January was filled with changes for the Sixers. Big men went in and out of the lineup, a new starting point guard was anointed and a revised second unit was cemented.
Still, the Sixers found consistency amid these adjustments. They went 10-5, equaling last season’s win total in one month alone. This was their first winning month since they went 9-6 in November of 2012 (minimum of eight games), per the Elias Sports Bureau.
“One of the things I’m most proud of ... it was done in a lot of different ways,” Brett Brown said following the Sixers' 122-119 win over the Kings on Monday night (see Instant Replay). “There were times that Nerlens (Noel) started, there were times Jahlil (Okafor) started, there were times Joel (Embiid) carried us a lot. But we were able to win with a bunch of different people, with a bunch of different lineups and in some different ways. I think it was truly a ‘team’ month.”
January could have easily been a struggle for the Sixers. They faced a flurry of playoff-contending teams, including the Raptors, Rockets, Celtics and Clippers. Above .500 competition had been a challenge, let alone those toward the top of the conference standings. The Sixers beat the Raptors and Clippers, and also defeated the Hornets and Bucks (twice), who are in the postseason mix.
That’s not even getting into injuries and absences. The Sixers were without Embiid for six contests, a mix of rest for consecutive games and his being sidelined with a left knee contusion suffered Jan 20. The Sixers entered the month 2-8 sans their centerpiece and then went 3-3 without him by taking three of the last four with the big man sidelined. They defeated the Clippers and Bucks in a home-road back-to-back series and staged a comeback victory against the Kings on Monday (see 10 observations).
With Embiid’s availability in flux, the Sixers altered the roles for the remaining centers. Okafor’s month included 10 DNPs, three starts and two games off the bench. Noel started three games without Embiid, was part of the second unit for 11 and missed one with an ankle injury. Richaun Holmes shifted between the D-League, bench and significant minutes (three games of 19-plus). The team still gelled with the frequently changing five-spot.
“The biggest thing is just communication,” Okafor said, “trusting one another and going in every day to practice working as hard as we can to try to prepare for things like this when the lineup switches up a little bit. We prepare the right way and so we deserve to win.”
Brown changed up the backcourt by keeping McConnell in the starting lineup after he shined during Sergio Rodriguez’s injury in late December. McConnell averaged 9.2 assists per game in January, including a massive 17 against the Celtics and a total of six games with 10-plus dimes.
At the shooting guard position, Gerald Henderson settled into a leadership role in the second unit (Nik Stauskas moved to the starting lineup). Brown likes the experience Henderson brings to the reserves. Also, Brown has been able to end more games with Henderson when he comes off the bench.
“None of them (lineup changes) came out of, ‘He’s not playing well, so he comes in,’” Brown said. “Not one of them. Most of them came from injury. Gerald came out of more strategy — how do you put a veteran with a really young second team?”
An early January transaction shifted the way Brown utilized his lineups. After the Sixers waived Hollis Thompson, Brown locked into a 10-man rotation, which includes Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in the second unit. The rookie has seen a bump in playing time with this narrowed-down approach. Brown likes the symmetry between the starters and the reserves with these 10 players, including between Ersan Ilyasova and Dario Saric.
“With any lineup we have in, the emphasis is defense,” Henderson said. “Then on rebounding and getting our pace on the offensive end and passing the ball. Even with Joel in the game, we still don’t feel like we have that one guy that we can just throw the ball to at any time and is just going to save us. Our offense still relies on ball movement, player movement. We play like that with both groups.”
The Sixers will begin the next month with a four-game road trip. Embiid will not travel to Dallas or San Antonio and is listed as doubtful for those two games (see story). The team has been figuring out how to play with whatever lineup is available, and it's using its past mistakes as stepping stones for the rest of the season.
“We’re holding each other accountable,” Robert Covington said. “[That’s] the main thing — we’re getting on guys and we’re realizing mistakes of our own without Coach having to tell us, and we’re fixing them, as well. We’re not getting discouraged if teams make a run. We go out and fix the problem so we can learn it ourselves — that’s part of the growth of this team.”