At long last, we can officially close the book on preseason basketball and turn our attention to games that matter, as NBA opening night is just a few sunrises away. However, before we do, let’s quickly take stock of the exhibition action, which for Philadelphia 76ers fans is like slowing down to gaze back at a six-car accident on the side of the highway. As is their way, the Sixers lost more than they won, finishing 2-5 in the preseason, with those two wins requiring shots in the last 10 seconds of each game to prevail in one-possession affairs.
On the surface, those results are largely irrelevant; after all, it’s just preseason. The Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs only won a combined three exhibition games, because they know games in May and June matter infinitely more than those in October. Still, for a Philadelphia franchise with no short-term playoff aspirations, preseason play serves as a nice barometer of how the young team is progressing forward. If the first seven games were any indication, the team is stuck in the same quagmire they found themselves in during the 2014-15 campaign.
The team’s offense, which has struggled mightily since the dawn of the Sam Hinkie-Brett Brown era, looks as putrid as ever. Philadelphia finished the preseason with an 89.7 offensive rating, second-worst in the league ahead of only Dallas, who was routinely sitting 80 percent of its projected starters. The arrival of third overall pick Jahlil Okafor was supposed to serve as a panacea for those offensive woes, as Big Jah would theoretically open things up for his teammates and be an easy option for points when the offense stalled. Instead, Okafor and the rest of the Sixers’ rookies were statistically among the worst new arrivals in the league this preseason:
2015 NBA Draft Preseason PER Bottom Five: 1) R Holmes, 2. J Tokoto, 3. J Anderson, 4. J Okafor, 5. A Brown
— Jim Hlavac (@jimhlavac) October 24, 2015
On top of the rookies’ struggles, possibly the worst sign of all for the team came in the preseason finale, when Robert Covington left the court with an undisclosed knee injury. Covington was one of the bright spots for the Sixers in the exhibition season, once again shooting slightly above-average from three at a high volume (37.5 percent on 5.7 attempts per game), while also expanding his game to assume more ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities (16.3 AST% vs. last season’s 9.5). At night’s end, Covington left the arena on crutches; the injury may just be a minor sprain, but anything more serious would spell disaster for the Sixers’ chances of being competitive on a nightly basis this season.
In spite of all the doom and gloom over the first few paragraphs, there did emerge a few winners for the Sixers during the preseason. Let’s break those down to leave things on a more positive note.
1. Nerlens Noel – With the Sixers continually selecting a big man in the first round of the draft to assume the mantle of franchise player, it’s the guy who arrived first on the scene who looks best poised to seize the role. Having already emerged as one of the top young defenders in the game, Noel’s defensive numbers remained off the charts despite spending more time at power forward this preseason. On a per-36 minute basis, Noel averaged 4.3 steals and 1.9 blocks, while committing just 2.9 fouls. Offensively, Noel looked much more comfortable handling the ball (17.4 AST% vs. last season’s 9.9), and while the results didn’t show it, his reworked jump shot appeared much smoother to the proverbial eye test. If nothing else after two-plus years of tanking, the Sixers know they have one franchise building block on their hands.
2. Christian Wood – Given all the injuries the Sixers are dealing with at the guard and wing positions, it’s unclear if the Sixers will even have the roster space to keep the undrafted free agent. Yet, if nothing else, Wood certainly showed this preseason that 30 teams were crazy to pass on him in last summer’s draft. The former Runnin’ Rebel displayed all the tools which make him the perfect prototype for a modern NBA big man. He gets up and down the floor (remarkably second on the team in pace behind the uber-athletic J.P. Tokoto), works hard on the glass (led the team in DREB% at 28.4%), can finish around the rim (64.7 percent on shots less than 5 feet) and at least showed the rough outline of a guy who could help stretch the floor someday. Wood is exactly the type of player the Sixers should be hoping to unearth with their constant roster churn over the past few years. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t on the final 15-man roster, even in spite of the numbers crunch.
3. Kendall Marshall, Tony Wroten, Nik Stauskas – This trio sat out the entire preseason due to injury, but arguably no one else on the team saw their stock rise more. Players like Isaiah Canaan and T.J. McConnell did some nice things this preseason, but as the offensive numbers show, the Sixers were starved for difference-makers at the guard position. Each of these three brings something different to the table (elite passing ability in the case of Marshall, Wroten’s knack for penetrating through the teeth of a defense and Stauskas’s long-range acumen). When they all return to the court, Brett Brown might finally be able to piece together some semblance of an offense.
Certainly, seven games aren’t the end-all, be-all one way or another for a player or team. It’s likely Okafor eventually adjusts to facing bigger, stronger defenders and his natural talent shines through, while maybe some of the alleged character concerns that caused Wood to slip in the draft crop up and he loses some of his luster. Whatever happens, there’s now 82 games of honest-to-goodness NBA basketball ahead of us in which to keep making those sort of evaluations. We can all be thankful for that.