Overall, 2016 was a success for the 76ers, but they need to have a strong 2017 to continue building on their foundation.
I would say 2016 has been a successful year for the 76ers and its fanbase, even if it doesn't feel like it with all of the losses gathered during the calendar year and the big man quagmire the organization finds itself in right now. On Tuesday, the 76ers earned their ninth victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves last season they didn't get their ninth win until March and the team's trajectory is trending upward. So what should the 76ers do to ensure they can continue to build on last year?
1. Please, for the love of God, unclog the front court logjam
It has been the topic de jour since the start of the summer, and, despite ample opportunity for Bryan Colangelo to trade either Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel (or both) before the start of the season, we still sit here with all the big men healthy and on the roster. The problems fans and media alike foresaw in this issue have become a reality, with players playing positions they normally wouldn't play, one player visibly frustrated with the wonky minutes rotation and, more importantly, the minutes between all the bigs will be even more scarce as Ben Simmons edges closer to his pro debut within the next month or so.
Since Noel became healthy, Brett Brown has tried to experiment with a Okafor/Joel Embiid front court, and the results are about what you'd expect. Any two-man lineups with those two playing together have been disastrous defensively because Embiid is away from the basket, and Okafor, despite actually improving in this regard, is still terrible at protecting the rim. Not to mention every team salivates at the thought of putting Okafor in every pick-and-roll imaginable. On Sunday against the Nuggets, Brown nixed that experiment and inserted Ersan Ilyasova back in the start power forward spot, and on Tuesday we finally saw a little snippet of what Noel and Embiid look like playing together. 76ers fans would like to see much more of that — in the three minutes they played together, they were a terror on defense and got by on offense with some flashy moments like this.
As much as I can appreciate experimenting and seeing whose trade value can be boosted, the 76ers need to resolve this before Simmons returns from his foot injury. Simmons has well-documented issues with shooting, and having him play minutes at small forward to accommodate eventual lineup pairings of Okafor/Noel next to Embiid is only going to make the spacing on the court shrink even more. This leads me to resolution number 2. . . .
2. Ben Simmons needs as many minutes as possible at power forward
The aforementioned Simmons is presumably nearing his return to the basketball court — he has been doing light practices with the team and shooting a little bit so we can only assume his debut is coming soon. The number one overall pick was supposed to be the guy with the ball in his hands initiating most of the offense, and Brown had Simmons in that role all training camp before he broke his foot. Now that Embiid has turned into what he is, it only seems logical — and this is why trading Okafor and/or Noel is paramount — that Simmons plays as many minutes at power forward as possible. You can only imagine the mismatches that would be created because of a Simmons/Embiid pick-and-roll or the dribble hand-off action the Sixers like to run with centers at the top of the key, with Simmons as the running back taking the hand-off.
Brown will most likely experiment with Simmons at different positions, and he even envisions him as a point guard; however, if Simmons started next to Embiid at the four spot, he would basically be that, and, for the sake of Simmons' development, he has to be next to Embiid as much as possible. Simmons will most likely be on a minutes restriction, but once he starts getting games under his belt and develops a rapport with his teammates, the foundation for the future will be set. ?
3. 76ERS FANS STOP BOOING ROBERT COVINGTON
I mean, come on. The fans didn't even give Robert Covington a chance on Tuesday. The Wells Fargo center serenaded RoCo with boos after his first shot attempt, which was a miss. What's crazy was that the game before, in Denver, Covington shot the ball well from the field for 19 points, including some clutch free throws. Look, I get it. Covington up to this point — outside of a seven-game stretch, in which he shot 45 percent from three — has been shooting the ball terribly (27 percent from three). However, there are two sides on the court, and Covington has rounded out into an elite defender, and some games, including the one on Tuesday against Minnesota, he puts up rebounding numbers that are the envy of other bigs around the league.
Look at him hold off Nemanja Bjelica, who is clearly bigger than him, and get a rebound in traffic.
Covington is now tied for first in deflections per game (per NBA.com), and he guards the opposing team's best player (Andrew Wiggins shot 2-15 against the 76ers on Tuesday). He has such fast hands that he has turned into one of the guys at the park that always strips the ball from the ball handler (I ran into that type of person playing pick-up ball the other day). I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's completely justified why he continues to start — it's because he does all the little things well and takes pride in being a great defender.
This has been a regular occurrence all year, as Covington has some of the quickest hands in the NBA.
It was so ironically fitting that Covington was booed all game on Tuesday, only to catch and convert the game-winning alley-oop lob pass from Dario Saric. In the post-game interview afterward, he said, "these fans can boo me all they want, I'm never going to stop working." That's the kind of player I want on my team.
Covington is a 35 percent career three-point shooter and shot 37 percent from beyond in his second year. Sometimes players just have a bad shooting season. Is that enough to determine that he should be shipped out? No. When he starts shooting well again, he will be a valuable three and D player to pair along with the Simmons/Embiid foundation. That kind of commodity just doesn't grow on trees in the NBA.
4. Eyes on the 2017 draft prize(s)
The 76ers could very well take a bigger step than most will anticipate next season, with Embiid improving so rapidly that we don't even know what his ceiling is anymore (just sit back and enjoy the growth). The team, however, is far from done when it comes to putting the pieces together — Embiid and Simmons will require a lot of shooters that can also take some of the ball-handling duties and are able to play off the ball. That's why Colangelo signed Jerryd Bayless (done for the season) to a three-year deal. There will be plenty of perimeter talent in this draft class, and a few things need to go right for the 76ers when the Draft order is determined.
Of course, whoever gets the first pick will win the Markelle Fultz sweepstakes. Fultz is a 6-foot-5 athletic combo guard that has an explosive first step and can score, pass and has the physical tools to be a good defender down the road. He currently plays on a bad Washington Huskies team — similar to how Simmons chose a bad LSU team — but it is obvious why he is still considered the cream of the crop in a draft that is potentially eight spots deep. Now that the Lakers have fallen back to earth after a nice start to the season, Sixers fans have their cross-hairs on the Lakers' pick. Although it hasn't conveyed yet, there is still a chance to get the Lakers' pick in the lottery range before they start becoming good as early as next season. All we need is for the Lakers' pick to land outside the top three, and the 76ers can draft (presumably) another perimeter talent in the four to eight range.
5. Get Embiid into the All-Star game
And not just because I want to help JoJo in his cause to finally get a date with Rihanna (who told him to come back when he is an All-Star). It's because there is an argument to be made that he could already be the best center in the Eastern Conference (believe me, I've checked the list of East teams a few times now). I mean, think about that. If I went back in time to September and told my past self that we'd be at this point with Embiid, I probably would've laughed (whether it be because of ridiculousness or hopefulness, I don't know). But here we are!
Embiid in his last four games has put up 27, 25, 23 and 25 points respectively and has captured his second straight Rookie of the Month Award. He is still putting up defensive numbers that are mind-boggling for a rookie, and in games where he commits eight turnovers against the Kings (. . . or when the 76ers get demolished), his +/- number still comes out a net positive. It's time to bring the center position back to the All-Star game because if it wasn't for this stupid "Front Court players" mandate, Embiid might be the leading center receiving votes in the east.
I've talked about Embiid so much because of the things he is doing on the basketball court, and then you realize that this guy started playing basketball in 2011. . . . I repeat, 2011. And he was injured the last two-and-a-half years. What makes it more insane is that before this season, Embiid played 20 games at the JV level, 35 at the Varsity level and 28 in college (thanks to Derek Bodner for doing the math). That's the amount of experience Embiid has had playing basketball prior to this year. This guy is a prodigy, akin to someone who picks up a guitar or drums and starts getting it down pat in six months.
This . . . this is just mean. How does this dude have the sense of timing and instinct to do this already?
Embiid's instincts, skill and defensive impact on his team - the 76ers, are a top five defense when he is on the court shouldn't be as high as they are now for someone so relatively new to playing. Every single day this prodigy steps onto the court, he is proving that the tanking was worth it and validating process truthers like myself.