State of the Union: Philly Style
Where in the name of Ed Stefanski are the Sixers headed?
I’ve seen a lot of losing. A ton of losing actually. Failure is embedded in the hearts of all Philadelphia sports fans. Sure there have been glory years here and there, but much more often than not, we are left with dreams dashed and drowned in the confetti showering down on another team.
And when I say I’ve seen a lot of losing, I mean my parents and the generation before me. And their parents as well. Let this sink in: The Eagles, Sixers, Flyers and Phillies have won just nine titles in a combined 291 seasons. And only once in the last 26 years. We’re just a city that knows how to lose, plain and simple, and there’s no friggin’ way around it.
But even with that nauseating history, no situation has ever seemed as bleak as the current state of the 76ers. (Sure, they were horrible in the mid 90′s as well, but they had a saving grace in Allen Iverson around the corner. With the Sixers’ current situation, I’m not sure they can rely on the balls bouncing their way again.) At least not in my lifetime. The ’08 Phillies finally completed a championship run following a stretch where it seemed like the franchise was headed nowhere fast. Instead, they brewed home grown talent this entire decade and that, coupled with some smart management moves and a new state-of-the-art stadium, has propelled them to an elite MLB franchise looking for its third straight World Series appearance. Right now, it’s an afterthought that this is the same team who lost its 10,000th game only a couple years ago.
And sure, the Flyers and Eagles haven’t won rings in 35 and 50 years, respectively, yet they are both near-perennial Playoff teams, and so at least there’s a chance come postseason time. However, the NBA doesn’t offer that same kind of opportunity since many squads can earn a Playoff berth with sub-.500 records, or close to it, and therefore stand no legitimate shot to take home a title. Hell, the Sixers sit at a solid 15-30 after another spoiled chance in Milwaukee, and could still be in a postseason contention conversations if they rip off a sudden inspiring run of something like 10 wins in 13 games (highly unlikely looking at their upcoming schedule, but for argument’s sake).
But here’s what really scares me: on talent alone, the Sixers do have a streak like that in them. Most of the Sixers have been part of the team that’s gone to the Playoffs the last two seasons, including ’07-’08 when they reeled off a 24-10 record late in the regular season. Only now, it’s minus Andre Miller, plus a healthy Elton Brand. At least more healthy, who knows. He’s playing, alright? And the Sixers do hold the distinction of being the only team in the league that sports five players averaging at least 14 points—further proof they can hang with any team offensively on a given night.
So, here’s the question: do I even want that second-half run? Should a true fan hope against the Playoffs? Why would they? Well, in the current state of the NBA, there’s just no room for mediocrity. And the Sixers are stuck in a rut, a mediocre rut, one they’ve lingered in for years.
The difference between now and let’s say the beginning of the decade is that the franchise had a vision back then. They centered efficient role players around a superstar in Allen Iverson and then paired him with a defensive-minded legend, Larry Brown, who could also handle Iverson and his baggage. Although no trophies were lifted, Pat Croce (former Sixers President) built a unit I could heartily believe in.
Fast forward to 2010, and we have a talented team with no direction, no coach, bad luck and money tied up in the wrong players. And now we’re centering the team around Andre Iguodala and pairing him with a defensively-befuddled Eddie Jordan, who also continues to teach a Princeton offense to an athletic team that specializes on running and can’t match up worth a lick in a half-court setting.
It’s seriously embarrassing to watch this team try and run a play, especially in the waning minutes of a close game. What results is a bunch of a lazy passes around the arc until someone takes a contested three or a deep deuce. I remember listening to the radio at the end of the Knicks-Sixers game on January 13th, when the Sixers called a timeout with 13 seconds left after a David Lee layup gave New York the lead, 93-92. All the Sixers could muster was a last second 25-foot heave…by Rodney Carney…in 13 seconds…when the Sixers were down by only one, making a three completely unnecessary. Really?
Five days later in Minneapolis, the Sixers blew a 20 point lead to the 8-33 Timberwolves, only to have the ball with four seconds left and the game tied. The ball went to Iguodala who could only manage a long field goal attempt from just inside the arc that missed badly. In overtime, Philadelphia only scored four points en route to a 109-104 loss, and two of those came on a Lou Williams jumper with 12 seconds left when the game was already decided.
The Minnesota game perfectly demonstrates what’s wrong here. When the problem isn’t revolving around running plays themselves, it’s probably pointing towards the lack of a killer instinct. Some teams are just scared of winning, as strange as it might sound.
Yeah, the Sixers blew a 20-point lead that game, but that’s just a microcosm of the season. Philly leads the NBA with 10 blown double-digit leads. Close out those games, and they’re sitting at 25-20 instead of 15-30. And the Sixers have blown many other small leads late in games, as well. In their most recent loss to the Bucks, Elton Brand missed a wide open layup in the final seconds with the Sixers down two. I didn’t even flinch. Worse off, Brand fought for the offensive board and proceeded to take a horrible turn-around fade away that fell way short. Just sat and stared at the TV. Nothing surprises me anymore since this team continually loses in the most fashionable ways.
So is the light at the end of the tunnel actually just another loss? And another loss…and another…to pile on so many losses that we actually have a shot at a very high Draft selection for once? The Sixers have only had one top 10 pick since 1998, and while this is the season it seems the Sixers are prime for a top five, maybe top three choice, the upcoming Draft pool is rather discouraging outside of John Wall and a few others. And the Nets have mastered the loss column this year. Just more salt in the wound.
The one top 10 pick came in 2004, when the Sixes selected Iguodala at no. nine. Now, he’s looked at as the first offensive option and is supposed to be the star for this team. Sure, Iggy does put up numbers in an eclectic fashion, in that he scores (17.4 ppg), rebounds (6.8 rpg), averages six assists and two steals as well. But his numbers don’t match LeBron’s or D-Wade’s or Melo’s. Not even close, and that’s the problem.
For Iguodala to be a true superstar and a franchise player, he has to be posting up nightly statistics that at least come near the top guys in the League. His shooting is very suspect and getting worse (a career low 42.3% this season), and on some nights he just flat out disappears. Maybe on another team, in a situation where he isn’t forced to be the star, Iggy could really flourish, but he’s at his peak usage on this squad.
Since 2004, the Sixers have actually done pretty well in the Draft despite poor positioning, as Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, Marreese Speights and Jrue Holiday all are young talents who could provide pieces to a strong core for the future. This is definitely a bright spot, and their youth is important (average age of 21.5) being that it might take a few years for the Sixers to get out of this rut.
But of course the main problem that persists is the paper. The Sixers are in financial hell. They owe Iguodala almost $68 million over the next five years, while they must also live with paying Samuel Dalembert $11.3 million for this season and $12.2 million for the 2010-11 campaign. After Billy King signed Dalembert to a $50 million contract extension in 2005, capping off a myriad of questionable and criticized decisions in the King era, it was like a breath of fresh air when Ed Stefanski replaced him as GM in 2007.
However, Stefanski has only continued the King tradition, signing a 29-year-old Elton Brand to a 5 year, $80 million deal after Brand was coming off a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. And now, outside of a miracle trade involving at least two of these three overpaid contracts, the Sixers have no flexibility to act in this summer’s impending free agency bowl that includes names such as James, Wade, Bosh, Nowitzki, Stoudemire, etc.
Brand, I can understand. Although he’s nowhere near as consistent or dominant as he once was while on the Bulls and Clippers, he reminds you of his worth on nights when he’s feeing good. But Dalembert’s contract had me flabbergasted the moment he signed it. He has a similar body type (minus some muscle) and athleticism that Kevin Garnett possesses, yet Dalembert’s offensive game remains comparably pitiful and has hardly developed since he came in the league eight years ago.
He struggles to put up double digits, takes horrible, unwarranted shots and gets outmuscled in the paint on a nightly basis. I can’t take it anymore; I pray a team sees a reason to take him in a trade. Although, putting myself in the other team’s shoes, it’s basically being asked, “hey, would you just kindly take 12 million dollars off our hands? Thanks.” Seriously, it’s been a decade long experiment with the 6-11 Haitian and one that needs to end. (On a separate note—this is only sports we’re talking about, and it’s put well in perspective after disasters like the earthquake in Haiti. I can’t imagine what Samuel is going through and only wish the best for his friends and family still residing in his native land.)
As long as the bulk of the money is tied up with these players, the Sixers are going nowhere and fast. And although we only have to live with Sammy D for one more season, Iggy and Brand are going to be very hard to move as their contracts both go to 2013, with Iguodala having a 2014 option.
Speaking of money, who would’ve thought there’d be a day when Allen Iverson was on the 76ers’ roster but making close to the lowest dollar amount? Many will say that AI being on the team is pointless since he’s a shell of his former self and is only taking minutes away from Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday who need more playing time to learn and improve for the future. But so far, AI has been a model citizen. When he’s on the bench, he’s the only player on his feet the entire time cheering his younger teammates on. He hasn’t complained once and has done everything asked of him so far. That alone makes me happy. Iverson’s started in all twenty games he’s played and is averaging only 14 points in 32.5 minutes, but the sight of him in a Sixers uni again is sometimes the only thing that makes a game bearable. And hey, if the Sixers do pull off some miracle trade that leads to a big signing this summer (again, highly unlikely), I certainly wouldn’t mind AIlen as a key role player for a revamped team.
But indeed, that scenario is unlikely because in reality the Sixers’ state is quite discouraging. Look at the checklist: Draft prospects for this year? low; trade prospects for the season? very low; money to use in the upcoming offseason, one stocked with free agent superstars? virtually zero; a lack of financial options with enough talent to stay in this mediocre rut for a few more years? definitely.
I ask, just where are the Sixers going?