What We Learned About the Philadelphia 76ers During the First Half of the Season
This is certainly not where the Philadelphia 76ers expected themselves to be at the halfway point of the season. And yet, upon watching them play, it makes perfect sense.
For any young team, which the Sixers are, there is going to be bumps in the road. Unfortunately, as time has progressed, those bumps have become potholes.
But with youth eventually comes experience, “teachable moments,” as coach Doug Collins would say. And although sometimes it may take longer than we’d hope for the players to master the lessons, we as fans have already learned our share about this squad.
(And when the local sports bars aren’t showing your nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Day, it may be time for Collins and crew to take a crash course.)
Lesson #1: Andre Iguodala's Defense Is Missed
When the Sixers traded Andre Iguodala, many believed that it was addition by subtraction. Mind you, he was a talented, versatile player during his time with the Sixers, coming off his first (undeserved) All-Star selection, as well as a (deserved, actually) Olympic appearance. But production-wise, he seemed to have reached his peak. And contract-wise, he was beginning to become an albatross to the Sixers’ cap flexibility.
As fate would have it, it turns out Iggy has been missed: On defense.
The team’s ability to shut down the opposition on a given night has typically resembled Bill Belichick’s ability to be graceful in defeat. They rank among the bottom half of the league in opponent’s field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, points per shot and adjusted field-goal percentage. More often than not, players look confused on the court, rotate like they’re on one leg and give up far too many open looks.
There is no doubt that Iguodala’s absence has contributed to the Sixers’ porous performance.
Say what you want about Iggy (and many of us have), but he’s one of the better defenders in the NBA. And that element has been sorely missed in Philly.
Lesson #2: They Lack Toughness
Another player who did not return and epitomized the addition-by-subtraction mentality of many is Elton Brand, who was amnestied over the summer, eventually landing in Dallas.
Problem is, it left the Sixers with just two power forwards in their regular rotation. One of them is second-year baller Lavoy Allen, who actually starts games as an undersized center and has regressed in his sophomore campaign. The other is Thaddeus Young, also undersized as a power forward, although he’s done a yeoman’s job, considering his physical shortcomings, and is far and away the grittiest player on the team.
Simply enough, the Sixers regularly get outrebounded and settle for the jump shot over the drive to the hoop far too often, resulting in a disturbingly low amount of trips to the line (and when the jump shots don’t even fall, which has become the norm, it only exacerbates the issue).
An even bigger concern? Lately, they seem to be getting outhustled, as well, which can’t sit too well with Collins.
Lesson #3: Jrue Holiday Is for Real
One positive storyline at the season’s midpoint—one of the very few—has been Jrue Holiday’s ascension into the category of elite point guards in the NBA.
Exceeding all expectations, Holiday has embraced the same spotlight that Iguodala too often avoided. Against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 18, not only did he tie the game at the end of regulation with a gutsy drive to the basket (and an ensuing foul which was never called), but then found another gear to score all 12 of his team’s points in overtime to complete a 33-point, 14-assist performance in their 19-point comeback victory.
Another fun tidbit: Currently, he is the only player in the league averaging over 19 points and nine assists per game. That’s right. The entire NBA. Not Deron Williams. Not Chris Paul. Not even Russell Westbrook.
If Holiday does not get selected to the All-Star Game, regardless of his team’s record, it’s time to cry conspiracy theory.
Lesson #4: Evan Turner Remains a Mystery
There are few players currently in the league as maddeningly inconsistent as Evan Turner. The talent and physical prowess of the former second overall pick is unquestionable.
The questions lie, however, in his mental makeup, as the emotional Turner tends to get into his own head at times.
Statistically, his career trajectory still looks promising. Finally a regular starter, he is shattering career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game in an additional ten minutes on the floor. He has also added an effective three-point shot—typically from the corners—to his repertoire.
But sprinkled in between some stellar performances are still some inexplicable clunkers. For every 25-point, 11-rebound, four-assist night against the Boston Celtics, there lies a three-point dud against the Detroit Pistons. For every 22-point, 13-rebound, five-assist output against the Los Angeles Lakers, there’s a one-point, six-turnover stinkfest against the Memphis Grizzlies.
A key to a successful second half of the season will be whether ET can shut his roller coaster down.
Lesson #5: The "Night Shift" Has Clocked out
A big reason for the Sixers’ surprising success last year was the performance of their bench, coined the “Night Shift” by their play-by-play announcer, Marc Zumoff.
Unfortunately, this year, you might as well call them the Graveyard Shift. You know, because they play like they’re dead. Or like zombies or something. You get what I'm saying.
A key cog off the bench as a rookie, especially in the postseason, Lavoy Allen so far looks lost as a starter in Year Two. New acquisitions Dorell Wright and Nick Young have generally been disappointments. And 7’1’’ Spencer Hawes, making the transition from starter to reserve, seems more content loitering by the perimeter and hoisting threes than getting his hands dirty down low.
The problem is, the Sixers need him to be more Reggie Evans and less Reggie Miller. (Did I just place Evans above Miller? Yes. Yes I did.)
In 2012, the Sixers had the Night Shift to thank for what worked. In 2013, they’ll need an encore performance to once again see the light of day.
Lesson #6: A Healthy All-Star Center Changes Everything
In the NBA, it’s amazing the impact that just one player can have for an entire team. For example, in theory, the return of a healthy Andrew Bynum to the Sixers could set off a very favorable butterfly effect.
With the big man manning the “5,” all of a sudden, Philly takes on a completely new persona. They’re not undersized anymore. Allen has less pressure in his role as power forward off the bench. Ditto Thad Young in his more natural role as small forward. The lanes will open up for Turner and others to drive to the hoop with confidence. There will be less reliance on the jump shot. Holiday’s turnovers decrease because he doesn’t have to force the issue.
It all sounds great in theory. In reality? Hopefully, we’ll see soon enough.