After wallowing in the depths of the Eastern Conference for the entirety of the last few seasons and the early stages of this season, the Philadelphia 76ers are finally starting to find their feet. Maybe this is down to the emphatic emergence of Joel Embiid, and the abundance of potential he’s brought with him. Or maybe the stars are beginning to align for a franchise that sits 9th in merchandise sales in the NBA for the past year. Maybe, just maybe they’re edging closer to competing with the big boys of basketball once again. Whisper it quietly.
The Surprising Rise of the Philadelphia 76ers
Is it too soon to consider the question; are the Sixers actually becoming a half-decent team? The answer may surprise you.
The Philadelphia franchise has encountered a torrid time of late. It’s fair to say they’ve gone through one of the toughest rebuilding phases of any teams in any sport, but their patience is starting to come to fruition, sooner rather than later.
Trusting The Process
Not only are the fans beginning to raise their mopey heads from their hands, the players are starting to have faith, too. “I think we can beat damn near any team playing like this”. These were the words of young Philly big man Nerlens Noel after the Sixers beat the Charlotte Hornets to notch their third straight win on the 14th. Noel himself has seen his playing time considerably diminish since the emergence of rookie sensation Joel ‘The Process’ Embiid.
Embiid has almost single-handedly completely rejuvenated Philadelphia basketball, and above all, he’s having fun doing so.
Statistically, Embiid’s numbers shine brighter than anyone else on this roster, posting 19.8 PPG, over double the amount of points the next best rookie can muster (coincidentally, Sixers own Dario Saric) along with 7.9 rebounds. Not only is he proving to be a force on the offensive end, his defensive contributions haven’t gone unnoticed either. Putting up an average of 2.5 blocks, Embiid is one of the league leaders in blocks per game – he also equates to 63.8% of his team’s blocked shots.
With a usage percentage of 36.1%, Embiid is predominantly at the forefront of the Sixers offense. His impressively versatile skill-set allows him to adapt to any offensive scenarios that are thrown at him, allowing his team to make plays around him knowing that essentially, he can score from almost anywhere on the court.
These stats make for pretty impressive reading, right? Well on top of the abundance of lavish numbers Embiid is posting, he’s doing so on a minutes restriction. The idea of The Process playing upwards of 30 minutes per game next year, and for the remainder of his NBA career, is sure to leave Sixers fans drooling.
While the brilliance of Embiid has undoubtedly helped them, the surrounding players haven’t been too bad either. Jahlil Okafor, Ersan Ilyasova and Robert Covington are all averaging double digit PPG, and are contributing their fair share of buckets on the offensive spectrum.
Forwards Covington and Ilyasova have been the surprise packages to this franchise thus far this season. Covington has contributed to some of the Sixers most dramatic plays; the first and most prominent example that springs to mind is the alley-oop game winner against the Timberwolves earlier this month. Not only this, but in the 76ers last 6 games, Covington has consecutively posted over 10+ points, averaging 13.8 as well as 6.6 rebounds during this 6-game stretch. Ilyasova has also proved that he was the stretch-four the Sixers had desperately needed; his NBA career-high 15.7 PPG with the Sixers has really given them a deft scoring touch.
Noel is another name that has really established himself as a protruding member of the second unit. The 6″11 Forward-Center struggled with form at the early stages of the season after coming back from injury, and the minutes he was getting weren’t too kind to him either.
However, as his minutes have increased, so has his scoring. Call it a coincidence if you will. In the last five games where the former 6th overall draft pick has played 25 minutes or more, he’s averaged 14 points a game to go with 7.6 rebounds and a smooth, efficient 61.6% completion rate from the field. As the Sixers continue to show anything but shyness when it comes to shopping Noel to ease the big man logjam, he continues to show why he shouldn’t be on the chopping block.
Nerlens Noel came up big in Joel Embiid's absence:
80 FG% (8/10)
— James (@JCraggSport) January 25, 2017
A Bright Start with a Brighter Future
Looking back on the start of the season, if I were to make the bold statement that the Sixers would go 9-3 in January (granted, there’s still thee games left), I would be ridiculed beyond belief. But now this near impossible feat given their previous records, has become a startling reality. And they don’t look like slowing down now.
The entire Philly population collectively held their breath as Embiid went down clutching his leg against the Trail Blazers. It was later revealed he had suffered a left knee contusion and would only sit out the next couple of games. “We’re going to be without him tomorrow and in Milwaukee and we will go from there“, said coach Brett Brown after a 110-93 defeat in Atlanta on Saturday. It seems even in injury the 76ers have been lucky.
However, the Sixers have enjoyed a two-game winning streak after the Atlanta loss since Embiid’s injury. This has really silenced the doubts many critics had; could they really do it without Embiid? In short, yes. Yes they can.
2017 is really starting to look like the Philadelphia 76ers year. And there is more light on the horizon, despite it being blindingly bright as it is. Rookie phenomenon Ben Simmons‘ return from injury is imminent. With reports suggesting that Simmons is set to operate as an oversized point guard, the 76ers roster will be near completion. With the unique skill-set the Australian brings, one thing is for sure: It’s a good time to be a 76ers fan.
DALLAS, TX – NOVEMBER 13: Nerlens Noel (4) of the Philadelphia 76ers is in action against Dirk Nowitzki (41) of Dallas Mavericks during the NBA basketball match between Dallas Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas on November 13, 2014. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu