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Cooney: Imagining some way the Sixers can finally improve

THERE REALLY wasn't much good that came out of the 76ers' first national television appearance of the season on Thursday, when they got plastered by the young Minnesota Timberwolves by 24 points.

THERE REALLY wasn't much good that came out of the 76ers' first national television appearance of the season on Thursday, when they got plastered by the young Minnesota Timberwolves by 24 points.

The Sixers allowed the Wolves to shoot 50.6 percent from the floor and got schooled by the last two rookies of the year in Andrew Wiggins (35 points, 10 rebounds) and Karl-Anthony Towns (25 points, 10 rebounds), who combined to make 26 of their 38 shots. The lead grew to as many as 33 at one point, and Tom Thibodeau's squad seemed to be playing a dominant game on the schoolyard most of the night.

Joel Embiid finished with 10 points and 10 boards for the Sixers, but his frustration was more evident than any spectacular plays. Robert Covington shot only 1-for-12 from the floor, dropping his season total to 27-for-104 (26 percent) including 19-for-77 (24.7 percent) from three-point range. Sergio Rodriquez didn't score, and got torched endlessly at the defensive end, and any chance of the Sixers making a statement in front of a TNT audience went out the window just after the opening tap.

It was the 21st consecutive road loss for the team, which fell to 2-12 on the season. They are last in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) at 97.2, 26th in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 110.18. Their 95.9 points a game is fourth worst; the 108.4 allowed sixth worst. They shoot only 43 percent from the floor (25th), allow opponents to shoot a league-best 47.1 percent and aren't very good at forcing turnovers, which doesn't allow them to get out and run, which is what Brett Brown wants them to do.

There is nothing surprising about those numbers, really; you don't even have to know how to spell analytics to be able to see how much this team struggles night in and night out. The caveat, of course, is all the injuries that continue to plague the team, as Ben Simmons (foot), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) haven't seen the floor yet this season. Embiid will alternately play games at least up until Christmas, and will play his 24 restricted minutes until then.

But it was midway through the third quarter Thursday when a positive thought popped into my head. As I watched the likes of Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, Rodriguez and Nik Stauskas futilely attempt a comeback, it occurred to me that this was the look of the future that could be bright.

Stay with me here.

When Simmons and Bayless come back, they should immediately be inserted as starters. They would join Embiid, Ersan Ilyasova and Gerald Henderson. That could be an interesting lineup, and here's why.

While Simmons will be the offensive facilitator, you need a guard who can defend the point, which would be Bayless. I see the offense working this way between those two: Bayless brings up the ball and gives to Simmons just past midcourt and the offense begins. Bayless is perfect for that role, because you'll need a guard who can shoot and score in that spot, and he can do that. Henderson is a pro who knows how to play, and should have no problem fitting in at the offensive end. Ilyasova will open up space for all with his outside shooting, and Embiid can learn his offensive game at a better pace with more capable people around him.

Which brings us back to the group I watched Thursday. Nine- to 100-man rotations are a must in the NBA. Any team in the league would love to have Jahlill Okafor as a backup center, playing 25 minutes a night off the bench. Saric seems a natural sub in the league, providing energy at both ends of the floor. Rodriguez has played pretty well in his return to the NBA, but his faults, especially at the defensive end, stand out with the more minutes he plays. He would seem to be ideal for this team playing 15- to 18-minutes as a backup at the point.

If Stauskas can continue to get himself righted by taking the ball strong to the basket and not settling for jump shots all the time, he could lend some offensive spark as a sub.

That doesn't take into account what might happen with Noel, whether he comes back for some playing time this season or is dealt for what might become another valuable bench piece.

And those scenarios don't even take into account how the Sixers could improve in the draft, where they'll have whatever pick is higher between their own and the one from the Sacramento Kings.

Of course, much of that is made on assumptions. Can Okafor be happy and effective as a backup? Can Bayless, who has rarely handled point-guard duties, be able to do that? Will Stauskas continue to improve?

As always, there are far more questions than answers, and a blowout loss to a team in a similar rebuilding position Thursday reinforced that. But if you don't try to find some positives surrounding this team, the story always remains the same.

Trust me. I know. I've written it a thousand times over the past four seasons.