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April 17, 2017

Ten ways the Sixers season was a success

Last week, I wrote a column and recorded a podcast in which “Did the 2016-17 Philadelphia 76ers have a successful season?” was the main question kicked around. As anybody who has paid even a little attention to the Sixers can attest to, that is a tricky, subjective question. There was plenty of good and bad to go around in a season marked by wild fluctuations.

The best way to proceed is by splitting the answer up. Later today, we will have a post that details ten ways that the Sixers 2016-17 season fell short of expectations in one way or another. But for this morning, we’ll stick with the good stuff.

1. Joel Embiid is incredible

“The Process” is getting a ton of Rookie of the Year buzz over the past few weeks, and regardless of whether the limited minutes prevent him from holding the trophy, there is no doubt that he was one of the best rookies in recent memory. I mean, look at this.

Sixers owner Josh Harris isn’t always a very popular figure in Philadelphia, but I always liked what he said at the end of the 2014-15 season.

“We’re going to continue to try to add elite NBA players,” Harris said at the time. “And like we’ve said all along, the way you win in the NBA is to have at least two, but hopefully four Top-20 NBA players. And they’re hard to get.”

Embiid’s health is a major question mark (we’ll get to that later today), but he has the talent to be a Top-5 NBA player, the type of guy that wins you titles. Those guys are really hard to get.

2. The Wells Fargo Center was rocking again

When Embiid was shooting free throws at home, there was a common refrain. The whole building (or at least a lot of it) would chant, “Trust the Process!”

(Heck, there were TTP chants in Boston.)

Embiid’s infectious personality plays a major role here. Process Truster or not, it had to be great to see Philadelphia legitimately excited about Sixers games again. Since Allen Iverson was at his absolute peak, we haven’t had an NBA contender Philly. Even if this was just a taste, it was a good sign.

3. Brett Brown won the season

Finally given a bit more to work with, Brown improved the team’s record by 18 games. The NBA isn’t really a coach’s league, but Brown’s player development helped the young guys on the roster take steps forward across the board. He has earned the right to try to keep moving this thing along.

4. The national perception shifted

Again, this is mostly thanks to Embiid, whose limited minutes were followed religiously by League Pass junkies. He and Ben Simmons look like terrific rewards, but the Sixers weren’t able to simulate those losing season. And for the first time in four years, they weren’t dealing with being talked about for the wrong reasons.

Writers, talking heads, late-night hosts, and whoever you can think of took shots at the Sixers during the first few seasons of Processing. Whether or not that perception was fair, it certainly was a factor that was tough to ignore. Not now.

5. Robert Covington’s defense went to another level

ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus is only one metric, which essentially tries to account for the quality of a player’s teammates along with plus-minus. But again, only one metric.

That said, by DRPM, Rudy Gobert is ranked first and Draymond Green second. Along with Kawhi Leonard, those two guys are widely considered the best defensive players in the NBA. Well, Covington is ranked fourth.

Even if RoCo isn’t actually the fourth-best defender in the league, he might be a little closer than you think. His hands are amazingly quick, an elite skill. Covington takes on the most difficult perimeter assignment every night and Brett Brown completely trusts him. That’s a pretty marked shift from a few years ago.

6. Dario Saric, real and spectacular

Pretty good for a guy who was never coming over.

Dario Saric has some work to do, but there really was a lot to like from his rookie season. The Homie got better as the year went along, had a good rapport with his teammates (the whole “Trust The Friendship” thing comes to mind) while adjusting to the U.S., and just sort of impressed everyone with his combination of will and skill.

7. Player development

Specifically, that of Richaun Holmes and T.J. McConnell, two guys who had zero fanfare entering the NBA. Who would have guessed Holmes looks clearly the best big guy the Sixers drafted in 2015? As a bench player, he’s developing into someone talented enough to start at center for a few teams.

McConnell’s role might change a little bit next year and a three-point shot would go a long way for him, but the undrafted point has clearly proven that he belongs in the NBA. Just ask Steve Nash.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot showed us more than I expected this year, too.

8. The defense was legit

Brown’s goal all season was for the Sixers to finish Top-15 in defensive efficiency. The fell a percentage point short of that number, but who knows how high they would have risen if Embiid had stayed healthy?

9. Past trades look pretty good

Regardless of what happens in the lottery, betting against the Lakers and Kings doesn’t seem like a half-bad strategy.

10. Sneaky good tank at the end

The Sixers aren’t hoarding ping-pong balls like in past years, but the one benefit of almost everyone important getting injured was that they sank back to the fourth-best lottery odds. Eight straight losses to end the season will do that.

There is at least a chance that the Sixers are a playoff team next year, and if that happens, it would take a season from hell to get back to the top of the draft with their own pick the next few years. If this is the Sixers’ last chance in this spot, it’s a good thing that they’ll play the lottery hard.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann

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