Rewinding Sixers' top moments before All-Star break
The Sixers entered the 2017-18 season with high hopes of reaching the postseason after several years of futility (tanking).
They are well on their way to accomplishing that goal. The team has a record of 30-25 and currently sits seventh in the Eastern Conference standings.
So how did we get here? Let's take a look back at the good — and not so good — from the team's performance prior to the All-Star break. (USA Today Images)
Embiid's Hollywood takeover
The Sixers have had plenty of memorable moments prior to the break, but perhaps none bigger than this one.
After dominating the L.A. Clippers on Nov. 13, Joel Embiid had more in store for his Hollywood takeover just two days later. The big man put on a performance for the ages in a 115-109 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Embiid racked up a career-high 46 points (14 of 20 shooting), 15 rebounds, seven assists and seven blocks.
“I love L.A.,” Embiid said. “I love the STAPLES Center. I wanted to come out here and put on a show, so I did.”
The big fella hopes to continue to shine in L.A. this weekend when he returns as a starter for the All-Star Game. (USA Today Images)
There are No. 1 overall picks that teams hope fulfill their potential (cough, like Markelle Fultz, cough). Then there are guys that organizations know will be the real deal.
File Ben Simmons into the latter category.
Look no further than Simmons’ fourth NBA game. The rookie notched a triple-double with 21 points (8 of 11 shooting), 12 rebounds and 10 assists in a 97-86 win over the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 23. He became just the third player in history to accomplish the feat in that span as the Sixers claimed their first victory of the season.
“It’s awesome to have a triple-double, but at the same time, it’s even better to have that win,” Simmons said. “Especially with these guys and a young team like this.” (AP Images)
Speaking of Markelle Fultz, to say things haven’t gone according to plan for him would be a severe understatement.
He appeared to be as advertised out of the gate with a strong summer league until he was sidelined by an ankle injury. Then came training camp when the 19-year-old developed the now infamous shoulder injury. He tried to work through it for four games (6.0 points per game on 33.3 percent field goal shooting) before the team ruled him out indefinitely.
Then came the seemingly never-ending rehab and the questions about whether or not Fultz’s absence was more because of waning confidence than an actual injury. Now here we are months later and still without a resolution.
“There's always a chance that he's going to be out there soon, and there's a chance that he's not going to play this year,” Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said last week. “I can't answer that question because we don't know the answer to that.” (USA Today Images)
JJ paying dividends
While Markelle Fultz's addition hasn't worked out to this point, the JJ Redick signing has paid big dividends for the Sixers.
The veteran is averaging 16.9 points while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from three-point range. Plus, Redick is having fun playing in front of an energetic fan base.
Following four years as a Clipper in front of the laid-back L.A. crowd, Redick has eaten up the passion of Sixers fans. Just glance at the team’s 121-110 win over the Indiana Pacers when the sharpshooter scored nine straight points over a span of 1:19 during the fourth quarter.
“I had goosebumps tonight. I really did,” Redick said. “There were a few moments where it was as loud as you'd ever seen in an NBA arena, for regular season for sure. … To me, the most beautiful basketball you can play is when you're having a symbiotic relationship with the fans. It becomes beautiful. To get that win tonight in front of them was huge.” (USA Today Images)
However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing in front of the home fans for the Sixers. The crowd has witnessed some crushing defeats as the young team has shown its inability to close out games after building big leads.
The biggest of those heartbreakers came on Oct. 25 in a 105-104 loss to the Houston Rockets when Eric Gordon drilled a corner three at the buzzer.
“I think this is the toughest one,” T.J. McConnell said. “To work as hard as we did, I certainly think we deserved that one.”
The Sixers did get a measure of revenge when they secured a 115-107 win in Houston just five days later. (USA Today Images)
In arguably the best game of the NBA season, the Sixers went head to head on national television with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 15.
That Friday night, the Wells Fargo Center witnessed a triple-overtime thriller as the Thunder squeaked out 119-117 win. And while the play on the court was high caliber, the trash talk was just as good.
Late in the game, Embiid mixed things up with Carmelo Anthony after a foul. Embiid then waved goodbye to fellow center Steven Adams when he fouled out.
That didn’t sit well with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, who gave Embiid a wave when OKC pulled off the victory. The two exchanged barbs after the final buzzer as well.
Things carried over into the Jan. 28 meeting — a 122-112 Thunder win — but Westbrook shut everything down after earning the sweep.
“Leading into this game, after a little talk after game one, I think to this game, I kind of was looking forward to it,” Westbrook said. “But you know — Oklahoma City 2-0.” (USA Today Images)
Big Jah traded
Coming into the season, one of the overarching themes with the Sixers was Jahlil Okafor’s role. Along the way, Nik Stauskas joined him as a major question mark.
A pair of recent top-10 picks without a place on a squad that many figured to be on the rise? Sounds a little strange, but that was the case.
The Sixers finally put an end to all of the questions surrounding both players when they were traded them along with a second-round pick to Brooklyn for veteran forward Trevor Booker.
“I think rarely do you find a trade that seemingly works well for both teams. I think this one does,” Brett Brown said. “I’m happy for Jahlil and I'm happy for Nik. I've been with those guys for a while … I think it's an excellent opportunity.” (USA Today Images)
To show just how far the Sixers have come in the league’s view, the team was chosen to take part in the Global Games series in London.
“Last time I was there, I just fell in love with the city in general,” Embiid said. “Just walking around, it was beautiful. Beautiful women … so, I had a great time. I’m just excited to be going there. Obviously, want to get a win, and if I get a chance to catch a soccer game, I’m going to do that, too.”
Well, Embiid did catch that soccer game. Getting the win … that’s another story.
Embiid struggled with 15 points on 6 for 17 shooting as the Sixers blew a 22-point lead in a 114-103 loss to the Celtics at O2 Arena on Jan. 11. (USA Today Images)
With new faces across the roster, that meant the Sixers were always going to need time to adjust.
That reality didn’t hit anyone harder than Dario Saric. The second-year forward began the season coming off the bench and struggled mightily. Saric averaged just 7.7 points on a dismal 35.6 percent shooting from the field during October.
The Sixers adjusted their lineup to put Saric in with the starters and his production has gradually gone up each month. He entered the All-Star break putting up 14.7 points (45.0 percent shooting from the field and 38.7 percent from long distance), 6.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per night.
“Since we’ve all talked about Dario, I’ve been quite consistent that his passport to something more on the elite side of it — because he’s solid and improving — is can you really make threes,” Brett Brown said. “But when he can step up and he can make some threes and really space the floor to give Ben (Simmons) and Joel (Embiid) the space that they need, I think he goes to a whole new level.” (AP Images)
RoCo, on the other hand ...
Robert Covington has experienced a drastically different season compared to Dario Saric.
Covington started 2017-18 on an absolute tear. He shot 44.8 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three-point territory over the first two months of the season, which was good enough to earn the swingman a new four-year, $62 million extension from the franchise.
“Coming from a guy who’s also undrafted, I don’t think people realize how hard it is to do what he’s done,” T.J. McConnell said. “To get to where he’s at now, he’s more than deserving. He’s put in the hours. Everything he’s been through in this city and with this team, it’s so well deserved and I’m proud of him.”
Covington backed up that new contract with more torrid play until a scary crash out of bounds in a Dec. 9 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He exited that contest and missed the next two, but his game hasn’t been the same since.
Covington had eight matchups in which he scored 20 points or more before the fall and just one after. His shooting numbers have taken a nosedive from that point as he’s connected on just 36.4 percent from the field and 27.9 from distance during February. (USA Today Images)
T.J.'s next step
If you’re talking about undrafted players making an impact, you can’t forget about T.J. McConnell.
McConnell has solidified himself as a legit point guard in the NBA. The reserve’s imprint is on every game he plays, evidenced by his versatile stat line of 7.3 points (51.1 percent shooting from both the field and three-point land), 4.6 assists, 3.4 boards and 1.3 steals a night.
The underdog enjoyed his greatest accomplishment as a pro in a Feb. 12 108-92 victory over the New York Knicks when he recorded his first — and the first by a bench player in franchise history — triple-double.
“You respect him, you really respect him,” Brett Brown said. “He just plays so hard. He’s a wonderful lesson for so many basketball players in relation to what determination, perseverance, toughness can bring you to. We’ve seen him grow, he continues to get better, and tonight he was incredible.” (USA Today Images)
Worth the wait
He didn’t come up with the phrase, but clearly no one trusts the process more than Brett Brown.
The Sixers’ head coach has endured injuries to star players, a rotating roster of also-rans and the ever-mounting losses.
Still, he saw it through and is now leading one of the NBA’s true up-and-coming teams with an eye on a playoff berth for the first time in six seasons.
"Philadelphia was great. They were physical. Brett's got them really executing well and playing with confidence and they did it at both ends of the floor," San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said after a 97-78 loss to the Sixers on Jan. 26, their first home loss to the organization in 14 years. (USA Today Images)