5 Reasons the Sixers Are No Longer the Laughingstock of the NBA

They're probably still the worst team in the league. But they've improved. In a down time for Philadelphia sports, we'll take what we can get.

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One of the funnier moments in recent Sixers memory happened on January 29th of last year. Down a point to the hated Celtics in Boston, Evan Turner drove the lane and hit a short shot at the buzzer to give the Sixers a 95-94 wins. Fans on Twitter exploded — in anger at Turner. This was the Sixers 15th win of the year, and a lot of people thought the Sixers had played too well: They’d hurt their chances at getting the No. 1 overall pick too much.

After that win, the Sixers would proceed to lose 26 consecutive games, not getting another victory until March 29th. Turner was eventually traded to Indiana. But those fans were right, in a sense: Despite the long losing streak, the Sixers did not end up with the worst record in the NBA. Their 19-63 mark was second-worst, and the 76ers only landed the third overall pick when Cleveland jumped all the way from ninth to win the NBA draft lottery and the team with the worst overall record (Milwaukee) nabbed the second pick.

This season was not expected to have any of the philosophical debates over winning and draft position. The Sixers were not coming in with a small veteran corps like they had the previous season. They came into the season with one active player, Malcolm Thomas, who was born in the 1980s. Everyone else was a ’90s kid.

As expected, the team started 0-17. Deadspin began a series of posts ragging on the Sixers, calling them a “cynical and indescribable fraud” and “capitalism’s diarrhea.”

But a funny thing happened since that train wreck of a start. The Sixers have clawed from 0-17 to a 7-29 mark (which is merely embarrassing). Two — two! — professional basketball teams have worse records than the Sixers: The Knicks (5-35) and the Timberwolves (5-31). And, on cue, fans are actually starting to grumble that the 76ers are winning too many games, that they’re sabotaging their chances at a top player. No longer are the Sixers an abomination to all that is good and holy about basketball. Now they’re just bad.

So how’d they get there? Here are five reasons the Sixers are no longer the laughingstock of the NBA.

1. The two big young guns are playing better

A play that ended the game Saturday gave Philly fans a preview of the future. Michael Carter-Williams drove the lane, found Nerlens Noel alone under the hoop, and he slammed it home with three seconds left. A win against Indiana — with Carter-Williams hitting the winning shot — the next night gave the Sixers their second two-game winning streak of the season. (The Sixers will likely lose to the Hawks, 22-2 in their last 24 games, tonight at the Wells Fargo Center.)

Noel has rewarded fans who did not give up hope after last year’s first-rounder looked lost early in the season. Noel was benched for most of a loss to Phoenix earlier this month, but remains 10th among rookies in player efficiency. While Carter-Williams continues to struggle with his shot (and with turnovers), in the new year MCW has cut his turnovers to 3.2 per game so far — two fewer per game than he had in December. A small sample size, sure, but one that we can be encouraged by.

2. Robert Covington

Covington has come out of nowhere to be the best player on the Sixers in many recent games. He’s averaging just over 15 points per contest in December and January, and the 6-foot-9 forward is hitting an average of three three-pointers a game in the new year. Covington was actually a finalist for NBA Player of the Week last week after games where he scored 16, 20 and 16 points in three Sixers wins.

3. K.J. McDaniels

McDaniels, the Sixers’ first second-round pick, might be best known for his mom’s antics. But on the court he’s been the Sixers top rookie. McDaniels has a better player efficiency rating than Noel, and on court his highlight-reel dunks have made, well, highlight reels.

Even his mom admitted to Sixers blog Liberty Ballers that “Philly is a great fit for him.”

4. Defense

The Sixers give up 103 points per game. But because the team plays at such a fast pace, the Sixers are actually 15th in the league in defensive efficiency. Yes, this means the Sixers’ offense is, by pretty much any measure, the worst in the league. But the Sixers have turned things around on the defensive end since the bad start, with Nerlens Noel looking impressive as an at-the-rim defender.

Although Noel has struggled offensively, his defense has people talking.

5. Luck

Record aside, the Sixers are probably still the worst team in the league. But they’re no longer embarrassingly bad — and that’s a start. (A very slow start, but a start nonetheless.) The Knicks came into the season expecting to contend for the playoffs. Instead, Carmelo Anthony hasn’t played since December due to a knee injury, and New York just traded away two rotation players for non-guaranteed contracts in an attempt to rebuild themselves. They’re now in the same boat as the Sixers (only with Phil Jackson at GM and a much tighter rebuilding timeframe, due to Anthony’s contract).

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves have lost 15 straight games. No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins has impressed, but the rest of the team is a mess — and in the Western Conference, that translates to a lot of losses. Poor Thaddeus Young, who was traded from the Sixers to Minnesota in the offseason.

The Knicks and Timberwolves may pass the Sixers in the future: The Sixers still have the worst point differential in the league, and the team’s wins have been close — with most of its losses coming in blowouts. The Sixers are still quite possibly the worst team in the league. But we’ll take what we can get. The Sixers are still a punchline — but the joke just isn’t nearly as funny as it was a few months ago.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.