The Philadelphia 76ers were never supposed to be in the playoff hunt, or anywhere close to contending, in the 2016-17 season. There is no doubt that Bryan Colangelo was brought in for the implicit purpose of ending the intentionally awful basketball that the Philadelphia front office was putting out. But the asset-gathering portion of Sam Hinkie’s “Process” is so close to being completed that it makes little sense, and is in fact very hard, to try to put a contending team on the floor. So, success for this team cannot be measured exclusively by wins this year. For this season, team performance, player development, and health should be how success is measured. So let’s take a closer look at how the 76ers are fairing with their personalized definition of success.
Philadelphia 76ers Status Report
It is clear that the 76ers exceeded most, if not all, expectations that anybody had for this season, in terms of winning. In fact, the team doubled its win total from last year after the Sixers’ Feb. 11 victory over the Miami Heat, which gave the team its 20th win. This came with two and a half months still left in the season.
But the biggest takeaway from the season, and perhaps the most indicative of the future (one would hope, for Philly fans), is the 76ers’ play in January, when they went 10-5. That is when both team basketball and Joel Embiid’s individual performance peaked. With good wins against teams like the Bucks (twice), Clippers, Raptors, and Blazers, the 76ers were playing good and entertaining basketball for the first time in a long while. Even in losses to the Rockets and Celtics, the team looked ready to compete at an NBA level.
In January, Brett Brown‘s offense was finally looking like the quick decision, pass-first attack that it has so often struggled to be. January saw four of the 76ers’ nine games this season with 30 or more assists. To put this into perspective, the Cavaliers have 11 and the Celtics have 10 total 30-plus assist games this season. In addition to Embiid’s emergence as a go-to option, Philly’s offense was competitive and fun to watch for the first time in a long time.
However, the defense was how the team won games. With Embiid and Nerlens Noel both finally playing and playing well in January, the rim had good or great protection for most of the month. The stellar defense from players like Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell only made the team’s overall effort that much better, with the added ability of getting hands in passing lanes and defending the perimeter. The 76ers had their best month of the season in both turnover percentage (16.9 percent) and defensive rating (103.1) in January.
The development of rookie forward Dario Saric, in particular, is encouraging. With Embiid out for the year, Saric seems like a lock to win Rookie of the Year. On paper, his skill set seems pretty good, but nothing stands out. He isn’t very fast, nor is he a great shooter (41 percent from the field) or ball handler. But upon further investigation, Saric is actually pretty darn good. He is subtly a very good passer and the team’s best playmaker. Of late, he has even been the closer in tight games. It isn’t clear how much room there is for Saric in the frontcourt, but he is a promising young player.
Covington, who will enter next season at 26 years old, started this season struggling mightily with his jump shot. Despite this, he still provided valuable minutes because of his defense. Covington’s defense has probably been the single best aspect of any player’s game on the Sixers. He guards the best opposing perimeter player every night, and he’s fifth in the league in steals at 1.9 per game. His defense and shooting (save for October through December) make him a valuable piece moving forward.
McConnell, who recently celebrated his 25th birthday, isn’t far down from Covington on the steals list, where he sits 16th in the league at 1.6 per game. Additionally, he is 13th in the league in assists at 6.4 per game. His play on both ends would be great to see from anyone, let alone an undrafted player. McConnell is a team player who plays hard every night, which makes it no surprise that the 76ers’ great January run happened just after McConnell became the starting point guard. In McConnell, the franchise has a team-first player who does lots of little things well. He may be the ideal backup point guard going forward.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the crown jewels of the organization, have struggled mightily to stay healthy enough for real basketball thus far in their NBA careers. While disappointing, this only takes away some immediate gratification for fans. It doesn’t rule out the possibility of a big-time future. Both prospects recently went under the needle for even more procedures, but these were considered to be minor surgeries.
Long-term, the goal is for Simmons to play point guard. This is oddly reasonable for a 6’10” player. Simmons has a unique ability to see the floor, handle the ball, make plays, and create match-up problems. This combination of skills is what made him must-watch television in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he was liable to make a highlight reel pass at any moment. For some, the ceiling on this idea could be in the LeBron James neighborhood. Simmons at point guard is ideal and seems realistic, but up until this point, it is very hard to tell how realistic it is, because he has never played a minute in the NBA. Regardless, based on the weakness of Simmons’ draft class, he seems like the best choice that Philly could have made.
Then there is Embiid. Until his season ended, he was surely the brightest part of the 76ers’ season, if not the entire NBA. After missing his first two seasons, he stepped in and became a per-36 legend. Per 36 minutes played, Embiid averaged 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals, and 3.5 blocks. Beyond the numbers, Embiid was just as exciting. Every game seemed as though he was showcasing something new. Early in the season, he was making a surprising amount of three-pointers. Then he started pulling off unexpected, yet smooth post moves. By the end of his season, Embiid utilized the pump fake and dribble drive to get to the free throw line, where he averaged 11.2 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. All this comes in addition to his elite defensive skill set. If Embiid is healthy, the future is very bright.
Team Grade: B
Overall, the Sixers are essentially doing everything right, given where they started this season. With an overall pretty weak roster for most of the year, they really stood no chance at competing with the big dogs. Good coaching and some much-needed player development has given them the ability to win more games than most thought they could. It may be out of their control, but the difference between them getting an A and a B is the health of Simmons and Embiid. Those two getting some NBA minutes under their belt would really be the only way that Philadelphia could have had a more successful season. With their own picks and the impending Lakers pick coming soon, there will surely be an additional influx of talent on the roster. What kind of talent will be added? Who knows. But one thing is for sure: for the 76ers organization, there is nowhere to go but up.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
24 August 2014: Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid prior to a game between the Philadelphia Union and the San Jose Earthquakes at PPL Park in Philadelphia, PA. The Union won 4-2. (Photo by Derik Hamilton/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)