NBA offseason is one of the most interesting periods for fans and analysts: draft, free agency, block-buster trades, rumors, projections on the next season, etc.
There are a lot of subjects to talk about during the slack period between the end of july and the tip-off of the upcoming NBA season.
What a better way to make a deep analysis of the team’s situation than seeking advices and opinions from Cole Zwicker ?
In this Q&A, we’ll make a look back at last season and a projection of the upcoming one.
Sixers France: If you look at your expectations before last season, what is your view on the Sixers season and the work made by the Front Office (bringing Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris especially) ?
Cole Zwicker: I liked the process of trading Covington and Saric for Butler. The team needed more shot-making/initiation in the half court on offense and more switchability on defense, and while Covington is one of the best off-ball team defense wings in the league his on-ball footspeed was exposed against the Celtics in the playoffs. I felt the opposite way about the Harris trade. Trading cost controlled assets (Miami pick, Shamet, etc) for Harris on an expiring basically guaranteeing an overpay due to leverage for a non-max caliber player (in my opinion) and was a bit rich, even though Harris did help Philly in the playoffs. I give the front office a bit of a break for how the Fultz ordeal played out and not initially looking to fill that role before the season with greater urgency.
Sixers France: After this heart-breaking loss against the Raptors, what was your diagnostic about the team ? In your opinion, how can she solve her problems and truly contend to a championship in the future ?
Cole Zwicker: I was optimistic on the Sixers (more so than before) pushing the Raptors in that series, especially given Embiid’s health questions. Brett Brown’s adjustments putting Embiid on Siakam and Simmons on Kawhi (less so here) changed the series along with putting the ball in Butler’s hands more in pick-and-roll with Simmons in the dunker spot. I think people are underrating Butler’s importance in that series as a half court fixture of the offense in retrospect. But at the time it felt like Philly didn’t need overhaul really outside of wing depth and another ball-handler not named TJ McConnell with some shooting gravity (just getting Zhaire Smith back healthy would remedy the former). Philly’s vision of size + versatility on defense at the expense of HC offense was on fully display at times against Toronto, and during game 3 especially their rotations, team speed/athleticism and size were terrifying.
Sixers France: The draft was very disappointing for us, 76ers fans. We had many hopes on prospects like Brandon Clarke, Carsen Edwards or Grant Williams, we expected plenty of trade-ups, but Elton Brand decided to pick only Matisse Thybulle and leave the game. What do you think about this and moreover about the vision of the draft that Brand has ?
Cole Zwicker: I think Philly locked into Thybulle early and the rest of the league (obviously Boston) uncovered and exploited it. This is part of why I don’t like locking into one guy or making promises in the draft: too often it leads to situations like this (which Hinkie was able to capitalize on in the past). I do think Thybulle was a solid pick in the vacuum for Philly schematically, as he’s arguably the best off ball wing defender in the class and brings a lot of what Covington brought to the table there (at a smaller size with more speed). But I did like guys like Brandon Clarke more as prospects in that range, and I would have taken a combination of Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards over just Thybulle. But I get it (and think Thybulle will shoot, especially from the corners). I do wish Philly did better keeping and utilizing their second round picks to create value, especially since they don’t count as cap hold which would infringe on their free agency plans.
Sixers France: This summer was absolutely crazy for every NBA fan, and the 76ers weren’t an exception. There is still a huge difference in the roster’s building philosophy between our front office and the rest of the league. Where the other 29 franchises tried to have multiple ball handlers, regular shooters, players with high versatility, etc. the 76ers built a starting 5 with 2 big men and only one trustable shooter. What are your thoughts about all of that ?
Cole Zwicker: Philly’s roster construction is one of the most unique I’ve seen since following the league closely. There isn’t a half court “initiator” with self creation and creation for others ability who can shoot off the dribble. That was Butler’s role. Simmons is of course a half court big man against the best teams in the playoffs. Josh Richardson can shoot (some off movement) but has never been a HC point guard. Tobias can play some pick-and-roll and shoot off the dribble but has never been a great passer. Right now the offense looks to play through Embiid in crunch time and be very post up/dribble hand-off centric, and it’s just unclear if offenses built this way can contend with the best offenses in the league in the modern game that are centered more around dribble/pass/shoot perimeter players. But Philly’s defense is going to be terrifying with that size, and it seems like the roster was built at least in part to guard Giannis as the primary obstacle in the East over the foreseeable future (and it’s hard to imagine a roster more equipped to do so).
Sixers France: There is as many doubts as hopes in the fanbase for the 19-20 season. If you were Brett Brown, how would you make this team work on both ends of the floor ?
Cole Zwicker: The defense is almost certainly going to work. Josh Richardson is incredibly underrated as a high-level point of attack and guard defender overall. Quicker guards have skewered Philly in the past and now they have Zhaire additionally (Thybulle is more of an off ball defender) to throw at Kemba types. Philly’s transition defense should also be historically elite with one of Horford or Embiid always back (in theory) to wall off the paint. Offensively I think the passing/IQ from Simmons and Horford especially will work in the half court in the regular season, where Simmons can initiate more offense against lesser teams. But getting Simmons out on the break with Richardson and ideally aligning Zhaire’s minutes with him will be big. Of course being able to stagger Horford with Embiid at the 5 is enormous for to fill the void when Embiid goes to the bench. I think there is enough regular season shooting as well to have a competent offense. The questions come in the playoffs when teams can make Philly play in the half court on offense. I wish I had answers to that.
Ben Simmons’s situation
Sixers France: Do you think the question of a Simmons’s trade will appear ?
Cole Zwicker: Not during the season. I don’t think just by simple fact of he’s a « poison pill » contract up until July 1st in agreeing to that extension. But if they come up short in the playoffs (and are upset by a team like Boston or something) maybe.
X’s & O’s
Sixers France The 76ers have a ton of questions about how their roster can work next year. What are your opinions about things like Al Horford’s scalability limits, lack of spacing/ball creators, etc. ? In your mind, what kind of issues Brown has to create a functionnal offense ?
Cole Zwicker: To optimize the roster I would definitely try to stagger Horford and Embiid as much as possible and play Zhaire with Simmons in Zhaire’s minutes to siphon off points in transition. I’d also like to get Simmons used as the screener in more of a spread pick-and-roll look, which is more doable with Horford as the stretch. The issue of course is the on-ball creator there. Potentially Trey Burke can fill that role as a pull-up shooter (teams will likely just switch Tobias/Simmons PNR with the right matchups), but I’d try Josh Richardson there as well. Brown is going to really have to get creative, because if Simmons is on the floor with Embiid in crunch time and the offense is being run through Embiid in the post we know who the help is coming off. Getting Simmons moving more off ball as a screener/slasher could cause more confusion there.
Sixers France: The death question. Do you think 76ers can win a championship next year ?
Cole Zwicker: I think the Sixers “can” win a title next year, but I don’t think they will beat whatever team comes out of the West (likely the Clippers). What works in Philly’s favor is just how well they match up with Milwaukee in being able to offer the best resistance on Giannis that we’ve seen to date. But against teams with wing shot-makers who can score consistently in the half court I worry about Philly’s ability to counter offensively. There are also injuries to consider of course between Embiid and Horford especially. An injury to either at the wrong time derails the season. But if I had to bet right now I’d say the Sixers make the Finals and lose to the Clippers unless we see an unexpected personnel leap (better decision-making from Embiid, Simmons shooting etc).
The whole Sixers France editorial office would like to express a big thank you to Cole Zwicker for his time and his answers.
Dear readers, hope to read you soon.
Photo Credits: Bleacher Report, Clutch Points, Foot Locker, NBC Sports Philadelphia, Getty Images, PhillyVoice.com