76ers at the All-Star Break

Even though the Philadelphia 76ers completed 64.6 percent of the season after last Wednesday’s numbing loss to Sacramento, the All-Star Break presents the best opportunity to discuss the team’s season.The 76ers faced different hurdles throughout the first part of the season. From a specific player point of view, the biggest first half story was Jahlil Okafor. His play was at times overshadowed by off-the-court activity, namely the incident the night before Thanksgiving. From a team point of view, however, the biggest first half story was the addition of Jerry Colangelo as advisor to general manager Sam Hinkie. That move directly forced Philadelphia to trade two second round picks to New Orleans for former 76er Ish Smith. Smith’s first game was Dec. 26. Philadelphia had one win in 31 games before Smith’s debut. Since then Philadelphia has seven wins in 22 games, and several more games where Philly held halftime and third quarter leads. It’s obvious the impact Smith has made, but it’s also helped the second unit because TJ McConnell, who started a handful of games, looks better as the back-up point guard.

Every NBA player hits a rough patch sometime during the season. Even Stephen Curry struggled for a three-game stretch recently. It’s more common among rookies and younger players, and Philadelphia has many of those players. Noel struggled early with nagging injuries. He also played second fiddle to Okafor. Okafor was the higher draft pick, the better offensive talent and the guy Philly fed the ball in key situations. It’s only human nature that Noel would feel slighted by Okafor. Noel also wasn’t playing his natural center position. Noel played such a strong second half of the season in his rookie year that fans believed he’d continue that strong play in October and November, but that wasn’t the case. At the end of last season people believed Noel would team up with a third overall drafted big man, but that big man was supposed to be Joel Embiid, not Okafor. Philly will continue to experiment with Noel and Okafor, as they should. Noel without Okafor, however, has been amazing. I wrote about Noel’s impact at center in games Okafor doesn’t play here. Recently head coach Brett Brown has played Okafor at power forward on defense. Noel looked much better at center in those games, posting a 94.9 defensive rating. Okafor, however, has struggled mightily. He’s posted a 112.2 defensive rating in those four games at power forward. It’s going to be ugly at times, but Noel’s too good on defense inside to play power forward.

Here are some breakdowns of some 76ers:

Hollis Thompson shoots 39.6 percent from 3 in his career. He’s a really solid 3-point shooter. Four of Philly’s wins took place when Thompson hit three or more triples. He might never been a rotational player on a contender, but Thompson gives Philly much needed spacing. Teams fear Thompson from three, which explains why he’s shooting under his career percentage from three this season. Since 2009, Thompson has played the eighth most games for the 76ers, which is crazy to thing about. He’s the second longest tenured 76er behind Noel. Maybe Thompson isn’t in the NBA if the 76ers, who intentionally sucked for three years, didn’t exist. But Thompson has gained valuable NBA experience, which should benefit future wings Philadelphia drafts.

In 11 games since Jerami Grant returned from a calf injury that sidelined him for two games, he’s averaged 14.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes. Grant trails only Noel in win shares for the 76ers. Grant’s 3-point shooting percentage dropped, but he’s shooting 5o.9 percent from twos. Grant’s 2-point shooting percentage is remarkable, especially considering he’s not the best ball-handler. He attacks the basket ferociously. Nearly 49 percent of Grant’s attempts come from within three feet, 14.7 percent which are dunks. He looks much more comfortable finishing around the rim when defenders take away dunk attempts. Grant has drawn more fouls and completed more AND-1s than last season. He’s also had more shots attempted blocked, but that just demonstrates his aggressive approach this season. Grant’s offensive rating is up eight points per possessions from last season. He’s quickly realizing how to attack NBA defenses. Grant had a strong second half last season, so hopefully his play continues to increase because it’s easy to see Grant as a contributor on a playoff team.

Richaun Holmes has made his impact known from day one, essentially. I wrote about him here, so there’s no need to expand.

Robert Covington has had as an up-and-down season as anyone. He’s had stretches where he doesn’t miss from deep, and then several straight games with duds from deep. Covington has coughed up 18.1 percent of his possessions, which isn’t very good for a non-ball dominant wing. It’s not easy being a playmaker on the wing, and Covington has proved that this season. He was very good from three last season, and given his length and his ability to defend multiple positions, it would be nice to see Covington expand his offensive game this season, but he hasn’t completed the next step. Covington doesn’t have to complete that next step to make a mark in the NBA, though. He can be a 3 and D guy for several seasons, but he’ll not be trusted handling the ball in key situations.

Nik Stauskas has had some ugly moments. He’s shooting below league average from three. He’s had five games where he played major minutes and didn’t score. He’s only scored double figures 15 times in 47 games. In his last five games, however, he’s made 12-of-24 from three. He’s had good moments driving to the basket as well. With a change of scenery and an expectation to produce immediately, Stauskas might have struggled early, and then lacked confidence moving forward but maybe Stauskas regained confidence and will continue to increase his 3-point shooting percentage.

Since Smith took over starting point guard duties, McConnell has played 16.2 minutes a game. McConnell trails only Carl Landry in plus-minus since Dec. 26. McConnell’s 39.9 assist percentage ranks first among players who’ve appeared in more than 15 games off the bench since Dec. 26. McConnell should get even more minutes as back-up point guard in the second half of the season.

It was nice to see Okafor play in the Rising Stars Challenge, but now Philadelphia fans gear towards the trade deadline. Unlike past years, the 76ers could be quiet before and during the Feb. 18 deadline. Rumors will surface. Talks will ensue. But Philadelphia cannot afford to move Okafor or Noel without knowing Joel Embiid’s health, which means that if Philadelphia does make a move it will probably be a salary dump to gain a draft pick.

After a nine-day break, the second season begins Friday. Philly should continue to play good basketball like they have since acquiring Smith. Wins, however, might not come with good basketball. Philly already played Phoenix, the Lakers and Minnesota twice, which means Philly might not match their 18 wins from last season.

All Statistics come from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

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