Defense is Making the Sixers an Exciting, Interesting Team to Watch
So the Sixers won again on Friday night - it was their fourth win in a row at home.
Even more impressively, they did it without the services of Michael Carter-Williams who missed his second game in a row with a foot injury. The team will give him some tests today to see if he can play Monday against the Warriors.
So what is the difference between this team that is loaded with undrafted rookie free agents and last years team that featured young veteran players like Thad Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner?
"This year there are a lot more intriguing young players," says ESPN.com NBA insider Kevin Pelton on the Sports Bash. I think (Robert) Covington, he's been really their most valuable player in terms of advanced stats so far - he's been a big addition for them off their wavier-wire essentially. Plus, Jerami Grant and K.J. McDaniels have both flashed a lot of potential has young players in this league."
Grant is another guy who the Sixers are giving an extended look and he is taking full advantage of the minutes he probably wouldn't be getting on last years team with Young and Turner around. Grant scored a career-high 18 points against the Cavs on Monday adding seven rebounds, two assists and three 3-pointers in 26 minutes.
"I'm stunned." Pelton admitted about Grant's recent play. "It's fascinating, he's blocking shots at a higher rate than he did in college, which doesn't happen. He's making three's at a higher rate than he did with the shorter college three-point line when he barely attempted any of them. This is not the way it's supposed to work."
Meanwhile, McDaniels scored 15 points with three rebounds, one assist, one steal and one 3-pointer in 23 minutes against the Celtics on Friday - he's a guy the Sixers really like and a guy they think can stick around.
"He's an incredibly exciting athlete at the defensive end," Pelton says. "He's a guy who blocks a ton of shots from the perimeter a very rare skill to have.
While the Sixers went with younger, less established players, it seems to be working. While the wins and losses might be impressive, it seems coach Brett Brown is finding more and more diamonds in the rough and has his team competitive on most night when his team is overmatched on talent.
(Listen to Mike Gill's interview with ESPN.com NBA insider Kevin Pelton)
Robert Covington scored 22 points with eight rebounds, two assists, one steal, one block and five 3-pointers in an 89-81 win over the Hornets on Saturday. Tim Frazier, who just signed a 10-day contract with the team, added three rebounds, eight assists and one steal filling in for MCW and Hollis Thompson scored 18 points with four rebounds, one assist and three 3-pointers in 34 minutes.
"I think this is pretty consistent with what he did last year in the D-League," Pelton explained about Covington." He's always been a guy who's been a favorite of the numbers which is why it's no coincidence that Daryl Morey drafted him in Houston and Sam Hinkie ended up bringing him in here in Philadelphia."
Thompson just might be the hottest shooter in the Eastern Conference. In his last five games, he is averaging 15.8 points, 5.0 boards, 1.0 steals and 3.4 triples on 56.3 percent from the field.
Another guy who was here last year but never stepped foot on the court is Nerlens Noel. The sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, was acquired on a draft day deal that sent Jrue Holiday to New Orleans, hoping to be the first piece to the Sixers rebuild.
"Defensively he is has advertised," Pelton stated. "He is probably the single biggest factor as to why Philadelphia has gone from being one of the worst defensive teams in the league to average at that end this season which is really a pretty incredible accomplishment with such a young team. He's going to be a very good defender in this league for a long time."
However, what kind of offensive player will he be? He is starting to turn the corner, but people still aren't sure what to make of him - he continues to shoot the ball better, making 45.3 percent from the field in his previous 10 games with averages of 8.1 points, 7.2 boards, 1.6 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.7 steals.
"The question is how good can he get offensively, you see a guy like Tyson Chandler who is making nearly 70-percent of his shots this season. Noel has kind of struggled, he's been good around the basket, But it's that touch where he gets about five-feet from the basket where he likes to use his left hand. We'll see how much he can develop that or if he is playing in a system with better offensive players where he just doesn't need to shoot."
There has been talk from people who are close to the Sixers that they would draft Duke big-man Jahlil Okafor if they had the No. 1 pick in the draft because they are not sold on Noel or Joel Embiid yet.
However, is it too soon to bail on Noel after just one season?
"I mean the question is always what are you getting back," Pelton asked. "The Sixers aren't giving Noel away for peanuts because they aren't sold on him. What that means is there is nobody at this point on this roster that is written in red pen for five years from now. But I do think you can end up getting yourself in a lot of trouble giving up on a guy who is not yet 21 and is coming back from missing a season and a half from a torn ACL and clearly has a lot of room to grow."
Then of course there is Embiid, who recently denied a report that he currently weighs 300 lbs., had his work ethic and maturity level questioned by some inside the 76ers' organization and was sent home from a West Coast road trip earlier this season after an altercation with assistant strength coach James Davis.
"There are questions about his maturity," Pelton admitted. "How diligently he is taking his conditioning work? Basketball wise - we really don't know anything new about him, but there was a reason why he was number one on my board and on most people's board going into last year before the foot injury."
While many people are excited about Okafor, Pelton says Embiid would still be the top pick if he was in this years draft class ahead of Okafor.
"I think Okafor is more polished, less red flags, because he doesn't have the injury history," Pelton explained. "But just in terms of raw basketball ability, Embiid has more upside than Okafor because he can potentially be a plus player at both ends where Okafor is probably always going to be somewhat limited defensively."
One guy who's names seems to come up often in trade talks is Carter-Williams. However, Pelton brings up an interesting point on why the Sixers might want to be patient with their point guard.
"He actually rates up there with some of the best point guards in the league in terms of distribution," Pelton explained. He's not converting all those into assists, but that probably says more about the guys he's playing around. If you have a pass first point guard, the better the talent around him, the better he's going to look."
Carter-Williams is a stat machine, he recorded his ninth double-double of the season on Tuesday with 15 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists in a win over Denver, but the detractors will say he can't hit the outside shot with consistency.
"I mean I think Carter-WIlliams outside shooting is always going to be an issue in this league," Pelton admitted. "Point guards tend to develop much later than players at other positions. You look at players like Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, even Jeff Teague this year, there were people wondering whether they should give up on them well into their careers and the teams that didn't give up on them really reaped the benefits."
While the wins aren't piling up Pelton still thinks this teams has exceeded his expectations.
"They have and I would say wins and losses-wise. I thought there was a chance this team could end the season somewhere around 10-11 wins, right around the worst record in NBA history, I thought that was a possibility. They have surpassed that with their defense so far - they are an exciting, interesting team to watch, that's a big development from last season."
Who would have thought a team at 12-40 (as of this writing) would give fans so much excitement and hope.