It’s safe to say I was wrong about The Process. Though tanking for top picks in hopes of landing gems and hoarding cap space was obviously a good idea on the surface, it just seemed like one of those experiments that could turn out to be a disaster.
Then along came Joel Embiid, the defensive bully with a guard’s offensive imagination, footwork and shooting. And then there was Ben Simmons, who has taken the NBA by storm, wrapping up the Rookie of the Year race in the first month of the season while leading the Sixers to a 6-4 start. Rest assured, Simmons is not the second coming of Michael Carter-Williams. With a pair of young two-way superstars with astounding size and skills, Philadelphia is finally on the road to contention.
And they’ve already veered onto the highway, winning five consecutive contests heading into Thursday’s showdown with Sacramento — including Tuesday’s 104-97 victory over the Utah Jazz despite Embiid being rested. It’s still premature to punch their ticket to the 2018 NBA Playoffs, but things are certainly trending in that direction at the moment.
Without further ado, here are six scattered thoughts on Philly’s first 10 games of 2017-18 (and their overall franchise outlook).
- Beginning on the bright side, Ben Simmons is better than 99 percent of people (myself included) thought he’d be, and just as good as advertised by TLM’s current and former heads of draft content, Ilia Shatashvili and Zach Reynolds. I believed Ben would immediately be an extremely fun player (and particularly appealing passer) to watch, but never in my wildest dreams did I foresee Simmons having a Draymond Green-like impact on the defensive end, especially not right away. Frankly, he’s in the same basketball stratosphere as Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James physically, athletically and intellectually. At this point, Giannis is on the score-first end of the spectrum while James is in the middle and Simmons is pass-first. Whether Simmons will enjoy as much individual or team success as either of those two remains to be seen, but nevertheless mentioning Ben’s name in the same sentence as those guys is somehow not even scoff-worthy.
- T.J. McConnell is my spirit animal, and the cowbell this Sixers club constantly needs more of. A self-professed ball-hog in his high school days, McConnell’s unselfish nature has helped the 76ers keep their pass-happy culture hopping in the second unit. It hasn’t always resulted in a bucket, but the Sixers have had some Spurs-esque ball movement through the first 10 games. I, for one, don’t mind the occasional overpassing. But the biggest surprise here to me is not that McConnell has continued to improve, but that he and Simmons have been able to co-exist. The injury to Markelle Fultz (shoulder) has allowed McConnell the opportunity to keep playing a plentiful role after starting 51 games in 2016-17 (and 17 in 2015-16). My assumption that McConnell and Simmons would not work well together because neither is known for their outside shooting has made an ass out of me, as the Sixers currently boast a Plus-0.7 Net Rating in the 132 minutes they’ve shared the floor, per nbawowy! McConnell helped key a road upset against the Rockets, and nearly fueled the Sixers to a win over Houston at home the week before (until coach Brett Brown questionably opted to sub T.J. out). He spent the third quarter of that eventual loss driving James Harden insane with feisty defense and trash talk. If T.J.’s sneakiness in the passing lanes, verve for passing and general grittiness don’t get you fired up, I’m not sure if we can be friends. One more tidbit from the small sample size department: McConnell is already five-for-10 from three this year after making just 42-of-144 (29.2 percent) through the end of last season (162 career games).
- Robert Covington is perhaps the most underrated player in the NBA. He has a renewed confidence in his long-ball, and almost never hesitates to hoist hotshots from deep beyond the arc. A hand in his face simply won’t suffice, as he’s currently draining 3.5 treys per tilt at an unreal 50 percent clip. Furthermore, Cov is one of the best (and most versatile) defenders in the league, capable of covering all five positions thanks to his surefire hands and 7-3 wingspan. Rob is easily the team’s third-best player, and that’s no disrespect to the rest of the roster.
- It’s undoubtedly too early to be doing this — and hopefully it’ll just fire up a certain someone who loves to prove the haters and doubters wrong — but I’m leaning toward believing that the Sixers made a mistake in moving up for Markelle Fultz. Prior to the blockbuster deal with Boston, I argued that Philly should select Jonathan Isaac with the third overall pick, opting for another versatile, defensive-minded wing who shot the ball decently from three in college (34.8 percent on 2.8 attempts per game). The fact of the matter is that whether you believe McConnell is a long-term piece or not (and I do), the Sixers have more than enough players who can create offense for themselves and/or others. With Embiid and Simmons driving the car and McConnell and Saric doing some handling and dishing as well, there is more need for another 3-and-D wing akin to Covington than an offensive-minded guard who didn’t show much on defense in his lone college season and will have to adjust to playing off the ball on offense. Even if the Sixers were Gung-ho about adding another guard, remaining at No. 3 and reaching on Donovan Mitchell would have been preferable in my opinion. Philly fans can laugh at that if they want after Mitchell’s three-for-21 brick-laying display, but Donovan is a potential two-way stud in the making, who at 6-3 with a 6-10 wingspan, is already forcing coach Quin Snyder to consider benching Rodney Hood. Mitchell has the offensive potential and firepower of an Eric Gordon, but unlike the 2017-18 Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner, Donovan is a capable (and willing) passer and defender who covers multiple positions and can run the point.
- Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has improved by leaps and bounds. If he continues to progress as a two-way player over the next couple years and Markelle Fultz doesn’t find his way in the city of brotherly love, Luwawu may vey well end up stealing one of the precious starting spots up for grabs on this future contender. For now, he is filling in nicely behind J.J. Redick, who has been a brilliant fit at shooting guard.
- The early returns this season are about as promising as Sixers fans could have ever hoped for, even considering Fultz’s injury and somewhat questionable fit going forward. With wins against the Rockets, Pistons, Jazz, Pacers, Mavericks and Hawks and close losses to Washington, Boston and Houston, Philadelphia has only been blown out once (Toronto beat them 128-94 on Oct. 21 without Embiid) through 10 games. This stuff used to happen about once a week, even as recently as last year. I’m penciling them into the Eastern Conference playoffs as long as Embiid plays 40-plus games.