|The Wish For Ish|
Tonight in Orlando, the Sixers got their sixth win of the year against 38 losses, and their first against an Eastern Conference opponent. Beyond the obvious fact that any Sixers win is notable, this one was memorable due to just how many players contributed, especially after Nerlens Noel went down with some odd stress-induced headache. (We're told that Nerlens has excitement issues, which is a little scary given the utter lack of meaningful games for this laundry, but let's just ignore this until it becomes a real issue.) Jakarr Sampson also got hurt, but honestly, he's Jakarr Sampson. That probably helped.
You had Jahlil Okaford doing what he's done for a good chunk of the year -- scoring early, fading late, but the early was good enough for 20 and 5. (Yes, we know he's got real issues in rebounding and defense for a big, but he is all of 19.) The bench of Hollis Thompson, Isaiah Canaan and Jerami Grant combined for 44 points and 7 for 10 from the arc, and Robert Covington had a career high with 11 boards. Grant blocked five shots, and the whole team combined to turn it over just 14 times (that's really good for this crew) and miss 6 free throws (out of 21, and again, better than hoped).
But the single biggest factor (beyond Orlando not being able to put it in the ocean was, once again, Ish Smith. Tonight's line was 13-2-11 on 6 for 11 from the floor, with just 3 turns and 5 fouls in his 30 minutes, and once again, he gave the shooters space to do what they do best, and a number of quality oopage at the rim for the bigs. He also showed that he can do more than heat up Noel in the half court, and while his man (Elfrid Payton) had a night himself with 21-6-10, the fact that every game isn't starting with an insurmountable hole at point guard, and turnovers whenever the opposing team wants them, is just a night and day difference.
With Smith, the Sixers are the club we thought we were going to get from the start of the year. In retrospect, the injuries to Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten masked just how bad both of those guys were going to be, and it's not as if TJ McConnell and Canaan were able to make up for the slack. Which made me wonder... well, what if the team had just locked up Smith in the summer, when he was freely available talent and they certainly knew about him, since he finished the 2014-15 season in the laundry?
Well, I think they avoid the 0-17 start, for certain. And given the number of close but not quite games where the team just couldn't handle fourth quarter defensive pressure, it's not outside of the realm of possibility that they could be looking at 10 to 12 wins now, rather than six. Hell, they've been a borderline .500 club for the past few weeks, and against a tolerable schedule.
There were, of course, reasons to go with Marshall and Wroten over Smith. Both of the former are younger, haven't been on as many teams, and came into the league with more of an athletic pedigree than the Ish. But that also ignore the eye test, and just how much better of a player Smith has made out of himself in his mid-20s. His quicks are damn near elite, and while every other part of his game is shaky, he doesn't panic when the heat is on, and he's got some poor man's Tony Parker to the mid-range game that's downright clever. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that Ish is PG2 on the next actually good Sixer team, and having some kind of Jarrett Jack-like career seems more likely by the day.
While the club might have been better to watch and root for for the first 35 Ish-less games, it's also likely to have set back their growth. As is, the club is starting to get in hailing distance of not having the most ping pong balls (the Lakers have 9 wins, the Nets 11, the Suns 13, and honestly, every game the Suns win now just seems like an accident). It's a fine line, not having so many losses as to set some infamous record, and yet still qualify for the high stud guard that they've needed for way too long.
For now, we'll just delight in the road win, the sight of Okafor tuning Nikola Vucevic and Jason Smith, and the idea that Ish might even make Noel and Okaford look like they can live together.
And if Joel Embiid can ever get on the floor, and the team can can get Dario Saric to come over, then make some very necessary deal to get the stud guard they haven't had since Andre Iguodala was deemed Not A Star?
Well then, we can do things like root for wins over our own conference before late January. Sounds like more fun to me...