The 2019-20 NBA season didn’t go as expected for the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite an enormous payroll and lofty preseason expectations, the Sixers were swept by the rival Boston Celtics in the first round of the postseason in Orlando. This lead to a plethora of changes — roster, coaching staff, and front office — for Philadelphia over the offseason. Now, a retooled Sixers team will look to bounce back in 2020-21. If things go well for the Sixers, the campaign could prove to be a memorable one. With that said, here’s a look at four bold predictions for the ’20-21 season.
1. Ben Simmons wins Defensive Player of the Year
Ben Simmons has quickly blossomed into arguably the most versatile defender in the entire NBA. Simmons led the league in steals per game last season. His combination of size and athleticism allows him to defend virtually all positions, and he can switch between them seamlessly. Simmons finished fourth — behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Rudy Gobert — in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, but there were certainly some that felt that he could have won the award. This season, under a new coach known for developing dominant defenses, Simmons could take another step forward on that end of the floor. If he does, he could very well win his first DPOY trophy.
2. Shake Milton wins Sixth Man of the Year
Doc Rivers has a history of having Sixth Man of the Year award winners on his teams. In fact, five Clippers players won the award under Rivers: Jamal Crawford in 2014 and 2016, Lou Williams in 2018 and 2019, and Montrezl Harrell last season. This shows that Rivers puts an emphasis on reserve production, and that’s something that could continue in Philadelphia.
Two of those players — Crawford and Williams — are very similar to Sixers guard Shake Milton, as they are all longer, athletic guards capable of playing both on and off the ball. Milton was thrown into a starting spot with the Sixers last season due to injury issues, but at this point in his career he’s probably better suited for a reserve role, and having a coach like Rivers who knows how to maximize his bench production will only help. As such, Milton could be poised for a breakout season. Rivers himself has high expectations for Milton.
“I’ve had a lot of luck with really good second unit guards,” Rivers said during a recent session with media members. “I think we have that. I think Shake, number one, right when I took the job, Shake has been where my focus has been. I’ve got to let him play even freer which is crazy. I will say when I told him that, he was very happy with that news. I told him that I would hold him far more accountable defensively than I did with Jamal [Crawford] and Lou [Williams] for sure, but Shake has that ability in him.”
Given Milton’s skill set and Rivers’ history with his reserve guards, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Milton on the receiving end of some hardware at the end of the season.
3. Sixers make first Finals appearance in 20 years
The Sixers will face no shortage of competition in what appears to be a decently deep Eastern Conference. The Heat are the defending conference champions, while the Bucks have had the league’s best record for two straight seasons and they got better over the offseason. Then there’s the Celtics, Raptors, and Pacers, who all project to be extremely formidable. Oh, and we can’t forget about the Nets, who will trot out two superstars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this season. The Sixers, as currently constructed, are right there in the contender conversation though.
Honestly, a big factor in determining success this season across the league’s landscape will be health, in terms of which teams are able to remain relatively COVID-19-case free compared to other teams. At this point, there’s no way to accurately predict how the season will play out in the middle of a pandemic, but if all goes well for Philly, i.e. if they’re able to stay healthy and jell as a unit — something that didn’t happen last season — the Sixers could potentially find themselves in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001 when the team was led by Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson.
4. Ben Simmons leads the league in assists per game
No player has had more 3-point assists than Ben Simmons over the past three seasons, and the Sixers are better built to maximize Simmons’ passing ability this season more so than they were last season thanks to the increased floor spacing provided by Seth Curry and Danny Green.
For the second straight season, Simmons finished sixth in the league in assists per game last season, averaging 8.0 per contest, despite working with limited space due to an ill-fitting roster and an offensive system that almost completely eschewed pick-and-roll action. Given the adjustments that the Sixers made to the roster over the offseason, combined with Simmons’ natural development as a young player and a passer, there’s no reason to think that his assist numbers won’t rise, especially since Doc Rivers plans to hand him the keys to Philadelphia’s offense.
“I’m going to let him play,” Rivers told media members recently. “I’m going to give him the keys and let him be free and play. If he takes no shots, I’m fine. If he takes 10 3s, I’m fine. If he gets to the line 15 times, I’m fine. Ben is brilliant enough for me to allow him to play and not get in his way and try to cloud his head up with a bunch of crap. It’s about winning, and that’s what I want Ben to focus on, how to make each other better and win.”
Simmons has already established himself as one of the best passers in the NBA, but now that he’s surrounded by a roster that is better-suited to maximize his skills, he could make a real run at the assist crown.