THE FACTORS that you use to measure the success of a sports team really aren't that complicated - winning seasons, improvement from year to year, playoff appearances and, ultimately, championships.
Over the past four seasons none of those factors could be linked to the 76ers when it comes to their advancement. Their progress could only be measured in hopeful draft picks and optimism surrounding player development.
There seems to be change on the immediate horizon, however. Not because the team has won two consecutive games on the road for the first time in almost two years, or because of the continued development of Joel Embiid, who very well could be a superstar in the making.
Coupled with all the losing over the years since The Process began was a team that just wasn't playing good basketball. Too often the offense was stagnant. Dribble, dribble, chuck. Bad shots ruled the Sixers' world, and when the occasional good look would arise, there weren't many of the 60 or so players who have come through during Brett Brown's tenure talented enough to make open shots consistently.
Which is what, for the most part, has made the team's performance over the past five games, or so, impressive.
The Sixers are playing good basketball. NBA basketball. The type of basketball that makes them competitive night in and night out, despite disparities in talent.
The ball is always moving on the offensive end, Brown's vision of "good to great" when it comes to shots is now becoming more of a reality. The defense has improved on the perimeter and in the paint, and may get even better there now that Nerlens Noel has returned from knee surgery. With good ball movement comes better shot selection. When that happens, getting back on defense is easier, which limits an opponent's fastbreak chances.
It doesn't mean the team has suddenly turned into a playoff contender. Not by any means. But it is a nice blueprint moving forward.
"Right now I think we're fourth in the NBA in assist percentage, which is a great number for us," said Brown. "When you talk about how many of your scored baskets are assisted, we're fourth and I shared that stat and fact with the team. We're proud of our ball movement. We're trying to grow it, we're trying to realize that we have a Joel and Jahlil (Okafor) but you can't come down and just horse the post and stand. You've got to move. In the first half (Sunday against Detroit) we had 19 assists. That's a massive number. That's the best defensive team in the NBA right now by statistic. So they get stuck into us and we had 15 second-half turnovers and we had to take some hits. In general, our ball movement over the past five to seven games has been very good."
That they held on to the win, despite letting a 25-point lead dwindle to eight in the fourth quarter, also says something to the growth of this team. Players didn't shy away from the ball as the Pistons made their run. Okafor wanted to put the offense on his shoulder. Ersan Ilyasova practically stole the ball from teammates so that he could shoot, and make, important shots when the game got tight. Others were ready for a leading role. And in the first half when Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell weren't clear with each other about something on the court and tempers rose a bit, all Brown could do was smile as the problem was rectified.
"People think it's just rosy and confrontation isn't good. It's so false," said Brown. "Any family's got problems. Any family's got real issues that sometimes confrontation is exactly what's needed and candid, truthful conversation. Sometimes it is with coaches and players. Sometimes it is with players and players. Sometimes it is with coaches and coaches. But it's great, it's real. They talk it out and that's part of growing. If people just bob their head and agree with their coach all the time, that's not what we're looking for. Communication, and we challenge these guys all the time, you don't just dust it off when people score. It should have some level of pain, it should hurt a little bit, and then discuss it. It's not like you go up and down the floor and ignore that there's a problem. We try to talk about it, we try to fix it. If it gets heated at times we don't care. It's good. It's real."
It's basketball. Winning basketball, and the Sixers have been showing snippets of it lately.
Nerlens Noel said following Sunday's game that his sprained left ankle, which he rolled in the first half and kept him off the court in the second half, shouldn't be a problem moving forward. He said he'd be ready to play Wednesday against the visiting Toronto Raptors . . . The Sixers had off Monday.