There’s no doubt that the Sixers have a more talented team this season than they have had for years.
The veteran additions, the return of Joel Embiid, and the hype surrounding the young draft picks have created a frenzy of expectations, especially with the starting unit.
But there’s more good news — the bench has improved.
“Suddenly, you look around the room, and there’s veterans and rookies and guys who can really fight and are ready” coach Brett Brown said of his roster as Wednesday’s season opener against Washington approaches.
A strong ensemble of reserves is needed to achieve success in the NBA. Not only is the goal to have guys who can give rest to the stars and those who produce from the opening tip, but also to have a group that can maintain and extend leads.
Ben Simmons has been inserted into the starting lineup, which has pushed Dario Saric into the the second unit. Saric is a big man who can pass with precision, score at multiple positions, and energize the team with his infectious passion for the game.
“I’m ready to take whatever role coach gives to me,” Saric said. “I don’t know how to do anything other than 100 percent.”
He has exactly the attitude a team wants from the first man off the bench. If he surpasses what he was able to do last year (12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game), when he was runner up in rookie-of-the-year voting, he’ll solidify himself as one of the Sixers’ most important pieces.
It’s going to take a while to iron out all the details at the point-guard position. With Simmons charged with running the offense and questions about his and Markelle Fultz’s ability to play off the ball, there are going to be growing pains.
Brown said he doesn’t expect Fultz to begin the season in the starting unit. Fultz was limited in the preseason because of knee and shoulder soreness and is still as green as they come.
“The balance of development and winning is a slippery slope,” Brown said Sunday, adding that he understands the focus on Fultz as this year’s No. 1 overall draft selection.
Fultz — like Simmons — plays better with the ball in his hands, so he could benefit from coming off the bench and using the early part of of the season to learn from the veterans.
Then there is T.J. McConnell. Nobody is a bigger fan of McConnell than Brown. The coach praises McConnell every chance he gets and the reason is clear — McConnell does everything that’s asked of him.
“He has to be on the court during an NBA game,” Brown said.
But there are only so many minutes to be handed out. McConnell’s role will likely be diminished, but when the team needs to push the ball and pick up the pace, Brown will know where to turn.
The third-year guard, who went undrafted in 201, plays quick, is a willing passer, and performs well under pressure.
Richaun Holmes’ fractured left wrist threw a small wrench into the plan for rotation at the center position.
The difference for the Sixers this season is that they have Amir Johnson. The veteran signed with the team over the summer, after two years in Boston. His playoff experience is valuable on the court, but he also brings a mature approach to what it takes to be successful in the NBA.
Johnson’s calling card is his defense, and he’ll be a nice complement to Saric. Both players can switch between center and power forward with ease, and Brown has said he intends to do just that.
Johnson played a similar role with the Celtics, sharing the court last season with Al Horford, rebounding and defending the rim at all costs. He lost weight over the summer to keep up with the Sixers’ young players and says he’s in the best shape of his life.
In addition, the team still has Jahlil Okafor. He’s definitely not a defensive juggernaut, but he can score. The team is likely to move Okafor at the trade deadline, but having an offensive insurance policy at the “five” while Holmes recovers is valuable.
Brown has said that he sees veteran guard Jerryd Bayless as more of a two-guard than a point and that he wants him to play fast and score. Bayless was one of the injury casualties of the team last year, but he has shown in the preseason that he is exactly the type of player Brown envisions.
With Fultz’s limited activity in the preseason, Bayless has been in the starting five. If the rotation shifts and Bayless returns to a reserve role, he’ll be the first wing who Brown goes to.
“People are looking over their shoulders, wondering where they fit in,” Brown said. “Inevitably over 82 games, with injury, through a lack of performance, or whatever, things change.”
Considering preseason performances and what Brown calls a “fist fight” for minutes at shooting guard and small forward, the Sixers have plenty of options.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is still a work in progress, but he showed growth and increased production at the end of last season. In the Sixers two preseason victories, he continued to make his case for being kept in the rotation. In the final two preseason games, he scored a combined 28 points off the bench, got to the free throw line 13 times, and only committed two fouls. With improved shooting efficiency, it will be difficult to keep him on the bench.
Justin Anderson looks to be the next man in line. Acquired in the Nerlens Noel trade with the Mavericks last season, Anderson played only 24 games for the Sixers. The 23-year-old had a slight drop in his three-point shooting after joining the Sixers, but he has steadily improved his game heading into his third year in the league.
“I’ve improved my shot and made the adjustments the coaching staff has wanted me to make,” Anderson said. “I know I walk a tight rope; I know my role on this team.”
Nik Stauskas struggled through preseason and has not panned out to be the sharpshooter the Sixers were expecting. J.J. Redick is the shooting star, and others will get minutes before Stauskas will.
Furkan Korkmaz can shoot the ball, but he is still on a learning curve. He needs to add weight and work on the other parts of his game before he can get big minutes.
James Michael McAdoo and Jacob Pullen are on two-way contracts. They will spend most of their time in Delaware with the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, but either of them could be called up to fill in for an injured player.