With the heart of the 2012 NBA offseason mostly finished and the veteran roster set for the Philadelphia 76ers, I feel it's prudent to start looking ahead instead of dwelling on what was a poor, frustrating offseason from a personnel standpoint.
Doug Collins may be a substandard general manager, but he's still a good coach with a team looking to build off of last year's second-round postseason exit. While the Sixers seemed content to use mid-level free agents and the draft to improve their roster, the rest of the Eastern Conference wasn't necessarily standing still; "Blockbuster" can be used to describe many of the moves made by Philadelphia's biggest conference rivals.
Can Collins lead his team to stardom, or should the team look to 2012-2013 as a development year? Is Andre Iguodala a pivotal piece, or should he be gone by the trade deadline?
Those are all questions that depend on how the team compares to the East's top contenders, which I'll answer by analyzing the matchups team-by-team to see where the 76ers are headed this season.
2011 Result: 36-30 (2nd in Atlantic), Lost in Conference Quarterfinals
Key Addtions: Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Ronnie Brewer
Key Losses: Landry Fields, Jeremy Lin
The New York Knicks have long been the laughingstock of the northeast corridor, but after the addition of high-profile superstars Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, they are now one the East's more competitive teams.
Even without Jeremy "Linsanity" Lin running the point, the Knicks will be dangerous. Carmelo Anthony has reminded people in these Olympic Games why the team gave up so much for him and Amar'e Stoudemire has been re-united with pick-and-roll partner Raymond Felton.
The matchup between these two division rivals is full of contrasting styles and personalities. The Knicks use All-Stars with All-Star egos to lead a punishing offensive attack that they hope will be enough to outscore the opponent. The Sixers, on the other hand, use a suffocating defense to hold teams down and cross their fingers that their spotty offensive attack will come through.
The Knicks may have won two out of three, but the point differential in the three games was plus-1 in Philadelphia's favor. If the Sixers can play their traditional, excellent man-to-man defense, it will be hard for the Knicks to run their iso-heavy offense with much success.
New York may be the better team overall, but the head-to-head matchup with Philly doesn't necessarily fit their mold.
Head-to-Head Verdict: 76ers
2011 Result: 22-44 (5th in Atlantic), missed postseason
Key Additions: Joe Johnson, C.J. Watson, Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic
Key Losses: Anthony Morrow
Like the Knicks, the Nets have been in a rut since the Richard Jefferson-Jason Kidd-Vince Carter era ended. With a new owner, new city and new arena, this long-maligned franchise finally has a chance to get a fresh start.
Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov wasn't afraid to throw around some serious cash, signing or taking on the following contracts: five years and $98.75 million (Deron Wiliams), four years and $90 million (Joe Johnson), four years and $61 million (Brook Lopez), and four years and $40 million (Gerald Wallace). Some may call him risky, but I think it's a smart move to make a splash in an area where the fanbase will need to be won over.
Even so, I see this matchup being another one that favors the Sixers' strength slightly. They'll be able to get out on the fast break with Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes against slow big men Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, and I don't see Andre Iguodala struggling on defense against either Joe Johnson or Gerald Wallace. The one large edge Brooklyn will have is point guard Deron Williams, which will require some good help defense on inside passes and tough, in-your-face perimeter defense from Jrue Holiday.
The Nets may be the more talented team from top to bottom, but the Sixers have the skill set to keep with them step-for-step in a head-to-head matchup.
Head-to-Head Verdict: Draw
2011 Result: 42-24 (2nd in Central), Lost in Conference Semis
Key Additions: Miles Plumlee, D.J. Augustin, Ian Mahinimi, Gerald Green
Key Losses: Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, Leandro Barbosa
It's hard for a team that goes 42-24 to be "underrated", but that's exactly what the Indiana Pacers were in 2011-2012. Even as the third seed, nobody put them in the same class as either Miami and Chicago even tough they could take down either on any given night.
The Pacers had an interesting offseason, retooling at the guard position by parting ways with Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa in favor of D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green. Augustin is a nice facilitator with good court vision and should be a great backup to starter George Hill while Green will be the second-string guy at shooting guard.
Indiana was also able to bolster their frontcourt depth by trading for Ian Mahinimi and reaching for—sorry, drafting—Duke forward Miles Plumlee. Neither can score like starters David West and Roy Hibbert, but both will be efficient, low-post defenders and rebounders as energy players off the bench.
The Sixers may have been 2-2 against Indiana last season, but that's nothing to go off of. In their first win, neither George Hill nor Danny Granger played, while it took overtime and poor performances from Granger and Hibbert to secure the second victory. With added depth and talent in both the backcourt and frontcourt, the Pacers' biggest weakness from last season—depth—is now a strength that nearly matches Philadelphia's.
Iguodala may be able to take care of Granger, but the Sixers have never shown to play well against teams with versatile low-post scorers. Hibbert and West, even when they're not at their best, will feast on the frontcourt pairing of Kwame Brown and Spencer Hawes.
Head-to-Head Verdict: Pacers
2011 Result: 50-16 (1st in Central), Lost in Conference Quarterfinals
Key Additions: Marquis Teague, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Kirk Hinrich
Key Losses: Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, John Lucas III, Derrick Rose (for half of the season due to injury)
In last year's postseason, the Philadelphia 76ers showed exactly the difference between Chicago having Derrick Rose and not having him.
Without Rose in the lineup, the Sixers' steal-oriented defense picked apart Chicago's guards late in games, overcoming poor offensive starts with thrilling rallies. Backcourt depth was the biggest reason Chicago even managed to keep games close last season, so losing Watson, Brewer, Lucas and Korver, most of their scoring bench, is going to hurt badly. They're also losing defensive specialist Omer Asik—ranked 1st in defensive efficiency—who did a great job at controlling the paint in that series when Joakim Noah went down with an injury.
With Rose in the lineup, however, the Sixers won't be able to keep up with Chicago. Many people forgot last season how good the Bulls' defense was until Rose went down, featuring defensive superstars Ronnie Brewer, Asik and Luol Deng. Brewer and Asik may be gone, but Kirk Hinrich isn't a horrible defensive guard and Deng is still one of the best wing defenders in the league.
Offensively, Rose is too big of an obstacle to overcome; Iguodala isn't sleek enough to guard him, Turner isn't explosive enough and Jrue Holiday just can't handle his array of moves for 40 minutes. Thaddeus Young and Nick Young will be key offensive bench presences, but it still won't be enough to knock off last year's No. 1 overall seed.
Head-to-Head Verdict (without Rose): 76ers
Head-to-Head Verdict (with Rose): Bulls
Pierce drives against a trio of Sixers defenders.
2011 Result: 39-27 (1st in Atlantic), Lost in Conference Finals
Key Additions: Jason Terry, Fab Melo, Jared Sullinger, Courtney Lee
Key Losses: Ray Allen, Greg Stiemsma, JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore
Then GM Danny Ainge made his moves, signing guards Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to join low-risk, high-reward draft picks Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger. A revamped Celtics roster won't make things easy for the rest of the conference, especially considering they plugged their holes and then some.
As the Sixers showed in their seven-game playoff series, there were three keys to beating Boston: offensive rebounding, good on-the-ball defense against Rajon Rondo and closing well on Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass. The Sixers didn't necessarily help themselves in that regard by adding someone as grounded as Brown to the defensive frontcourt rotation, which will cut into the playing time of Lavoy Allen—who guarded KG extremely well.
The additions of Terry, Lee and a healthy Avery Bradley won't make things easy for Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner either, but the Sixers have shown an ability to outplay Boston when the desire and focus is there.
Head-to-Head Verdict: Celtics (barely)
2011 Result: 46-20 (1st in Southeast), NBA Champions
Key Additions: Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis
Key Losses: None
The Sixers play up to their competition, but the Heat are just too much competition for the Sixers to handle with a bolstered bench featuring sharpshooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. If it's believable, Miami is actually better this season, and they beat Philly four out of four times in 2011-2012.
Iguodala is a good defender, but one of the few players he's struggled to defend is LeBron James because of his superior strength in the low post. Against most, less athletic defenders, James would take the ball right to the hoop easily, but against Iguodala he starts to utilize his developing post game with more success.
In the backcourt, I wouldn't be surprised if Holiday and Turner hold their own against an aging Dwayne Wade and Mario Chalmers, but when one or both comes off in favor of Nick Young and one of Miami's sharpshooters takes the floor, the Sixers won't be able to keep up the defensive pressure.
With the guards and James spreading the floor, the Heat will have easy passing lanes in to Chris Bosh. If Elton Brand were still patrolling the paint, I wouldn't have though too much about it, but Spencer Hawes' offensive success against Bosh will be negated by his complete inadequacy on the defensive end.
As the chair umpire in tennis would say, "Advantage, Miami!"
Head-to-Head Verdict: Heat
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