We’re nine games into the season and there are already Sixers fans that would take a bullet for Georges Niang.
It’s pretty easy to see why. “The Minivan” — I mean the nickname alone, really — has continued to shoot the three ball at a high clip (41.8 percent) while showing more off the bounce and defensively than many thought he was capable. On top of that, he’s one of the most self-aware players in the league, understanding his limitations and playing within himself.
Oh, he’s feisty as hell, too.
Niang just yelled at the crowd, "Did you see that? I know you see that" after winning the jump ball against Jerami Grant.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) November 5, 2021
This isn’t just a story about Niang, but rather what he and others bring to this team. Not only can he play, but he’s likable. Same for the other newcomer, Andre Drummond. Same for the team’s slew of homegrown young guys — Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton. Same for the returning veterans — Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Danny Green.
And they all seem to like each other.
“I think the biggest thing with this team is we’re having fun playing alongside each other,” Niang said after a win over the Bulls Wednesday. “The ball doesn’t stick; it’s flying around, everybody’s sharing the ball and everybody’s genuinely happy. You look at the box score, it’s all spread out. Everybody’s able to do multiple things.”
Ben Simmons has not played a game and there’s no timetable for when he potentially could as the situation got even murkier Friday. All along the message from the players has been the same.
If Ben shows up and wants to play, great. If he doesn’t, we move.
Offensively, the Sixers haven’t skipped a beat. In fact, they’re No. 1 in the NBA in terms of offensive rating, likely a result of the spacing not having Simmons on the floor has produced. Defensively, he is clearly missed, but Thybulle and Maxey have done more than admirably. Embiid’s defense has also ticked up another notch this season.
As if the Simmons drama weren’t enough, Harris was placed into the NBA’s health safety protocols this week because of a positive COVID-19 test. Rivers revealed that Harris is experiencing symptoms and his return doesn’t seem close. The same can likely be said for Green’s status while the 34-year-old is dealing with hamstring tightness.
But the Sixers figured they’d be fine heading into face the lowly Pistons Thursday. They still had enough bodies to get out of Detroit with a win. Then second-year guard Isaiah Joe was forced to enter the league’s health and safety protocols. And if that weren’t enough, Korkmaz was unable to play because of a sore right wrist.
The Sixers went out and took care of business against the Pistons. They improved to 7-2 on the season. As of this posting, they sit alone atop the East — albeit very early in the season.
How are they doing this?
“It’s funny, with us we don’t know we have problems,” Rivers said to reporters after the win in Detroit. “We don’t talk about them; we don’t voice them. Our guys, they really don’t. There’s no talk about all the stuff. I didn’t hear anybody talking about COVID today. We came to play. We looked around the locker room and were like, nine guys. Then Furk comes in after shooting and says he can’t play. That was four minutes before going out on the floor. But it’s funny, this group, they just focus on winning. That’s all they talked about before the game. Don’t know how we’re going to do it, but let’s find a way of winning. And our guys have done that.”
On top of the myriad dilemmas facing the team off the court, there’s been one on-court issue that’s a bit of a surprise: Embiid is off to a tough start offensively.
In eight games, Embiid is averaging just 20.4 points a game while shooting 41.2 from the field and 32.1 from three. Those numbers coming off a season in which he had career highs in all three categories on his way to finishing second in MVP voting.
But Embiid is still making a significant impact. He’s playing Defensive Player of the Year-caliber on the other end. His block of DeMar DeRozan in the waning seconds against the Bulls was as special as it gets. The new emphasis on his health and fitness has paid off, as he’s thrived while being asked to do more in assistant coach Dan Burke’s defense.
Throughout training camp and the preseason, Embiid harped on the idea of becoming a better playmaker to combat the constant and aggressive double teams he faces. So far, that’s been an area of considerable improvement. He’s averaging 4.1 assists, which would easily be a career high, and just 2.6 turnovers, which would easily be a career low.
The trust he has in his teammates is a big part of that.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that work hard every single day and they want to get better,” Embiid said after the Chicago win. “We’re having fun with each other. Like I mentioned [before], just the bond that we have, whether it’s hanging out together and going to dinner and stuff, it’s definitely way different than in the previous years.”
The Sixers are having fun. They’ve also been pretty damn fun to watch.
There’s time to worry about the Australian elephant in the room later. For now, just enjoy the ride.