Sixers' DiLeo 86's Speights, Playoff Hopes on a Nightly Basis

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Sixers' DiLeo 86's Speights, Playoff Hopes on a Nightly Basis

A youth movement in Philadelphia helped three of its sports franchises make deep postseason runs in 2008.

For the Phillies, a World Series title, ending a 28-year drought. Cole Hamels, a 24-year-old pitcher in his third season, won all four of his playoff starts as well as the NLCS and World Series MVP Awards en route to the team’s second championship.

For the Eagles, a mid-season turnaround, sparking a Cinderella run to the brink of a Super Bowl appearance. 22-year-old rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson ignited the Eagles' offense, averaging almost 15 yards per catch while hauling in 17 passes for 20-plus yards, good for seventh in the NFL.

Even the Flyers reached the Eastern Conference Finals, weakened considerably when defenseman Braydon Colburn, age 23, suffered a season ending facial injury in Game Two. They lost in five games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yup, all in all, 2008 was kind to all of Philly’s sports teams and their success should continue as the already talented young teams continue to mature and improve.

I feel like I’m forgetting something…

Oh right, the 76ers. They reached the post season last year, too. After posting a 41-41 record that would’ve been good for 10th in the West, nine games out of the playoffs, the seventh seeded Sixers took a surprising 2-1 lead over the Pistons in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

An upset, however, was not in the cards. Philly folded, losing three straight and falling to Detroit in the opening round for the second time in four seasons.

Despite the early exit, Sixers fans had high hopes for the 2009-10 season.

Rookie small forward Thaddeus Young flew under the radar in 2007-08, shooting 53.9 percent from the field (his 490 attempts were 10 short to qualify for league leaders, but is equal to Kevin Garnett’s 10th place mark) and recording a better Player Efficiency Rating (PER) than Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant (for more on PER, check out this article).

Expectations for Young’s sophomore season were bolstered by the team’s acquisition of the offseason’s most coveted free agent, former Clippers power forward Elton Brand. Brand’s presence would allow Young to move to his more natural position, small forward, where his athleticism and ball handling would be more useful.

While the sports media in LA attacked Brand for his perfidious dealings, Philadelphians were excited, convinced the Sixers were poised to challenge the suddenly mighty Celtics for the Atlantic Division title.

Amidst the controversy, Marreese Speights, Philadelphia’s first round draft pick (16th overall), quietly signed with the team (two years/$3.2 million guaranteed) for what was sure to be a limited backup role at power forward behind the star free agent Brand (five years/$80 million).

And so began the 2009-10 NBA season, and Philly fans didn’t have to wait long to see results, albeit negative ones. A 9-14 start. The firing of Coach Maurice Cheeks.

The glaring absence of star power was perhaps the most surprising disappointment.

Andre Iguodala, who scored at a career-high 20 points per game (PPG) clip the previous season to lead the team, posted an anomalous 13 PPG through November.

Brand, who averaged about 22 PPG in his previous four healthy seasons (2003-07), produced a pedestrian, if not disappointing, 16 PPG before dislocating his shoulder on December 17 in a collision with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Luc Mbah a Moute midway through the third quarter of a 93-88 Philadelphia win.

It was the team’s 11th win of the season in spite of Brand’s early exit and Iguodala’s horrendous four point, 2-14 FG effort. Rookie power forward Marreese Speights came off the bench to replace the injured Brand, recording 12 points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes.

The following day, team officials announced Brand had torn and fractured his right shoulder but would not need surgery. Doctors predicted a month long absence and for a few weeks, fans were able to breath, holding on tightly to the notion that it could’ve been worse. It was.

It first appeared that Brand would return right on schedule, perhaps in time to help his team contain the Mavericks’ prolific power forward Dirk Nowitzki on January 19.

He didn’t.

Dirk went for 24, including a buzzer-beating, game-winning turnaround jumper over Reggie Evans, who is 6’8 and averages 0.3 blocks / 40 minutes. What about Marreese Speights, who was sitting on the bench? 6’10", 2.1 blocks / 40 minutes.

Speights sat out the entire game on Jan. 2, another loss to Dallas in which Nowitzki poured in 16 in the fourth quarter. Thaddeus Young, giving up four full inches to Dirk at only 6’8", played 40 minutes at the power forward position, which was difficult to tell at first since the box score listed him as a small forward.

Brand returned after a 16 game absence on Jan. 24 against the New York Knicks. He played 13 minutes and scored six points, shooting an efficient 3-4 from the field in the Sixers’ win.

After going 0-3 FG in the team’s next game, a blowout road loss to the Hornets, Brand began to return to form, making 10 of 15 field goal attempts in the next two games, victories over Houston and Washington.

And then, as even the most pessimistic fans began to sigh in relief, the world ended.

February 5, 2008. ESPN.com reports Brand will undergo season-ending surgery on his right shoulder. Brand played in only 29 games for the 23-24 Sixers. His 920 minutes are all the team will get out of the first $13.8 million of Brand’s Big Deal, which is $900,000 an hour to you.

Brand is done for the year, which brings us back to the rookie, Marreese Speights.

As I mentioned before, Speights is 6’10". He tips the scale at 245 pounds and is only 21-years-old. Nice numbers for a rookie, but nothing compared to the statistics below.

Player Name                  FG%  Pts / 40min   Reb / 40min    PER     Mins / Gm
Marreese Speights, PHI   53.4        21.0            10.1         21.04      15.5
Thaddeus Young, PHI      47.6        16.1              5.9         13.32      34.0
Chris Bosh, TOR              49.0        23.5            10.1         22.00      38.0
Kevin Garnett, BOS         52.7        20.2            11.0         21.23      32.2
David Lee, NYK               55.8        18.6            13.4         19.00      35.6
Yi Jianlian, NJN               40.3        15.9              9.4         12.52      25.6

Unbelievable, right?

Speights averages more than a full quarter less playing time than the other power forwards in the Atlantic Division and yet he shoots better than Chris Bosh, scores better than KG, rebounds better than Yi, and plays a more productive overall game than David Lee. Obviously his teammate Thaddeus Young doesn’t even belong in this table, yet he has assumed the starting power forward role for the Sixers since Brand’s injury.

Speights has started only two games all season. He has played 20-plus minutes in 17 games. The Sixers’ record when he plays 20-plus minutes is 13-4, good for a winning percentage of .764.

Applying that percentage to the rest of the season retroactively, Philadelphia would be at 42-13, good for a No. 3 seed in the East, only 2.5 games behind the division and conference leading Celtics. Currently, the 76ers are hovering just below .500 at 27-28, seventh in the East and 17.5 games behind the defending champs.

Cheeks’ snubbing of the young forward is at least excusable, since Big Money Brand was still acting like a healthy basketball player prior to the coach’s pink slipping. New coach Tony DiLeo, however, has no excuse. Brand is next year’s news, maybe, and while coach Tony chooses to match up Thaddeus Young against taller, stronger bigs, Speights plays sparingly, on the cheap. Yet he is more valuable than any other player on the team, as this table illustrates.

Player Name         PER (08-09)     Salary (08-09)      $ / PER point
Marreese Speights     21.04           $  1,542,600           $  73,317
Andre Iguodala         18.10          $11,300,000            $624,309
Andre Miller              18.65          $10,333,334            $554,066
Elton Brand              14.60          $13,757,844            $942,318
Samuel Dalembert    12.94          $11,238,564            $868,513

Based on his PER, Speights is the most productive member of his team, and yet there doesn’t even seem to be much fan backlash in Philly in regards to his lack of playing time.

Boston just lost Kevin Garnett (21.23 PER) to a knee strain for two to three weeks and the pundits are discussing how his absence will alter the team’s home court advantage chances, virtually assuring elimination by the Lakers, if not the Cavaliers.

The Magic’s Jameer Nelson (20.93 PER) is out for the season and a trade for Rafer Alston was made in desperation to make up for the All-Star’s absence.

Can you imagine the riots that would ensue if Pop sat Tony Parker (20.75 PER) for three quarters a game? The reams of paper Bill Simmons would waste to rant and rave about Kevin Durant’s (21.33 PER) lack of playing time?

And yet there sits Marreese Speights (21.04 PER), playing in less than a third of each game while Rashard Lewis goes to the All-Star game, with his 17.65 PER and $16.4 million contract! Get mad, Philadelphia!

Some players might make a fuss about their playing time, but Speights doesn’t. He just goes in when you tell him to, and when he’s allowed to play for half the game, you win. It’s that simple.

Isn’t it?

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