Brown putting tank-a-palooza in the rearview mir­ror in 2016

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jack McCaf­fery jm­c­caf­fery@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Jack­McCaf­fery on Twit­ter Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist

PHILADEL­PHIA >>

They were on a three-game home win­ning streak, hav­ing won their last by 15. Their cen­ter was play­ing like an All-Star. Their other cen­ter, fi­nally, was healthy. Their point guard was back. Their coach was pro­ject­ing con­fi­dence.

They were the Six­ers. And for the first time in four years, they were not mak­ing ex­cuses, or plans, or more plans. They were be­com­ing a com­pet­i­tive basketball team. This year. This one?

“I’ve al­ways felt that it would help if we could buy time, and you have heard me use those two words ad nau­seam,” Brett Brown was say­ing, be­fore a 10194 vic­tory over the Mi­ami Heat.

“I mean, we started out just with in­cred­i­bly poor luck. And you took a hit with your start­ing point guard. You took a hit with the first player cho­sen in the draft. You took a hit with your two five-men, in re­la­tion to re­stric­tions, and re­ally your three five-men with Ner­lens Noel. You got punched all over the place.

“And we felt that pain early in the year. These are still early days. But I do see day­light.”

So maybe it takes some squint­ing, or a small tele­scope, or a healthy over­dose of con­fi­dence. But there was that bright­en­ing. Joel Em­biid had been spec­tac­u­lar, shooting 3-point­ers with con­fi­dence, scor­ing on fun­da­men­tally sound un­der-the-bas­ket moves and short hook shots, run­ning the floor to block shots, re­bound­ing, de­fend­ing the rim, hear­ing “MVP chants.” Jahlil Okafor was cleared to play an en­tire game, his knee in­jury be­hind. Jar­ryd Bay­less was healthy and avail­able af­ter sit­ting the first 13 games with a wrist in­jury.

There was more. While Dario Saric had been a touch less spe­cial than a meet-his-planeat-the-air­port su­per­star, he’d proven able to re­bound, score and even mix in some valu­able min­utes at cen­ter. Er­san Ilyasova, ac­quired early for Jerami Grant, had been as promised, a floor-stretch­ing shooter. Even Nik Stauskas, once the eighth over­all pick in a draft, was not only jus­ti­fy­ing his scout­ing re­port as a re­li­able dis­tance shooter, but had been han­dling the ball with panache and scor­ing in traf­fic.

That was the vi­sion. That was the prom­ise of three de­spi­ca­ble years of an ac­cep­tance of fail­ure, and it was all hap­pen­ing at once.

That didn’t mean the Six­ers’ had jus­ti­fied a process-trust. But it did hint that they had the skill and the depth and the at­ti­tude to win of­ten enough this sea­son to … well, to project a new de­cency, if noth­ing else. More, maybe.

“I think so,” Stauskas said. “Even with the rough start, if you look at the qual­ity of losses, they were tough losses, where we were win­ning the whole fourth quar­ter or right in the game in the fourth quar­ter and we lost it on the last cou­ple of plays. So there have been signs of maybe a lit­tle bit of in­ex­pe­ri­ence to close out games, but I think we’ve played a lot of teams tough.

“We had a few ugly losses so far this year. But there have been a lot of games where we were in it right to the last play. And it was en­cour­ag­ing to us just to know we could com­pete with these teams.”

The to­gether-we-build sales pitch re­quired a pay­off. And for the way the Six­ers chased draft sta­tus with more in­ten­sity than they did loose balls, that fee has to be years of play­off con­tention, a cou­ple of Fi­nal Fours and at least one spot in a cham­pi­onship round. They are not close. But Em­biid does have game-chang­ing, fran­chise-defin­ing skill. There are al­ready enough play­ers sur­round­ing him to make the Six­ers com­pet­i­tive on a nightly ba­sis. And Ben Sim­mons, the No. 1 pick in the last draft, should be re­cov­ered from a bro­ken foot in time to play 40 games. Then what? Though Brown has been en­cour­aged by the im­prove­ment, he knows there are lim­i­ta­tions. So when he dis­cussed the crowded cen­ter sit­u­a­tion, with Noel closer to a re­turn from knee surgery and to bat­tling Okafor and Em­biid for time, he let it slip that the Six­ers re­main in de­vel­op­ment.

“There’s no vet­er­ans, in my eyes, in that group,” he said. “There’s no­body that’s like a five­time All-Star or who has been a starter for six years. They’re all just young. They are all try­ing to carve out their own place on a team and carve out their own place in the league and wher­ever their legacy might end up.”

The Six­ers are 4-10 and un­likely to put a rush or­der on printed play­off tick­ets. But they are dif­fer­ent than they’d been, and not just be­cause of Em­biid. There is a new ex­pe­ri­ence in the room, as Mon­day Ger­ald Hen­der­son fought through a pregame sick­ness to score 19 points, Ilyasova bat­tled for 10 points and 11 re­bounds and Ser­gio Ro­driguez went 4-for-4. With that, the Six­ers have added an ex­pec­ta­tion of suc­cess that was lack­ing through the tank-a-palooza.

“I don’t know what ev­ery­body else thinks about us, but we know we have tal­ent,” Hen­der­son said. “We go in there and work hard ev­ery day and have great at­ti­tudes. And we def­i­nitely feel we can make some­thing hap­pen.”

They feel like they can achieve some­thing this sea­son. That will be rough. Maybe they even know that. Af­ter four con­sec­u­tive home vic­to­ries, though, it just doesn’t sound so out­ra­geous.

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