By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
It was yet another season of ritual darkness, briefly interrupted by moments of blindly light for the 2016/2017 Philadelphia 76ers. For a brief moment a plant sprouted from the seeds of planned futility. This year offered a Twitter All-Star push for oft-injured center Joel Embiid, an unforeseen expeditious decline of forward Jahlil Okafor and the authoritative announcement of arrival for forward Dario Saric. All occurring in what amounted to yet another losing season.
Folks can argue the significance of the “moral victories” they choose to applaud and the “emotional growth” they have chosen to relish in. But the bottom line is Philadelphia will end another season, making that 7 out of their last 10, under .500.
When will it end?
Nevertheless with any team there are players whose effort, even in losing, is worthy of note. Even if the team they play for is worthy of execution at times. As the season comes to a merciful end, questions are sure to mount regarding the direction of the franchise. Who should stay and who should seek employment elsewhere? Will this be Ben Simmons’ team or Joel Embiid’s team? Most of all when will wins return to Philly basketball?
However, for the moment those questions will be brushed aside to celebrate the “untriumphant” effort of the individuals on the current roster.
Teammate of the Year: Richaun Holmes
As a second round pick Richaun Holmes has slightly exceeded expectations, but as a teammate the forward has shattered those expectations. Early in the season Holmes, whose contract is only partially guaranteed for next season, was essentially punished for being a second round pick. The forward was benched (13 DNP-CD) and his minutes were surrendered to center Nerlens Noel and Dario Saric. However, the Bowling Green State University product never publicly complained, rather he patiently waited for his number to be called.
Once that number was called the center/forward performed. From 18 points against the Los Angeles Clippers and specifically two-time All-Defense center DeAndre Jordan to 25 points against the Atlanta Hawks and former Defensive Player of the Year winner Dwight Howard, Holmes stepped up when given the time. The young man earned the minutes that were taken away from him early on, but decided to put the growth of the team ahead of his personal desires.
That is what being a great teammate all about.
Rookie of the Year: Dario Saric
Is there really any other choice here? The season opened up with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot as possible options but ended with Saric either being the last man standing or having a bigger statistical impact.
Saric’s best ability has been availability, and on a roster where turned ankles morph into season-ending surgeries Dario was a welcomed nightly sight. When the season commenced it was Simmons and Embiid who were being counted on to bring the Sixers back to relevancy, but both of their seasons were destroyed by injuries. Fellow rookie Luwawu-Cabarrot has played well recently, but it is clear Saric has been the better player from start to finish.
The former EuroLeague star’s points per game have risen almost nine points (10.8 to 18.5) since the All-Star break. Equally as impressive is the forward’s rise through the ranks. Earlier in the year players complained about a lack of minutes, while other players offered their opinion on who should be playing and when. Yet, the Croatian never joined the fray and instead just kept swimming. The rookie decided to simply remain focused on the things he could control, and in “the process” outlasted all chirping parties.
Saric’s confidence and feel for the game has gotten better as the year goes on, and has provided reason for optimism.
Most Improved Player: T.J. McConnell
There are surprises and then there are what T.J. McConnell accomplished this season. The Arizona product went from fringe NBA player to desired asset, such a climb is a testament to McConnell’s desire, character and hard work. The guard started 17 of 81 games last season, yet through sheer determination tripled that 17 game total and started a whopping 51 games this season. At the beginning of the year such an accession seemed extremely unlikely.
With Sergio Rodriguez and Jerryd Bayless joining the roster via free agency and Ben Simmons playing the role as “Messiah” McConnell’s days in Philly seemed numbered. However, injuries and the sheer ability of availability paved the way for an unlikely prosperous season for T.J. No one would confuse the Sixers season as a success, but the little point guard who couldn’t……….spent the entire season proving he could.
The undrafted floor general has given life to an improbable NBA career, and with so many setbacks taking place this season it was enjoyable to which McConnell take a step forward.
Defensive Player of the Year: Robert Covington
There is no more subjective award in the NBA than the Defensive Player of the Year. For seasons upon seasons Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward LeBron James was the best defensive player in the league, but was often overlooked for whatever the reason may be. That said the awarding of Covington does not fall into this realm.
The Tennessee State alum is more effort than accomplishment, but such is the case with most of the 76ers roster. What makes Covington the winner here is not where the forward lies in the more celebrated defensive accomplishments (blocks, deflections, steals, and defensive rebounding), instead it is his traditional on-the-ball defense. Opponents shoot about 46 percent on 2-point field goals when defended by Covington.
To put that number in perspective Golden State Warriors’ forward Draymond Green allows 44 percent and San Antonio Spurs’ forward Kawhi Leonard allows 48 percent, both are considered top defenders at the small forward position. Conversely, noted two way small forwards Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (53 percent) and Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls (50 percent) have not experienced similar success on the defensive end.
This output, combined with being first in deflections per (4.2), fourth in steals per (1.9) and 11th in totals steals (127) is why Robert is the winner here.
Most Valuable Player: Joel Embiid
Yes Dario Saric could be the winner here, but it is difficult to say anyone who played in 82 games and yielded a record of 28 – 54 is truly valuable. Furthermore, the year quickly went from who “was” on the floor to who “was not” on the floor. Saric’s durability and availability should be commended but Joel Embiid was the story of the season from start to finish.
Embiid’s presence and then abrupt departure turned a year of promise into yet another year of pain, and that in a nutshell is what an MVP does. There was the All-Star push which galvanized not just Philly, but also the basketball world. The Cameroonian was the topic du jour whether he was playing or not.
The center also indirectly put an end to the “Trust the Process” era that had overtaken Philadelphia. The patience that many displayed before Embiid’s third season ending injury is now either plausible deniability or reluctant sensibility. Regardless the hope now is in moving forward. The end of the #trusttheprocess movement and acceptance of its failure by most if not all is worthy alone of the award.
The former Kansas JayHawk was worth the wait and the numbers he put up were dazzling to watch. The center scored 20 or more points in 19 of 31 games, blocked two or more shots in 26 of 31 games all while making at least one three pointer in 21 of 31 games. Yes sir the 7-footer is special……when healthy.
The fact remains he has not been and more than likely never will be. Embiid showed the Philadelphia basketball world that there are no gimmicks in talent evaluation and the process evolves "who" your franchise selects not "where" they select. Fans now understand if your chief talent evaluator cannot identify talent it doesn’t matter where your pick falls, and for that Joel is the real M.V.P.