and five seed without home-court advantage these days.
While it’s pretty difficult to know how each team will perform in the bubble after a long hiatus, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to anticipate how the season will play out. Here are my four “bold” predictions for the stretch run of the Sixers 2020 campaign.
1. Tobias Harris averages over 20 PPG with good efficiency (56%+ true shooting)
Obviously lacking a backup center was reasons one, two, and three for losing last year’s playoff series vs Toronto; but a distant fourth would be Tobias’ series-long struggles scoring the basketball (game 7 was his only efficient night on offense).
I’m really not basing this prediction off much more than a gut feeling, but I believe Tobias is growing more comfortable with the idea that he needs to be an Alpha on offense if this team is ever going to get over the top with him on a max contract. I won’t beat the dead horse, because we all know why he was brought in here, but embracing (and flourishing in) the role of go-to shot maker in important possessions is the final piece keeping him from perfectly complementing Joel and Ben (and again, justifying that max contract).
For much of Tobias’ Sixers tenure he’s struggled shooting the ball from deep and getting to the foul line relative to his time in Detroit and LA—19% free throw rate and 35% three-point shooting doesn’t cut it at $36 million a year—which dampens the perception of just how great he is at scoring the ball inside the arc. If he can connect at a higher clip from deep in the playoffs and be more aggressive in seeking contact then his 19 points a night on 16 shots quietly jumps to 21-24 points a night.
While this is the bold prediction I probably feel the least conviction about, something tells me that Tobias’ will look to assert himself in the playoffs, and settling above 20 PPG with efficiency would go a long way in easing pressure off Ben and Joel in this postseason. In fact it’s necessary if this team wants to win the East and contend in the Finals.
2. Al Horford shoots over 40% from three, over 55% True Shooting.
I know some wouldn’t consider Al shooting over 40% from three as “bold” but given his season average (34%) and the slander he generally receives from the fan base, I’d consider this a fringe opinion.
Horford has been very inconsistent shooting the ball this year, but his career regular season average sits at 36% and elevates to 41% in the playoffs. Sixers fans ought not be reminded of the way his game elevates in the postseason (see: 2018 EC Semis). Through his three-year tenure in Boston, Horford’s regular season averages of 57.7% True Shooting and 38.2% 3pFG both saw sizable jumps to 62.3% and 43.2% in the playoffs (+4.6% True Shooting and +5% 3pFG, respectively).
Go on about Horford’s contract all you want, but he wasn’t brought to Philly to show out in the regular season, he was added specifically for playoff basketball. Veteran playoff experience wins in the postseason—in no other league is that axiom more true than the NBA—and Big Al has that in spades.
The 2019 NBA Champion Raptors boasted an “over the hill” veteran supporting cast of Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol that had combined for 426 playoff games, 376 playoff starts, and 13,079 playoff minutes in their careers—far and away the most experienced supporting cast in the postseason. Al Horford has more playoff experience than each of those four Raptors individually, and he has 44 more playoff games and 1,641 minutes more than Embiid, Simmons, Tobias, & Richardson combined. Take that for what it’s worth.
It feels pretty silly to give up on someone before we experience the reason we brought him here in the first place, and I’m banking on Horford proving his worth when it actually counts.
3. Glen Robinson III also shoots 40% from three, and emerges as the top wing off the bench.
If there’s another Sixers bench player whose shot I’m actually buying heading into the seeding-games and playoffs it’s Robinson. In between his Sixers tenures (2015-19) GRIII connected at 38% from deep on 3.5 attempts Per 36 minutes; and before he was added he was shooting an even 40% from three in Golden State on a career-high 3.5 attempts a night.
I could be miss-assessing the situation, but I’m not sure GRIII’s potential as a legitimate two-way bench piece is being given it’s proper due. He’s the only player who can be described as a three-and-D threat, and while he’s not some all-league defender, he’s a more than solid option as a wing-stopper when Simmons is on the bench (considering this was his primary defensive role playing heavy minutes in GS).
When he’s on the floor he’ll be mostly relegated to spot-up corner threes on offense, where he connects at a rate of 41.4% for his career. A lot of fans are holding their breathe for Thybulle and Korkmaz’s three-point shooting to click in the playoffs, but GRIII is the more proven NBA shooter (despite Kork’s clear ability), and I can definitely see his repeatable stroke finding a nice rhythm from the corner.
*GRIII is doubtful for tonight’s game vs the Pacers (hip)
4. The Sixers will win the East—never needing more than six games in any series.
Given what I have written above it would be weird if I didn’t predict some level of success in the playoffs. So why not predict them to run through the East?
An efficient offensive campaign from Tobias Harris, a revitalized Al Horford, and GRIII emerging as our two-way wing reliably hitting corner threes off the bench feels like part of the recipe for a deep playoff run. The other part of course being Embiid and Simmons performing like superstars—which I also expect, but there’s nothing bold about that prediction, in my opinion.
My expectations, as I suspect I share with most of the fan base, are a Finals appearance or bust. I get the sense that Brett Brown and the entire roster feel that urgency, and if the three scrimmage games are any indication the Sixers are poised for some of their best basketball yet.
On top of that, I’ve never perceived Milwaukee as the heavyweight in the East that they’re considered—sure, Giannis is great, but much like the Bucks team as a whole, he’s pretty clearly a regular season player. Get your numbers, get your wins, but when it’s nut-crunching time in the playoffs there’s actually a good ten to twenty players I’m taking over him—he’s not a closer. I’ll save the beef of my “the Sixers are perfectly equipped to slow down the mildly-overrated Bucks” thoughts for the playoffs, but suffice to say I don’t respect Budenholzer’s group of regular season hardo’s. Sixers in 6.