7 for 6: Fruits of The Process are Bittersweet

| Markelle Fultz surprised everyone with his return and the Sixers are peaking at the right time, but Embiid could miss the first round of the playoffs. Is this the end of their best season in years? |

Fultz is back!

It happened! Markelle Fultz returned from the Twilight Zone that was his rookie season. Brett Brown surprised reporters with the news before a game against Denver last week.

The moment briefly took the air out of the room. It was known that Fultz was healthy and working his way back, but with no timetable for his return many had dismissed that as a possibility for this season.

“It’s just such an atypical way anybody enters pro sport like he is, especially in the city of Philadelphia,” Brown told reporters. “Knowing what I know and seeing what I’ve seen, and understanding how special that kid is from a human-being standpoint, it’s a good day.”

Brown was clearly happy for the 20 year old rookie. And the best fans in the world welcomed him back with open arms.

Putting the shock of moment aside, Fultz has been pretty good so far in a limited role. He’s playing around 15 minutes per night as the backup point guard and scoring 6.8 points, 4.3 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game. Not bad for someone who hasn’t played in about five months. But frankly I don’t put much stock in his raw numbers at this point. There isn’t a large enough sample size and these are unique circumstances that Fultz finds himself in.

Right now, we should be focusing on how comfortably he’s transitioning into the rotation and the NBA game at large. He doesn’t look out of place athletically; Fultz will routinely lurch into the paint and get off shots near the rim. And he’s quite good at finishing high-difficult shots over NBA defenders. His movement is slithery and confident; he’s able to shake defenders with his dribble and launch some hesi-pullup-jimbos. His re-worked jump shot looks much closer to what it was in college.

There are some blemishes, but what 19 year old wouldn’t have any? He hasn’t gotten to the line very much and his form still isn’t pretty. There are occasional defensive lapses and some turnovers that stem from holding the ball too long or forcing certain shots. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with his game right now though, given the context.

All of this comes together in a picture of a player who is playing with confidence and an understanding that other parts of his game will come. Fultz has only taken one three pointer. I’d imagine that the Sixers want to him to get used to his re-worked jumpshot and to get stronger before that becomes a part of his game. For now, he’s a crafty point guard whose renewed presence alone has energized the team. It will be interesting to see how he’s used in the playoffs.

Embiid’s Injury

The news isn’t all good in Philly. Joel Embiid nearly made it through an entire season with a major injury, but that changed last Thursday versus the Knicks. His head collided with the shoulder of Markelle Fultz (which is kinda funny, all things considered) and left the game. After further testing, Embiid showed symptoms of a concussion and it was determined that he had also suffered a fractured orbital bone around his left eye.

Two weeks seems like an optimistic timeline, but if it’s truly about pain tolerance a return just in time for the first round isn’t out of the question. Especially for someone as competitive as Embiid.

It goes without saying that Embiid is the best player on the team. The Sixers score 113 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court, and 104 without him. They give up 102 per 100 when he plays, and 108.5 when he sits. Essentially, Embiid makes the Sixers a top 5 or 6 team in the entire league. Without him, they’re a bottom five offensive team and middle of the road defensively. I’m obviously not saying anything profound when I say that losing your best player for the playoffs hurts your chances. But it will especially bet true for the Sixers. If they are matched up with a team that plays them well, like Miami or Indiana, their chances take a big hit.

If there is any positive aspect to this story, it’s that the injury was mostly a freak accident and not a recurrence of past injuries to Embiid’s knee or foot. Still, it puts quite the damper on what’s been a phenomenal season. Get well soon, big fella. We need you.

Super Dario’s Super Shooting

Dario Saric has been playing out of his mind lately, largely thanks to his red-hot shooting. The Homie is shooting about 43% from deep on over five attempts per game since the calendar turned over to 2018. When Saric’s shot is falling, the Sixers very rarely have a weak link on the floor. Arguably the biggest reason that the net rating of Philly’s starting five is 7+ points clear of the next highest team is Saric’s evolution as an offensive force and shooting threat.

He’s also making plays like this.

“That play is as good as it gets if you just wanted to snapshot how you want your team to be perceived,” Brett Brown said of Saric’s highlight-worthy hustle. “It speaks volumes on many levels.”

Saric has recently missed a couple of games with a minor elbow injury, but he’ll return tonight against Cleveland.

Highlights

The best part about playing easy competition is that blowouts create some awesome highlights. And boy, the Sixers have straight up looked like the Globe Trotters lately.

Take the presumptive Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons. It seems like he’s either throwing down thunderous dunks or clowning opponents with passes and pickpockets.

One beneficiary of Simmons’ passing is Marco Belinelli. He’s spent the past month or so hitting ridiculous fade-aways and circus shots. Even though he’s only played in 22 games, Belinelli is the Sixers’ leading scorer off the bench. Hats off to Bryan Colangelo; Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were great acquisitions.

Even Fultz is showing off some moves. There’s no doubt that he can leap high, whether they be posters or rejections. For someone so young who hasn’t played in so long, he consistently produces a jaw dropping play each night.

Nova Envy?

Villanova’s basketball team captured their second championship in three seasons on Monday night. It’s another title for a city that has been on cloud nine since the Super Bowl. The Sixers might be able to draw more direct lessons from Villanova since they play the same sport. Brett Brown is certainly inspired by what Nova has accomplished.

Former Sixers Charles Barkley also chimed in after Villanova won. He predicted that this run of success for Philadelphia sports would continue with the Sixers winning the NBA title. That would be quite a feat for this team, although it doesn’t sound quite as far fetched after the Celtics announced that Kyrie Irving would be done for the year afetr knee surgery. If Embiid comes back and a team like Boston or Toronto bows out early…well they still have to go through LeBron James.

Around the Team

In some news unrelated to the current team, former 76er Maurice Cheeks will be inducted into the Nasmith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the summer. In 1100 career games, 853 in Philadelphia,  Cheeks scored 11.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game. He’s 13th in NBA history in total assists, 5th in steals. He was a four time All Star and won the NBA title in 1983. He has also coached as an assistant and head coach for four different teams since 1994.

“I just kind of broke out crying,” Cheeks said of his reaction to hearing the news. “Other players had more flash to their game. My game was not tailored to all-star games. I think this [Hall of Fame selection] is kind of the same thing.”

Congrats to Cheeks. He certainly earned it.

Also of note, the Sixers raised a new statue of Julius Erving outside their practice facility. He spoke at the unveiling this week, and spoke highly of Ben Simmons.

“Once-in-a-decade, maybe once-in-a-lifetime-type player,” Erving said of Simmons. “”Sometimes it looks like he’s got eyes in the back of his head…that’s just a gifted player that we are very fortunate to have on our team.”

High praise from The Doctor. And hard to argue.

Historic season marches on…but is it real?

The Sixers have had their best season in quite a long time. They’re already 20 wins better than last season. Currently they’re in the midst of a 12 game winning streak (something they haven’t done since the early 1990). And there was a stretch of nine consecutive games of those 12 that the Sixers won by at least 10 points, the longest such streak in team history. Of course it should be said that the Sixers’ schedule of late has been a who’s who of tank squads. But wins are wins, and they are piling up. With four games left, the Sixers could win 50 games for the first time since that magical 2000-01 season in which Allen Iverson dragged them to the finals.

So should all of this come as a surprise? To casually fans, I suppose. But to the die hard Process Trusters? Not really. Remember, Sam Hinkie famously said this about their team building strategy:

“We don’t think that it will necessarily be linear — that every year you will add five wins and after 10 years you will get to 50. That’s not the way we think about the world. We think that it comes at fits and starts, and you have to be prepared to put yourself in a position that you might be able to make big leaps.”

So once again, Hinkie was right on target. Now, one could argue that the Sixers stumbled into this situation to a certain extent. Part of the reason that the teams in previous years were so bad was that their top picks kept getting hurt. As a result they kept picking high in the lottery. You can cast whatever degree of blame on the team’s medical staff as you wish, but the plan wasn’t to sit their best players until they had a core that could walk out and win 50 games. If Simmons or Embiid played in the year they were drafted, the teams trajectory probably looks quite different. At that point perhaps trading up for Fultz would require more draft capital than they’d have liked.

The team has made the jump that Hinkie spoke about; what happens this offseason will speak volumes about Bryan Colangelo’s and Joshua Harris’ ability to capitalize on and adapt to their situation.

But that’s thinking ahead, and for once the Sixers can’t do that. They have the playoffs to think about. The first round begins on April 14th and the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams have been determined. The Sixers are a half game behind the third seed Cleveland, who comes to Philadelphia tonight for a game with first round implications.

All stats are up to date as of March 6th

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