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