You don’t have to tell Sixers fans that trash-talking, bully-balling Joel Embiid, a virtuoso passer and reigning Rookie of the Year in Ben Simmons, and a Markelle Fultz with the confidence to take (and make) open jumpers is must-watch television.
In his annual NBA League Pass Rankings, ESPN’s Zach Lowe ranks the Sixers at No. 1. Well, sort of. He removed the Warriors from consideration from the top spot this season, and he has the Sixers even with the Celtics.
Lowe rates all 30 teams in five categories. It’s a thorough system, but one that essentially boils down to which team is best to watch.
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He cites everything from Embiid’s power and showmanship to the Sixers’ stellar starting five last season to Brett Brown’s motion-heavy, pick-and-roll sparse offense as reasons for the Sixers being at the top.
All solid points, although the Sixers’ starting five this season could be even more intriguing than last season’s version, with Fultz taking JJ Redick’s spot in the first two preseason games as the team experiments with playing Simmons more as a power forward and looking to Redick for offense off the bench in a Manu Ginobili-like role.
And the offense should be even more entertaining to watch this season, as the Sixers explore the possibilities of Fultz-Simmons pick-and-rolls, Simmons-Embiid high-lows, creative wrinkles to their motion staples with the help of new lead assistant coach Monty Williams, and so much more. Outside of X’s and O’s, watching Simmons fly down the floor or Embiid deftly Euro step around a defender is incredible to watch, even for neutrals. It makes sense that the Sixers have 27 games on national television this season.
For Lowe, there’s one big factor that gives the Sixers the edge over the Celtics.
But I kept coming back to one thing that separates Philly: Markelle Fultz. He is the biggest unknown in the league. Every scenario is on the table. He could can enough jumpers, work as the speedster pick-and-roll playmaker Philly badly needs, and solidify his spot in the starting lineup. (His first two preseason games have been encouraging. He made a 3-pointer on Monday!) He could redevelop the yips and crater. No matter what, I want to see every second of it. Philly wins.
Fultz’s jumper deteriorating again doesn't seem like a great reason to watch the Sixers, but Lowe’s general sentiment is fair. While the early signs are positive with Fultz, nobody truly knows what he’s capable of this season. Fourteen regular-season games last season (with a broken jumper) is not a helpful sample size. Everybody who loves basketball (besides Celtics fans, maybe) wants to see why he was the No. 1 pick.
Fultz, Embiid, Simmons and a fist-pumping, relentlessly hustling Dario Saric are certainly an upgrade over Evan Turner, Michael Carter-Williams, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes. Those were the headliners for the Sixers heading into the 2013-14 season, when they finished dead last in Lowe’s rankings.