The Sixers promise to be one of the most interesting storylines of the 2021-22 NBA season. The Ben Simmons cloud continues to get darker by the day, and with it unlikely to go away anytime soon, expect this team to be a mainstay in league headlines.
With that said, what happens on court for the Sixers is equally as interesting at what occurs off the court. As opposed to the past few years of stable (and high) expectations, this team enters the season with as wide of a range of outcomes as any in the league. While the best case scenario of winning an NBA Finals is surely still a possibility, the potential of bottoming out in the face of numerous boiling controversies is all too realistic for this franchise. Here are the five variables that will swing the outcome of this Sixers season.
1. Ben Simmons—is he ‘in’ or ‘out’?
It won’t take long to find this out—if we don’t already know the answer—and Ben’s level of commitment will go a long way in dictating this team’s success on the court and his trade value off the court. If he’s planning to play this season with one foot out the door then the Sixers will feel that in the win column, and without him altogether they’re no longer a contender. On the other hand, while a moment of clarity appears increasingly unlikely, if Simmons decides to ignore the malign influence that is Rich Paul and his persistently bad advice, then a suddenly engaged Ben makes this team the contender they’ve always been. With that said, it’s pretty clear which direction this is trending toward.
2. Matisse Thybulle making real strides offensively
Coming off a season that saw him earn 2nd team All-NBA Defense honors, Thybulle is established as one of the game’s elite perimeter defenders. At risk of stating the obvious, the only thing preventing him from being a next-level difference-maker in this league are shortcomings offensively. Without the ability to shoot, playmake, or contribute meaningfully off-ball, Matisse is generally a handicap on one side of the floor. However, throw in a reliable catch-and-shoot skillset, a more savvy off-ball game, or the ability to put the ball on the deck, and all of a sudden Thybulle is a legitimate two-way threat deserving of 30+ minutes a night. He flashed a more confident offensive package in this past summer’s Olympics with Team Australia, and the hope is that he parlays that experience into featuring a useful offensive skillset with the Sixers.
3. Tyrese Maxey adding a reliable jumper
There are a number of areas for Maxey to improve upon following a strong rookie season—on-ball defense, playmaking for others—but none would immediately elevate his game more so than a reliable jumpshot (pull-up first, catch-and-shoot as gravy). Though he showed glimpses of good mechanics last season, a sound jumper isn’t developed over night, and we shouldn’t be wringing our hands if it doesn’t come for him this season. Nonetheless, pairing Maxey’s elite ability to get to and finish around the rim with a knockdown pull-up jumper makes for a lethal offensive skillset that the Sixers currently lack (and direly need).
4. Shake Milton becoming the player we thought he might last year
This could be a classic case of a player breaking out one season later than they were widely projected to, as was the case with Milton last year following his stellar finish to the covid-shortened 2020 regular season, and subsequent strong play in the bubble. However, in the aftermath of an inconsistent 2021 campaign, Shake has lost his shine as a prospect and enters this season with little to no fanfare. It’s possible that last season is more indicative of who he is as a pro, but in the event that he has a delayed breakout and becomes the player that some projected he might a year ago, he’d be a much-needed shot in the arm of the Sixers backcourt.
5. Joel Embiid being fully healthy heading into the playoffs
There’s not much to this, and it’s an ‘X-factor’ that’s written in ink for this team each and every year. Beyond the normal wear and tear of a regular season, Embiid has entered each postseason with a legitimate nagging-injury, and that clearly impacted his conditioning/performance in each go around. Needless to say, that can’t continue to be the case if the Sixers plan on actually getting over the finish line in Joel’s career. We can talk all we want about these other ‘X-factors’ and the rest of the roster, but none of that matters a lick if the Big Fella isn’t a full-go in come playoff time.