As the evidence become incontrovertible on Sunday afternoon that the Philadelphia 76ers were in fact going to beat the Boston Celtics -- their first victory against Boston since the Michael Carter-Williams era, and along with their Hinkie's Comet 42-point stomping of Dallas two days earlier, their first consecutive wins since before the All-Star break -- I started to internally debate who the Sixers' most valuable player this season is.
Obviously the answer should have been Joel Embiid, but regardless of whether or not he should be disqualified for an All-Star bid or Rookie of the Year honors, I do think the Sixers have now played too many games without him for him to be considered for team MVP. Conversely, while Dario Saric may have proven a surprisingly sturdy back to carry the team on down the stretch, he was too crappy for the season's first half for him to be a front-runner here.
T.J. McConnell provided much-needed stability at a crucial point in the season and might be the most clutch Sixer of the post-Iverson era, but MVP is a little tough a sell for a starter who routinely goes weeks in between double-figure scoring nights. Jahlil Okafor probably deserves some kind of trophied recognition for not complaining once while the Sixers treated him like the kid that nobody remembered to pick up from soccer practice, but top team honors seems a step too far for that.
The player with the best case is probably Robert Covington. RoCo has established himself not only as the Sixers' best defender, but one of the best wing stoppers in the entire league, playing tough, smart, versatile D that helps keep the Sixers in just about every game. He's a consistent rebounder, an improving playmaker and driver, and after a brutal early-season stretch, he's shot his way back up to near his career averages. (In fact, after Sunday's 7-15 shooting night, he currently has the highest FG% of any of his three seasons with Philly, though still under 40%.) The only real argument against him is that he still doesn't score that much -- 14.4 points per 36, a lower rate than Justin Anderson or Gerald Henderson -- and that his impossibly frosty shooting in 2016 should earn him a Dario-like DQ for this.
But after the game ended, I realized how silly this entire exercise was. The Sixers' MVP this season is beyond obvious, and it's not any of the players mentioned or unmentioned here: It's Brett Brown, easily.
For four years running now, Brett has arguably had the hardest, most thankless coaching job in the NBA. Up until this season, he's had to deal not only with stewarding the youngest, most talent-devoid squad in the league, but with a front office that keeps auctioning off the team's top players and drafting reinforcements that take years to arrive, as well as injury luck that's practically at Final Destination levels of absurdity at this point. He's had to deal with levels of losing virtually unprecedented on this level, with the horizon line promising better days ahead constantly slipping further and further away.
This season might've been the toughest ask of all for Brown. He had to figure out how to make sense out of a roster that would need to feature three rookies (then two, then one) and had four centers (then three, then two) all deserving big minutes. His starting point guard never got healthy, and his backup proved mostly ineffective. He had to figure out life with Ersan Ilyasova once we traded for him, then life without him once we dealt him away. And he had to keep the locker from not crumbling amidst playing-time grousing, imminent trades that never transpired, one-sided deals that DID materialize and injuries, injuries, always injuries.
Notice that nowhere in that list of responsibilities for Brett Brown this season did I say anything about actually winning basketball games. The one benefit you could say of being a man in Brett's position is that the pressure to win is slight to the point of being virtually non-existent. The deck has been so stacked against the Sixers from an on-court perspective since the Jrue Holiday trade in June 2013 -- and the incentives for piling up losses so considerable -- that accruing actual Ws has historically been of a relatively low priority for Brown. This season was no different; even assuming a healthy Joel Embiid and an eventually returning Ben Simmons, most realistic prognostications had the Sixers winning about 20 games, maybe 25 if things broke their way a little. If there was a Sixers writer who didn't scream UNDER at Bovada somehow pegging them at 27.5 Ws, they didn't show up on my timeline.
Well, here we are with 13 games still to go in 2016-'17, and it's safe to say that things have not broken the Sixers' way this season. Embiid got shut down after 31 games. Simmons is out for the season. Nerlens Noel is gone. Okafor is still here. And yet, the Sixers are sitting on 26 wins, still playing coherent, spirited basketball, competitive nearly every time they play. They win close games now, and as of Friday, they win blowouts, too. It's not unreasonable to think they might get to 30 Ws this year -- three times their total from last year. And they're doing it collectively, with a bunch of young guys who (mostly) just keep getting better.
Brown has always kept the Sixers engaged and playing hard, but with improving talent this year, he's fashioned a team that can generate consistently good looks on offense without a guard who can collapse a defense or (since Joel's injury) a big man to serve as a true offensive hub, and can reliably apply pressure on defense without a true shot-blocker or even a particularly good rebounder on the roster. It's mostly about scheme, effort and chemistry, and as players have shuttled in and out of the rotation due to health and/or performance, the common element is Brett. For the team to even still be watchable at this point in the season is a tremendous achievement, for them to be scaring the Warriors and beating the Celtics (without Isaiah Thomas, but still) is just incomprehensible.
When things got really bad for the Sixers in 2015-'16, their poor performance in late-game situations -- and Brett Brown's responsibility for it -- became an unignorable talking point for the Process Phaithful. Even early this season, the Sixers continued to lose way too many one-or-two-possession games where they couldn't seem to get a half-decent shot up in the game's final minutes; eventually we had to wonder how much of it was on Brown for not being able to draw up a decent play. But as the season has progressed and the team has closed a number of games in similar fashion to how they used to blow them -- Robert Covington banking in a perfectly planned alley-oop with seconds to go, T.J. hitting multiple final-minute game-winners -- it seems that either our earlier worries about his late-game play-calling abilities were overblown, or that, like the rest of the team, he's improving with reps and experience.
He called an absolute doozy to sink the Celtics in the final minute on Sunday. Up three with the ball and 40 seconds to go, the Sixers ran a 1-4 set in which the two bigs (Saric and Richaun Holmes) set simultaneous screens for the two wings (Covington and Nik Stauskas), who each darted to the opposite side of the court. The play caused such chaos among the Boston D that Terry Rozier and Jae Crowder literally ran into each other, and T.J. dished to Stauskas for a clean look at a three. I'm still sorta shocked that he hit it -- especially since Marcus Smart scrambled in time to get a hand in Nik's face -- but regardless of whether or not it landed, the play was brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, at the most clutch moment in the game. Good coaching doesn't come much clearer than that.
So much about the Sixers' future is still murky -- the lack of clarity surrounding the injuries and ensuing treatments and recoveries for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons just keeps getting scarier, there's still an obvious lack of balance to the Sixers' current roster construction, and the duh downside to the winning the Sixers are doing now is that the chances of them grabbing Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball in the draft are getting ever slimmer. But if this team ever does manage to stave off the bad juju for a whole season, you've gotta feel good now that we've got the guy in place to get them in position to be pretty good pretty quickly. Brett Brown for team MVP, and he should probably be in the mix with Harden and Westbrook for league-wide honors too, really.