Consistently winning games in the NBA is one of the harder tasks in professional sports. The rigors of an 82-game schedule, playing consecutive nights, or sometimes three games in four days, can really take a toll on players. In order to be successful, the first order of business would be to have superstar caliber players. But what comes next, competing for 48 straight minutes, is arguably just as crucial.
The Philadelphia 76ers have a few star players in hand. Joel Embiid is already amongst the league’s best, and Ben Simmons seems to be climbing the ladder on a daily basis. But those two didn’t stop the Sixers from dropping multiple games earlier this season where they either had the lead or were in a close battle.
A major reason for that: the Sixers’ bench was thin. Razor thin at times, while the team dealt with injuries.
When the trade deadline approached at the beginning of February, and Philadelphia was in the middle of a playoff race, they were viewed as a team that could potentially make a move for a key veteran off the bench to ensure a postseason berth.
The deadline came and went, and president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo stood pat, unwilling to give up any assets for a rental. A frugal move, but not one that would help the Sixers realize their playoff dreams after declaring them as such for the entire season.
There’s another plus about having star players in the NBA, though. Usually, veteran guys gravitate towards them, viewing stars a way to be part of something meaningful. In the case of Philadelphia, they experienced that for the first (and second) time over the last three weeks since beginning their rebuild.
After securing buyouts with the Atlanta Hawks, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova decided to head north to Philadelphia for a playoff push. Ilyasova spent the first half of last season with the Sixers before being traded away, but he returns to a much different situation.
“It’s always great to be back here,” Ilyasova said. “It was a helluva speech Brett Brown made to get me here. We’re playing good basketball. It’s a tremendous job that they did compared to last year and they play as a unit.”
Tremendous growth almost puts what the Sixers are doing lightly. In terms of their starting unit of Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Embiid, they rank near the top of the league with their 18.9 net rating. For comparison’s sake, that’s more effective than Golden State’s starting five.
Ilyasova and Belinelli were brought on board to complement the winning basketball Philadelphia’s starters have already established. On Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets, the team’s newest bench weapon came up in a big way.
In his first game back at the Wells Fargo Center, Ilyasova played a big role in the Sixers’ come from behind win, scoring 18 points while adding four rebounds and three assists. Outside of the team’s starters, he registered the highest plus/minus rating on the team.
“Tonight you were going to see him and Dario a lot with each other,” Brown said of Ilyasova’s performance. “You see him have the ability to make great passes from that pick and roll spot. I put him and Joel in some pick and rolls and they delivered. You saw him take a massive charge at the end of the game that he got rewarded for.”
Following back-to-back wins over Cleveland and Charlotte, the Sixers find themselves holding onto the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. On top of that, Philadelphia is just two games behind Cleveland for the 3rd seed with 21 games remaining in the regular season.
Now that the Sixers have players like Ilyasova and Belinelli to add to their regular reserve group, Brown is excited to tinker with the team’s versatility moving forward. Having the benefit of a 6-foot-10 point guard in Simmons leads to constant mismatches on the court, and the Sixers’ head coach doesn’t want to forget that moving forward.
“All over the place,” Brown said. “Whether it’s (Ilyasova) making a three, or him passing to Joel, or him taking a charge. Him coexisting with Dario Saric. I think that flexibility, that versatility, is what excites me the most about him. It’s not like we don’t know each other, we know each other very well. He knows the system quite well. There’s still lots to refamiliarize him with.”
This late in the season, adding Ilyasova deserves just one explanation from Brown.
“He’s a massive pick up at this stage in my eyes,” Brown said.
Along with the recent additions, the Sixers also have a rotating carousel at the backup center position. Whether it’s Richaun Holmes or Amir Johnson that subs out Embiid, the team’s growing fluidity in their rotations have Brown pleased with the results.
“I think that we have something unique,” Brown said. “You know you gotta juggle and figure out with Richaun and Amir. I thought Richaun was a little down tonight, and so Amir sat back-to-back. You have those options available, and that’s a team. That’s what a team is about. If you can get a team to believe in what I just said, then you’ve got it all.”
Brown went on the boast about his team’s “legitimate locker room” saying they’re one of the most cohesive bunches he’s seen during his time in the NBA. Brown added, “I’m lucky to coach it.”
With just over a month remaining in the regular season, a hotly contested playoff race, and plenty of games to play, the Sixers are far from finishing what they started.
But with the upward trajectory of their recent play, coupled with the new bench additions, the team from Philadelphia that just spent years in the NBA’s basement is on the cusp of achieving what they set out to do at the beginning of this season.
“I think it’s a collective, progressive growth born out of rough times early in the season,” Brown said. “And now sort of delivered into March that we’re really close to achieving something in our eyes that’s special and was a declared goal. And that is to play in the playoffs.”
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