The Los Angeles Lakers appeared destined to finish last in the West for the second straight season. A calculated decision to sit healthy veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov for the year on March 15 made a dent in their rotation and drew the ire of many. However, Phoenix responded by short circuiting talented point guard Eric Bledsoe’s (21.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 6.3 APG) campaign that same day.
This blatant ploy from both teams to have the best odds at landing a top pick is theoretically sound and they’re sticking to their plans. Luke Walton has started rookie Ivica Zubac in three straight games since the announcement, and Phoenix seems content pushing Tyler Ulis to his limit. Averaging 40.6 MPG over his last three games, the diminutive point guard’s receiving incredible burn.
Phoenix (22-48) and Magic Johnson’s group (20-50) are a collective 0-6 since their decisions to punt on the 2016-17 season. As the Sixers (26-43) pull out victories, they are losing ground as the season nears conclusion. It’s natural to criticize and have animosity towards the organizations, with Philadelphia, arguably, unfairly chastised for their decisions regarding rebuilding. However, there are promising developments from Brett Brown’s team that warrant attention.
This doesn't mean Sixers fans shouldn’t be expected to have a reaction to both team’s results, but getting caught up in these outcomes takes away from enjoying the Sixers’ growth. Dario Saric’s March has been statistically astounding (19.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 4.3 APG), and Brett Brown’s confidence with him as a psuedo-point guard evolves each game. While Los Angeles continues to be indecisive on D’Angelo Russell as a ball handler, Saric has pounded the rock into deflation in half court sets.
If you’ve been shouting for Saric to control the ball more in Embiid’s absence, it’s been rewarded. His offensive IQ continues to increase in turn, with The Homie mentioning the inefficiency of long twos in his postgame interview against Boston, as well as his overall comfort as a hub in an NBA offense; the no-look dishes are an example of his confidence against NBA defenses. Saric appears to be an intricate part of this team’s nucleus for years, and it’ll be ideal to fully enjoy his rookie season and push for ROY. It’s a similar situation for his young teammates.
With the Sixers at No. 5 in the lottery and already surpassing last year’s win total by 16 games, contributions from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, T.J. McConnell and Richaun Holmes this season have been appreciated. All still have their inconsistent moments, but there’s passion from each young talent.
It was particularly evident when Philadelphia traveled to Los Angeles last week, with TLC intuitively leaking out in transition and repeatedly converting layups against his matchup, Jordan Clarkson. McConnell outplaying and showing more hustle than his counterpart D’Angelo Russell is another example. While it’s a generalization to suggest the Sixers’ youth plays harder from just these two instances, it’s unquestionable when accounting for each player’s character traits. Brett Brown’s been lauded for his ability to have players hustle and commit energy both ways.
Likewise in Sacramento, Dave Joerger is also trying to maximize his players’ desire. There’s an incentive to monitor Sacramento’s March schedule and results. At 27-43, the Kings have just one more win than the Sixers and continue to struggle against tough competition. Skal Labissiere looks like a player instead of a project lately (17.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 65.1 FG% over last four games), but both Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein haven’t consistently contributed.
Slated for a four-game run against playoff contenders, this could be a week when Sacramento closes in on the No. 4 lottery slot. Philadelphia travels to Orlando (25-45) tonight for an important, lottery-implicated clash. If you’re in the crowd who hopes to maximize the Sixers’ pick, a Sixers loss Monday and multiple Kings defeats this week would be ideal. There’s a lot of action surrounding the Sixers and this year’s lottery.
Whether the Lakers’ pick conveys this season or next, which could have more inevitable value, the Sixers’ situation is more promising and Brett Brown is commandeering a competitive, young group. With captivating play and infectious energy late in the season, Sam Hinkie’s acquisitions deserve fans’ attention.