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April 09, 2018

Sixers' 50 wins are a product of years worth of working and waiting

It goes without saying that the 2017-18 Sixers share very little with the teams from the Sam Hinkie era, filled to the brim with unpolished diamonds and young players just glad to have a chance. The longest-tenured Sixer — aside from Joel Embiid, who sat out his first two years — is Robert Covington, the ultimate success story from a memorable, often miserable period of basketball.

It is Covington's story, one of a D-League player who has grown into an elite wing defender and an integral figure in Philadelphia's first 50-win season since 2001, that is basically the story of the Sixers. There have been miserable shooting nights, glaring errors, and questions about whether he would ever turn the corner. And now that we're here, with Covington turning in a 15-point, 10-rebound, three-assist game against the Mavericks to help Philadelphia hit that 50-win plateau, it seems silly for anyone to have doubted in the first place.

After Philadelphia's sleepy 109-97 win over the Mavericks on Sunday afternoon, Brett Brown was afforded a moment to boast or gloat in advance of the team's 50th win, a remarkable achievement for a club that won only 10 games in 2016. But instead of reflecting on his individual journey or the number itself, Brown turned his gaze toward all the people around him who made it possible.

"I have a lot of firepower around me," said Brown. "It means a lot for everybody; it takes a village. The ownership group, the front office, my assistant coaches, it takes a village. I think the common denominator in any type of successful thing that I study is the consistency of good people. I feel like the peripheral people — forget the players for a second — the surrounding cast deserves a lot of credit. I hope I represent a real-time example to other owners that can say, this is the plan, and we're really going to adhere to the plan, walk it down and not blink."

There were lots of moments where people involved in the process could have blinked, and in fairness, the organization hasn't been unflinching. But Sam Hinkie could have been scared off by the prospect of selecting a big man with a broken foot or a European player he had to wait for, Brown could have abandoned developmental minutes in search of short-term results, and then you reach the players, and you have to grasp all the unseen reps and unheard work that went into making the team what it is. 

Keeping Brown around is a critical element too — as the coach noted, not too many people with his record get to emerge on the other side of a river of shit like Andy Dufresne

Even if we just focus on this season, there are decisions being made as recently as the last few weeks that a more unstable group would have struggled to deal with. The Sixers didn't need Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli to make the playoffs, but their additions by Bryan Colangelo have helped push the Sixers' bench to a new level. Markelle Fultz could have been pushed to the background after a long layoff, and instead, he's gaining valuable playing time and providing an X-factor for Philadelphia's playoff run.

The result of decisions past and present is what you see today: a Sixers team playing at half-speed in the wake of a monumental victory over Cleveland, still good enough to beat bad teams like Dallas on cruise control. They have an identity, a team-first, defensive core that empowers everything they do. That, more than anything, is what the coach points to as the marker for their success.

There is a toughness in our group, I think that there is a defensive purpose to our group. We’re going to play fast, we hope we make our threes, but I think that there are two things. I think that there is a defensive belief that nothing else matters unless we guard and we have that sung, I’ve tried to sing it since I’ve been here and we’ve continued to sing it. 

I think that they hear it, I think that they hear it loudly, the voices that I hear in the locker room and on the bench confirm that it’s deeper than just my voice. And I think that anytime you have a team that regularly bangs out 30-plus assist games, again we had 32 tonight. That in itself is a statement of sharing and caring and we pass the ball. We really pass the ball and if you can have that defensive disposition and an offensive identity that is self-less then you got a chance to move along in good ways.

The Eastern Conference has been better and deeper than people thought it would be, and the Sixers have still managed to win the most games for the franchise in a single season in almost two decades. This has prompted people to make declarations like, "The Process is over!"

The truth could not be any further from that. The Sixers are succeeding at a high level because of micro and macro decisions that kept an eye on the future, even if it meant assuming risk. That is what "The Process" was always about, and it still guides plenty of the critical parties despite the departure of a GM who started their march toward relevance. 

So, about the Markelle Fultz — T.J. McConnell decision

Frankly, the most noteworthy thing from the game itself on Sunday afternoon, aside from the obvious playoff implications, was Brown's decision to essentially bench TJ McConnell. Brown came out and explained the decision was as simple as getting Fultz more minutes, and it's a fair enough explanation, but there was a bit of conflict with what he said prior to the game and what ended up transpiring.

"I'm happy right now with a 10-man rotation. The way that we play, no Joel Embiid, we need that," said Brown.

They apparently didn't need it that much. With a chance to get Fultz out on the court against a brutal Mavericks team, McConnell sat on the pine until the 2:24 mark of the fourth quarter, deep into garbage time against one of the league's worst teams. It gave Fultz a chance to stretch his wings and go head-to-head with a peer from his draft class, Dennis Smith Jr., and it was a fairly mixed bag for the rookie.

Fultz helps and hurts himself by equal measure with his activity. You certainly would not want to coach that out of him — after missing a layup in the second quarter, Fultz stayed with the play and came up with a steal, eventually getting those two points he couldn't on the first attempt.

Gambling by the basket of your opponent after a change of possession is one thing. Fultz's problem at the moment is that he is doing a little too much of that away from the ball in halfcourt defense, shading away from his man in order to help toward ballhandlers.

Being fixated on the ball is a very typical young player trait, so this isn't exactly some massive concern for Fultz moving forward, especially because he has the length and speed to recover in time to alter shots. But you catch him ball-watching a decent amount, and that's something good teams will prey on with backdoor cuts and quicker, purposeful offense in the playoffs.

Setting aside the individual game for a moment, it certainly appears as though Brown is giving Fultz every opportunity to supplant McConnell in the rotation. The latter played just five minutes in the team's dramatic win over the Cavaliers last Friday, and has taken a backseat as the coach lets his No. 1 pick spread his wings.

But if the move has created any animosity between the two players, they certainly aren't showing it. Their pre-game warmup time often intersects hours before tip, and the two are constantly fooling around and laughing as they get up shots and prepare. Both players attempt to knock the other's shot out of mid-air with their own basketball, with the younger rookie often running away sheepishly whenever McConnell mocks anger.

There's nothing but love when you ask the two about the situation.

"I'm not going to cry over spilled milk," McConnell said after the game. "Markelle and Ben are special players and they need to be out there for us to win. I've just got to stay ready. If my number's called, I've just got to ggo out there and be a pro and help this team win."

"T.J.'s a great teammate. He's a guy that's going to push you to do your best, even when he's not out there. I love that guy to death. He's still helping from the sideline," added Fultz. "His spirits are still high and he's helping us."

And look, it was always going to come down to this if Fultz returned, especially with the downturn in McConnell's play over the last couple months. There is utility for Fultz as an off-ball cutter and scorer that McConnell doesn't have, even if we set aside the long-term importance of getting Fultz on the floor.

Explanations aside, the dynamic here is representative of the locker room as a whole. They're all working toward one goal, whether they see the floor or spend all night on the sideline.

The Sixers need Dario Saric to get going again

One of the only bummers of Philadelphia's recent win streak has been the elbow issue holding back Dario Saric. He missed several games last week after hitting the hardwood with gusto in their recent win over the Knicks, and his shooting stroke has evaded him since returning to the lineup against Cleveland.

Say this with me and remember it before we move on: two bad games in the grand scheme of the season are nothing, and do not come close to defining the excellent year Saric has had.

That being said, his shot has not looked good since the return from the elbow injury, and you have to wonder if it's having an impact on his release at the moment. He left three of his five attempts from deep woefully short against the Mavericks, and none of them were particularly well-contested by Dallas' defenders.

From what people around the team are saying, the elbow is allegedly a non-issue. Saric was not on the injury report for Sunday's game and isn't expect to be added back on for this issue, at least currently. So the Sixers will have to hope this is an aberration for a guy whose monumental leap forward is one of the best stories this season.

You can't really overstate his importance to the starting lineup, which figures to play more minutes together than usual once the playoffs start. Teams are going to sag off Simmons to an extreme degree in the playoffs and junk up the court as much as they can, which puts pressure on the shooters to stretch the floor and keep breathing space available for Embiid.

The good news? Saric nearly always finds ways to contribute regardless, and having played at an international level he is more prepared for pressure situations than some of his young peers are.

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