THE NEWS that has been delivered to 76ers coach Brett Brown of late has been pretty positive. Jerryd Bayless, penciled as the team's starting point guard after getting signed in the offseason, saw his first action of the season Monday in a 101-94 win over the Miami Heat. The damaged ligaments in his left (non-shooting) wrist still cause pain, but Bayless chose to forgo surgery to get on the floor in a timelier fashion.
The minutes restriction attached to Jahlil Okafor and his surgically repaired right knee was completely lifted before the game, and center Nerlens Noel is back with the team after a procedure on his left knee early last month, though his return is still not imminent.
The Sixers have now won four of their last seven games, with each victory coming at the Wells Fargo Center. The last time they took four straight at home was in March 2015. Joel Embiid is playing at a higher level this early in his return from a 2 1/2-year hiatus than anyone could have imagined, producing 22 points and five rebounds against the Heat, and Brown's bench is one of the most productive in the league.
A glimmer of light surrounds the team right now. Excuse all the squinting, but it's like seeing sunshine after being in solitary confinement for three-plus seasons.
For the Sixers to truly start competing on a regular basis, however, they'll have to wait and see who wins the competitions among themselves.
The big-man dilemma that was supposed to face Brown hasn't come to fruition yet, with Noel still on the mend and probably "a few weeks away," according to Brown. But it isn't far off. And with Embiid playing so well, Brown's excitement of playing his 7-2 center with Okafor and the improvement of Richaun Holmes, where, how and how much Noel fits in will be determined by him.
Noel decided to stay in Massachusetts to work out this offseason, which didn't sit completely well with the organization. He then felt discomfort in his left knee during training camp and had a procedure to seek out the cause. He recovered in Alabama that last couple of weeks, though the team's new practice facility in Camden would seem able to accommodate him.
Soon, it will be like the training camp Brown never got to oversee, trying to figure out who among the big men fit together and who warrants time.
"He's been with the group for the first time in a long time," Brown said of Noel. "My conversations with Nerlens are very clear and transparent. We talk freely. We both understand the challenges and he understands clearly what he needs to do to get back into this mix. It starts with just welcoming him back to the team and me coaching him.
"You go to Richaun Holmes. You got to Jahlil, you go to Joel, you go to Nerlens. It's all on the table. There are no head-fakes; it's not spun in different ways. It's going to be hard. You can talk about playing two of those guys together to maybe free things up, but none of us can underestimate what we have in pretty good 'four' men in Dario (Saric) and Ersan (Ilyasova). So it's not like you just bump people down. Somebody is going to be disadvantaged. That's part of a team. That's part of pro sport. It's on me as the head coach to figure it out and keep this group together, and I think it starts with just creating a very real environment and creating a very competitive environment, and letting the fittest move forward."
It's almost like a tryout for playing time. Forget who has what kind of résumé.
"I've never really seen this before," Brown said. "The thing that we get confused with or we don't see it as clearly, is there's not veterans, in my eye, in that group. There's nobody that's a five-time All-Star or that's been a starter for six years. They're all just young. They're all trying to carve out their own place on a team, carve out their own place in a league and how their legacy may end up.
"I don't look at it, truly, like that. I take the draft pick and where they were selected, and I push it aside and it will figure itself out. When I say that, I try to paint it like it's going to be natural and easy and obvious. But in my heart of hearts, I know it isn't at all. It's going to be a tremendous challenge that the responsibility rests with me, and you don't take that responsibility lightly."
Nor should any of the bigs take lightly the upcoming competition in their own gym.