If you're looking at the season so far at a surface level, I can see why it's hard to find silver linings in a 4-18 start to a regular season, but that's what I'm here for, to put the season in context, especially for a team that is as young as the 76ers are. There are some positives to pull out of this season, and trends to point at when projecting this team's future. A summer of what was nothing but good news for the 76er fan base was followed by a gut punch when news broke that the overall number 1 pick from the 2016 draft, Ben Simmons, suffered a Jones Fracture in his right foot in a scrimmage on the very last day of training camp. The collective haze from that news quickly dissipated however when Joel Embiid started playing in the pre-season and then carried the momentum into the regular season, and now, the future seems to be trending upward more than ever. Here are some gems to take away from so far this season, and story-lines that could shape how this roster ultimately looks in 1-2 years.
1. Joel Embiid is the clear rookie of the year.
I've already written at length just how good Embiid has been this season, so I'll keep this short (no promises), but again it goes without saying how much he has improved from the first preseason game against the Celtics to now. He actually had his first all-around bad offensive performance against the Denver Nuggets (16 points on 5-15 shooting) but there are two sides of the court, and he has continued to be the Sixers best and most important defender...when he plays of course.
When he is on the court opposing teams have an offensive rating of 102.8 with a 48.1 Effective Field Goal percentage, and when he is off the court, the opponent offensive rating jumps nearly 10 points up to 112.5 while averaging a 52.1 eFG%. It's fair to say Embiid has already made his defensive imprint, which is insane because he still has little nuances he needs to figure out as he plays more professional basketball (remember he didn't start playing hoops until 2011). Embiid's minute restriction has now risen to 28 minutes per game, which is pretty much the standard amount of minutes for any rookie anyway but now we get to see Embiid ease his way into a game more fluidly as he'll play in a more natural rotation instead of playing in segmented 3-5 minute chunks.
Embiid has exceeded every reasonable, realistic, pessimistic or the most optimistic expectation people had for a guy not having played in 2.5 years. We knew coming out of college he had the potential to be a once in a generation Center.... but it might be time to re-calibrate what the ceiling for this monster is and if we can't even get a grasp on how fast he's improved so far, then what the hell is this guy's ceiling?
2. Possible trades?
Ersan is like a stoner at an all-you-can-eat buffet right now. Ever since he got traded from the Thunder to the Sixers he has been shooting the ball at will and playing starters minutes (27 minutes per game, already 3rd on the team) that he may not otherwise get on another team. It could be that he is showcasing for other teams looking for a stretch-four at the deadline, he is averaging 13.7 points per game, grabbing 6.2 rebounds a game, on 44/38/80 shooting splits, and teams ranging from playoff contender to championship contender could be looking for his services before the trade deadline.
It makes sense if you think about it. The 76ers traded Jerami Grant to the Thunder for Ilyasova and a protected first round, and in turn, the 76ers got a veteran whose contract expires this summer, so why not flip him for additional picks or players? To boot, Ilyasova plays the same position as Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, who need to playing time to develop. Simmons should be back by late January or before the all-star break (if not then we should be really worried about his foot) and will assume the starting power-forward spot and with the trade deadline is February 23rd Simmons should theoretically have a few games under his belt making Ilyasova expendable.
Another decision the front office brass has to address is what to do with Nerlens Noel, who has clearly been unhappy about the logjam at the center position, and is now coming back from elective surgery on his knee. He is currently rehabbing with the Sixers' D-league affiliate team and with every day he doesn't play the trade value continues to fall. I think he realizes that he needs to play so the 76ers can at least get something in return for him when they fulfill his request. At this point, that's really the only option. I don't see the team matching any offer sheets from teams this summer when Noel becomes a restricted free-agent, so you might as well get something back in a deal even if it's for 50 cents on the dollar.
3. Robert Covington has been an elite defender?
Despite being in the midst of a really bad shooting slump to start the season, despite the boos he gets at Wells Fargo Center with every missed shot, despite the puzzling clamoring for someone else to start over him (who the hell would replace him at SF?), Robert Covington has been an elite defender so far this season. He has made the jump in his defense from last year, which is why it's completely justified that Head Coach Brett Brown continues to start him. RoCo shot 37% from three last year and has shot 36% for his career, so even if you play the most simple numbers game, it's more likely than not that he will finally remember how to shoot again and once he does he will be valuable as a 3 & D player for this team going into the future.
The team has already seen the impact of not having Covington as he continues to nurse a knee sprain. He has elevated himself as easily the team's second best defender and the best perimeter defender, he guards the opposing teams best player, and has averaged almost 2 steals a game, but it's not steals coming by way of always playing the passing lane or gambling. He has been great with help defense, switching pick and rolls and he has now followed in the foot steps of other elite 76er defenders of yesteryear like Andre Iguadola and Aaron Mckie displaying lightning quick hands.
Covington averages 4.2 deflections per game (per NBA.com), which puts him second behind Draymond Green (4.3), who is a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. In case you're wondering, the top five leaders in deflections are:
3. Kawhi Leonard
4. Chris Paul
5. John Wall
That is some elite defensive talent on that list.
When Covington is off the court, the opposing teams' offensive rating jumps from 107.8 to 111.2 and those teams turn the ball over 2 percent less than when he is on the court. If that wasn't enough, he has been rebounding well for his position too. He is averaging 5.1 boards a game, and when he is off the court opposing teams have grabbed 27.4% of available offensive rebounds vs 20.4 percent when he has played. That's staggering.
For someone who signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013-14. I'd say the 76ers did a damn good job uncovering this gem.
4. Nik Stauskas revival
Sauce Castillo has started the month of December as cold as the winter associated with the month, but in November he posted shooting splits of 50/45/76, showing signs that he is an actual basketball player, and not only that, displayed signs of the confident marksman that we saw at Michigan.
Stauskas has even added a new facet to his game, he has been attacking the paint off the dribble, shooting 70 percent in the restricted area , and has improved as a passer as well. The bench role has seemed to facilitate Stauskas' new found offensive game, hopefully, he can break out of this mini-December slump because lord knows we do not want to see him revert back to the player he was the last 2 years. I still want to believe in Stauskas if for no other reason than the fact that Sauce Castillo cannot go as a wasted nickname.
It has been a fun season so far with all the close games and watching the young players grow, which in my book is a successful season given what the team and fans have been through for three years. It's all about perspective.