Five Sixers storylines to watch for this season

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Five Sixers storylines to watch for this season

There are no secrets about what is likely to happen this season for the Philadelphia 76ers. More often than not, they are going to lose ballgames.

Vegas has the over/under on victories for the Sixers this season set at 16½. In team history, the Sixers famously went 9-73 in 1972-73 to set the NBA record for futility. The Sixers also went 18-64 in 1995-96 and followed that up with a 22-60 record in Allen Iverson’s rookie season in 1996-97.

No, the Sixers don’t have an Iverson-type on this team. They have some pieces to the puzzle, but the others haven’t materialized yet. For coach Brett Brown, in his first season at the helm of an NBA team, there haven’t been any surprises. New president/general manager Sam Hinkie blew up the roster and pushed the team into a rebuild, doing what many of his predecessors could have done, but just didn’t have the stomach for.

Very easily the 2013-14 Sixers could have been transformed into an eight-seed playoff team with an aggressive approach to free agency. However, in the modern NBA, just making the playoffs doesn’t get a team anywhere.

That’s a clear flaw in the system, but that’s a story for another day. For now, Brown understands what Hinkie is doing with the franchise.

“He’s backed it up,” Brown said about Hinkie’s plan. “It’s a deliberate thing, it’s a patient thing. It’s a strategy that when he designed it, I was aware of it when I signed up with him to come here and it’s playing out as told.”

But it doesn’t necessarily make it fun-to-watch basketball. Losing is no fun and the danger of a rebuild is that losing can sometimes get stuck in the fabric of what is trying to be created. That’s the slippery slope Brown, Hinkie and the rest of the Sixers have to watch carefully.

In the meantime, since losing ballgames is supposed to be the course de rigueur, here are a few things to keep fans focused on the good times that could come down the road.

Michael Carter-Williams’ development
There is no more interesting player on the Sixers’ roster than MCW. At first glance, he doesn’t look like much -- tall, thin and baby-faced, Carter-Williams looks like he started shaving just last week.

Carter-Williams could be the young guard that the veteran point guards in the league will light up. Sure, Carter-Williams is a taller point guard, but that’s not unique anymore. And without a grizzled veteran on the roster to help guide Carter-Williams through the league, it could be a long season for the rookie.

Can he handle the likes of Dwyane Wade or Russell Westbrook? Can he stand up to taking the brunt of the opposition’s pick-and-roll? What are his mind and legs going to be like at the end of March when the Sixers are closing in on 60 losses?

That’s what we’ll learn this season. It’s also worth pointing out that on closer inspection, MCW isn’t only tall, thin and baby-faced, but also mature, thoughtful and measured. In fact, Carter-Williams is a lot like the guy he replaced, Jrue Holiday, in that regard. No one expected much out of Holiday when he left UCLA early to jump to the NBA, and he was an All-Star by his fourth season.

Evan Turner and his future
By all accounts, this is a big season for the former No. 2 overall pick (see story). Headed into his fourth NBA season, Turner will learn by the Sixers' Thursday deadline whether he'll be extended or able to test free agency next summer.

And after a summer spent trying to deal Turner, the Sixers seem poised to allow him to dip his toe into the free-agency waters.

Before that happens, Turner has numbers to produce. Three seasons have come and gone and Turner hasn’t had that magical breakthrough yet. He’s been close and had some pretty epic ballgames, but consistency over a season has been an issue.

Turner should have something to prove this season. Seemingly focused on the season rather than future free agency and contract extensions, a big season could be at hand for Turner.

That is, if he’s still with the team past the trade deadline.

The offense?
His players have described Brown’s offense as “vanilla.” The thing about that bland and boring flavor is it often can be enhanced. What the players call vanilla is something very basic. The idea is for the young Sixers to run, run and then run some more.

And then after that, Brown wants the Sixers to keep on running.

If that’s vanilla, it might have a few sprinkles on top. An All-Star Game or playground-like style could supplant the lack of complexity in the playbook. In that regard, count on the Sixers to score some points ...

The defense?
... And expect them to give up a bunch, too.

While youthful exuberance can spark a run-and-gun offense, it can cause problems on defense, where the nuances of the game are more pronounced. Certainly, defensive issues have shown up during the Sixers’ exhibition games when the opposition averaged 108 points.

Add in the facts that the Sixers have one 7-footer in Spencer Hawes and that rookie defensive whiz Nerlens Noel might not play this season, and rebounds are going to be few and far between.

Expect to see the Sixers dabble with some zone defense to help them protect the paint. Also expect the Sixers to get whistled for a bunch of defensive three-seconds calls, too.

Is a 9-73 season a possibility?
Doubtful. Though the Sixers will rank near the bottom of the standings in the NBA, there are a lot of bad teams in the league. The Sixers will get four chances to get wins against Charlotte, Orlando, Atlanta and Boston. They also face Phoenix, Sacramento and Utah twice apiece.

Of those 24 games, the Sixers ought to put together at least 10 wins and still be able to have a crack at the top pick in next summer’s NBA draft.

Without Joel Embiid, Brett Brown eager to see if Sixers can protect the rim

Without Joel Embiid, Brett Brown eager to see if Sixers can protect the rim

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers have been challenged by playing without Joel Embiid in one of two games in a back-to-back series all season. Now they will have to do it in at least the next two straight games. 

“We’re going to be without him tomorrow (against the Clippers) and in Milwaukee and we’ll go from there,” Brett Brown said after practice Monday. 

Embiid, who was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, suffered a left knee contusion in Friday’s win over the Trail Blazers. He did not travel with the team to Atlanta on Saturday for the back-to-back series. 

Brown called the decision “precautionary.” Embiid did not practice Monday but took some light shots after. He was pre-scheduled to sit out Wednesday against the Bucks in accordance with his limitations for consecutive games. Embiid is reportedly expected to return Friday against the Rockets.

The standout rookie leaves a glaring hole on the court when he misses games. The Sixers are 2-10 when he does not play. For all the ways Embiid dominates at the basket (22.4 points over the last 10 games), there is an obvious difference on the defensive end without him. 

“It’s still about our defense, it’s still about running, it’s still about sharing the ball,” Brown said. “I think you go with Jahlil (Okafor) and Nerlens (Noel) and challenge them in relation to rim protection and what Joel provides us. The group around them also has got to perform at a higher level when you don’t have Joel. I think that second group that we have been playing, led by Nerlens, really can take on a far greater defensive identity than it has recently, and Nerlens will be the captain of that.”

This is a time when the Sixers’ logjam at the five-spot actually helps them. Brown still has three true centers to turn to, in addition to power forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Dario Saric, whom he could slide into the position if they go small. Brown sees a silver lining for his bigs in the uphill battle of playing without Embiid. 

“It definitely hurts the team, how can we spin it any other way?” Brown said. “But like anything, you’re going to now look at Nerlens and Jahlil. This is fantastic for those two. It could prove, based on some things, Richaun (Holmes) sees daylight a little bit. 

“There aren’t many teams, I would suspect, that have the ability to roll out three young guys when somebody like Joel goes down and look forward to watching them develop more, look forward to giving them the opportunity to play NBA minutes.”

Okafor has been receiving the start when Embiid is out. (He has been out of the rotation when Embiid does play.) Okafor, though, is dealing with right knee soreness he experienced on Saturday. The Sixers kept an eye on him Monday and held him out of 5-on-5 drills in practice. Okafor said the team was being cautious, and he wanted to rest his knee given the number of games coming up. He is listed as probable against the Clippers.

“It was bothering me a little bit in the warmup lines, I started to feel it. When I got going, it started feeling really good, then when I sat out for an extended period, it got kind of sore on me again,” Okafor explained. “Today they were trying to make sure I could get back to being 100 percent because they knew that my knee was bothering me. They haven’t really told me what the plan was for tomorrow. Today was really focused on getting me back to being healthy.”

The Clippers are shorthanded, as well. Blake Griffin has been sidelined since Dec. 18 because of a right knee procedure and Chris Paul had surgery to repair a ligament tear in his left thumb. Griffin could make his return against the Sixers.

Embiid's honor
Embiid's Player of the Week honor is rare for a rookie. He's only the third Sixers rookie ever to win it, joining Allen Iverson and Michael Carter-Williams.

The last Sixer before Embiid to be named Eastern Conference Player of the Week was Thaddeus Young in January 2014.

The Sixers won all three games Embiid played last week. He averaged 22.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocks.

Joel Embiid (left knee) to miss Sixers' next two games

Joel Embiid (left knee) to miss Sixers' next two games

Update: 4 p.m.

Joel Embiid did not practice on Monday and is listed as doubtful for the Sixers' game Tuesday against the Clippers.

Embiid hyperextended his left knee in the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Blazers Friday. He said after the game that the knee was fine, but the Sixers are clearly exercising caution with their young star center.

"I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way," Embiid said Friday. "I'm great. The knee's fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good."

The Sixers are calling it a left knee contusion. Embiid will also rest on Wednesday against the Bucks. He is expected to return Friday against the Rockets, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski.

The Sixers are 13-17 when Embiid plays and 2-10 without him. Brett Brown is looking forward to seeing how the defense responds without its centerpiece Tuesday and Wednesday (see story).

Jahlil Okafor (right knee soreness) was limited at Monday's practice but is probable to play the Clippers.

Okafor had 12 points, four rebounds and three blocks in 30 minutes in Saturday's 110-93 loss at Atlanta.

CSN Philly's Jessica Camerato contributed to this report.