There's all kinds of seasons that a franchise can have. They can have the championship one, which is, of course, extremely rare if you follow just one team, and weren't fortunate enough to pick the right one as a child. There's the contending year, which has its charms, but always ends in some level of disappointment (see Eagles, early Andy Reid era). There's the pointless year, where you never get a sense of up or down, just that there's no real hope, and no real reason to continue watching outside of habit (see Eagles, late Chip Kelly era). There's the down year, where you are on the other side of the peak and nothing seems satisfying, but at least you have your memories and a sense of past gratitude (see Phillies, last 2-3 years). And then there's the rising year, where the team isn't good enough yet, but you feel like it's all leading to something good later.
That's been the Sixers for nearly three years now.
And sure, they keep hitting the reset button and re-tanking, but the plain and simple is that every year, this team gets better in mid-season. When other teams fall off because the grind of the season gets to be too much for them, that's when head coach Brett Brown figures out what he's got from the long collection of not quite ready talent. Motivation is never a problem, because none of these guys take their paycheck for granted. Even the high picks grind, because they know on some level that they have to, lest the blowouts come. The fan base has always been into it, because the locals respect effort more than talent, and the process more than the result. Finally, January and February is when you really *need* the NBA team to be watchable, because there's nothing else, really, to fill your sports hole.
More about the fan base. Philadelphians understand basketball, and the moments of artistry and athleticism, more than any other fan base around. The team has won enough to know what winning looks like, but there's more to hoop than wins. That's why Allen Iverson was our spirit animal. He didn't care about practice, and neither do we. He didn't conserve his energies and skip out on the back end of a back to back; neither do we. He played every game as if it were his last, and a true Philadelphia fan will cheer and boo every game the same way. We don't bring more intensity to a playoff game on a per capita basis. There's just more of us there, and more reason to mark out. Go all in, and we will as well.
So, back to this game. The team was without PG1 Ish Smith, the single biggest reason why they've been a near .500 team with downright danger since Christmas, after the terrible start. Which meant that rookie T.J. McConnell had to take the reins, and execrable back up Kendall Marshall had to get minutes that mattered. Luckily for McConnell, Brooklyn's worst position is point guard, which meant he just had to contend with Donald Sloan and Shane Larkin, and the Sixers owned that matchup. 24-12 after the first, with McConnell doing his best Smith impersonation in getting Nerlens Noel off early. Also helping; Noel was guarded by Brook Lopez, a classic empty calories big man who can make anyone with lateral quickness look offensively capable. Nerlens has got that in spades.
So the team played with the lead most of the night, despite pivotal wing man Robert Covington not being able to do much, and center Jahlil Okafor also not hitting shots. Here's where the game was revelatory. Earlier this season, Okafor's value was entirely on offense, and if his shot wasn't falling, there would be little value to what he did. He also didn't mesh at all with Noel. But tonight, he grinded away on defense, got on the boards, and set the basis for a good all-around night. McConnell deserves some of the credit for that, as he didn't play favorites with his penetration and passing, and the Nets are a team you can torch on the boards; the Sixers won that battle by six, with Okafor's 17 leading the way. But for vast stretches of this game, the two bigs actually worked well together, especially on defense. Oakafor's 10 defensive boards meant that Noel could gamble for his 4 steals and 3 blocks, and that set the tone for 19 Nets turnovers, and a 5-15 night from the arc. There's the core of a very good defensive team here, especially if Oakafor can become a plus on the boards. He also had three blocks tonight, which is more a matter of the Nets being clueless, but still, progress.
What else to like? How they won despite issues. Nic Stauskas, Covington and Isaac Canaan went a combined 5 for 23, and they normally need much better three-point shooting to stay in games, let alone win. They won despite a 17 to 14 assist to turnover ratio, with Marshall's 5 giveaways in twenty minutes showing, yet again, why Smith is so valuable to this club. They won despite the Nets going 23 for 26 from the line. Mostly, they won because they played great defense... and when Brooklyn took the lead late and appeared to be on their way to stealing a game they didn't deserve, they forced turnovers, made shots, and rudely showed the visitors to the door.
Like it was what was supposed to happen, rather than some kind of happy accident or fluke.
Can Noel and Okafor really co-exist? I have no idea, and that's being optimistic, considering that they hadn't for nearly 50 games before this one. Brooklyn's far from a good standard, and the Clippers come to town on Monday. That team has treated the Sixers like the Washington Generals for years now, and even without Blake Griffin, it'll be a strong test, especially if Chris Paul is full power and Smith isn't. After that, the Kings are in town, with revenge for the earlier shocking loss in Sactown, and Boogie Cousins among the best players in the league since the turn of the new year. That's it before the break; all the hoop you get for a good long while, and all of the story that will be revealed to date.
But there's this. Fifty games, in the span of a 19 year old Okafor, is nothing. McConnell looks limited as hell, but he's a rookie, too; there may be more ceiling than expected. There's no rotation player on this team, honestly, that you can say is on the downside of his career. It's an open question whether some of them (Marshall, JaKarr Sampson) will actually have a career, but that's another matter.
The biggest thing is that this team is more and more looking like they are giving us a rising year. And unlike past years, they aren't likely to pull the chutes on cohesiveness and trade rotation pieces for second round picks, or cash in draft assets for chips later.
They are what they are, for the next 30 games. An increasingly entertaining team that is going to be better and vastly more watchable than they were earlier in the year. Who won't leave us ignoring the games until the Draft. And who might trade in the rising year for the contending year, as soon as next October.
Not too many teams can promise you more, really. Especially in this town....