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How Ish Smith 'saved' the Sixers’ season

Philadelphia was one of the worst teams in NBA history last season. But they might have been THE worst ever if not for the point guard they acquired from the Pelicans.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

While the Golden State Warriors were setting a record for the all-time best regular season (73-9), the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers flirted with the record for worst team ever. Eventually, they finished 10-72 with a .122 winning percentage and ONLY the third-worst record in league history. They also tied the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets for terrible start to a season (0-18), breaking their own team record of 0-17 from 2014-15. And because they finished that year with a 10-game losing streak, the Sixers set a new NBA record for consecutive losses across seasons – 28.

As bad as last season was for Philadelphia, it might well have been monumentally awful. For after downing the Los Angeles Lakers (103-91) on Dec. 1 for their first win, they suffered 12 consecutive defeats. At 1-30, they were on track to win even fewer games than the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who achieved only seven victories in a strike-shortened 66-game season.

Stopping the bleeding

On the day after Christmas, the Sixers finally won again – at Phoenix. Four nights later they triumphed in Sacramento. After returning home, they beat Minnesota. Then they won three more times in January to reach seven victories, including a 114-89 smackdown of Portland.

What made the difference? On Dec. 24 Philadelphia traded two second-round picks to New Orleans for Ish Smith. Immediately installed by Coach Brett Brown as the lead point guard, Smith revved up the Sixers’ moribund offense, leading them to seven wins in his first 20 starts.

While Philadelphia would only win twice more the rest of the year, a tough schedule and the loss of rookie Jahlil Okafor weakened an already talent-starved team. A 13-game losing streak was sandwiched between defeats of Brooklyn on Feb. 6 and March 11, and seven of those foes were playoff teams. Ten of their final 17 games were against playoff teams, too. And it did not help that Okafor, their leading scorer (17.5 points per game), missed their final 23 games due to an injury.

How Ish Smith made the difference

A quick glance at the stats tells us that the 76ers were awful at both ends of the court. They were 29th in scoring (97.4 points per game) and 29th in points allowed (107.6 ppg). They did finish sixth in Pace, but they were pitiful by almost every measure of offensive proficiency. On that evidence alone we might consider Ish Smith a poor candidate for a job anywhere in the NBA. Sure he was getting minutes, but was he doing anything with them?

But we get a more nuanced appreciation for his abilities when we take a closer look at what changed when Smith began running the Philadelphia attack. A simple table reveals what his effect was:

First 31 Games 1-30 91.4 104.7 - 13.3
Next 51 Games 9-42 101.1 109.5 - 8.4
Overall Record 10-72 97.4 107.6 - 10.2

With Smith running the show, the Sixers increased their scoring by nearly 10 points a game. They also gave up almost five more points per contest, which indicates that they were playing at a faster pace. But by decreasing their negative point differential by about five points they became a more competitive team. As a result, the team won nine more games.

The 76ers began the season with Isaiah Canaan and undrafted rookie T.J. McConnell soaking up most of the point guard duties. Canaan started 17 of the first 31 games, McConnell started 13, and veteran Kendall Marshall (recovering from knee surgery) was in the opening lineup once. None of these players was ideal for running the fast-paced attack that Brown has favored since coming to the City of Brotherly Love in 2013.

With Smith at the controls, Philadelphia averaged 9.6 more shots and 4.4 additional assists. They also attempted 2.1 more threes and made 1.5 more, improving their three-point accuracy from .320 to .350 percent. It seems likely that Smith’s ability to drive and dish and lead the fast break contributed greatly to those gains. There was also an increase in turnovers (from 14.6 to 17.4), but that should be expected with an up-tempo offense.

Is it too much to claim that Ish Smith was the sole reason for Philadelphia’s improved play? Perhaps, yet he was the only significant addition to their lineup during the season. On a roster built to tank, he was their second highest scorer (14.7 ppg), and led them in assists (7.0 per game) and court time (32.4 minutes per game) in his 50 outings. Certainly, he deserves the lion’s share of the credit for "saving" the Sixers’ season.

There's a new Smith in town

Detroit will be the 10th NBA team for Smith to call home in 2016-17, and he has never boasted a True Shooting Percentage above last season’s .465 mark. However, his shooting line of .411/.329/.693 last year was his best yet. Having just turned 28, the trademark speed that allows him to hurtle down court should not be diminished. If he can enliven Detroit’s bench like he did the 76ers anemic attack, Ish will easily earn his reported three-year, $18-million deal.