This week on 7 For 6: The wins in Philly are piling up, but not everyone is happy about it. Plus, Ben Simmons speculates about when we will see him in play.
1: Embiid the All Star?
Despite a surge of fan votes on Twitter, Joel Embiid was not named as a starter for the 2017 All Star Game in New Orleans. But it was certainly a close vote. With the new voting process in place this year, there were three voting categories that contributed to a player’s all star candidacy.
Here’s the voting breakdown among front court players and how Embiid ranked
Fan vote (50% of the vote): 3rd
Player vote (25%): 8th
Media vote (25%): 5th
Clearly Embiid was very close to starting the all star game as a rookie. It’s pretty noteworthy how great Embiid has been considering that no Sixer rookie has even played in an All Star Game since 1965. Missing out on starting is somewhat disappointing, but Embiid could still make the game as a reserve. Those spots will be announced Thursday night on TNT. His stats certainly give him a good case. He leads all rookies in scoring, including a recent stretch of 10 straight games with 20+ points, something no Sixer rookie has done since Allen Iverson in 1996.
2: The Magic of Winning
The All Star Game isn’t the only thing that Sixer fans have to cheer for right now. The team is in the midst of its most successful stretch of the past three seasons. They’ve won eight of their past eleven games, and as of Tuesday they are only 5.5 games removed from the 8th seed in the East. Over this stretch Philadelphia has beaten solid teams including Denver, Portland, Toronto and Milwaukee.
Let’s be frank; this team hasn’t won a lot of games in the past three years. For those of us who have stuck with the team through hard times, the winning now is really something special. Sports are all about peaks and valleys, and boy have the valleys been deep since 2013. But now we’re getting a taste of what the next peaks could be like. Game winners and winning streaks, a star player racking in popularity and hardware. Even more assets on the way! I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the last two weeks have been the best basketball we’ve seen from this team since The Process began, maybe even the most exciting stretch since Iverson left town.
3: Some National Recognition
As the Sixers climb the standings, the nation has taken notice. Joel Embiid was awarded the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week Award on Monday. The Sixers went 3-0 in games that Embiid played in last week, and the big man lead the way with 22 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 3.6 blocks per game. He posted two double doubles and put up some great highlights along the way.
Embiid grabbed the headlines, precisely because he’s been a huge part of the Sixers winning games for once. It’s hard to argue how well the Sixers have been playing. Even ESPN moved the Sixers all the way up to #15 in their weekly power rankings! They even received some praise from a great basketball mind, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
“It’s one of my joys in life to watch them win basketball games because if there’s any team that deserves it, it’s those guys,” Popovich told ESPN.com. “There’s nobody in our business that is more positive, and more day to day upbeat and ready to teach and love than Brett Brown. He’s a unique, unique guy.”
Brown worked under Popovich in San Antonio for 11 years, so it’s not surprising to hear kind words from Popovich. But it is nice for such a great coach to recognize the team and the work that they’ve put in over the last three years. It is certainly a far cry from coaches like Stan Van Gundy who were openly antagonistic about The Process.
4: Simmons Return Date?
People aren’t just talking about the Sixers more. People want to see them. The team’s Jan. 27th game against Houston was moved to ESPN at 8 p.m. More fans will get a chance to watch Embiid and co., and they may be in for an extra surprise as well.
Hours after the announcement of the time change, Ben Simmons posted this on Instagram, a message with nothing other than the eyes emoji. This is all speculation of course, but could Simmons be looking at the Houston game as his return? It falls roughly within the timeline that the team has given all season, and a national audience for the #1 pick would be great for the league.
Whether it’s true or not, Simmons’ return is close. He’s been ramping up his workouts with the team and was seen dunking last Friday. At this rate, I personally expect him to play sometime before the All Star Break, which is the week of Feb. 19th. The Sixers have 14 games between now and then.
With all this winning, it’s hard not to shift one’s gaze towards the postseason. As of Tuesday, the Sixers are 5.5 games out of the 8th seed. Not an insurmountable deficit by any means. And if anyone is confident that the team can make it, it is Joel Embiid.
“I think we have a chance. We’ve been hot lately…I think we have a chance [of making the playoffs] and we’re really figuring things out. We’re starting to learn how to win games,” Embiid told reporters two weeks ago.
And to Embiid’s credit, the team backed up his word. They won five of their next seven games after those comments.
Not everyone is getting ahead of themselves, however. Brett Brown offered a dose of reality in an interview with The Ringer during the team’s recent stretch of success.
“You can’t just throw around ‘playoffs’ recklessly,” said Brown. “The league is too well-coached, too well-played. We all would be very naive not to look at the ages of teams that play in the playoffs. But when I hear Joel speak in those terms, I’m proud he thinks like that. His heart is completely in the right place.”
Indeed there will be a lot more work to do. Tough games lie ahead for Philadelphia. Before the All Star Break, they will play Houston, the L.A. Clippers, San Antonio, Boston, Charlotte, and Chicago, all teams in playoffs position. After the break they’ll get Golden State, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, as well as Chicago and Milwaukee twice more.
In the past three seasons, this is the closest the Sixers have come to the postseason, not including the start of the season when everyone is 0-0. The playoffs this year might be a stretch, but with Ben Simmons’ return looming closer by the day and the team playing some of it’s best ball, the postseason is not as far fetched as in year’s past.
6: The Effects of Winning Aren’t Positive for Everyone
While the winning makes almost everyone happy, one person who might not be so happy is Jahlil Okafor, who is watching his team win games largely without him. In the Sixers past 11 games, Okafor has only played four of them. He’s seemingly fallen out of the rotation in favor of Nerlens Noel, who has played in 10 of the past 11. Noel struggled to get going this year, but now that he’s getting regular minutes, his effect on the defense is apparent.
Okafor still gets chances to play on back to backs and other games when Embiid rests, but not much outside of that. It will be hard to pump up Okafor’s trade value without playing him, but there isn’t much reason to play him right now. It’s somewhat of a Catch 22: The Sixers would love to get value for Okafor, but the team is simply better with Noel playing instead. Playing Okafor could help the team get a better draft pick this year, but he would take away from the success that the team has found lately and runs the risk of making someone like Noel unhappy with his minutes.
“The roles that people accept versus the roles that people are given are kind of different,” Brown said to reporters two weeks ago. “To date, I feel like he has handled it like an adult, like a pro, and his spirit has not taken a dent. I intend on trying to keep him believing in himself.”
Okafor will play in the next two games while Embiid recovers from a knee bruise. He’d better make the most of his playing time.
7: Let Them Play
As the wins pile up, we’ve also had more chances to see the Sixers in close games. Not only have they improved their late game execution, but Brett Brown has taken an interesting approach to late game situations. Take for example, Friday’s win over Portland.
Rather than call their remaining timeout to draw up an inbound play (something that the Sixers aren’t great at) Brown is totally fine with letting the team bring the ball up and just let the flow of the game come to them. This isn’t a new concept, not even for this season. It happened on T.J. McConnell’s winner against the Knicks last week.
Personally, I like this strategy for a few reasons
The opposing defense has less time to set themselves and pick up their assignments correctly.
Although pushing the ball leaves more time for the other team, scoring on a fast break is easier than in a half court set (again, the defense is reeling back and can’t set themselves). And if successful it puts the onus on the other team to score too. Against rim protection like Embiid and Noel, that plays into the Sixers’ favor
It prepares the team for the future; when they need a basket and don’t have a timeout, they’ll be ready for that situation. Practice makes perfect.