Happy Opening Day of the 2022-23 NBA Season. For those of us who watched our team get knocked out in the second round of the playoffs (yet again) on our home court (yet again), well, we’ve been waiting for this. It’s a season without Ben Simmons drama. Without a whole lot of questions about the starting lineup. The Sixers start off the 2022-23 season relatively stable. That’s a relatively new feeling.
The way I view the NBA is pretty simple, there’s basically four tiers in each conference. There are contenders. There are teams that should compete to make the playoffs, and with some luck could contend. There are teams that can hope to make the playoffs if everything goes the right way. And then there’s like four teams who could skip this season now and probably only miss out on like 15-25 wins. This is really fun if you’re in group one. It’s actually weirdly fun if you’re in the bottom group. You still think it’s fun now if you’re in group two. Honestly, it’s probably not that fun if you’re in group three. So who is who?
Contenders. This is where you want your team to be, right? You want to believe a championship is possible in June. If you can possibly make the Finals, you have a shot. In the Eastern Conference, this basically means you’re Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Brooklyn, and Cleveland. Are these teams all equal? No. Milwaukee is definitely the team most deserving of being the favorite, having won two years ago and being healthy again. Cleveland is probably not quite ready. All six of these teams can realistically dream though, and so they’re here. Out West, defending champions Golden State are joined by Phoenix, Memphis, Dallas, the Los Angeles Clippers, and Minnesota Timberwolves. Are these teams all equally possible? Hell no. Minnesota hasn’t done anything yet, the Clippers get hurt a lot, and Phoenix choked bad last season, don’t put those teams next to Golden State’s dynasty. With that said, the talent is there. So yeah, I’m giving 12 teams a serious shot at a title.
Playoff contenders/Maybe contenders/Pretenders. Ah yes, the thin line between being a bubble team that loses the play-in and maybe trending up into the top group. It’s more crowded than you think. Toronto, Chicago, Atlanta, and Charlotte all were trending right last season in the Eastern Conference, and all three are teetering on this edge this year. The Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Denver Nuggets all fit comfortably into this category in the West to start this season.
They won’t make fools of themselves/Purgatory. If you’re not picking high in the draft and hoping for a superstar, but you’re also no better than 1% odds of winning a playoff series this year to begin with, what exactly are you doing? Oh sure, none of these teams will be pathetic wastes. Some of them even are starting to make moves that seem partially rational. Let’s be clear though, these teams need to take some real steps forward to matter, or this is just a lost season. Out West you have Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio fitting snuggly into this group. In the East you have New York, Indiana, Washington, and Detroit. I doubt any of these teams are very, very bad this season, although statistically some of them have to be. Let’s just be honest though, there’s almost no chance any of them are in the second round of the NBA playoffs this year. This begs the question- is the draft lottery simply a better place to be? If you’re wondering, the answer is yes.
Weeeeeeeeeeeeee! Let’s just be honest, it’s over before it starts. Orlando isn’t going to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs unless there’s some magic in that camp, and even if that happened they would get swept by whichever of those top six teams wins home court through the playoffs. Out West, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Utah are all pretty much eliminated from contention as I write this. You know what though? This can be fun. I became a much bigger Sixers fan when we were winning 10 to 30 games a year long enough to finally draft two All-Stars. Yes, it was pathetically funny. You also understood that until you got a super talent like Embiid, you were basically fucking around in the second and third group without any real purpose or hope to win the NBA Championship. Unless you can make your way into that top group by February, let’s be honest, all the other groups are the same. At least with these teams there is zero pressure, and you can just evaluate the pile of garbage you have and see if there’s anything worth saving. Frankly it’s way better than lying to yourself and telling yourself you’re Brad Pitt when you’re maybe a 2 out of 10, fellas. Life is better with honesty.
Ok, so what gives on the Sixers? Here’s the good news- this is the deepest roster this team has had in the Embiid era. You should be excited to see Melton, Tucker, Harrell, and House come in here to join up with Niang, Milton, Korkmaz, Springer, and Reed to form an actual bench that doesn’t have a bunch of stiffs that you cringe every time a starter leaves the court and lets one of them in. The main problem in last season’s loss to Miami has been resolved- the Sixers added players to come off the bench and play competent basketball when the starters are off the court. That should make them an honest contender to have the best record in the East and maybe win home court, like they wasted two years ago.
This brings up the real question about this team, the question that did in every recent team but one, and definitely did in the team two years ago- who will be the stars behind Joel Embiid? Embiid will be great as much as he’s on the court, and if Doc Rivers can just keep him healthy, he will give us an honest chance at winning a championship this year. He’s truly a Hakeem Olajuwon style big. The truth is we had the second star behind him, Jimmy Butler, and we basically let him go because of a combination of catering to Ben Simmons and preferring to re-sign Tobias Harris and keep things simple. That ship has sailed though. I think Harris will continue to be a very solid third or fourth option for the Sixers this year, and is probably the steadiest player on this roster after him. I also think Thybulle should thrive if he can simply hit spot up jump shots at a reasonable enough rate to stay on the court and deliver his elite defense. So that basically means championship hopes fall on two guys that are question marks for different reasons. James Harden is a future Hall-of-Famer that appears to have come into camp in great shape, and ready for a great season later in his career. Tyrese Maxey is the most likable young player you’ll ever see, and appears to have come into camp ready to take a giant leap forward towards greatness at the early end of his career. If one can meet the hopes and the other just be fine, the Sixers should win 55 plus games. If both do? There’s a parade next June. If neither does? Hopefully they win a playoff series, but they’ll probably at least make it because Embiid. The season really probably comes down to these two guys and how they perform this year, nothing more, nothing less. The world is brutally unfair.
So, what do I think? I want to believe the Sixers are a really deep team with three to four stars, lead by the best player in basketball. The other end of the range is they’re a team lead by a big man in an era when you need back court play to contend, and the back court won’t give me enough. As with the other 29 teams, health will dictate how close to either end they end up. I tend to think Morey adding depth will make it easier on the two “stars” who I am putting this season on. How healthy Embiid is in May could decide this, as it did last year, but I’m really hoping Doc learned some lessons from Game 6 in Toronto. If this comes down to Maxey and Harden, I actually feel pretty good. I think Melton was possibly the sneaky good move of the off-season, and he could really lend this team a lot of really high quality minutes. With that in mind, I’m thinking Atlantic Division Title. I’m thinking Eastern Conference title. No, I’m not quite thinking NBA title- yet. Adding another shooter would change my mind. Good health would change my mind. Positive Thybulle would change my mind. I’m going in relatively confident, maybe even over confident, and hoping to be selling this team a little short. We’ll see.