Philadelphia 76ers: How They Will Fare Against an Improved Atlantic Division

Brandon K. SmithContributor IIIJuly 25, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 18: Thaddeus Young #21 and Evan Turner #12 of the Philadelphia 76ers celebrate at the end of the game against the Boston Celtics in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on May 18, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Sixers won 92-83. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
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After finishing third in the Atlantic Division behind the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics to cap the 2011-2012 NBA regular season, the Sixers were able to make an impressive run into the Eastern Conference Semifinals before falling in seven games to Boston. To get there, they became one of only a handful of eighth seeded teams to upset the No. 1 seed in the first round by beating the Derrick Rose-less Bulls

But how will the Sixers fair in 2011-2012 in an Atlantic Division that has seen a great deal of moves so far this offseason? 

The Celtics, Brooklyn Nets and Knicks all made roster improvements, with the most obvious being the Nets adding Joe Johnson and a few other pieces while retaining their starters from last season. The Knicks may have swapped Jeremy Lin for a jillion-year-old Jason Kidd and Ray “I’m overweight, so it’s fair to call me Ray Ray” Felton, but that will free up the ball for Carmelo and New York will go as far as he can take them.

The Celtics essentially swapped aging and unhappy Ray Allen for Jason Terry and Courtney Lee while resigning a now allegedly healthy Jeff Green and re-upping with forward Brandon Bass. It would be difficult to say none of these teams did not improve this offseason, especially the Nets, since with an improved cast and move to Brooklyn, Deron Williams may actually try this year.

The Toronto Raptors are still just the Toronto Raptors. In fact, it may be fair to say they may have a gambling problem they wind up placing in the lottery so much.

Unfortunately, I just don’t see the Sixers' main offseason moves (adding Nick Young, Kwame Brown, Dorell Wright and rookies Moe Harkless and Arnett Moultrie) being enough to assure they can really compete well in this division. The loss of Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks is essentially cancelled out by the Nick Young signing, so the sixth man spot is taken care of.

So what did the Sixers do to get better? 

They signed Wright and drafted Harkless, which is nice, except when you consider those guys play the same position and they already have Andre Igoudala, Evan Turner, along with Thad Young and the aforementioned Nick Young signing. The Sixers logo for next season should just be a pair of wings. 

You imagine that with the Harkless pick, Igoudala would be traded, but it seems more and more like the Sixers' plan is to stay pat with their young squad and see how things development. Don’t get me wrong, I like Iggy’s game and he has proven to be a great locker room guy and leader through the years. He is also in the prime of his career and should be better after his stint at the Olympics this summer to boot.   

But the reality of the situation is that he will never be the best player on a contending team. Period.  Keeping him around much longer only stunts their growth, especially when you spend your first-round pick in a loaded draft on a player at the same position as him.

Also, what was the point in amnestying Elton Brand if you weren't going to make a move now?  He was essentially replaced with the unproven Moultrie and Brown, who is what he is (and that's not as good as Brand). To add to that, Igoudala can-opt of his contract out next off season, so it's not even clear he'll be back. Wouldn't it make more sense to trade him? And I don't think Philadelphia is preparing to make a run at Chris Paul, the only elite player likely to be available next summer through free agency.

The Sixers' plan to remain as is is certainly questionable. Right now, they seem on track to become a team much like the Pacers; consistently getting a five or six seed without any real hope of contending but doing well enough to fool themselves into thinking they can without making major moves. 

What have we learned about the NBA of late? You either win the lottery and get a blue-chip franchise player and build around him, or you obtain superstars through trades and/or free agency. Yes, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner will continue to improve and the team has a great deal of promise. However, I just don’t know if the ceiling for this bunch is as high as the Philadelphia front office seems to think it is. 

With this team in place, it’s questionable if the Sixers will make the playoffs. I do think they will improve from last season simply because of their youth (as of today, the average age of their roster is 24) and the foundation they were able to establish last year. I don’t know that this will result in more wins, however, because of the advances made by the majority of their division. It will be especially tough to get past the Nets, who appear geared up to be a top four/five seed in the Eastern Conference.

There is hope, though. It remains to be seen if the Nets will have good chemistry, and Brook Lopez's and Gerald Wallace’s down numbers the last two seasons can’t be a good. The Knicks seem to perpetually under-perform, and banking on a hot streak spurred by an undrafted Harvard graduate during times of heavy injuries is not exactly a sustainable strategy. We will likely see exactly what everyone expects out of the Celtics and Raptors, so the Sixers should certainly not be expected to win the Atlantic nor finish last.

That means if the Sixers hope to reach the playoffs for a third year in a row, they will have to beat either the Nets or the Knicks. This is definitely not impossible, but they must continue their strong defensive play of last season and greatly improve on offense moving forward. That said, I would not expect the Sixers to garner anything higher than the seventh seed in the East this season.

The keyword with Philadelphia is youth. With such inexperience comes great potential, but that same inexperience can also lead to much turbulence. Essentially, there is a large margin for how good or bad this team can be. It’s up to head coach Doug Collins to see just how far this Sixers squad can go.