Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Sixers Are Fun Again

Nik With Stick
It seems insane that a little thing like trading for an utterly disposable deep reserve point guard, a guy who has been on six NBA teams in seven years, could turn the worst basketball team in the NBA into Fun Town.

And yet, that's exactly what's been going on, because Ish Smith has caused a cascading reaction of good times.

First things first: Smith is not going to be the point guard for this team when they are actual contenders. He's a defensive sieve with a shaky jump shot, but he's got world-class quicks, and unlike past failures like Tony Wroten, Kendall Marshall or TJ McConnell, he doesn't create turnovers or miss free throws when he plays against people who are dramatically better than him. He's also got completely unwarranted levels of confidence in his own ability, which makes him fun, and a good influence in close and late situations, where the rest of the team gets the vapors. No one needs to tell Ish to fake it til he makes it; he's on his sixth NBA team, and the first where he's the clear starter. He's playing with house money every day of the week. (And yes, the team with him is what they might have looked like all year, had the Lakers just drafted Jahlil Okafor instead of D'Angelo Russell. I am bitter.)

Anyway... by giving Smith the starter minutes, McConnell isn't exposed any more, and Marshall gets garbage minutes only, which is good, because he's, well, garbage. McConnell for 10 to 15 minutes a night, against back up points and teams that don't run hard-core pressure and traps, is fine, because TJ has active hands in the passing lanes, plays like he's keeping the D-League at bay by going after loose balls, and has homeless man's Steve Nash kind of game. So both parts of the point guard situation are better. But the really exciting thing about having Smith back in the laundry is that the guy wearing the Nerlens Noel jersey isn't a mess anymore.

Noel in 2015 has been, to be blunt, a disaster. He's basically a deluxe energy player, and when guys like that mope, they are the very definition of useless. With points that haven't been able to get to the rim and finish, or attract attention at the arc, there hasn't been room in the half court for Noel to score enough points off alley-oops to feel good about himself, and it's killed his defense as well. This isn't a particularly unique problem for Nerlens, in that most NBA players can't separate one end of the court from the other, but it's very telling on a young team where he's the only plus defensive big. And to be fair, calling Nerlens a plus defensive big is like saying Stephen Curry can shoot a little. The man can take point guards on switches. He's honestly got Defensive Player of the Year potential with time.

The good times keep on rolling after that, actually. Noel playing defense coincided with an injury to Okafor, which meant that the worst defensive big on the roster was off the floor. (Yes, Big Jah really is that bad on defense. And this team employs Carl Landry to be a calming veteran influence, who is a 32-year-old who couldn't play defense when he was young and healthy.) Oak has all kinds of offensive game and old-school mid-range moves, but when he overhandles, it's a blocked shot and turnover not waiting to happen. With Smith rehabbing Noel, HC Brett Brown has an option other than just leaving Oak on the floor and hoping he stops being a 19-year old with 40% of an NBA game.

Want more? The existence of competent point guard play means that Isaiah Canaan, an all or nothing shooter in a point guard's body, can go back to the bench where he belongs. This also means that Brown has an either/or option with him or Nik Stauskas, who has been showing signs of life recently. Smith feeding Noel at the rim means there is 3-and-D possibilities again for folks like Jerami Grant, Robert Covington and Hollis Thompson, which means they can do things they are good at, rather than show what they can't do. The happier vibe also coincides with the return of Carl Landry -- laugh all you like, but he's got a jump shot and means the bench isn't a tire fire anymore -- and the emergence of Richaun Holmes, because bigs on the run are now getting fed. Landry dunked tonight off transition and celebrated like a high school kid. The bench went nuts for it. It was downright adorable.

I don't mean to overstate things, in that a 3-3 stretch after 1-30 is still, well, 4-33, and not a lock to escape the 9-72 nightmare scenario. Smith could turn an ankle or go back to being a volume misser, or the league can start adjusting hard to his weaknesses, and we might go right back to double-digit brain bashings. GM Sam Hinkie probably won't react to decent play by swapping out pieces for second rounders again, like in past years, but you never really know with this franchise.

For now, the plain and simple is that in the space of less than two weeks, they've gone from a blowout every game and dead men walking to the fun frat energy that's made stretches of the past three Years of Tank passable. I wanted to be in the building tonight when I saw them handle the Wolves, and that's a statement that I could not imagine making two weeks ago. (There's also the fact that Kevin Garnett tried to do his Old Sith Lord nonsense with cheap shots to change the fourth quarter mojo, and Landry flat out laughed at him, which makes me love Carl more than words can say.)

The next three months doesn't have to be like pulling teeth, and I don't have to apologize for liking the laundry. All because they brought back a guy no one in the NBA cared about.

Fun, no?

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