The Philadelphia 76ers have been seen as the NBA’s whipping boys for a few seasons now - a team caught in a vicious cycle of mediocrity.
Times have been hard for Philly’s fans, as the franchise continues to follow Sam Hinkie’s “process” and highlights have been few and far between.
It’s not all doom and gloom though in the city of brotherly love and there are some diamonds glimmering beneath the surface in the Wells Fargo Center.
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Highly touted rookie, Jahlil Okafor has been impressive and Nerlens Noel is growing into a dominant defensive force.
But perhaps the most surprising contributor so far this season is journeyman guard Ish Smith. The impact the undersized guard is having is starting to turn heads.
Undrafted in 2010, the six-foot guard’s quest to get to (and stay in) the league has been nothing short of an odyssey.
In the five seasons since 2010, Smith has been signed, traded and waived five times, assigned to the D-League and claimed off the waiver wire twice and has featured on ten NBA rosters. This is his second stint with the 76ers.
After letting Smith leave last summer, Philadelphia reacquired him on December 24 from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for two second-round draft picks.
At the time of the trade, Philly had a derisory one win and 30 losses - on track for the worst record in NBA history.
Ish’s presence was immediately apparent in his first appearance as his 14 points and five assists helped to defeat the Suns and double the 76ers victory total.
Philadelphia has tallied a 7-16 record since Smith’s arrival. 'So what?' I hear you say, that’s still a losing record and only translates to roughly 24 wins over a full season. Well, let’s look a bit closer at the stats.
Individually, Smith is averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 assists - which is good for ninth on the assist leaderboard. In fact, Smith’s production is on a par with Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, one of this summer’s most sought-after free agents.
But it’s when you look at the team stats that Ish’s impact becomes clearer. Before the December trade, the 76ers averaged 91.4 points and were scoring 13.25 points less than their opponents.
In the 22 games since, Philly has upped their scoring to 105.5 points and are now within 6.2 points of their opposition.
Although the franchise’s offense is still ranked last in the league, their defence has crept up 20th (that’s including the pre-Smith games).
GMS recently caught up with shot blocker Nerlens Noel to get his take on the Sixers' improvement:
"The turning point, I would definitely have to say (is) Ish coming back and he's especially helped the emergence of our defence that we have been wanting all year.”
Philly is certainly more competitive now. Since Smith’s return, the 76ers have taken three games to overtime (one a double overtime) and lost to the defending champs on a buzzer-beater.
"We are playing like a top ten defence in the past couple of months and it has really put us in good positions.
"You know, to almost beat the Warriors, losing by a last second shot, almost beating the Clippers - these are top tier teams and we have been able to hang with them recently."
Whilst the Sixers are still some way off being a contender - they're going to miss the playoffs and will find themselves with another lottery pick in this year’s draft - what is clear is that the addition of Smith has catapulted them from historically bad to simply not very good.
And for the level of production Ish provides, he’s a steal on a minimum contract.
Smith signed a one-year deal in October 2015 (to clarify, that was three teams ago) which makes him a free agent this summer. With the salary cap set to explode, Smith’s break-out season puts him in the perfect position to achieve financial security with a multi-year deal.
Don’t be surprised to see Smith move again based on the number of times he’s already been shipped so far.
But after giving up two picks for his services, Philadelphia should be keen to keep him. The biggest “Ish-ue” though, might be giving him enough reasons to stay.