Since the first Sixers game of the season it was clear the team had the NBA Rookie of the Year. It was just a matter of which rookie was going to win it. And nobody thought it’d be Dario Saric.
Joel Embiid was healthy. Ben Simmons was the future. But as Embiid played fewer (and fewer) of the Sixers’ games, and it became clearer (and clearer) that Simmons wasn’t going to play much (read: at all) this year, it was the third guy — Saric — who started to garner more (and more) attention.
If, sorry, when Saric wins Rookie of the Year at the NBA’s inaugural awards ceremony in June, there’s an off chance that his coach, Brett Brown, could take home a trophy that night as well.
Here’s the case for both.
Sixers atop the NBA Rookie Ladder
In his last four games, Saric is averaging 21.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists, nabbing nearly two steals and averaging one block per game. His plus/minus in those four games? Plus 8.5. The Sixers’ record in those four games? 3-1, with the only loss a 106-104 defeat at Golden State in which Saric had 25 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists.
Sunday’s win over Boston? Saric may have locked up the rookie award.
Every week the NBA puts out their Rookie Ladder, a sponsored bit that ranks the season’s top rookies. Embiid has been at the top of the list the entire season. Only, he shouldn’t be. Not anymore.
This past week, the explanation for Embiid had this qualifier: “There is no metric to decide how long he can stay in the lead without stepping on the court, only the subjective that one rookie generated All-Star consideration and one rookie through the first three quarters of the season played like he wasn’t a rookie. Embiid may eventually fall from the top. Just not yet.”
That could have said this: When Embiid went down for the season, we stopped paying attention to the Sixers. Because anyone who has continued to watch this team, including Embiid himself, knows the best rookie this season is Saric. (He’s currently No. 2 on the NBA’s list. That will change.)
Saric has played every game this season for the Sixers, a model of consistency in an otherwise injury-riddled campaign for the team’s front court. Through the first 69 games of the season, heading into Monday’s tilt with Orlando, Saric averages 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He’s shooting 41.5 percent from the floor this season, but his true shooting percentage — accounting for two-point shots, three-point shots and free throws — is 51.1 percent.
Saric became such an important part of the Sixers on-court development the team traded Ersan Ilyasova just to give him a bigger role, and he’s rewarded them by being even better than anyone could have expected.
Since the All-Star break, when Ilyasova was dealt and Saric was put back into the starting lineup, the rookie is averaging 19.6 points, grabbing 8.2 rebounds and collecting 4.5 assists per game. And the assists have been spectacular.
For the season, Saric is averaging 26.1 minutes per game, but since the All-Star break, Brown has upped his time (by necessity due to trades and injury) to 33.2 per game. His per 100 possession stats have increased by nearly five points and more than two assists in that span and his per-36 minute numbers have gone from 17.2 to 21.3 points and 3.1 to 4.9 assists since the break. That’s a solid uptick in points, but a remarkable increase in assists.
Remember, it’s not as if the Sixers have a ton of dynamic scorers on the floor right now. The team is averaging 102.3 points per game this season — 24th in the NBA — but since the All-Star break, they’ve upped that to 107.3 — ninth-best in the league.
That’s thanks to Saric and a host of role players. And, clearly, to Brown.
Brett Brown, Coach of the Year
Brett Brown will not win NBA Coach of the Year. That trophy has already been engraved with the name Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets’ coach has Houston playing fantastic basketball, and has installed a system that somehow made MVP candidate James Harden even better than he was before.
Through 70 games, the Rockets have won 48, sit as the No. 3 seed in the Western conference and have already notched seven more victories than the team won last season. D’Antoni’s first year in Houston has reinvigorated the franchise after a down season in 2015-16, back on pace to match the 56-win total from two years ago.
But that’s the thing: As great as D’Antoni has been for Houston, they’ve been a really good team for years, last season’s record notwithstanding. (Note: they still won 41 games and made the playoffs last year.)
The Sixers won 10 games last year, and heading into Monday’s game in Orlando, Brown has stewarded this year’s team to 26 wins, the most since the 2012-13 season. All while Embiid played in just 31 games, Nerlens Noel, through injury, awkward benching and a trade, only featured in 29 games this season. Jahlil Okafor, through his own injuries and awkward benchings, has played in just 49 games this year. And even when he has played, Okafor is averaging just 22.8 minutes per game, a number that doesn’t include the games he was available but Brown chose not to play him while juggling the tetra-headed monster that was the Sixers center rotation.
Oh, and Richaun Holmes, the Sixers’ nearly-forgotten big man, is finally getting the minutes he deserves. We can pencil him into the NBA’s most-improved player award race next season.
All this is a credit to Brown. He’s made T.J. McConnell into a viable NBA point guard, even though the team brought in both Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez before the season to play over him. Rodriguez has settled into the back-up role nicely, while Bayless has missed all but three games with a wrist injury that never healed and needed surgery. And McConnell has become a leader on the team.
So, too, has Robert Covington, a defensive stopper who struggled immensely to get his shot down. Brown had faith in him, though, and Covington has rewarded that by becoming one of the Sixers’ best end-to-end players.
There are other coaches doing a great job this year — with more wins to show for it — but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more with less than Brown has this season. Before the Warriors played the Sixers last week, the 2016 NBA Coach of the Year, Steve Kerr, weighed in on Brown and the Sixers:
“I think they play a lot like we do, actually – with the ball movement, the cutting, the spacing,” said the 2016 Coach of the Year. “Obviously, they’ve had all the injuries over the last couple years, and Brett has kind of kept them together, and kept them playing hard and competing every night. So it’s really impressive.”
“It feels like the ship has turned for that franchise, slowly but surely,” said Kerr. “It takes time, but it feels like they are heading in the right direction.”
Before the season, the Sixers were picked to win 27.5 games this season. That was with Simmons and Embiid playing. When Simmons went down with a pre-season injury, the Sixers win total was literally pulled from the list in Las Vegas. Without the top-overall pick, the Sixers winning 18 more games than last season seemed impossible — even with Embiid, however healthy he was going to be. Eventually the Sixers were reinstalled at 24.5 wins in Vegas, a number they’ve already passed with more than a dozen games to go.
The Sixers are on pace to top their original win projection, without Simmons and with Embiid playing less than half the season. That’s because of Brown. Truly, if there’s one stat that should have Brown in the running for NBA Coach of the Year, it’s this: Embiid has played one game since January 20, while the Sixers have played 28 times since their star center injured his knee in a win over Portland. They’ve won 11.
Brown’s team has won more games since Embiid got hurt — more games during the roller coaster of trying to trade Okafor, trading Noel, learning Simmons won’t play all year, learning Embiid was being shut down for the season, trading Ilyasova, playing four or five games with nearly half a roster signed from the D-League just to have enough players in uniform — than they won all of last season.
The guy deserves a trophy just for that.