Sixers camp questions: How many wins this year?

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Sixers camp questions: How many wins this year?

With the Sixers' training camp set to open at the end of the week, there are questions that come to mind -- many questions. Over the next couple days, we will ponder those burning questions entering the Brett Brown era.

How will the Sixers fare in their division, the Eastern Conference and overall?

The Sixers are a good bet to be a lottery team given Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 overall pick in June’s draft, is sidelined for the first couple months of the season. They also have a rookie starting at point guard in Michael Carter-Williams, no experienced shooting guard and a starting center in Spencer Hawes whom would definitely be a backup on a winning team.

Brooklyn -- with its high-priced, All-Star-laden roster -- is the favorite to win the Atlantic division. The Nets have great talent with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. However, age could factor in along with having a rookie head coach in Jason Kidd.

New York will say it has a legitimate shot in the Atlantic after winning the division last season. Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring last year with 28.8 points per game to help the Knicks win 47 games. The Knicks showed great improvement defensively, holding opponents to the seventh-fewest points per game (95.7).

The Sixers, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors are all in similar situations with rosters that are looking to the future. The Raptors and Celtics have more guys with experience than the Sixers, but they are merely players that have received quality minutes and not big-time talents.

With that said, the Sixers will likely occupy the cellar of the Atlantic Division.

In the East, Miami is clearly the class of the conference. However, Indiana and Chicago -- with a healthy Derrick Rose -- will be equally difficult to beat. Those three opponents account for 10 of the Sixers’ 82 games this season.

Teams that should have similar struggles to the Sixers are Charlotte and Orlando. Cleveland, Washington and Detroit all got better on paper. Meanwhile, Atlanta and Milwaukee have changed some personnel, but were both playoff teams last season.

The Western Conference has been the stronger conference for a number of years now. The four teams I can’t see the Sixers beating at all are Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers. It would take an extraordinary effort on a given night for Brett Brown’s team to beat any of those squads when healthy.

Phoenix and Sacramento are rebuilding franchises and are the two best bets for the Sixers to at least split those matchups.

The west’s other teams have more or comparable talent to the Sixers, who will struggle to compete on the road against those squads but could stay in the fight at home.

Overall, I see 20 wins for Brown’s team in his first year as Sixers head coach.

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

The Toronto Raptors were the latest victims of the red-hot Sixers on Wednesday.

The Sixers held the highest-scoring team in the Eastern Conference to more than 20 points below its average in a 94-89 win at the Wells Fargo Center (see story).

The visiting Raptors were visibly and vocally frustrated after the game.

"They're a good team, they've been playing well, no disrespect to them, but we missed a lot of wide-open shots," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "Those are shots we normally make but we knew we had our hands full coming in here. We knew it was gonna be a grind-it-out game."

Blaming it on bad luck and missing "wide-open shots" seems to be oversimplifying it just a tad. Toronto was held to 39.5 percent from the field and went just 6 of 24 from three.

A big factor in slowing down the Raptors is containing the dangerous backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Villanova product Kyle Lowry. DeRozan finished with 25 points, below his average of 28.2, which was in the top five in the league coming in.

Lowry was even more frustrated by the Sixers' swarming defense. He finished with 24 points but on just 5 of 13 from the field. He also committed five turnovers, picked up a technical foul and fouled out in the final seconds. When asked what the Sixers did to slow him down, Lowry wasn't buying into the hype.

"I think we got everything we wanted," Lowry said. "We got every shot we wanted. We just didn't convert it.

"They won the game. Give them credit. They played with passion and energy. That's one thing they got us on tonight."

You don't win seven out of nine games and take down the second-best team in the conference with sheer will. The Sixers have become a strong team on the defensive end of the floor.

They're currently 10th in the NBA in defensive rating. A big part of that has been the emergence of Joel Embiid as an elite rim protector. For as great as "The Process" has been offensively, his largest impact is really on the defensive end.

He wasn't the only rookie engaged on defense Wednesday night. Dario Saric came through with consecutive blocks of Norman Powell and Jared Sullinger early in the fourth quarter, denying the Raptors a chance to cut into the Sixers' lead (see video).

"Dario never blocks shots and he had two in a row," Embiid said. "Especially at the rim like that, blocking Sullinger, that’s the type of play we need. The crowd obviously got into. I’m just glad he’s here with us like he promised he was going to be after two years."

Taking the torch from Saric, Embiid's block on a Lowry drive with 22.9 seconds left sealed arguably the Sixers' biggest win of the season, moments after Covington rejected a Lowry three (see video).

"One thing I care about is defense," Embiid said. "Everybody around me has to follow my lead because I am the last line of defense. One thing I care about in my career is winning Defensive Player of the Year. These guys know they can go for steals, and make stops, since I am the last guy there to block the shot.

"I don’t think it’s a fluke. We’re competing, playing great defense, winning games, and we found what we’re looking for. Everybody was trying to find themselves, and we all still have a lot to learn. We have some great players that are coming together."

Prior to the game, Casey had some lofty praise for the rookie big man. He compared Embiid to a former Rookie of the Year and 2016 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Shaquille O'Neal.

Casey walked away from this game even more impressed.

"He's a very talented player," Casey said of Embiid. "He made a difference at the rim. Challenging shots. Offensively, he's different because if you go out on him too quick, he's gonna drive by your big. His ability to attack the rim and shoot the three, his post play. And again, he's becoming a better passer so he's gonna be a handful. We know that."

Like any season, there are going to be ups and downs. For the Sixers, it's been mostly downs for three straight years. This recent run has breathed new life into this franchise and this fan base.

Embiid's ascension into a legitimate superstar has been a huge help. Saric coming from overseas to provide his grit, skill and basketball IQ has been key. T.J. McConnell's promotion to the starting lineup and the additions of veterans like Ersan Ilyasova and Gerald Henderson have steadied the ship.

But as Brett Brown has said many times, the Sixers' bread is buttered on the defensive end of the floor.

"I get very excited and proud of our group when they hear me talk so much about defensive identity," Brown said. "You know, who are we? How are you going to build a program? How are you going to grow the program? Words are cheap. I think results are real. And lately, they're buying in and executing our defensive game plan and they're playing with a tremendous spirit and togetherness. They really get into playing defense. That is beyond exciting for me."