As the NBA lockout ended, I’m not sure that even the most optimistic Sixers fans (including me) would’ve predicted that the Sixers would have 20 wins as they approached the midway point of the shortened season. While I thought this team could/would win 40 games, I thought it would be a push to get there, and that everything would have to break in their favor. Lost in the current 3 game losing streak is the fact that this team cruised to 20 wins before this slide to 20-12. They have 8 wins by 20 or more points and several other double-digit wins. They have blowout wins over fellow Eastern contenders Orlando, Chicago, and Atlanta. While they’ve lost five of their last seven games, those losses include last second one point losses to the Clippers (on Chris Paul heroics) and Timberwolves (on a lousy call), as well as a loss to Dallas that would’ve been a win if they could’ve simply scored 30 second half points. They are still ranked first in defensive efficiency, despite their brutal February schedule, and have only dropped to 8th in offensive efficiency despite their current scoring issues. This is a good, young, deep team that plays hard and plays defense on a nightly basis. So why the sudden panic about the Sixers?
Panic may seem like an extreme choice of words for a team that still hasn’t quite moved the interest meter here in Philadelphia. But all the momentum the Sixers were gaining among casual fans is slowly dissipating during their current struggles under collective mutterings of “I told you they weren’t that good” and “they were playing over their heads and have come back to reality”. Even The Protege tweeted me today with his concerns, suggesting moves for Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol would make them better, or maybe shifting Lou Williams and Thad Young into the starting lineup – “well something has to change with Hawes out!”. Look I’m not saying there is not reason for legitimate concern. The Sixers are now 10-11 without Spencer Hawes, his injury doesn’t seem to be improving, and he doesn’t seem close to returning. Their halfcourt offense has grown stagnant without Hawes, as the Sixers were running most of their offense through Hawes in the high post early in the season. Without the skilled big man, the Sixers are being forced to rely heavily on two rookies, Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen, who have performed admirably and above expectations, and a declining veteran in Elton Brand, who has struggled without Hawes drawing bigs out of the paint. After a ton of early home games, the Sixers play 20 of their final 34 games on the road, where they are just 7-6, with two more tough games before All Star break at Memphis and at Houston. Their backcourt (Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Lou Williams, Evan Turner) have combined to shoot 37% over the last seven games, and insist on settling for long jumpers instead of attacking the rim when their shots aren’t falling. Once again, the absence of Hawes has allowed opposing bigs to sag more into the middle and discourage the Sixers from going to the basket. As a side note, if I told you before the season that Spencer Hawes would be so vital to the Sixers offense, how many of you would’ve slapped me in the face and told me to get it together?
So is the Sixers glass half full or half empty? Was Charles Barkley right when he said that we had seen this team’s peak and they can’t get any better? Are the Sixers destined to be first round fodder unless they acquire a superstar player? The answers, in order, are half full, no, and not necessarily.
While the Sixers certainly benefited from a friendly early schedule, that schedule should’ve also taught us something. There are a lot of really bad teams in the NBA; dreadful teams with little talent, little hope, and no direction. A cynic might suggest a team is better off being one of these NBA bottom feeders in order to acquire the star everyone is clamoring for via the draft. But how has that worked out for perennial bottom feeders like Washington (John Wall), Sacramento (Demarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans), or Toronto (Andrea Bargnani, Ed Davis, Demar Derozan)? For every team that strikes gold with a Kevin Durant, Derek Rose, or Blake Griffen, there is another team that has annual lottery picks and a lousy basketball team. The Sixers’ Vucevic is one of the best rookies in his class, and the Sixers acquired him with the 16th pick. Even if you’re lucky enough to hit the lottery, it still takes time to build a winner around that player if your team was bad enough to be at the top of the lottery. Sorry, but I’d rather have a roster full of talented youngsters with a bright future, even if they’re not ready to contend for a title, than have an awful team and cross my fingers that we get lucky in the draft. The Sixers’ glass is most definitely half full.
As for the suggestion that this Sixers team has already seen its peak, I have a hard time believing that a roster with 8 of its rotation players under the age of 25 has already played their best ball. Without making a single move, this team shouldget better simply by maturing, playing together, and learning the nuances of the NBA game. While it’s frustrating to watch Jrue Holiday regress this season, it’s easy to forget he’s just 21 years old. Thad Young has finally developed a reliable jump shot, Lou Williams is one of the most dangerous bench scorers in the league, and Evan Turner has improved by leaps and bounds in just one season. While it can be dangerous to assume improvement in players, this team has already shown marked improvement, and seems to be full of young guys eager to learn, work hard, and play the game the right way. More playoff battles like their fight with Miami (a series that was much closer than its length suggested) will only make them better and more experienced. Even teams with superstars like the Thunder or Bulls have had to go through the trial by fire that is the NBA playoffs, and have yet to figure it out. There’s a reason why veteran laden teams like the Celtics, Lakers and Mavericks have won the last few NBA titles. Being “playoff fodder” isn’t necessarily a negative; it’s a natural part of the evolution towards becoming a serious title contender. There is no skipping steps. It just doesn’t happen. Ask the Heat who signed 3 of the best 25 players in the league and still lost to a veteran Mavs team with less talent last spring.
But the Sixers aren’t necessarily destined to be “fodder”. They’ve proven they can play with, and beat, any team in the league with the exception of Miami. I’d consider the Sixers a favorite in any first round series against the likes of Atlanta, Indiana, New York, or Boston – though I think the Knicks would give them the most headaches. Only the Bulls and Heat would be prohibitive favorites against the Sixers, and I don’t think losing a hard-fought series against a superior team is a bad thing for a team with the Sixers makeup.
As for the Sixers’ current roster issues, I don’t believe a major shakeup is the right thing for this team. I honestly don’t believe a major deal for a player like Howard or Gasol would even make them that much better. For one thing, you aren’t simply adding to the current nucleus; you’d need to subtract significant pieces in order to acquire either player even if it was feasible. There’s a good chance the Sixers would simply be treading water by changing the makeup of the team significantly, and an outside chance that they could be worse if the price was high enough – ask the Knicks if paying an exorbitant price for a superstar automatically makes you better. Not to mention the fact, that I believe both Howard and Gasol are complementary stars, and not primary ones. In other words, I don’t think you can win a title if either guy is your best player. If I learned anything from the Elton Brand signing, it’s that maximum deals should be reserved for players that can win you titles. You don’t overspend for a guy that doesn’t meet the criteria just because there isn’t one currently available. No one wants to hear this but patience must prevail – it may not be next year, or the year after, but the Sixers will be best served by stockpiling assets until the right opportunity, or series of opportunities presents itself. I’d much rather do a lesser deal for Serge Ibaka and another player than spend my whole wad on Dwight Howard for the same effect.
Lastly, if Spencer Hawes doesn’t return (and it seems increasingly unlikely), the Sixers need to find a way to jumpstart their offense, particularly their starting unit. But I don’t think adding Lou Williams or Thad Young to the starting lineup is the answer. The Sixers bench has been their biggest strength this season along with their defense. I don’t like the idea of playing Williams with Holiday too much – while effective in spots, the two players both need the ball in their hands to excel. This is why Jodie Meeks is a better fit for the first unit, despite not being the player that Williams is; the first unit already has two primary ball handlers. Lou is at his best when he simply needs to score, which is why he excels in his role, playing with a second unit that consists of guys that don’t need the ball to contribute and Evan Turner who allows Williams to play off the ball. As for Young, he plays with such a relentless energy that is vital to his game that I don’t think he would be as effective playing more minutes. Against Orlando Wednesday, Doug Collins had to insert Young into the second half almost immediately because Lavoy Allen couldn’t guard Ryan Anderson on the perimeter. Young was visibly fatigued in the fourth quarter after playing most of the second half, and it clearly affected him on a couple of occassions.
To me the only solution (or reasonable attempt at one) is to insert Nikola Vucevic into the starting lineup for Lavoy Allen, and start playing the rookie more significant minutes. Vucevic possesses a similar skill set to Hawes (although he’s not as good of a passer yet) and would certainly inject more offense into the starting lineup, while pulling opposing bigs away from the basket. But Coach Collins seems reluctant to play the rookie significant minutes or in crucial situations, despite the Vucevic producing almost every time he is on the court. Against Dallas Friday night, Vucevic was the only player who could find the hoop without a GPS device, yet he hardly played in the second half as what should’ve been a win slipped away brick by brick. If Collins’ reluctance is not injury related, he needs to take the training wheels off Vucevic immediately. I know Collins treated Evan Turner with similar kid gloves last season, but the Sixers are also full of wing players, so Turner did not need to be rushed last season. They have no such luxury in the frontcourt now with Hawes out for the foreseeable future. The best defensive team in the league needs an offensive boost so they don’t keep losing games, despite holding to their opponents to less than 90 points.
But even if Collins doesn’t make the adjustment, don’t hit the panic button. Have patience with this Sixers team and enjoy the ride; because even in this accelerated season, building a winner is not just a race, it’s a marathon.