Worthy of Consideration
When a pandemic interrupts a professional sport for five months, and only a select group of franchises is slated to restart the season, how do you reconcile the criteria for the league's annual awards?
For the NBA, the matter ultimately boiled down to a level playing field:
Media voting for this year's Most Valuable Player, All-League nominees, and other individual prizes will be based on games prior to the suspension of play on Mar. 11.
“The decision to exclude seeding games from awards voting ensures a fair process in which players and coaches from all 30 NBA teams will have the same opportunity to be honored as top performers for the 2019-20 regular season,” NBA President, League Operations Byron Spruell said in a statement.
Regardless of how the league proceeded on this front, several 76ers figured to be in the mix. Let's take a look at them here, and how they might factor into the voting for the 2019-20 NBA awards, which runs through Jul. 28.
A THRILLING THIEF
We could throw out a couple of telling stats - no. 1 in the league in steals, both total (115) and average (2.1), and no. 2 overall in deflections (216) - that point to how disruptive Ben Simmons was before COVID-19 brought basketball to a halt.
Or, we could highlight the success the now 24-year old had this season in a handful of individual matchups against some of the NBA's premier scorers.
According to stats.nba.com, Boston's Jayson Tatum (23.6 ppg / 44.8 fg%) shot 5-16 in the nearly 25 total minutes that Simmons defended him over four games between the Sixers and Celtics, while Toronto's Pascal Siakam (23.6 ppg / 45.9 fg%) went a combined 5-19 with Simmons covering him for almost 18 total minutes in the Sixers' three games against the Raptors.
In a Jan. 3 visit to Houston, Simmons limited Russell Westbrook (27.5 ppg / 47.4 fg%) to 4-14 shooting, and in the Sixers' riveting Jan. 25 home win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Simmons checked LeBron James (25.7 ppg / 49.8 fg%) for a 2-9 showing in 7:20 of action.
But if you've watched Simmons this season even a little bit, you know that stats don't even come close to telling the full story. A simple eye test will offer ample evidence that in 2019-20, the Aussie has become one of the NBA's most dynamic defenders.
And for as much attention as Simmons rightfully reaps for his array of skills on the offensive end, he's just as versatile and as much of a playmaker defensively.
"I'll guard anybody one through five," Simmons said from Orlando last week.
Throughout the season, this is precisely what he's done.
Simmons has also built up a strong national reputation.
"I believe to this point in the season, he has played at a First Team All-Defensive level," said respected ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke during a broadcast of the Sixers' Jan. 22 game at Toronto.
The sentiment here is that Simmons is at least worthy of such a recognition, and should also be included in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
BEWARE OF THE BIG MAN
Rarely does Brett Brown mince words, especially when it comes to Joel Embiid.
Shortly after the Sixers' arrival in Orlando, the head coach quickly reaffirmed to reporters what he has long maintained:
"[Embiid] is the most dominant interior defender in the NBA."
The declaration is easy to understand.
Whenever Embiid is in the line-up, the 76ers' D goes to another level - plain and simple.
This season, with the three-time All-Star on the floor, the club generates a defensive rating of 101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. To give you some context, the Milwaukee Bucks lead the league with a 101.6 defensive rating.
Embiid's defensive impact, however, goes beyond things you can measure.
"He's definitely one of the best rim protectors in the league," Brooklyn Nets wing man Caris LeVert said earlier this year. "Just his presence, not even him blocking shots all the time - just his presence."
Not only is Embiid a perennial Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive Team contender, he has once again put himself in the running for an All-NBA nod, which he's received each of the past two seasons.
The 26-year old is one of two players in the league to boast minimums of 23.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game before the hiatus. The other guy who did it? Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Embiid is also a beast at getting to the foul line. When the season went on pause, he ranked third in the NBA with an average of 7.1 free throw attempts per game.
"You have the chance to be the best player in the world," Charles Barkley told Embiid during one of this year's NBA on TNT broadcasts. "We don't say that about a lot of players."
Four seasons into his career, Embiid remains an elite exception.
BACKING UP A BIG SUMMER
Last summer, the 76ers made a big commitment to Tobias Harris, and in turn, the veteran has continued an auspicious career trend:
Each of his first eight NBA seasons, he got better. His ninth year has been no different.
When the league restarts in a few short days, Harris will go back to work with an average of 19.4 points per game, just a shade shy of his career-high 20.0 points per game set last year. His 3.2 assists per game in 2019-20, meanwhile, represent a new personal best.
Further underscoring Harris' diversity on the court, he is one of nine players this season to tally at least 1,200 points and 400 rebounds. On top of that, he's shored up his defense, following through on a pledge made heading into training camp.
"I'm excited just to get back and get out and compete," Harris said.
In short, Harris has provided the Sixers with All-NBA caliber versatility. It seems appropriate that he should be formally recognized with such a distinction.
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
This time a year ago, it wasn't even looking like Furkan Korkmaz would be playing professional basketball on this continent, let alone with the 76ers.
But 13 months later, down in Orlando, the expectation for the soon-to-be 23-year old is that he'll fill a key role off the bench as the Sixers set sights on a title run.
"We'll need his ability to shoot the ball and, in general, score I'm sure in many ways especially once the playoffs come around," Brett Brown said.
Across the board, it's been a career year for Korkmaz. He's posted career highs in games (64), minutes (21.8), points (9.7), shooting (both 43.2 fg% and 39.7 3fg%), 3-pointers (126), and rebounds (2.3).
For as much as Korkmaz's perimeter proficiency landed him a steady spot in this year's rotation, his improved defense has kept him there.
"His defense can't be discounted as one of the reasons he was able to hold onto minutes and hold onto a role," said Brown.
"The first two years [with the Sixers], everybody was talking about my defense, about my weaknesses," Korkmaz said this week. "I think this year I made a big jump on defense because I was talking to coaches and players about improving myself.
"I think defense is key for me to staying on the court longer. I know that."
There are obviously some really big-name candidates out there who have made serious bids for this year's Most Improved Player award. In the Sixers' universe, though, perhaps no player more than Korkmaz has made greater overall strides from where he was last year to where he is now - literally and figuratively.
THE RIGHT ROOK
The 76ers had a hunch about Matisse Thybulle. So far, the King of Bubble Content has delivered as advertised.
Right off the bat, Thybulle was ready to go defensively. His work on Boston Celtics' All-Star Kemba Walker on Opening Night was the first of several high-profile assignments this season for the 2019 NCAA Defensive Player of the Year.
Thybulle will resume his first pro campaign atop the rookie charts in total steals (80) and steals per game (1.4). He's also one of just eight players league-wide (and the lone rookie of the bunch) with 80 steals and 40 blocks.
Brett Brown recently described Thybulle's defense as "elite," and said the wing man's offensive rebounding efforts in Orlando have been "spectacular."
"It definitely feels like a second season," Thybulle said earlier this month (he then joked that his older teammates never pass up the opportunity to remind him that he is still indeed just a rookie).
"I feel like I have a good foundation to carry over into this, and just keep rolling with it."
A spot on the All-Rookie roster should, at this point, be merely a formality.