Best and Worst Case Scenarios for Philadelphia 76ers After the All-Star Break

Roy Burton@thebslineContributor IFebruary 21, 2012

Best and Worst Case Scenarios for Philadelphia 76ers After the All-Star Break

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    With losses in five of their last seven outings, the Philadelphia 76ers seem to be missing the spark that propelled them to an 18-7 start this season. While the team is in no immediate danger of missing the playoffs, things could quickly take a turn for the worse for a team that plays 20 of its final 34 games away from the Wells Fargo Center.

    Philadelphia's performance in the second half of the season hinges on a few key factors: most notably, the health of center Spencer Hawes and the consistency of point guard Jrue Holiday. Before we get to see how it plays out, let's take a look at some of the best and worst case scenarios for the 76ers as they head into the All-Star break.

Best Case: Spencer Hawes Hits the Ground Running After the Break

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    No one had any idea at the time, but the left Achilles injury that starting center Spencer Hawes suffered in early January would prove to be a devastating blow for the Philadelphia 76ers.

    When Hawes has been in the starting lineup this season, he has been nothing short of impressive. In 14 appearances, he's averaging 10.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, and has shot a staggering 56.8 percent from the field. Not coincidentally, the 76ers are 12-2 in those contests.

    Unfortunately, Hawes has spent more time this season in street clothes than in uniform. Assuming that he plays in the 76ers' first game after the All-Star break, Hawes—who hasn't seen action since Feb. 6—would have had more than three weeks to recover from his latest setback.

    A healthy Spencer Hawes gives Philadelphia the size to match up with the top-tier teams in the Eastern Conference (Chicago, Miami, Orlando). Without him, the 76ers have struggled to keep pace with some of the pedestrian teams in the league. In games that Hawes has missed due to injury this season, the 76ers are 8-10.

Worst Case: Achilles Injury Plagues Hawes for Remainder of Season

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    As the team learned with Andre Iguodala last year, Hawes' left Achilles injury could very well bother him for the rest of the season. Philadelphia has been extra cautious with their starting center to this point, but there's no telling if and when Hawes will fully recover.

    If Hawes is a hit-or-miss proposition going forward, Philadelphia will be forced to either sign or trade for another big man to fill out their bench. Even so, at this point in the year, it will be extremely difficult for them to find a player who can replicate what Hawes brought to the team earlier this season.

    Much of the 76ers' offense flows through the pivot, and without the exceptional passing of Hawes, the Philadelphia attack has been—and will continue to be—stagnant. With Hawes out of the lineup for the better part of a month, the 76ers have failed to score 100 points in each of their last 15 games.

Best Case: Jrue Holiday Becomes More Aggressive on Offense

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    Jrue Holiday is in Year Three of his transition from a scoring guard to a point guard. But while playmaking is one of his priorities, there should be no doubt as to what his primary role is for the Sixers.

    "He needs to score for our team," said 76ers head coach Doug Collins earlier this week. "I don't want there to be any indecision about what he needs to do for our team."

    Collins' statement should clear up any doubts for the 21-year-old Holiday, who previously looked to get his teammates involved before he focused on his own offense. With a new mindset, Holiday—who is currently averaging 13.6 points per game—should easily be able to increase that to about 16 PPG by the end of the season.

    By doing so, Andre Iguodala can return to more of a "point forward" role—a move that should create scoring opportunities for virtually everyone in the 76ers' starting lineup.

Worst Case: Jrue Holiday Continues His Inconsistent Play

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    "Erratic" would be the word that best describes Jrue Holiday's third NBA season. On one hand, he's had moments of brilliance (24 points, five assists, five steals, three rebounds against Milwaukee on Jan. 16). On the other, he's been extremely careless with the ball on a number of occasions: Holiday has had five or more turnovers in a game six times this season.

    On a team that lacks a clear No. 1 scoring option, Holiday will be counted on down the stretch to carry the load offensively at times. But along with that assignment comes the fact that he needs to be far more consistent than he has been this year.

    There are no other "true" point guards on the roster, so Collins doesn't have the luxury to give the keys to the offense to someone else. The 76ers will only go as far as Holiday can take them, and an erratic Holiday won't take them very far at all.

Best Case: Elton Brand Bounces Back, Has a Strong Second Half

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    Elton Brand's numbers are down across the board, but part of the reason is the fact that he's averaging seven minutes less per game this year as compared to last season.

    Maybe age isn't playing a factor in Brand's decline...perhaps Collins is purposely limiting Brand's floor time so that the veteran power forward will be well-rested for a late-season push. Whatever the case may be, a healthy and productive Brand is vital to the 76ers' success in the second half.

    His rebounding average per-36 minutes is in line with his production from last year, and he remains Philadelphia's most reliable option on the glass. If the 76ers smartly ration out Brand's minutes going forward, there may be enough left in the tank for at least one more spirited playoff run.

Worst Case: Brand's Decline Places Burden on 76ers' Rookies

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    With a field-goal percentage of 45.5 percent, Elton Brand is having one of the worst statistical seasons of his career. Numbers aside, it's clear to even a casual observer that the 6'8" power forward has shown far less mobility and athleticism than in years past.

    Brand is "only" 32 years old, but 12-plus seasons of mixing it up in the paint may have finally caught up to him. After averaging 8.3 rebounds per game in 2010-11, Brand has only grabbed double-digit rebounds six times this season.

    If the 76ers can only count on Brand for 28-30 minutes per night, Philadelphia will be forced to rely heavily on its two rookies: power forward Lavoy Allen and center Nikola Vucevic. Allen and Vucevic have both enjoyed solid freshman campaigns, but asking them to reproduce Brand's output may be asking a bit too much from them at this point in their careers.

Best Case: 76ers Win the Atlantic Division, Capture the No. 3 Seed in the Easter

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    With a schedule front-loaded with home games, the Sixers built themselves a sizable cushion in the Atlantic during the first half of the season. Their young roster should give them an advantage over their rivals down the stretch, but a division title isn't a foregone conclusion.

    Neither Boston nor New York has made a serious run at the 76ers as of yet, despite the latter team's recent seven-game winning streak. In terms of strength of schedule, the Knicks have faced the weakest slate of opponents to date, and things will get much more difficult for them once the calendar turns to March.

    There are three things standing in the way of the Celtics and their fifth consecutive division title: the 76ers, the Knicks, and Father Time. An aging Boston team was hit hard by injuries during the first two months of the season, and it's unlikely that the second half of the year will be any better.

    Winning the division guarantees Philadelphia one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. As long as the 76ers finish with a better record than the best team that doesn't win a division, they'll earn no worse than the No. 3 seed and a matchup against a very favorable opponent in the first round.

Worst Case: 76ers Finish in 6th Place in the East, Draw Tough Playoff Matchup

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    Without home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs, Philadelphia will be hard pressed to win a series. Only a single game currently separates them from the 6th-seeded Atlanta Hawks: with a disappointing second half, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the Sixers open the Eastern Conference Playoffs on the road.

    The No. 6 seed would likely earn the 76ers a date with either the Orlando Magic (provided that they don't trade Dwight Howard) or the Hawks. Defensively, both teams are currently ranked among the top 8 in the NBA, and would cause problems for a 76ers unit that lacks a go-to scoring option.

    Losing in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season would be a complete disappointment for a team looking to build off of the success of last year. If that were to happen, don't be surprised if Philadelphia makes a major move this summer in order to shake up the roster.