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Forget Joel Embiid - if the Philadelphia 76ers are going to make the NBA Finals this season, it’ll be thanks to an MVP-calibre season from Ben Simmons.
So says NBA legend Paul Pierce, who believes the Sixers have the cattle to go all the way.
The Boston Celtics champion said he expects ‘greatness’ from Simmons during a visit to Sydney to promote the upcoming NBA season, which tips off on October 23.
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Pierce said Simmons, who signed a five-year, $170 million USD extension with the 76ers earlier this year, would be greatly aided by veteran signing Al Horford, who joined Philadelphia after three seasons in Boston.
“I predict Ben Simmons will have a monster year,” Pierce said.
“He’s gonna be an All-Star, Philly will win a lot of games, and he’s probably going to be an MVP candidate.
“He’s one of the game’s great all-round talents already, and he’s still young.
“I expect him to improve on what he’s already done, eventually he’ll develop that jump shot, that’s the knock on him right now, but you’re gonna see greatness out of this kid.”
Veteran influences crucial for Simmons
Philadelphia’s signing of Horford was one of the most surprising moves in an off-season dominated by Kawhi Leonard’s free agency and blockbuster trades involving Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Chris Paul.
The versatile big man almost single-handedly shifted the landscape of the Eastern Conference when he jumped ship to the city of brotherly love. While he doesn’t necessarily fill the box score on a nightly basis, he’s a proven force on both end of the floor.
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Horford’s size, in particular, will assist Simmons in slowing down some of the league’s more potent offensive threats, notably Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Philadelphia’s presumptive rival in the East.
“The guys they’re putting around (Simmons) are definitely going to help,” Pierce said.
“He’s got some veteran leadership, Al Horford will develop his game on and off the court, develop him mentally, develop him into a strong leader.
“Philly is going to go far - how far they go will rest on Ben’s shoulders.”
Doc Rivers crucial for Clippers, but talent not everything
Over in Los Angeles, Pierce’s former championship coach, Doc Rivers, is using training camp to figure out how to turn his absurdly talented Clippers roster into a championship winning team.
Rivers already has experience bringing a trio of superstars together back in 2008, when he and Pierce were joined by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for Boston’s 2008 title run.
Pierce, who was named Finals MVP that season, said Rivers’ standing in the league meant he was uniquely placed to get the most out of recruits Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
“The thing about Doc is the players respect him, they know to buy into whatever he teaches the, the system, the places he’s gonna put them on the court,” Pierce said.
“He’s a great leader, very motivational, a people person and he’s played. When you have a guy who’s been in these situations as a player and coach, you can understand him a little more, you respect him a little bit more.”
While the Clippers were Pierce’s pick to emerge from a hotly-contested Western Conference, he was wise enough to know that talent isn’t the be all and end all in the NBA.
Sometimes, you need a little something extra.
“I’ve said this for years and Doc knows this too - you not only have to be good, you have to be lucky,” Pierce said.
”Who knows, guys can get injured, as we saw with the Golden State Warriors, if they were healthy they probably could have won the Finals.
“A lot of things have to go right, but they’re heading in the right direction.”
Dark-horse Boston Celtics?
As for Pierce’s former team, the Boston legend said plenty was riding on third-year wing Jayson Tatum’s shoulders if the Celtics hope to keep pace with the Eastern Conference elite.
Pierce said the Celtics had done well to rebound from the loss of Kyrie Irving by recruiting former Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, but that in the absence of Horford, Tatum would have to take the next step.
“I like what the Celtics did, rebounding from losing Kyrie (Irving), adding Kemba Walker was huge, if the Celtics are going to take the next step, it’s Jayson Tatum,” he said.
“Or Jaylen Brown, but Jayson Tatum I believe has to take the next step in his career.
“He has all the tools to be a superstar, an All-Star in this league.
“He has to be a little more aggressive, he has to find more ways to score and get to the FT line, rebound, show his all-round game.”
The Celtics frontcourt looms as their biggest area of weakness, with Horford’s replacement, journeyman big man Enes Kanter, a significant downgrade on the defensive end.
Boston’s bog man rotation stands out as their main concern entering the 2019-20 season, with role player Daniel Theis, second-year shot blocker Robert Williams and French rookie Vincent Poirier the only other five-men on the roster.
Whether Walker is able to mimic the production of Irving and Brown and Tatum can emerge as the two-way threats they have shown signs of being will be crucial to Boston’s success.
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