Hayes: Little things mean a lot for the struggling Sixers

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Jahlil Okafor, shown her trying to defend the Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving, has struggled on the defensive end.

FOR A FOUR-WIN team one day removed from another administrational humiliation, the 76ers sure were a happy, hopeful bunch.

Franchise center Joel Embiid was ready to play almost a whole game. Former franchise center Nerlens Noel practiced with the team, sort of, the first step in his latest injury comeback. Stopgap franchise center Jahlil Okafor might get to play with Embiid, if, for a change, Okafor tries real hard.

And young Ben Simmons will lead them all.

(Angelic chorale: Ahhh-ahhh.)

"Everything is looking up," Embiid said. "Everything is getting better."

"The Process" provided the perspective. Only 18 hours earlier, his team was a national punch line once again.

On Wednesday, Wells Fargo Center management bungled a simple hockey-to-hoops changeover that made the court unplayable. The game with the Kings was postponed.

Deposed GM Sam Hinkie had nothing to do with the wet floor, but he had everything to do with the Sixers' current image as a laughingstock. The mess he inherited, then exacerbated is being mopped up by time and circumstance.

Remember, this is a franchise that destroyed itself with one bad trade, then, under Hinkie, tanked for three straight years; lost two of the past three draft lotteries; drafted two injured players who lost a combined three seasons of playing time while healing; and spent tens of millions of dollars to create salary cap room for themselves and other teams . . . except the Sixers can't spend that money, because no one wants to play for the NBA version of Chernobyl.

On this toxic landscape, any hint of relief seems like emancipation; any ray of hope seems like a sunburst.

As such, insignificant, incremental updates and minor philosophical accelerations are amplified as major proclamations. Embiid's minutes allowance moved from 24 to 28. Noel practiced during the five-on-zero portion of Thursday's workout at the team's practice facility in Camden. Simmons broke his foot in the preseason, but, while it has been healing, he has convinced head coach Brett Brown that, after one unremarkable season playing forward in college, he should play point guard as soon as he is healthy. Beginning Friday against the visiting Magic, Embiid and Okafor might share the floor . . . as long as the other team's second big man, whom Okafor will guard, isn't much of an offensive threat. Thanks, Serge Ibaka.

For a viable NBA team, even a rebuilding one, these developments are minor tremors as the season develops. For the worst NBA team in history, these developments are seismic events.

All of this is theoretical and malleable; written on whiteboard, not in stone.

Simmons is 6-10, 20 years old and has never played an NBA game. He might not be able to run the team, and he might not be able to defend other point guards such as Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and, Brown's No. 1, Chris Paul. Brown said on draft night Simmons might grow into a point guard, but the past few weeks, he has grilled Simmons in one-on-one film sessions similar to "Jon Gruden's QB Camp," and is confident Simmons can do it all as soon as he's healthy.

"I keep using the Gruden stuff of NFL quarterbacks: 'Tell me what you see, Ben. What are the reads? What would you do? Why do you think that?' " Brown said. "And the more and more I talk with him, the more I feel comfortable, he can grow to that and can accept that responsibility at a very early age."

At what age? There is no timetable for Simmons' return, though he and Brown clearly expect him to come back before the end of the season. In fact, Brown made sure his new bosses, Bryan and Jerry Colangelo, get none of the credit for moving Simmons to the point.

"It's on me," Brown said. "The whole thing is my decision."

Brown was not as culpable for the idea of pairing Okafor with Embiid. Remember, Brown failed to successfully pair Okafor and Noel last season, mainly because Okafor could not defend . . . well . . . anyone. Can he defend now?

"He is a year older. So you give him the benefit of the doubt. He has a better chance," Brown said, flippantly.

He sounded like a man following orders from a front office that needs to market Okafor as a trade chip. However, Brown also has a mandate to win, for a change, so if Okafor still cannot defend forwards, then he'll soon go back to carrying Embiid's, um, duffel bag.

As for the minutes extension for Embiid, if his twice-broken foot or any other part of his historically fragile superstructure shows erosion, then his minutes will retract, if not disappear, at least, for a while.

Finally, Noel's continued recovery, both physical and mental, will dictate his inclusion. He is a gifted athlete, but he is a disgruntled employee. Noel was the first piece in Hinkie's grand plan. He said he was sick of losing and he wanted no part of competing for minutes with Embiid and Okafor, so he tried to force a trade during training camp. Then, a groin injury that hindered him all of last season finally was diagnosed as a knee issue that required "minor" surgery in October - defined as "minor" surgery, apparently, because it did not involve amputation.

Noel said he still is not pain-free. Brown said Noel remains "a ways away" from returning to action. Noel is a ways away from being happy, too, since he knows his minutes will be diminished when he returns.

"I don't think the roster's changed," he said, as keen as ever to depart. "I think it's a task for coach Brown to handle. For however long he has to handle it for."

Considering his anemic roster, Brown will be happy to handle getting a hypertalented defender on the floor . . .

As long as they have a floor to play on.


hayesm@phillynews.com

@inkstainedretch

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